Israel is sleepwalking towards tyranny not practising democracy

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 28/7/2017

Israeli forces injure Palestinians with tear gas as they gather to enter the Al-Aqsa Mosque following the removal of Israeli security measures in Jerusalem on 27 July 2017 [Mahmoud İbrahem/Anadolu Agency]

Israeli forces injure Palestinians with tear gas as they gather to enter the Al-Aqsa Mosque following the removal of Israeli security measures in Jerusalem on 27 July 2017 [Mahmoud İbrahem/Anadolu Agency]

Let me start by acknowledging that democracy is in short supply in the Middle East. However, only one state claims to be a democratic state. In fact, Israel claims to be “the only democracy in the Middle East,” with the “most moral army in the world”.

Increasingly, extremist Israeli governments with no respect for international law, international humanitarian law or international norms have been using the pretence of democracy to entrench Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine and to place the state’s Jewish identity above democracy. The Nation State Bill, making its way through the Knesset, seeks to do just that, despite claims a future draft would tone this down.

All is not well with democracy in Israel. Every so often former, senior Israeli politicians or retired security personnel warn that Israel is edging towards apartheid and even more recently towards tyranny.

Former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak have warned that Israel’s policies are leading towards naked apartheid; Barak said as recently as last month that Israel was on a “slippery slope towards apartheid”.

Former Israeli officials were blind to the impact of their policies while in office. After all, the settlement project saw a major expansion during Barak’s reign. How is it that he could not see the devastating effect of this on the prospects for peace? It is also true that when it comes to settlements, current Prime Minister Netanyahu needs no excuse to expand the enterprise but still uses this as punishment for perceived Palestinian indiscretions such as joining world bodies or conventions.

To many observers the label of apartheid is already justified. Anyone who has visited the occupied Palestinian town of Hebron can testify that they saw apartheid, felt it and smelt it.

In April former Shin Bet chiefs Ami Ayalon and Carmi Gillon warned that the country’s political system had sunk in the process of “incremental tyranny”. They were speaking ahead of a public meeting at a Jerusalem gallery that was threatened with closure after hosting a meeting organised by the military whistleblowing group Breaking the Silence, one of the main targets of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Ayalon explained that “incremental tyranny [is a process] which means you live in a democracy and suddenly you understand it is not a democracy anymore,” adding that “this is what we are seeing in Israel. The tragedy of this process is that you only know it when it is too late”.

Attacks on human rights organisations within Israel are nothing new. Breaking the Silence,B’TselemAl-Haq, Peace Now and Yesh Din have all been demonised and individuals issued with death threats. MK David Bitan called for the citizenship of B’Tselem Director Hagai El-Ad to be revoked simply because he criticised Israel’s occupation to the United Nations Security Council.

In 2017 Israel passed a law compelling NGOs to reveal their foreign funding which would allow the government to lobby those states that fund these critical NGOs. This scrutiny does not to extend to those that support and fund illegal settlements.

Israel’s targeting of the media is constant and is hardly a sign of democracy. It regularly raids offices of Palestinian radio and TV stations and confiscates equipment. The 2017 World Press Freedom Index placed Israel 91st out of 180 countries, way behind many Western-style democracies that it claims to emulate including Germany (16), France (39), UK (40) and the US (43). Palestine was ranked 135th.

During assaults on Gaza, Israel deliberately attacked buildings housing media channels, which caused damage and casualties. Israel’s most recent attack on the media came during the recent coverage of protests and Israeli army violence at Al-Aqsa. The Israeli Prime Minister threatened to close Al Jazeera’s offices accusing its journalists of “inciting violence,” a claim the Qatari owned network strongly rejects.

In recent months Israel has escalated its war on freedom of speech both at home and abroad, particularly in relation to proponents of the BDS movement. While it generally claims the movement is ineffective, it has appointed Gilad Erdan as minister for strategic affairs to combat individuals and organisations that pursue this tactic for pressuring Israel.

At the 2016 Yediot Achronot conference which attacked BDS, Israel’s transport minister Yisrael Katz called for the “civil targeted killing” of BDS leaders like Omar Barghouti. Thankfully, Barghouti is still alive but he was banned from travelling abroad for a period of time and was recently arrested on allegations of tax evasion, which he denied.

Israel has also turned its attention to critics abroad. In March 2017 the Knesset passed a law that would empower the immigration authorities to deny proponents of the BDS movement abroad entry to Israel. Commenting on the new law Erdan said “the rules of the game have changed,” and that organisations seeking to harm Israel’s “national security” through boycotts would be denied entry to the country.

A few days after the law was passed Chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), Hugh Lanning, was denied entry to Israel. A few days later I was travelling with my wife and son to visit family in East Jerusalem when I was also denied entry. This was particularly ironic given it is the year Britain plans to celebrate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.

The first question I was asked during my interrogation was whether I had heard of the new BDS law. I believed that I was denied entry because of my role in PSC where I am a member of the executive committee, and our promotion of BDS. I did wonder at the time whether the law would be applied equally to Jews holding foreign passports and residing abroad who supported BDS or a more limited boycott of the illegal settlements.

When campaign director for Code Pink, Ariel Gold, made it into Israel recently I noted that a Jewish supporter of Palestinian rights and of BDS had been allowed in. However, she was ‘outed’ in the press and accused of “tricking” her way into the country, which she denied. She is now worried about being denied entry in the future.

At least Gold made it to Tel Aviv. On the 23 July Jewish Rabbi Alissa Wise and two other faith leaders were not allowed to board a flight to Tel Aviv by Lufthansa on the orders of Israel. Wise is from Jewish Voice for Peace. It’s important to remember that Israel has a Law of Return for Jews but denies the right of return to Palestinians.

Israel’s borders extend as far as it wants them to and in Alissa’s case they extended all the way to Washington and will be coming to an airport near you if critics of Israel decide to visit. Israel has developed criterion for entry denial and will demand that airlines deny boarding to individuals in their country of departure.

The implications for critics of Israel and organisations that promote BDS are clearly significant in term of accessing the country to show solidarity with Palestinians. However, they are unlikely to be perturbed about campaigning for the rights of Palestinians and promoting BDS, unless Israel’s lobby in key countries succeeds in wrongly criminalising BDS as the US is currently attempting to do.

In reaction to recent events around Al-Aqsa, Minister of Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi – a key Netanyahu ally – threatened Palestinians with a “third Nakba”. The reference here is to the Arabic term for catastrophe or the mass expulsions of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948 and then 1967. How democratic is that?

It seems to me that Israel has found it difficult to reconcile its role of delivering the Zionist project and acting as a democracy. It has to deal with non-Jews that it wishes had all been ethnically cleansed in 1948. Their sheer existence is a demographic threat and as we saw recently in Jerusalem, if they had all gone the ‘third Temple’ would have been built by now in place of Al-Aqsa Mosque in a state only for Jews.

Israel claims to be Jewish and democratic but the reality is that it is a settler, colonialist and apartheid state with a stockpile of nuclear weapons to boot.  It seems that if democracy does not deliver its colonialist aims then – as some of its own senior citizens fear – it will head towards tyranny. I acknowledge that Israel is not there yet but the direction of travel worries me as a Palestinian and should worry Israelis who want to make peace with their neighbours.

Those that support Israel in the West should also worry. Will they heed the fears of former Shin Bet chiefs Ami Ayalon and Carmi Gillon, or will they only know it when it is too late.

Israel’s attack on democracy for non-Jews form the river to the sea

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 26/9/2016

Member of the Knesset Haneen Zoabi

If Israel is not lauding its army, the Israeli Defence Force, as the self-proclaimed “most moral army in the world”, it is claiming to be the “only democracy in the Middle East”. The IDF’s oppressive treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and its regular attacks on Gaza, the most recent of which resulted in the murder of over 2,000 Palestinians, destroy the first claim.

An analysis of the second claim finds it is another false claim, unless of course its claim is changed to “the only democracy for Jews in the Middle East”. The contrast between the democratic rights of Jewish citizens of Israel on either side of the Green Line and Palestinians on either side of the same line could not be starker.

In the occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem, Palestinians cannot vote in Israeli elections, while Jewish Israelis living illegally on Palestinian lands can. A number of Israeli politicians including Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman live in illegal settlements. Israel’s recently installed Consul General in New York, Dani Dayan, was leader of the settlement movement. It is worth noting that Brazil refused to accept his appointment as Israeli ambassador, while the US had no qualms about his appointment in New York.

In East Jerusalem, Palestinians are in political limbo, barred from voting in Israeli elections but also barred from voting in Palestinian elections. As a matter of fact, one of the legal challenges to the planned municipal elections slated for 8 October was the exclusion of East Jerusalem Palestinians due to an Israeli decision. The Palestinian Supreme Court decided to postpone the elections and has postponed a decision to 3 October.

In other areas of the West Bank, Palestinians are entitled to vote in presidential, legislative council and municipal elections. The last presidential elections, which brought Mahmoud Abbas to power, were held in 2005 and the last parliamentary elections were held in 2006. Hamas won that election eventually resulting in Israel and the international community boycotting the Hamas government. Presidential elections are long overdue and the Palestinian Parliament has not operated effectively since the Fatah-Hamas split.

Palestinian MPs who have tried to carry out the duties for which they were elected have not been able to do so without Israeli interference, including their freedom to move in the West Bank and certainly to represent their constituents in Jerusalem. Israel has also broken international norms attached to parliamentarians by arresting a number, mainly affiliated to Hamas, including the Speaker of Parliament Aziz Dwaik. It most recently arrested and held PFLP Legislative Council member Khalida Jarrar. She was released in June after serving 14 months of a 15 month prison sentence. This attack on Palestinian democracy brings into question Israel’s democratic credentials.

On the face of it, democracy applies to all Israeli citizens in equal measure. At least, that is what Israeli leaders and supporters of Israel claim. They tell us regularly that Palestinian (Arab) citizens not only vote in elections but a number of Israeli Members of the Knesset (MKs) or Parliament are Palestinian. There are currently 17 Palestinian citizens of Israel serving in the 20th Knesset. Ahmad Tibi, leader of Arab Movement for Change, serves as one of 10 deputy speakers of the Knesset, representing the Arab MK block.

If you scratch the surface you begin to see the discrimination and intimidation that Palestinian MKs suffer, especially if they speak up for the people they represent and make any attempts to expose Israel’s discriminatory policies against its 1.8 million Palestinian citizens. Whether this is in terms of education, health, housing, or civil rights including marriage and unification with Palestinians from the West Bank, they incur the wrath of Jewish members of the Knesset. Their opposition to 60 discriminatory laws and to the plan to ethnically cleanse the Bedouins from their villages, many of which Israel does not recognise, is seen as an indication of their disloyalty rather than legitimate representation of their constituents. Balad MK Haneen Zoabi, the first Muslim woman to be elected to the Knesset on an Arab list, has faced a particularly nasty campaign especially since her participation in the Gaza Flotilla, which Israel attacked on international waters resulting in the death of 10 humanitarian passengers. She was arrested and briefly held. Zoabi called the Israeli action “criminal”.

Zoabi’s party, the National Democratic Assembly (Balad), has been a specific target of Israel since 2003. In 2007, its then leader Azmi Bishara was charged with supporting terrorism, treason and various other charges. He denied the charges and decided not to return to face these charges, remaining in exile since.

The party’s Chairman and former General-Secretary, Awad Abdel Fattah, is currently in custody following his arrest at home at 3am on 18 September. At one point, up to 40 members of Balad were in custody and, while most have now been released, a small number, including Awad continue to be detained. His detention was extended again yesterday. In a statement, Balad said: “From the little Israeli police have since revealed, it seems the Balad-Al Tajamo members were arrested for suspected money laundering on behalf of the party and for other fraud-related charges. The Israeli court has extended the remand of most of those arrested for a second time – leaving them in jail now for over a week – while some have been released to house arrest under strictly-limiting conditions. The details of the allegations remain secret and are still being withheld from both the public and from the arrestees themselves”. Balad went on to “vehemently reject the charges against the Balad-Al Tajamo activists, and condemn the manner in which the night time arrests were conducted.”

Balad claims that “these arrests reek of political persecution of the very worst kind, and come close in the wake of Israel’s unilateral move to outlaw the country’s Islamic Movement-Northern Branch. It is also directly linked to recent racist legislation approved by Israeli lawmakers, such as the Expulsion Law, designed to target the Palestinian Arab community from within.” MK Basel Ghattas penned an article in Arabic rejecting the claims and confirming his belief that Israel wants to destroy the party. The Israeli police is accused (in Arabic) of setting up special units to specifically target Balad members

I spoke to Abdel Fattah’s wife, Fathiyya Hussein, who confirmed to me that the family has faced intimidation by the Israeli authorities for some time. She herself and her two sons were arrested in 2014 and detained, even though one of her sons was a minor. She was held for three days but her eldest son Muhannad was held and beaten resulting in broken ribs before being released to house detention for eight months. He received a suspended sentence and a fine. Muhannad was accused of an illegal protest against the Prower plan. She also confirmed that the intimidation has touched other members of the party including its three MKs. When I asked why her husband was particularly targeted she said “because of his position as chairman and chief signatory on any transactions.”

It is rare to hear of such intimidation of other political parties in Israel and certainly none of either established or newly formed mainly Jewish Israeli parties. The exceptional attack on Balad sends an unambiguous signal to Israel’s Palestinian citizens. While they are allowed to enjoy some aspects of the norms of a democratic process, they must remember, like their occupied Palestinian counterparts on the other side of the Green Line, it is Israeli Jews that enjoy a five star democracy wherever they reside between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean.