What Israeli generals are really worried about is how little will change when two ultra-nationalist, religious settlers are put in charge of the occupation
Jonathan Cook is the the author of three books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism.
[First published by Middle East Eye]
A school destroyed by Israeli forces in occupied Palestine
There is a good reason why Gadi Eisenkot, a former head of the Israeli military, expressed alarm last week as Benjamin Netanyahu awarded unprecedented powers over the occupation to a far-right settler party in his new government.
Eisenkot claimed that the army was in danger of “falling apart” if Netanyahu so openly politicised its role. But that is not the real reason he and the other generals are so worried. They understand that Netanyahu is about to blow apart the security rationale that for so long obscured their racist oppression of the Palestinians under their control.
The prime minister-designate put Itamar Ben-Gvir, of the fascist Jewish Power party, in charge of the police service inside Israel and extended his remit to include the Border Police, a separate paramilitary force that chiefly operates in the occupied territories.
Ben-Gvir is a high-profile supporter of Kahanism, the virulently anti-Arab ideology of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. His political faction is now the third largest in the Israeli parliament and the linchpin of Netanyahu’s new coalition.
Ben-Gvir’s political ally, Bezalel Smotrich, meanwhile, is expected to preside over Israel’s Civil Administration, an unelected, unaccountable military bureaucracy that enjoys far greater powers over the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank than the nominal Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas.
Now a settler leader, one who calls for the annexation of the West Bank, will be directly in charge of approving the building of more settlements.
Most Palestinians under occupation may find it hard to imagine their situation growing more wretched or Israel’s “rule of law” more of a charade. They already face armed, religious extremist Jewish settlers – confident their violence will go unpunished by the Israeli authorities – invoking title deeds from the Bible to justify stealing ever more Palestinian land. Israel and its settler population already have complete control over more than 60 percent of the West Bank and effective control over the rest.
But now the settlers’ brutality will be conducted within a system of openly Jewish supremacist rule in which the job description of the police and Israeli officials will be not only to turn a blind eye to such criminality but to actively encourage it.
Eisenkot, however, is not worried about whether Palestinian suffering increases. This, after all, is the general who first articulated the notorious Dahiya doctrine to rationalise Israel’s sustained devastation of Lebanon in the summer of 2006. The doctrine calls for the use of “disproportionate” and indiscriminate firepower on civilian areas – in flagrant violation of international law.
Fellow general Benny Gantz, the outgoing defence minister, used precisely the same strategy in bombing Gaza in 2014, returning the besieged Palestinian coastal enclave, in his words, to “the Stone Age”.
After Netanyahu promoted Ben-Gvir to national security minister last week, Eisenkot warned that the army was at risk of collapsing. He urged “a million” Israelis to take to the streets in protest. “We must not create a situation where soldiers do not want to serve in battle,” he said.
Gantz similarly sounded the alarm. He said Ben-Gvir’s appointment would end “security cooperation” with the Palestinian Authority and lead to the Israeli army’s transformation into Ben-Gvir’s own private militia. Neither general’s concerns should be taken at face value, however.
In reality, Eisenkot knows that those refusing the draft will remain a tiny fringe. There is absolutely no danger of the Israeli military falling apart. And the reason is that the day-to-day running of the army has been under the settlers’ control for some time. They are already heavily over-represented among the ranks of combat soldiers and their commanders.
Equally, from his vantage point in the defence ministry, Gantz knows full well that the army already largely operates as a militia. Videos on social media of masked, armed settlers attacking Palestinians as they work their fields invariably also show a group of soldiers standing close by – either to assist or ensure the Palestinians cannot fight back.
‘Break your faces’
The close ideological affinity between the settlers and combat soldiers was illustrated by a recent incident in the Palestinian city of Hebron, where a small number of Ben-Gvir’s followers live in violation of international law, protected by massed ranks of Israeli soldiers.
One of those soldiers was filmed late last month beating a Jewish anti-occupation activist, fracturing his jaw, as another warned the Israeli peace group: “Ben-Gvir is going to bring order. You’ve had it.” He also threatened to “break your faces”.
Unusually, the soldier who made the threat was sentenced to 10 days in military prison, reduced to six by the head of Israel’s southern command. When soldiers attack Palestinians in Hebron, even children, they go unpunished.
What embarrassed the army this time was a confluence of transgressions by the soldiers. They beat a fellow Jew. They allowed the incident to be filmed. And they were foolish enough to make public their political motivation – rather than a security rationale – as they attacked the activists.
To avoid more such bad publicity, the army banned Israeli peace activists and human rights groups from entering the city last Friday – on the grounds of maintaining “public order”. Soldiers also assaulted and twice arrested Issa Amro, a Palestinian peace activist who had filmed the attack.
What the exceptional jail sentence was meant to do – as historically, the appointment as chief of staff of secular, “moderate” figures like Eisenkot and Gantz achieved – was obscure the fact that the Israeli army has long been a vehicle for promoting the ugliest kind of Jewish supremacism, with or without Ben-Gvir.
Mask now off
What disturbs Eisenkot and Gantz is that the mask is now off. Ben-Gvir and Smotrich’s authority over the occupation will blow apart the army’s cover story.
Both generals’ true fear is how little will change when two ultra-nationalist, religious settlers are in charge of the occupation – and what that will reveal about the “security” subterfuge the Israeli army has been perpetrating on the watching world till now.
The occupation can get still uglier, but its goals and implementation will not fundamentally change. Soldiers will carry on shooting Palestinians, including children, with impunity. Soldiers will keep on assisting settlers in their lawless attacks on Palestinians. The army will continue enforcing closed military zones and declaring firing zones to grab more Palestinian land.
Soldiers will keep razing homes and destroying flocks of sheep and goats as part of the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Army intelligence will continue hounding Palestinian human rights activists and outlawing their organisations. And the military will keep besieging and bombing Gaza.
Ben-Gvir was not needed for any of that.
The difference is that the Israeli army’s settler-soldiers, like those in Hebron, may feel so emboldened, so confident in their impunity, that the lynchings of Palestinians – like the point-blank execution on the ground of a wounded Ammar Mefleh by an Israeli soldier in Huwarra last week, and the recent execution of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by an Israeli sniper in Jenin – will be carried out more regularly and shamelessly. The danger is that soldiers will feel free to shout out racist, Kahanist slogans as they commit their crimes.
The “most moral army in the world” will be much harder for Israel’s apologists in western capitals to defend. And that is Eisenkot and Gantz’s real fear.
But the trouble runs deeper still. Ben-Gvir and Smotrich will not only strip away the decades-old security pretext for the occupation. They will make the reality of Israeli apartheid – the new consensus among major Israeli and western human rights groups – indisputable to all but Israel’s blindest supporters.
After Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza in 1967, it realised it could hoodwink observers about what it was really up to: colonising and stealing Palestinian land. It claimed two security rationales. First, that it needed these new lands as a defensive buffer against Arab attack. And, second, that the Palestinians under its rule were led by hate-filled terrorists who wanted to “drive the Jews into the sea” and understood only the language of force.
This might have sounded a lot less plausible had Israel not succeeded in a further deception. It argued that a small Palestinian minority it inherited in 1948 and gave Israeli citizenship to, after expelling the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian population from its historic homeland, lived as equals with the Jewish population. Israel was supposedly a “Jewish and democratic” state.
This story was itself chicanery. For two decades these Palestinian “citizens” lived under martial law, while their lands were seized and they were confined to besieged ghettos, denied work and proper schools.
Even after military rule ended, the minority was segregated from the Jewish majority, and starved of land, resources and opportunities. Six decades after Israel’s creation, a judicial inquiry concluded that the police still treated the Palestinian minority – a fifth of the population – as “an enemy”.
In effect, today’s 1.8 million Palestinian “citizens” are cited by Israel as living proof that it is a western-style liberal democracy inside its recognised borders. The minority serve as an alibi for Israel’s claim that the occupation is a purely defensive measure.
Single apartheid space
Human rights groups have gradually dared to identify this story as a wilful deception. They have called out Israel and its occupation as a single apartheid space – one directed at privileging Jews and hounding and oppressing Palestinians, whether citizens or not. And for their troubles they have been labelled antisemitic – the very smear they feared and that kept them silent for so long.
But Netanyahu’s new government will quickly unravel this deception. The now-permanent occupation will be run by settler leaders. And the same settler leaders will set policy for both the police inside Israel and the Border Police that operates chiefly in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The fraudulent argument that there is some kind of dividing line between “Israel proper” and the occupied territories – with one side a model democracy run by politicians, and the other a necessary security zone administered by the military – will collapse.
What is actually going on will be much clearer: that Israel and the territories are run as one political unit, where Jewish supremacists control, oppress, ethnically cleanse and kill Palestinians without distinction, whether “citizens” or subjects of the occupation.
Which is exactly what Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, and their followers, have long demanded. They argue that the so-called Green Line separating Israel from the occupation is a dangerous illusion, and that Jews need to be unapologetic in ruling with an iron rod across the “Promised Land”.
That argument has won. Of the two Jewish parties that campaigned in last month’s general election for shoring up a territorial distinction, one (Meretz) failed to make it into the parliament and the other (Labor) was reduced to four seats.
While Gantz worries about the army becoming Ben-Gvir’s militia in the West Bank, the far-right has been busy building its own militias inside Israel. The settlers inflict their so-called “price-tag” attacks on Palestinian communities inside Israel as much as in the occupied territories.
The far-right, often in cooperation with the police, beat and hound Palestinian citizens in the only remaining spaces inside Israel where the ethnic segregation is not absolute – what Israel misleadingly terms “mixed cities”. And the far-right has been steadily infiltrating the Israeli police, just as it earlier took over the army.
Ben-Gvir’s appointment as national security minister – controlling policing in Israel and the occupied territories – simply cements that success.
Western capitals will doubtless continue defending the Israeli apartheid state as a beacon of democracy, because it is too valuable an asset in the oil-rich Middle East to be sacrificed. But the fiction of a democratic Israel is becoming ever harder to sustain. Ben-Gvir and Smotrich may be the final nail in its coffin.
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