Israeli society is closing in on itself…

May 11, 2010
Richard Kuper

A Dark Time in Israel

Shir Hever, 11 May 2010

Israeli political culture is changing. It is difficult, in a state that routinely and systematically violates human rights and international law, to pinpoint a time in which things go from bad to worse, and it can certainly be argued that Israel had other dark periods in its history, during which minorities and dissenting voices were persecuted more than “normal.”

Nevertheless, a new trend has been developing rapidly in the past four years of extreme measures taken against political dissenters, particularly against citizens of Israel (as opposed to non-citizen Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, who were never permitted freedom of expression). This trend threatens to eliminate the relative safety of Israelis, and especially Israeli Jews, to voice their opposition to government’s policies.

This trend can be traced back to 2006. In that year, following Israel’s military attacks on Lebanon, Yuval Diskin head of the General Security Services (GSS, commonly known as the “Shabak”) said that the GSS would begin to operate against “subversive movements,” even if they abide by the law. His statement is unequivocal. It means that the GSS will operate to impose a certain political discourse, criminalizing dissenting voices. Soon after, Israeli Palestinian member of Knesset Azmi Bishara had to flee the country to avoid being charged with treason.

The military attack on Gaza between December 2008 and January 2009 has, in addition to the massive destruction and suffering which it caused in the Gaza Strip itself, brought out the ugliest side of Israeli society. Reveling in the bloodshed and celebrating the carnage, on a certain level many Israelis knew that this time they had gone too far. And thus it should come as no surprise that their shame turned into violence, that the need to silence the accusing and criticizing voices (especially from within) became not only a political, but a psychological need.

All of a sudden, Israel was full of “traitors.”

During the military attacks on Gaza, over 800 protesters were arrested in and by Israel. Afterwards, members of New Profile, a feminist organization acting to counter militarism in Israeli society, were taken for questioning, their computers confiscated, and demonstrators supporting them beaten and arrested. Investigations and interrogations were used against additional organizations as well.

Israel delegitimized the Goldstone Report on the Gaza attacks, and arrested one of the witnesses to this UN commission.

Israeli efforts to suppress international criticism were stepped up in recent years, with raids deep into Palestinian cities in order to detain and arrest activists. All this while the “usual” repression of Palestinian dissent against Israel’s occupation continues – the Ramallah office of The Stop the Wall Campaign was raided, and arrests of political leaders, demonstrators and activists were made.

The extreme right-wing government formed by Binyamin Netanyahu following the elections of February 2009 gave the Israeli “security forces” a boost of confidence to increase repressive measures against activists, often in contravention even to the Israeli law or to judges’ orders. Israel Beiteinu, a neo-fascist party and a senior member of the ruling coalition, is employing a new new political language, such as demanding loyalty tests for Palestinian citizens, and criminalizing public commemoration of the Naqba.

So What is Going On?

In some circles, Israel has the image of a democratic, developed country. Compared to China following web-surfers who google the word “democracy,” aren’t Israeli activists who believe that their phones are tapped by the GSS being a bit paranoid?* Unfortunately, we know of plenty of regimes which have compulsively spied on their own citizens. We should not underestimate people’s capacity for evil.

Israeli whistle-blower Anat Kam thought that she was doing her patriotic duty by exposing incriminating documents pointing to illegal actions of top members of Israel’s military brass. She worked with Uri Blau, a journalist at the Ha’aretz newspaper, to expose the documents, and with the military censorship which reviewed the articles prior to publication.

She was arrested and a court order issued rendering it illegal to report about her arrest (until the international press made the gag order seem ridiculous and it was then revoked). She was charged with espionage. Uri Blau cooperated with the authorities and returned the documents that he had, but remains in exile abroad, fearing arrest upon arrival in Israel.

In the coverage of these events, unusual because both Anat Kam and Uri Blau are upper-middle class Israeli Jews, members of the Israeli elite, an obvious question was forgotten: are there others who are arrested under a gag order, “disappeared” and about whom we don’t know?

Now, sadly, I can say that the answer is yes. There are currently at least three others detained by Israel and about whom a gag order has been issued, and at least one of them may be charged with espionage.*

So lines are being crossed, and there is no way of telling where it will stop.

Why is it Happening Now?

The repression of dissent and the clamp on freedom of speech is not without its price to the Israeli government. These measures give Israel a bad name and drive off some of its long-time supporters. International criticism is growing, and yet Israeli authorities persist in breaking down the few safeguards that remain in Israel for civil rights.

But that is not because the Israeli authorities are stupid; their actions are an expected, even predictable result of political developments concerning Israel’s international standing. The international boycott movement grows and even Jewish communities around the world, and particularly in the U.S., are not as automatically supportive of Israel as they used to be. The patience of the international community is wearing thin, while Israel’s belligerence is causing an escalation in violence and radicalism in the Middle East, thus ultimately jeopardising global economic interests in the region.

The government in Israel knows that it may not have a lot of time left. Sensing that the end may be at hand, it becomes increasingly desperate, willing to employ drastic measures to assert its control. Like any regime about to be toppled, it tries to give a final fight. Of course, it is impossible to predict whether the Israeli regime is indeed about to fall. If this repression and intimidation works, the Israeli government could prevail and continue committing crimes and injustices for many years to come.

It is not just the government that feels threatened. Israeli society is far from oblivious to the changes in world public opinion, and it generally reacts in one of three ways.
The first way, adopted by a majority of Israelis, is denial. Many Israelis become apathetic to political issues and dream of emigration (in a recent poll, 60% of young Israelis said that they would like to move to the U.S).

The second way is try and fight to keep the Zionist project alive, to cling to the supremacy of Jews through force of arms. Israelis who react in this way have made it their first priority to fight the “enemy from within” – the left, the Palestinian citizens in Israel, any who would dare question Israel’s right to put its own policies above international law and human rights. Thus, they form organizations such as NGO Monitor and Im Tirzu, organizations that dub criticism of Israel as “treason” or “anti-Semitism.”

They are not completely wrong. After all, there are also those Israelis who follow a third choice. Realizing that Israel’s Apartheid and occupation may not last long, they begin to ask themselves difficult questions. The ranks of the radical left in Israel, though still very small, swell rapidly. Indeed, those who witness the atrocities committed by Israeli authorities are less likely to blindly accept Israeli policy as always just, and might just decide to join the next demonstration. And yes, they are a real threat to Israel’s authoritative regime because they are not afraid to point out the crimes which Israel would rather keep hidden.

The repression of dissent sends a clear message to activists – now is the time to act. Our actions will determine whether this time will be remembered in history as the death throes of Apartheid in Israel, or yet another wave of repression in a long history of Israeli oppression.

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