By JAMES MARKIN
The crisis of the status quo in Palestine that began in 2022 has deepened in the early months of 2023. This crisis is twofold: the Israeli state faces a constitutional and parliamentary crisis at the same time that its regime of colonial rule in the West Bank has begun to collapse. Despite the periodic outbursts of violence in the West Bank these crises have caused, no one was prepared for one of the most staggeringly brutal examples of Israel’s violence against Palestinians in at least a decade—the pogrom in Huwara in February. This pogrom was so vicious and blatant that it caused deep consternation among the Jewish population in Israel, albeit in a way that often refuses to confront the systemic role of Zionism.
It is important to understand the events of the fall and winter of last year in order to fully understand what happened at Huwara. As I previously wrote, the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority (PA)—a pseudo-state government that is led by the Palestinian Fatah party but collaborates with Israel—has sharply declined. As thousands of young Palestinians in the West Bank lose faith in the PA, many of them have turned to direct armed resistance to Israeli rule.
This led to the creation of the new armed organization, “Lion’s Den,” in September 2022. While by the end of the year, falling under heavy Israeli repression, most of the leaders of this group were either dead or in police custody, the group has become a symbol for the resurgent militancy of the Palestinian youth. Alongside Lion’s Den, a host of new armed organizations have sprung up, while at the same time the ranks of existing groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade have swelled with new militants. There is also strong evidence of fraternization and collaboration between the militias in ways that haven’t been seen before and that go against their long-standing rivalries.
As Palestinian shooting attacks on settlers in the West Bank have increased, Israeli repression in the West Bank has risen to levels not seen since the last Intifada. Massive Israeli raids on Nablus, Jenin, and their surrounding villages have been met with Palestinian return fire, often leading to heavy Palestinian casualties among both civilians and militia groups alike. At the same time, according to an AP report, the PA police have become unable and unwilling to repress armed militia groups. These individual shooting attacks are a clear expression of the rage of the Palestinian population and their rejection of the previous status quo. However, scattered individual shooting attacks have not caused any clear damage to the Israeli colonization process.
Settlers riot at Huwara
It is with this backdrop that on Feb. 26, two Israeli settler brothers were shot dead while idling in traffic near the Palestinian town of Huwara. While Netanyahu called for calm, the response from settlers was swift and violent. Settlers rampaged through the town in the latest example of what has been dubbed a “price-tag attack.”
Although Huwara is used to such attacks, which are justified by settlers as acts of retribution for Palestinian “terror,” what happened in February was the largest “price-tag attack” in recent memory. As settlers attacked the city of Huwara, they burned buildings and cars and smashed windows. Most Palestinian families hid to avoid their wrath. Any Palestinians who were caught by the mob were brutalized. According to the Red Crescent, one Palestinian was beaten with an iron bar and another was stabbed. Three people were shot by the settlers, leading to the death of one of them, Sameh Hamdullah Aktech. While the IDF was quick to clarify that he was not shot by an IDF soldier, to date no one has been charged with his murder.
The attack on Huwara was so grotesque in its scale and brutality that it evoked an unusual response from Israel. While normally settler attacks are ignored or dismissed by the mainstream Israeli discourse, the attack on Huwara was widely condemned. Multiple members of the Knesset (MKs) disavowed the attack, and one Israeli general even called it a “pogrom” on television. Disastrously for the Netanyahu government, however, finance minister Bezalel Smotrich’s reaction to this pogrom was to make a statement in which he called on the Israeli state, not individuals, to wipe out the city of Huwara. He went on to outline the general Israeli policy of collective punishment by saying, “for each stone thrown, a [Palestinian] shop should be closed”. This led to wide condemnation, which ultimately forced Smotrich to apologize and walk back his statement. His “apology” should not be taken at face value, however, given that the next month he told an audience in Paris that “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people”.
Smotrich’s comments, along with Netanyahu’s plans to carry out judicial reform, which would seriously reduce the power of the Israeli Supreme Court and step up expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, have led to a series of rebukes from Washington. U.S. National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby called Smotrich’s comments “extremely unhelpful” while the State Department called the expansion of settlements “deeply troubling.” However, these comments by U.S. officials should not be seen as anything deeper than words. The U.S. has a long track record of calling illiberal and brutal behavior by its client states, such as Israel, “troubling”, while not lifting a finger to actually do anything about it. The reality is that while the Biden administration might make disapproving noises about the actions of the new Netanyahu government, the U.S. needs Israel to help enforce control over the strategic economic area of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Israeli protests against court reforms
Indeed, the largest rebuke to the plans of Netanyahu’s new government has come not from Washington, but from Tel Aviv. The protests began this January in response to Netanyahu’s planned court reforms. Liberals in Israel, who have long seen the Court as one of the main checks on the power of the Israeli right, have accused this move of being the beginning of the end of Israeli democracy. Major Israeli press and liberal politicians have called the move a “coup.”
This outrage has led to the largest protests in Israeli history: according to their organizers, on some nights more than 5% of the country has taken part. These mass demonstrations fill up freeways and streets across Israel as protesters bearing Israeli flags chant slogans about “defending Israeli democracy,” while Smotrich’s embrace of the pogrom in Huwara has been taken up by the protests as a symbol of the inhumanity of the new Israeli government. However, this has not led to a broader perspective or understanding of why Israel allows crimes like the pogrom in Huwara to take place.
Indeed, despite their impressive size and regularity, there is a lot that is incongruous about the protests against Netanyahu’s judicial reform. The most obvious incongruity is the fact that, while protesters speak about defending Israel’s democracy, they are essentially mobilizing to defend the powers of an unelected Supreme Court. While few have commented on this contradiction, supporters of the government have defended the reforms, claiming that the Israeli Supreme Court has significantly more power than those in other similar countries.
These more legalistic defenses of the law have seemed to give way to more accusative defenses. In the Knesset, one Likud MK of Moroccan heritage, Amsalem David, shouted that the real reason for the protests was that the protesters were upset that “that Amsalem David makes laws here.” The broader conflict reflected by this remark reveals a historic division in Israeli society. In the 1920s and ’30s, the Zionist movement in Palestine was dominated by labor Zionism, a left-wing variety of Zionism with its origins in Poland and the Russian Empire. Thus, when the state of Israel was proclaimed during the 1948 Nakba, it was the labor Zionists who predominated in its early governments. These broadly left reformist parties were almost entirely composed of Jews from Europe, the Ashkenazim.
While these Israeli governments of the 1950s and ’60s imported Jewish populations from throughout the Middle East in order to create a Jewish working class, these “eastern Jews” (Mizrahim) were often forced into substandard living conditions, only better than those of Palestinians. Because of this, within Israel the divide between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews often reflects class differences. The mistreatment of Mizrahim by the labor Zionist governments has also led to an association between Mizrahi voters and the secular right-wing parties such as Likud, which was formed out of the opposition parties of that period. Thus, Likud has sought to cast the protest movement against judicial reform as reflecting an unwillingness by liberal Ashkenazi Jews in Tel Aviv to accept a Mizrahi government. When coming from top Likud politicians, this accusation rings as a hollow defense, but many Mizrahi activists have complained that the protest movement is dominated by Ashkenazim and often struggles to include them.
Palestinians criticize Israeli protest goals
The shortcomings of the protest movement are far deeper than a lack of acceptance for all Israelis however. How should Palestinian residents and citizens of Israel respond to a protest movement that speaks of safeguarding Israeli democracy and the Israeli Supreme Court? After all, this is the same Supreme Court that has a history of making rulings against the rights of Palestinians.
The protests have been widely criticized by Palestinians for excluding Palestinians and not taking up any criticisms of their mistreatment by the Zionist state. On the Jewish Currents podcast, the Palestinian activist Sally Abed told the story of another activist who was scheduled to be the lone Palestinian voice to speak from the podium during one protest, only to be told that she could not unless her script was pre-approved. This was particularly outrageous given she was the only person scheduled to speak that night who had her script reviewed.
While it might be refreshing to see any kind of condemnation of crimes against Palestinians from the Israeli masses, the majority of protesters make their Zionist affiliation clear. Israeli flags are practically the main symbol of the movement and signs that call on Netanyahu to respect the sacrifices of Israeli soldiers are commonplace. Indeed, any and all references to preserving Israeli democracy must seem like a slap in the face to Palestinians who have to deal with living in a deeply unequal society where they simply don’t have the same rights and privileges as Jewish Israelis. The reality is that while the new government of Netanyahu represents a massive perceived change for Israelis, for Palestinians it is only a change in degree. While Netanyahu has in some cases intensified the colonial encroachment of Israel upon Palestinians, including by scrapping the ban on settlement, this law was largely already a dead letter. Overall, Netanyahu’s policies towards Palestinians do not appear to differ too drastically from those of Naftali Bennett, whom he replaced.
It is hard to take condemnation of the attack in Huwara seriously when Zionists continue to dismiss settler “price-tag” attacks as the actions of an extremist fringe. It is true that most Israelis do not live on illegal West Bank settlements, and those who do tend to have politics that stand to the right of the average Israeli. However, in a very real way this “extremist” settler fringe is a key component of the Zionist project. Settler expansion is also a key method by which Israel legalizes the ongoing theft and conquest of Palestinian land in the West Bank . It is no coincidence that the immediate response of settlers in the area of Huwara after the shooting of the Yaniv brothers was to re-occupy the illegal outpost of Evyatar on the very next day.
Time and time again Palestinians find themselves victims of horrific harassment in the West Bank by settlers. While the Israeli government does not officially condone this behavior, the IDF is almost completely inactive against both price-tag attacks and mundane daily forms of harassment. IDF policy also allows for areas where there are repeated clashes between Palestinians and settlers to be sealed off, although this is almost completely unenforced against the settlers, thus effectively denying Palestinian use of the land and unofficially growing the land of the settlement. Indeed, the fact that the leaders of the settler movement, such as Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich, and the last Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, have become increasingly central to Israeli governments attests to their growing political strength. While liberal Zionists in Tel Aviv might decry settler violence, without it, Israel would lose its frontline method of keeping Palestinians in fear and taking their land, key parts of the broader Zionist process of colonization of Palestine, which built the very city they live in.
Indeed, the lack of analysis of this broader process of colonization is the key weakness of the protest movement. Many in Tel Aviv might have sincere reasons to fear the rise of the fascist Kahanist movement into government. For example, many liberal Israelis were shocked when Netanyahu’s coalition agreement promised Avi Maoz a prominent position within the Ministry of Education. Maoz is a member of the tiny far-right settler party, Noam, known for its deep hatred of LGBTQ people and disdain for women’s rights. While he since resigned as minister after Netanyahu dragged his feet on creating his promised position, appointments like this have left many in Tel Aviv to worry about a potential future where the rights of secular Jews, LGBTQ people, and women will be drastically curtailed.
These fears might be sincere; however, the salvation of the Jewish population of Israel from fascism will not occur if they continue to support the Zionist colonization of Palestine. Protests with thousands of Israeli flags will not bring down the Kahanist ideology—which will harm many Jews as well as Palestinians. It is necessary for the Israeli masses to break with Zionism and to join the Palestinian movement against Israel itself. While many have seen the condemnation of the pogrom in Huwara as a step in this direction, it is telling that the main symbol of the protest movement continues to be the Israeli flag.
The rise of the new Netanyahu government is an omen of the potential arrival of what appears to be an increasingly likely future. In the face of economic and social crises and the prospect of Jews becoming a minority in the land of Palestine, the Israeli state is looking more and more likely to push for further annexations and ethnic cleansings of the West Bank and Gaza. The Kahanist ideology that can justify these measures would only become more and more legitimized in Israeli society as they are carried out. As with Algeria, liberalism is the first causality of settler colonial repression of the native population. In the end the protest movement might well be right that Israeli liberal democracy’s days are numbered. This would leave them with only one choice, Kahanism or the dismantling of Zionism altogether.
It remains to be seen in such a world how those in the streets today will choose. No matter what choice they make, it will ultimately be up to the Palestinian working class, alongside the broader Arab masses, to push back annexations, overthrow the state of Israel and forge a future society based on equality and respect for all.
Photo: Zionist settlers torched Palestinians’ homes and cars in West Bank town of Huwara on Feb. 26. (Shlomi Heller-Walla / Jerusalem Post)