Darkness envelops the remnants of Israeli democracy

by Yaniv Reich on December 12, 2009

I am a severe critic of many Israeli policies. But a part of me always held on to those aspects of Israel that remained principled and democratic. Important interventions by Israel’s High Court against the use of human shields, against the early planned routes of the segregation wall, the injunction to desegregate the road in the southern West Bank, and the Kahan Commission, and many more examples. Did they go far enough according to my judgment? No, but they were a sign that democracy was alive, barely but somewhere, in the midst of the violent dispossession and occupation of Palestinians.

Not anymore. An oppressive and suffocating fog is enshrouding the lonely remnants of Israeli democracy, and therefore hope for a democratic future.

Six examples:

  1. Israel has now arrested 31 nonviolent Palestinian leaders of the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, which organizes weekly demonstrations against the segregation wall and its associated land theft, dispossession, and restriction of movement.
  2. Israel’s Justice Minister calls publicly for Israel to move step by step toward Jewish Halachic law as it exists in the Torah.
  3. The IDF investigation into the 36 allegations of the Goldstone report found that 30 of the charges were “baseless” and the rest were just “mistakes“. As of now, there is no intention of releasing the report, so civil society has no way of assessing the IDF’s method of arriving at these conclusions. A distant cry from the incisiveness, rigor, and political bravery of the Kahan Commission, which found Ariel Sharon indirectly responsible for the infamous civilian massacres in Sabra and Shatila.
  4. The Israeli High Court upheld the deportation of a Gazan student at Bethlehem University back to Gaza, where she cannot continue her studies, despite having been issued a permit at the time she began university. In two months she was expected to complete her BA in business administration.
  5. Freedom of expression and association is being threatened in Israel like never before. The Knesset held an NGO conference on December 1 to identify ways that Israeli human rights NGOs, who receive funding from foreign governments, could be silenced. Now a draft bill is winding its way through the Knesset chambers, which would impose contrived measures of “transparency” on organizations the government deemed too political.

    Meanwhile, a different standard applies for settlers who obstruct inspectors, attack Palestinians, torch mosques and spray paint “We will burn you all” and “price tag“, with Israeli and foreign funding, and Netanyahu announces additional government benefits for previously unrecognized settlements (and the US, as always, acquiesces, presumably because Obama was too busy receiving his Nobel Peace Prize, at which time he curiously forgot to mention Israel/Palestine).

  6. Because of the threat to human rights organizations and civil rights currently being considered in the Knesset, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel called yesterday for a national day of demonstration. One group of demonstrators marched to Shekh Jarrah, the recent site in East Jerusalem of numerous evictions of Palestinians and new arrivals of settler maniacs. Twenty four nonviolent are arrested, many more injured, including someone already detained being sprayed in the face with pepper spray out of anger.

    David Shulman, professor at Hebrew University, describes the scene (as published on Mondoweiss earlier today):

    “We stand in the courtyard of the stolen house, with the Palestinian owners beside us. There are between a hundred and a hundred and fifty of us, perhaps double what we had last week. Many soldiers and border police, also more than last week. Protest is gaining ground. The atmosphere is volatile, riddled with rage. Drums beating louder and louder. Children from the dispossessed families are tying small plastic Palestinian flags on a cord stretched opposite the string of plastic Israeli flags the settlers have draped over the door and window. The courtyard is littered, still, with the detritus that was once a family’s life: toys, kitchen appliances, an old couch, a wobbly table; all have been rained on this week, some have sunk into the mud. There’s probably something a little irritating to the soldiers and the settlers, I think and hope, in the chants we are hurling at them. “From Sheikh Jarrah to Bil’in/ Freedom now for Filastin.” I look around me: mostly young people, gentle but tough—many students, some I know from my classes, musicians, painters, poets, meditators, activists, young parents with babies folded in slings on their breasts—all of them totally non-violent, of course; and the demonstration is perfectly legal, no question about that, the police themselves issued the permit.

    Somehow it begins. Someone gave the order. I don’t know who. Later someone says it may have been connected to the flags. It’s possible—I didn’t see it—that one of our demonstrators reached the window of the stolen house and tore down the plastic Israeli flag. Maybe that triggered it. But I think they were anyway just itching to tear into this crowd. So when the moment comes, it starts somewhere at the edge of the family’s tent set up in what’s left of their own front yard and then swirls rapidly in widening arcs and circles, a vortex drawing each of us in. I am washed by a human wave out of the courtyard and into the street.
    Waves of green uniforms followed by waves of blue—police reinforcements have arrived. Many screams. The border police, as usual, are the most aggressive. Punching, fighting their way forward through the crowd, seizing victims at random, pushing them to the ground, pinning their arms behind them, carrying them off. Drumming goes on, builds toward a climax, ebbs, rises again. We stand our ground. We lock arms in a circle to keep them from forcing one of their chosen victims into a waiting police car. Much shouting. They break through, drag their prey brutally by the arms along the ground.

    Wandering in a pocket of relative silence. Eddies of dizzying attacks all along the street. Another wave. Now they have drawn blood, and they seem to like the taste of it. They want more. More and more. They go after the drummers, arrest them. Many seemingly random victims, too. Sandy says to me: “They’re like storm troopers. No other image comes to mind.” Some of our people are crying. Another charge. Young girls carried off, screaming. Sarah thrown to the ground, pounded, dragged over the stones. Again we try to close ranks. More waves. Time expands, elastic, twisting and turning back on itself, remorseless; this misery will never stop. Some of the border police are spraying us with an aerosol mix of chilly pepper and tear-gas, at close quarters, straight into the face. It’s not like the usual tear-gas canisters I know well; this is concentrated, and it burns and scorches as if it had burrowed into the pores of your skin and, in particular, your eyes. Even now, two hours later, my face and lips feel singed by flames.
    A few courageous drummers are still beating out the time. The senior officer tries desperately to shout through the megaphone that we must disperse at once or we will all be arrested; his voice is drowned out by the drums. More attacks, yet another wave. On and on and on. The longer it goes on, the clearer it becomes that this is no random business, a police action that got out of hand; someone higher up has taken a decision to stamp out dissent in East Jerusalem.
    There’s no end to it, either, only deepening darkness, early winter of the soul. Suddenly I realize that we Israelis have never truly been free, despite what we say; for nature has a law: you cannot diminish another’s freedom without impairing or destroying your own. I hope a day will come when the Jews, too, will have the courage to be free.”

Only a “deepening darkness” remains, slowly eliminating the vestiges of democracy, of freedom. For us and for Palestinians.

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