How Israel’s Democratic Crisis Affects Palestinians

In January, shortly after Benjamin Netanyahu swore in Israel’s new government, I spoke by phone with Raja Shehadeh, the Palestinian lawyer and activist who co-founded the human-rights organization Al-Haq. Shehadeh was concerned about many of the extremists who had joined Netanyahu’s coalition, but he also predicted that the government’s impact was likely to register more

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In January, shortly after Benjamin Netanyahu swore in Israel’s new government, I spoke by phone with Raja Shehadeh, the Palestinian lawyer and activist who co-founded the human-rights organization Al-Haq. Shehadeh was concerned about many of the extremists who had joined Netanyahu’s coalition, but he also predicted that the government’s impact was likely to register more strongly among Israelis than Palestinians, who have been living under occupation for decades. Netanyahu has now overseen parts of a judicial overhaul that opponents characterize as a profound threat to Israeli democracy, as well as an expansion of Israeli settlements. There has also been an increase in violence by settlers, which—combined with the actions of Israeli security forces—has resulted in the deaths of more than a hundred and fifty Palestinians; Palestinian attacks on Israelis have caused more than twenty deaths. Amid this increase in violence, the Palestinian Authority has struggled to maintain order in the West Bank.

Shehadeh and I spoke again recently about what the most right-wing government in Israel’s history has meant for Palestinians, whether the protests in Israel against the Netanyahu government could expand to address the occupation, and Shehadeh’s despair over the impossible choices facing the Palestinian people. Our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity, is below.

The last time we spoke, you predicted that Netanyahu’s new coalition—at least in terms of its relationship to Palestinians—would represent a difference in degree rather than in kind from previous Israeli governments. That the situation was already so dire that it wasn’t clear how much things were actually going to change. How do you view the situation today?

I was right about the fact that there wasn’t going to be much structural change, but I didn’t take into account the avarice of the settlers—their unlimited greed in using their power to the furthest extent possible. I also didn’t realize that what they did would have an effect on Israel, too, as seen by the big protests that are taking place there now.

The settlements have existed since the beginning of the occupation, and the structure that enabled the takeover of land and building of settlements has not changed. Generally, the Israelis were tolerant of all this. But the new right-wing government wanted to do even more than what was already happening. For example, the structures that were in place did not allow settlements over private land, but the settlers have been encroaching on it anyway. The Palestinians can resort to legal action, but the settlers wanted to stop that possibility through the court. This is one reason that the government has been trying to curb the powers of the High Court. It’s not the only one, of course, but it’s part of the goal.

Another thing that the settlers are trying to do is drive as many Palestinians out of the area as possible, and take over land that they couldn’t take before because it was planted land. They cut trees; hundreds of trees have been cut on Palestinian land, and house demolitions have been continuing on a large scale. And, the thing is, there is total government tolerance of these activities. The Army supports settlers, and the settlers know this.

It sounds like there’s been a fair amount of vigilante violence. Is that correct?

Yeah. Recently, settlers attacked the village of Burqa, and shot a man named Qusai. Then they played the victim and said they were attacked when in fact they were the ones who had come to attack the village. [In a statement, the Army said that Israeli settlers came to herd sheep nearby and got into a confrontation with Palestinians from the town, during which both sides began to throw rocks. The settlers then started shooting, and killed Qusai Matan. The suspected assailant was recently placed under house arrest but hasn’t yet been charged with a crime.]

One of the critiques of the Israeli protest movement against changes to the judiciary is that it hasn’t focussed enough on the rights of Palestinians, and has focussed instead on Israel’s democracy vis-à-vis Jewish Israeli citizens. Do you think that’s a fair critique? It seems like you were hinting in your last answer that you did think the state of the judiciary was in some sense intimately connected to the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

I think that Israelis, by and large, aren’t aware that they can’t have democracy in Israel while there is no democracy for the millions of Palestinians they are controlling in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Some of my Israeli friends have assured me that, yes, there is much more awareness of this now, but I think it’s a very small number.

When you say there can’t be democracy in Israel while there’s no democracy in the Palestinian territories, is that a moral statement or a practical one? Are you essentially saying that it enrages you that Israelis grant themselves some form of democracy and won’t grant it to Palestinians? Or are you saying that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is going to corrode Israeli democracy to the extent that, practically speaking, Israeli democracy cannot really work if the occupation continues?

It’s the second. All along, I’ve been proposing that the actions which law enforcement and the Army are taking in the West Bank will eventually affect the Israelis in Israel. And this is exactly what is happening. The lack of law enforcement and rule of law in the occupied territories and the oppression that is taking place is definitely corroding the Israeli way of life and Israeli enforcement of the law.

The Israeli government’s attack against the High Court has to do with the role of the High Court, to some extent, in the occupied territories. That’s not to say that the High Court has been great for the Palestinians in the occupied territories: it has allowed house demolitions, and has been generally responsive to the claim that all that is taking place is done in the name of security. But, still, it has sometimes played a positive role. And, in order to stop that, the forces on the right are trying to curb the power of the High Court, which affects Israel of course, very much. This is one way that what’s happening in the West Bank is corroding the situation in Israel.

Obviously, things have worsened in the settlements, and I’m curious how that’s changing Palestinian internal political dynamics.

We have to go back, really, to the beginning of the Oslo Accords. Oslo was an attempt by the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel to resolve the situation through negotiation, and Oslo failed because Israel didn’t follow up with the promises that it made to the Palestinians. The argument that it’s possible to negotiate a settlement has become very unpopular.

And so the P.A., the Palestinian Authority, has now become very unpopular and weak because its policies toward Israel, which were conciliatory and geared toward negotiations, have failed. There has also been no progress toward getting the case against Israel in the International Criminal Court to move any further. As a result, the argument is that the only way is through struggle—unfortunately, armed struggle. The policy of the Palestinian Authority to use international law to gain recognition for Palestine has failed. And so this very much affects the popularity of the Palestinian Authority.

But these are critiques of the Palestinian Authority that you could have heard prior to the past six months.

That’s right. But, now that the settlers are so much more active against Palestinians, the question of defending oneself against the settlers—there’s no answer to that. People have become much more radicalized because of the settlers’ activities and their brutality toward Palestinians. So we are moving closer to a possibility of armed resistance in the form of an intifada, which would be a disaster for the Palestinians, because any armed struggle would definitely be in favor of the Israelis. They’re the stronger party, and the extremist settlers are moving in that direction in order to get the opportunity to drive away the Palestinians or kill as many as possible. Because they don’t want Palestinians in the greater land of Israel.

If a third intifada would be disastrous, and if the approach taken by the Palestinian Authority in previous generations did not get what was intended or hoped for in terms of concessions from the Israelis, what would a better strategy be? What would you recommend to Palestinian political leaders in that case?

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