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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

As Israelis mark the founding of a Jewish state on Independence Day, troubling questions persist about the cost to Palestinians

Those questions are especially pertinent in the wake of Israeli sharpshooters killing and wounding hundreds of Palestinians involved in unarmed protests along the perimeter fence in Gaza, writes Jonathan Cook

A flypast in Tel Aviv on Israel's Independence Day anniversary celebrations. This year Israel marks 70 years of statehood amid protests from Palestinians and internal divisions. Ariel Schalit / AP
A flypast in Tel Aviv on Israel's Independence Day anniversary celebrations. This year Israel marks 70 years of statehood amid protests from Palestinians and internal divisions. Ariel Schalit / AP

Independence Day celebrations tomorrow should be a moment for Israelis – and the many Jews who identify with Israel – to reflect on what kind of state it has become after seven decades.

The vast majority of Israelis, however, are too busy flying blue-and-white flags from their cars, venerating their army as the “most moral in the world” and poring over the latest official statistics in the hope that more Israeli Jews than Palestinians were born over the past year.

The Zionist project was intended, so its founders claimed, to provide a sanctuary from persecution for all Jews around the world. But at what cost, both to the native Palestinians on whose homeland a Jewish state was built and to the moral character of those who settled there? And has it really provided the sanctuary it promised?

Those questions should be especially troubling to Israelis in the wake of three weeks in which Israeli sharpshooters have been killing and wounding hundreds of Palestinians involved in unarmed protests along the perimeter fence in Gaza.

The context for the protests – ignored by most Israelis – is a decade-long siege imposed by Israel that has cut off Gaza from the outside world, engineering a humanitarian catastrophe and intermittent Israeli assaults that have laid waste to large areas of the enclave.

Israelis were unshaken, even after the broadcast of a video of soldiers excitedly debating, as if in an arcade game, which protester in Gaza they were best positioned to shoot “in the head”. When one Palestinian was felled by a bullet, the soldiers could be heard whooping and cheering, delighted to have caught the moment on their phones.

In response, Avigdor Lieberman, the defence minister, said the sniper “deserves a medal”. Meanwhile, the Israeli army’s only concern was the lack of “restraint” shown by the soldier who filmed the shameful incident.

This is not about young hotheads. Recent statements from government officials have a decidedly genocidal flavour. Mr Lieberman observed that “there are no innocent people in Gaza” while a spokesman for the ruling Likud party claimed “all 30,000 [protesters in Gaza] are legitimate targets”.

Earlier, when Israel attacked Gaza in 2014, justice minister Ayelet Shaked called Gaza’s Palestinians “enemy combatants” and their children “little snakes”.

Such views have clerical support as a new wave of extremist settler rabbis have moved into the mainstream. According to a rabbinical handbook called The King’s Torah, Jewish law justifies preventatively killing Palestinians as “terrorists” and their children as “future terrorists”.

It was this twisted logic – a presumption that Palestinians are terrorists, not human beings – behind the government’s decision to prevent protesters seriously wounded by Israeli sniper fire from being transferred for emergency treatment outside Gaza, where hospitals can barely function after years of Israel’s blockade.

The same logic justified Mr Lieberman’s ban on Palestinian families who have lost loved ones to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from joining similarly bereaved Israeli families for a joint Memorial Day ceremony in Israel this week.

The profound racism in Israeli society is not only directed towards Palestinians but to other non-Jews. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this month scrapped a United Nations plan to re-settle nearly 20,000 Africans currently seeking asylum in Israel in western countries.

The right was outraged that a similar number would remain in Israel. They want all of them returned to Africa, even if it means the refugees’ lives will be put in danger as a result.

One commentator recently warned in the liberal daily Haaretz: “A clerical fascist state will rise here much faster than you think.”

The only bulwark till now has been the supreme court. It overturned government bans both on medical treatment for wounded Gazans and on the entry of bereaved Palestinian families.

But it is being aggressively cowed. This week Mr Netanyahu announced his intention to block the court’s power of judicial review so he can safeguard racist and grossly anti-democratic legislation. The gates are opening to the tyranny of an ethnic Jewish majority already lording it over the native Palestinian population.

But the government has Jews in its sights too. It is well-advanced in a campaign to incite against Israel’s shrinking community of leftists and human rights activists – as well as, of course, against its large minority of Palestinian citizens.

It started by characterising as “traitors” the whistleblowing soldier group Breaking the Silence but has now targeted mainstream progressive groups.

Mr Lieberman suggested Tamar Zandberg, leader of the small leftwing parliamentary party Meretz, was a Palestinian agent after she called for an inquiry into the killing of the Gaza protesters.

And Mr Netanyahu has accused the New Israel Fund, the largest donor to progressive causes in Israel, of endangering the “security and future of Israel” for backing the UN asylum seeker plan.

Those human rights activists who seek to record abuses by settlers or the army are now threatened with legislation backed by Mr Lieberman that would jail them for up to 10 years.

The Israeli right has introduced what is effectively a political test – dividing “good” Jews from “bad” ones – not only in Israel but for Jews overseas.

Those who support a fortress-like Greater Israel oppressing Palestinians are welcome; those who vocally oppose the occupation or want Israel punished with boycotts to encourage it to mend its ways are most definitely not. They are being denied entry at Israel’s borders.

Despite Israel’s continuing claim that it is a safe haven for Jews, in reality it is no such thing. It is an ugly ethnic supremacist state and one closing its doors to Jews who decry the oppression of the native Palestinian population.

That is what Israel and its supporters around the world will be celebrating this week.

Jonathan Cook is a freelance journalist based in Nazareth