December 04, 2022
It was only a few weeks ago that the Israeli electorate swung even further to the right, and despite its politicians still being immersed in the process of forming a coalition, the debauched spirit of the extremist far-right is already engulfing the country.
Nothing epitomizes the dark clouds that currently hover above Israel and its relations with the Palestinians more than what is taking place in Hebron, where for decades the most extreme kind of supremacist settlers have been forcing their way in to live in the heart of an Arab population, and not as an exercise in coexistence.
Almost immediately after the election, over 30,000 Jews descended on the city of Hebron for a religious event that included a pilgrimage to the tomb of the biblical judge Othniel, yet hundreds of them leapt at the opportunity, sensing the tailwind from the election’s results, to violently attack Palestinians and IDF soldiers, shattering windows of the city’s Bab Al-Zawiya and Al-Sadiq mosques, and sending a clear message about who is in control of the place and the events.
In a separate incident in Hebron in the same week, a group of masked settlers threw stones at a Palestinian home near the city’s Jewish community, smashing its windows and a car windscreen — the kind of behavior that has been commonplace for years. How people who claim to be believers could do such a thing is beyond comprehension.
Benjamin Netanyahu might soon become the next Israeli prime minister, but when it comes to the creating the general mood of the country it is Itamar Ben-Gvir and his Otzma Yehudit’s (“Jewish Power” in Hebrew) colleagues who are calling the shots, and not only figuratively speaking.
The story of the settlement in Hebron and the adjacent Qiryat Arba, which is the home of the Ben-Gvir family, is where the settlements project began more than 50 years ago, and has developed in its ugliest form, with the intention from the very outset to establish Jewish supremacy over the Palestinians.
Hindsight is always 20-20, but whatever our opinions might be about their destructive and immoral ideas and values, we must acknowledge that these settlers were guided from the outset by a clear strategy carried out with great patience over the decades, one that has brought them to the point where they can dictate the future of not only the Jewish state but also the Palestinian people, by blocking all roads to a peaceful solution.
If there is any single place where Israel has clearly and unashamedly imposed an apartheid regime, it is Hebron. The Shuhada Street district, once the bustling commercial center, is now almost a ghost town, where extreme restrictions on freedom of movement are imposed on Palestinians living in the area, who must pass through several checkpoints manned by Israeli security forces, while settlers are free to come and go as they please.
In the name of the so-called security of few hundred Jewish settlers, the military authorities have issued closure orders to hundreds of stores and other businesses in the area. There is ample documentation of the physical and verbal abuse of Palestinians in Hebron that is carried out with complete impunity, while the Israeli security forces either allow this to happen or, worse, enable such behavior.
Qiryat Arba was the home of the contemptable extremist Baruch Goldstein, the murderer admired by Ben-Gvir who massacred 29 worshippers in the Cave of Patriarchs. Many of the Jewish settlers in Hebron not only fail to condemn him, but also see him as a hero and have built a shrine for him in their midst.
Long before the recent general election there was a sense that Israel’s security forces have become a militia on behalf of the settlers, while completely forsaking their duty as an occupying force to protect the local population. Now the far-right is attempting to institutionalize and legalize this despicable behavior.
Numerically speaking, Yehudit and their other partners in the Religious Zionism party are a minority, but their support among the security forces is much higher than in the rest of the population, something that should be a source of grave concern. In a disturbing incident last week, captured on camera, a soldier can be clearly seen pinning a left-wing Israeli activist to the ground and punching him forcefully in the face. These activists are there to provide moral support to the many thousands of Palestinians who live under oppressive occupation and daily harassment from settlers.
At the same scene in separate footage, another soldier from this unit is seen and heard to shout at the activists: “Ben-Gvir is going to sort things out in this place. That’s it, you guys have lost, the fun is over.” In reply to the activist asking, “Why? Am I doing something illegal?” the soldier replies, “Everything you do is illegal. I am the law.” Adding to his pearls of wisdom, he also calls the activist a traitor and an assortment of lewd expletives wishing him ill.
In reality these soldiers have been the law in Hebron for a long time. However, the prospect of Ben-Gvir, someone who has previously been convicted of incitement to racism, interfering with a police officer performing his duty and supporting a terrorist organization, becoming the national security minister with an expanded portfolio, not only legitimizes this behavior, but also fuels it. Under the new Netanyahu government this is expected to be the new normal in treating Palestinians and those who oppose his administration.
For a soldier to assault a civilian is a disciplinary issue and a criminal offense that should be deliberated in court. In the meantime, the soldier who appointed himself as the “local lawmaker” was jailed for 10 days, while, scandalously, the human rights activist who was the victim of his assault was arrested and interrogated by the police, and then banned from entering the city. Ten days in jail might seem lenient to most of us, considering that soldier’s threatening behavior, but not to the far-right who took to social media in order to viciously attack the commander who sentenced him.
These are the new realities and signs of what is to come. We should brace ourselves for a far-right government that will dictate to the police and military how to deal with Arabs and political opponents, in the only way they know. Hebron is their model for dealing with the Palestinians, and they see no reason why the entire West Bank and its Palestinian population should not be treated in exactly the same way.
This has been their dream for decades, and they will be closer than ever to achieving it if the progressive forces inside the country and outside it continue to be equivocal and ineffective in their response.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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