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Israel: It's apartheid, not 'democracy', these protesters really want to save

As the fascist new government provokes international criticism, Israelis grow nostalgic for the days when the state could act with violent impunity against the Palestinians
Israeli protesters attend a rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right government on 9 February, 2023 (AFP)

Since the installation of the new, most extreme government in Israel’s history, with a Kahanist minister of national security once convicted of supporting a terrorist organisation, tens of thousands of Israelis have been taking to the streets every week in protest, in what is termed a “struggle for Israeli democracy”.

This description assumes, of course, that Israeli democracy in fact exists and that it is threatened now by fascist figures bent on destroying it.

Their true purpose is to turn the clock back far enough so that the apartheid regime in Israel can once again be marketed as a functioning democracy

A meticulous examination of the messages coming from the spokespersons for and participants in these demonstrations, however, reveals that their true purpose is to turn the clock back far enough so that the apartheid regime in Israel can once again be marketed as a functioning democracy, allowing the international community to continue turning a blind eye to the crimes it commits. 

Under cover of this “struggle for democracy”, former Israeli Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon, with so much Palestinian blood on his hand, can pursue rehabilitation as a key speaker at demonstrations, referencing values of equality and democracy.

Another knight of democracy at the microphone has been the former police commissioner Roni Alsheikh, chief promoter of the blood libel against the late Yaqoub Abu al-Qiyan. Qian was killed by Israeli police during the demolition of the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran and subsequently accused by Alsheikh of belonging to the Islamic State (IS) group - an atrocious lie that Alsheikh went on repeating even after it had been wholly debunked. No one among the recent demonstrators was heard to remind him of this.  

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In an apparent nod to feminism, the first woman ever to finish Israel's Naval Officers Course was also invited to address one of the demonstrations, because heaven forbid that such a democratic protest would exclude women speakers. Evidently from that perspective, the fact that women fighters also participated in the latest lethal Israeli military action in Jericho is a mark of respect for the glorious accomplishments of Israeli feminism.

'Suppress and silence'

Israel’s militarism is also becoming a key component of these protests beyond the confines of the speaker’s podium. Former senior security services officials are joining the ranks of the defenders of democracy on Twitter.

Notable among them is former prime minister and chief of staff, Ehud Barak, who as PM at the time bears responsibility for the murder of 13 Palestinian citizens during protests at the beginning of the Second Intifada in October 2000. He is also responsible, perhaps more than any other Israeli politician, for damaging the relationship between Arab citizens and the state.

Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak holds a press conference at Beit Sokolov in Tel Aviv on June 26, 2019 to announce that he will be running in the upcoming elections in September. AFP
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, 'responsible, perhaps more than any other Israeli politician, for damaging the relationship between Arab citizens and the state', is a vocal critic of the new government (AFP)

Another is former Meretz MK Yair Golan, who pledged to "suppress and silence" the voices in his party that sought to make Meretz into a joint Jewish-Arab party.

Both these people, having devoted most of their adult lives to suppression, destruction and the intensification of the occupation, are now calling for a civil rebellion against the new government  - in the name of democracy. 

And who is missing from this shared home, as usual? Fellow citizens who are Palestinian, of course

Militarism in the service of the "struggle for democracy" has reached grotesque proportions, with the brothers in arms, an ad hoc type of iniative, which issued an “emergency call-up order for democracy”, inviting the public to join the “brotherhood of reserve soldiers in the odyssey to save democracy”. 

Those who would prefer to rampage for Israeli democracy using tanks can now look to the Armoured Corps Soldiers for Democracy group, which staged a protest convoy from the historically strategic Latrun to Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.

Alongside war criminals, reserve soldiers, armoured corps soldiers and exponents of 50 other shades of Israeli militarism, the settlers have also joined the struggle for democracy.

Declaring that “we of the Etzion bloc are also battling the reform that is dividing the nation”, they invite everyone - “secular and religious, right and left, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, women and men, young and old” - to join their protest aiming to “preserve our shared home”. And who is missing from this shared home, as usual? Fellow citizens who are Palestinian, of course.

Perpetuation of the occupation

You could make fun of the settlers' dissent as an especially ridiculous manifestation of the current political vortex, but in truth, it may well be among the most sincere protests against what is happening in Israel.

The settlers, more than anyone else, have an interest in maintaining the semblance of democracy that protects them against sanctions for their crimes in the West Bank - because cracks in Israel's democratic image could also damage the protective barricade that the rest of the world provides for the perpetuation of the occupation.

The settlers have no investment in the chaos being created by the Smotrich-Ben-Gvir government, which is already provoking widespread international criticism.

They would much prefer the Lapid-Gantz government, which services all their requirements and does all the work for them without upsetting folks elsewhere.

How Ben-Gvir blows apart the ‘security’ story of Israel’s occupation
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You could argue, as many good people do, that the actions of this government are so dangerous that it requires mass, not selective, protests - because the first order of business is to stop the “reforms” it is spearheading.

But if there is one thing we learned from the Balfour protests, it is that uniting against what we don’t want is not enough unless we also formulate and articulate an alternative vision.

While the Balfour protest did succeed in unseating the former Benjamin Netanyahu government in 2021, the government that followed was the deadliest in about two decades against the Palestinians: a government that ultimately dissolved of its own accord rather than endanger the apartheid regime in the West Bank.

True, adherents of the self-described anti-occupation bloc are maintaining a permanent presence in the current protests and continue with admirable tenacity to provide a visible reminder of the facts of the occupation.

But it seems that the protests are consolidating a clear character around a central theme: a nostalgic yearning for a "Jewish and democratic" state - which idolises the army and a judicial system that justified all the army’s crimes under a supremacist regime that the current protest movement is far from renouncing.

Let us not be surprised, then, that even among the anti-occupation bloc at the various demonstrations, you will find almost no Palestinians.

This is not just about the sea of Israeli flags distributed at these protests with a frightening obsessiveness; it is about something much deeper.

So long as the Darkenu (“Our Way”) movement - defining itself as “the largest nonpartisan civil society movement in Israel” working to strengthen “Israel’s democratic values” - is imploring Yariv Levin, the deputy prime minister and minister of justice, to halt his planned judicial reforms so as not to “deliver our soldiers to the Hague”, you would really have to have some nerve to expect Arab citizens to show up for these protests.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Orly Noy is the chair of B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.
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