Why dissent in Israel is under attack

The room for political dissent in Israel is narrowing significantly

Tuesday, 13 April, 2010 - 23:18
London, UK

The room for political dissent in Israel is narrowing significantly: this is the disturbing conclusion from a series of recent developments in Israel and the Occupied Territories.

Seemingly unrelated stories join to one picture: the police clampdownon peaceful protests against the eviction of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem by settlers; a growing number of international visitors, holding European or North American passports, who were denied entry to Israelfor political reasons; arrests and deportation of activists against the Separation Wall; the vitriolic advert-campaignwithin Israel against Israeli NGOs who “collaborated” with the UN Gaza inquiry and the Goldstone report; the recent espionage chargesagainst a soldier who leaked secret documents to a journalist – and there are other examples.

While the particular facts of each of these cases can be debated, there seems to be little doubt about the general trend. Activities of criticism and dissent that have been hitherto tolerated by the Israeli establishment and security forces, (although certainly not welcome) have now become intolerable. Actions by Israeli citizens that were once protected by the freedoms of speech and assembly have been rendered illegitimate under the umbrella term of security risks. (It should be stressed that Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza never enjoyed a similar level of freedom in the first place.)

One could of course argue that such limitations on freedom of expression and political dissent are warranted by the security challenges faced by Israel. But in fact, the recent clampdown has arrived in a period of relative security calm. Such restrictions were not imposed during the height of the second Intifada, in the years 2003-2004, when recurrent suicide attacks in Israeli cities left more than 350 Israeli civilians dead. In that period the space for political dissent and criticism was in fact wider than it is today.

It would therefore appear unconvincing to explain the limitations on civil liberties as a result of an unusual security threat. Rather, the clampdown on political dissent stems primarily from a growing concern for Israel’s international legitimacy. Israelis have watched with dismay the high-profile attempts in the UK and elsewhere to arrest Israeli politicians and military officers and charge them with war crimes. A recent reportby a mainstream Israeli think-tank described with alarm the erosion of Israel’s international standing among the general public and elites, as well as growing calls for boycotts and sanctions.

The report blamed this development on effective campaigning by what it termed the “Delegitimization Network,” and warned that “deligitimization” amounts to an “existential threat” to Israel. Defined in such terms, it is clear that criticism of Israel, especially if aimed at international audiences, could easily be labelled as a security threat.

Many critical voices within and outside Israel would strongly reject the suggestion that they are delegitimizing Israel. Rather they would argue that it is Israel’s own actions during the Lebanon (2006) and Gaza (2009) Wars, and above all its failure to end the 43-year-long military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, which are undermining Israel’s legitimacy. Many of these critics are firmly committed to the “two states” vision, and oppose Israeli policies of settlement and land annexation, which are rendering this vision impossible.

But it is precisely the ever-decreasing likelihood of a “two-state solution,” I believe, which is leading to growing intolerance of criticism and the criminalisation of dissent. As long as the Israeli military control of the West Bank and Gaza was thought of as a temporary state of affairs, human rights violations could similarly be seen as a temporary necessary evil, and therefore criticism on these issues could be tolerated. The “occupation” was distinct from legitimate Israel; military rule and settlements in the West Bank were not an integral part of the Israeli state but rather its contested extension, an issue that would ultimately be resolved through negotiation.

Yet this “temporariness” of the occupation has become difficult to uphold. True, on a declarative level, almost the entire Israeli political spectrum, including most recently Prime Minister Netanyahu, has been converted to the “two state solution.” But in real terms it would be hard to find a mainstream Israeli politician presenting an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement as a feasible goal within reach; more often discussed are unilateral and temporary measures which in effect spell the continuation of Israeli military rule in various forms.

The occupation appears increasingly as a de-facto permanent feature of the Israeli system of government, rather than as a set of temporary policies and security measures. And inevitably, the occupation involves the disenfranchisement and denial of collective political rights for the Palestinians.

Criticism of human rights violations in the West Bank and Gaza have therefore been cast in a new light: no longer merely “naïve” or “unpatriotic,” they are increasingly seen by the Israeli establishment as a direct assault on the legitimacy of the Israeli political model, of which the occupation has de-facto become an integral part. Recent events suggest that journalists, activists and human rights organisations within Israel could find themselves under increasing pressure and intimidation, as the erosion of human rights spills over from the occupied territories into Israel proper.

Yair Wallach is a research associate in the University of Cambridge, in the “Conflict in Cities” research programme investigating the impact of nationalist conflicts on everyday urban life in Jerusalem, Belfast and other cities.

Photo by Gil Yohanan

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