What Israel’s racist coalition will mean for Palestinians
These are uncomfortable times for Benjamin Netanyahu. He may have just won an election, but — having been the dominant political figure in Israel for so long — all of today’s political debate is not about him but those he is about to empower.
On Friday, the incoming Israeli PM handed the keys to Israeli national security to one of the most extreme racist hotheads in the Israeli political firmament. The leader of Jewish Power, Itamar Ben-Gvir, will take up the freshly created position of Israeli national security minister, with considerable extra powers.
Many Palestinians argue that, as this oppression will now have a racist face, it will be harder for the outside world to ignore. One Palestinian human rights activist told me: “Yes, they are brutal racist thugs, but the current lot have murdered Palestinians in ever greater numbers this year. At least these guys do not hide behind fancy rhetoric and false smiles.”
Other Palestinians argue they need to fight back. The twin bombings of bus stops in Jerusalem last week appear to be the initial response of Palestinian militants. Israelis have not suffered such attacks for years, so this was a painful wake-up call ahead of what may become a wave of attacks, which Hamas was keen to emphasize.
Secular Israeli Jews are also feeling the chill wind of the fascism that is on the cusp of government. One Israeli from Tel Aviv told me: “We will have to fight for our democracy, for our way of life and for any hope we can live with our neighbors. It is frightening.”
The era of Ben-Gvir and his partner Bezalel Smotrich has begun. They are setting the agenda, defining the parameters of what will happen. Even before assuming ministerial roles, the atmosphere has changed. The settlers and their supporters feel even more empowered than usual. That is saying something. About 20 percent of Israeli soldiers voted for Ben-Gvir and Smotrich’s Religious Zionism coalition. For Palestinians, this means that for every five soldiers they see, one will have voted for a ticket that was anti-Arab and endorsed shoot-to-kill policies against them.
This is most noticeable in Hebron, the tensest city in the occupied West Bank. An Israeli soldier was filmed beating up an Israeli leftist activist. In Hebron, many activists long ago took to wearing body cameras for self-protection and to prove settler-military complicity. One soldier was happy to be recorded proudly threatening: “Ben-Gvir will make order here. You’ve lost it. All you do here is finished.” When the activist inquired whether he was doing anything against the law, the soldier responded: “You do everything against the law. I decide what the law is and you are acting against the law.”
Ben-Gvir is a hero in Hebron among the settlers, not least the 800 who inhabit the center of the city, for whom the city was divided and the historic center closed off to nearly all Palestinians. Ben-Gvir himself is a settler from Kiryat Arba on the eastern edge of the city.
Just over a week ago, 30,000 Israeli settlers and their supporters gathered in Hebron. What followed was, most agreed, little short of a pogrom. As the Israeli army opened up an entrance into the rest of the city, the settlers stormed through, smashing up stalls and beating up Palestinians as the soldiers just watched.
To the south of Hebron, the Israeli army bulldozed an EU-funded school in Masafer Yatta, all to help the settlers. An Israeli witness told me how the army used stun grenades on the schoolchildren, who were forced to climb out of their classroom window.
Ben-Gvir’s remit should, in theory, not extend into the West Bank. This is for the defense minister and the military, which according to international law should be the effective sovereign master of the 3 million Palestinians and 700,000 settlers who inhabit the territory; the former legally, the latter in violation of international law. Yet Ben-Gvir has been given control of the Israeli border police that serves in the West Bank. So, in addition to armed settlers who revere him, he will also have his own force to deploy, to quell protests and perhaps to legalize settlement outposts. It is hard to see who will apply the brakes on his annexationist and expansionist ambitions.
Ben-Gvir can also spark conflict by meddling with what is left of the status quo on Al-Haram Al-Sharif. He considers that the current agreement is “racist” as it does not permit Jews to pray on the compound. He has claimed that Jews are “the owners of the place.”
Smotrich, also a settler, has his eyes on the West Bank too. He has demanded not just the Israeli finance portfolio but also control of the Civil Administration in the West Bank. That has also been hitherto under the Israeli Defense Ministry.
If Netanyahu cedes this ground in coalition talks, it will be annexation in all but name. The running of the West Bank will have been transferred from the military to an Israeli civilian ministry. Smotrich will have huge influence over the settler-colonial empire, which he will expand with gusto. Palestinians barely get a building permit in the 60 percent of the West Bank under full Israeli control as it is, and he hopes to have the ability to deny them even these few permits.
For Palestinian citizens of Israel, Ben-Gvir’s new role will be no less threatening. His party will be in charge of development in both the Negev and Galilee regions, which have large Palestinian populations. Attacks last week in Abu Ghosh are sadly almost certainly just the start. Five cars were torched in this Palestinian town to the west of Jerusalem. The perpetrators left one of their standard calling cards — graffiti saying “Expel the Arabs.”
The systemic oppression will continue, but with the added booster of vicious fascists at the helm.
The systemic oppression will continue, but with the added booster of vicious fascists at the helm who have little care for the opinions of fellow Israelis, let alone the international community. More Palestinians will be killed, more lives will be ruined. Further attacks on Israeli civilians are sadly probable.
Netanyahu might appear to be the “moderate” in this motley crew of ministers, but he has always been someone who adapts his political positions to the circumstances. At best, he might try to use American pressure to calm the more zealous elements in his Cabinet. At worst, he may ride this extremist tiger he helped birth.
- Chris Doyle is director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, in London. Twitter: @Doylech