Naomi Chazan
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Looking for terror in all the wrong places

Recasting key Palestinian NGOs as terror groups confounds legitimate opposition to occupation, increases the odds of violence, and puts the coalition at risk
Defense Minister Benny Gantz attends a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset, on October 19, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz attends a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset, on October 19, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Minister of Defense Benny Gantz’s decision to place six Palestinian civil society organizations, including its top human rights groups, on the list of terror organizations, has provoked intense reactions. Human rights organizations throughout the world have vocally condemned the move. Leaders in Europe and the United States have reacted strongly against the new government’s assault on one of the most indispensable building blocks of democratic governance. And in Israel, along with the anticipated applause of the right-wing opposition and the growing discomfort in portions of the diverse coalition bordering on open dissent on its left fringes, eyebrows are being raised about its timing, utility, and all-round advisability.

In the midst of this spiraling and expanding debate — which shows no signs of abating any time soon — too much emphasis is being placed on the here and now. Almost no attention is being given to its historical and comparative context. Even a cursory look at the dynamics of numerous attempts by ethnically distinct minorities to subjugate local majorities against their will only magnifies the absurdity and ultimate futility of this latest move. The Israeli government would do well to study these lessons carefully, lest it be tempted to repeat — if not compound – them, not only to the detriment of the Palestinians, but also at its own expense as well.

Modern history is rife with examples of external conquest, imperial expansion, and colonial rule. A common thread connects these very diverse experiences in different parts of the globe: every foreign intrusion breeds some form of local reaction. The more comprehensive outside control — from economic and religious to military and bureaucratic — the greater, too, the extent and intensity of indigenous responses. Barring the annihilation of the local population, outside overrule has systematically, undeniably, and almost uniformly sown the seeds of its own dissipation. What was true for most parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America also pertains to the history of Israel-Palestine for the past century and more.

The pattern is well-known, but can always benefit from periodic revisiting. Prior to 1948, the fledgling Zionist movement and the Arab residents of the land — despite their growing antagonism to each other — shared an aversion for first their Ottoman and then their British overseers. They have vied for control of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River ever since.

The terms of this confrontation shifted dramatically in 1967, with the Israeli takeover of territories previously under Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian control. The subsequent asymmetry was accompanied from the outset by Palestinian resistance, and then assumed civilian forms, as economic, social, and cultural contacts expanded. Trade unions and professional organizations were established. These were followed by youth, women’s, and welfare societies. Religious organizations (especially Hamas, with Israeli backing) were created alongside human rights groups. And political activity expanded with a growing demand for Palestinian self-determination, first at the expense of Israel and, after 1988, alongside its internationally recognized borders.

The absence of any movement led initially, in late 1987, to a spontaneous uprising in Gaza which subsequently spread to the West Bank. Essentially a civilian revolt which became progressively more organized, this First Intifada laid the foundation for the Madrid conference and then for the Oslo accords. The creation of the Palestinian Authority and, in this connection, the truncation of the occupied territories into areas A, B, C, and the Gaza Strip served to increase Palestinian frustration without substantially advancing a resolution. The failure of this process and the subsequent eruption of the far more orchestrated and violent Second Intifada that was swiftly subdued militarily left few openings for violent resistance on the West Bank. Instead, the way was paved for the resurgence of civil society organizations and, with renewed vigor, human rights groups. This trend also took on strong religious overtones, especially in Gaza, leading to the political ascendance of the Hamas there and to Israel’s disengagement — but hardly withdrawal from involvement in — the Gaza Strip.

The last decade has been marked by increased Israeli settler presence in the West Bank, the Trump-led recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and a series of mostly individually-initiated acts of violent resistance. Palestinian civil society activity has carved out spaces for independent non-violent action domestically and for greater outreach internationally. But it has not been able to stem the tide. The extent of repression and subjugation has increased.

The inauguration of the Bennett-Lapid government, despite its agreement to focus only on matters on which there is consensus, has in fact taken steps which have made matters worse. In the aftermath of the May incidents sparked by events in and around Jerusalem, the last few months have witnessed the approval of construction tenders for Jewish settlements in the most sensitive locations — including, but not limited to the E1 enclave, Atarot, and portions of East Jerusalem. Jewish settlers have launched violent raids against Palestinian farmers, property, and lives. The number of Palestinians killed in spontaneous clashes has risen. Evictions and demolitions are continuing apace. Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount continues, rattling already stretched Muslim sensibilities. The olive harvest is being disrupted. And, now, with few avenues of peaceful resistance remaining, civil society has been targeted. This is the precise opposite of the maintenance of the status quo.

This decision is beyond curious. To label key organizations as terrorist groups is akin to curtailing any possibility for legitimate opposition to occupation. This does very little to quell Palestinian unrest. To the contrary, it leaves them with only two choices: submission or violence. The former is not attainable; the latter is undesirable, leading to even greater anarchy.

Moreover, if almost all Palestinian dissent is by definition an act of terror, then it follows that this situation could be perpetuated forever. That, however, is neither the official stance of the government nor the position of the majority of Israelis. So why has it been set in motion now, especially when Israel retains all the tools to apprehend — even without trial — individuals suspected of violent activity against Israelis? Why is the government shaking the beehive when its fragile coalition has no ostensible interest in highlighting Palestine-Israel matters at this moment?

Some claim that this latest move is but a political ploy to placate the right wing. If it is intended to be, then it is beyond foolish: it divides the coalition, which, if stretched too far, will dissolve. Since it is based on undisclosed allegations, it exposes itself to accusations of lack of transparency and accountability. It accentuates the ongoing internal disruptions in the management of its daily affairs (Benny Gantz did not inform Prime Minister Bennett of his move, nor was it brought before the security cabinet or any sub-committee of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee). As the new government is just beginning to gain some traction with the passing of the budget in the next weeks, it is laying the groundwork for ideological divisions that can further undermine its sustainability.

Far more significant, however, is the damage being done to Israelis, Palestinians, and to their future. The continuation and the deepening of the occupation has brought the entire Israeli enterprise under increased scrutiny. The outlawing of leading Palestinian civil society organizations and their linkage to terrorism has garnered denunciations abroad, not only in quarters traditionally critical of Israel, but also among its closest allies. The State Department reprimand is serious. So, too, are the troubled queries emanating from European quarters. These reactions justifiably stress the close connection between autonomous civil society and democratic life. Assaulting these underpinnings, especially for Palestinians devoid of basic political and human rights, necessarily tarnishes Israel’s image and calls into question what remains of its democratic credentials. In many ways, it also goes against the grain of Jewish tradition, which has always prided itself at being at the forefront of struggles against all forms of racism, prejudice, discrimination, and rampant abuse of power.

Put together, the damage done to the country — not to speak of the Palestinians under its overrule, though hardly its control — could be unimaginable. Restraint, together with the exercise of a large measure of prudence based on the lessons gleaned from the many experiences of the past, is now the order of the day. Would that the government and the people at its helm have the wisdom to make that happen, even if this requires backpedaling misplaced decisions and courageously changing course before it is too late.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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