Why the Israeli state is terrified of peaceful protest

  • April 19, 2012

Protest & Policing

The clubbing of a Danish protester and the blocking of 1,500 ‘flytilla’ activists is a direct admission of the illegitimacy of the occupation.

Just two weeks after declaring the Nobel laureate Gunter Grass person non grata over a little poem in which he criticized the occupation, the right-wing Netanyahu government is at it again with another hysterical reaction to international criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people.

Earlier this week, the government barred entry to roughly 1,500 activists who were supposed to fly into Ben Gurion airport as part of an international ‘flytilla’ in solidarity with occupied Palestine. The sympathizers were set to join a week of cultural and educational activities in the West Bank, including the construction of a school in Bethlehem.

But announcing that it would not allow any activists to set foot upon Palestinian soil, the government threatened airline companies with sanctions if they allowed any blacklisted passengers to board. As a result, some 1,200 activists stranded at airports throughout Europe, while security forces at Ben Gurion airport ensured that those who did land in Tel Aviv would be sent back or detained. In the end, only three out of 1,500 activists actually reached Bethlehem.

The video above was filmed by one of my colleagues, a Portuguese PhD researcher at the European University Institute, who was among those who arrived at Ben Gurion airport. In an email, he described how he was harrrassed, manhandled and, after refusing to be voluntarily deported back to Amman, arrested and detained for 10 hours without charges and without being allowed to contact a lawyer or his embassy.

On the same very day, an Israeli army commander in the occupied West Bank made international headlines after clubbing a Danish protester in the face with his M-16 rifle during a peaceful bike ride protest. Lieutenant Colonel Shalom Eisner was dismissed from his position today after a media uproar forced the Netanyahu government to condemn the actions as immoral.

Still, experienced Palestinian, Israeli and international activists are well aware that Eisner’s actions were not so much a breach of protocol as just another incident in a broad repetoire of violent oppression of peaceful protest. Indeed, recent years have seen an escalation of state-sanctioned brutality in response to domestic and international attempts at starting a public conversation on the occupation.

In 2003, activist Rachel Corrie was killed trying to block a bulldozer from destroying a home in Gaza, and in 2004, volunteer Tom Hurndall was shot in the head by an IDF sniper. Just two years ago, the Israeli navy killed nine Turkish peace activists who attempted to reach the Gaza Strip by boat as part of the first humanitarian aid flotilla. Autopsy results showed that the men had literally been peppered with bullets.

Similarly, last year, Israeli Defense Forces killed at least 15 (or 38, by some accounts) unarmed Palestinian protesters who attempted to scale the Jordanian-Israeli border fence on Nakba Day. In December 2011, Palestinian activist Mustafa al-Tamimi died from his wounds after being shot in the head with a tear gas canister at close range while taking part in a peaceful protest against the construction of the wall.

I just returned from two weeks in Israel and Palestine, where I had the opportunity to meet various activists involved in non-violent resistance against the occupation, the wall, and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people more generally. One of the most remarkable things to hear was how many of these highly-educated and extremely reasonable young people had spent time in prison for ‘offenses’ as innocent as publicly airing their dissent.

Still, a close Israeli friend, who has spent much of her adult life working in community advocacy, told me that the real violence generally takes place indirectly and invisibly. Institutionalized discrimination and segregation, such as a law banning Palestinian citizens from renovating their homes in an attempt to force remaining Arabs out of their property and promote the ‘Judaization’ of occupied territories, are widespread and profoundly oppressive.

Yet this everyday systemic violence against innocent civilians does not attract nearly as much media attention as the high profile murders of peace activists. As the assaulted Danish activist, identified only by his first name Ias, told Israeli television, “it’s surprising to me that there’s this big reaction.” According to Ias, he sees similar incidents “all the time” in the West Bank. The only difference is that it’s generally Palestinian citizens, not European or American activists, who bear the brunt of Israeli aggression.

The extreme violence of the Israeli state against peaceful protesters reveals a deep-seated fear inside the country’s political establishment. Realizing that they cannot successfully guarantee civil consent and popular legitimacy, successive governments have embraced violence as a necessary tool for the state to guarantee its survival in a context of eroding international support.

And so the Israeli state is stuck in a bind: at home, it needs to constantly feed a culture of fear and an atmosphere of hostile ethnocentricity to legitimize the escalating militarization of society and the protracted oppression of the Palestinian people, while abroad it needs to ensure the continued financial, military and diplomatic support of its allies in the United States and, to a lesser extent, the European Union.

This impossible balancing act produces precisely the type of Orwellian official discourse that praises Israel as “the only democracy in the region” and the IDF as “the most moral army” in the world, while simultaneously engaging in the summary execution of unarmed  activists, the illegal detention of peaceful protesters, and the state-sanctioned oppression of an entire people through an institutionalized culture of racism.

The inevitable outcome of this schizophrenic state of affairs is the escalation of a vicious cycle of resistance and oppression that continues to rage underneath the surface. In this context, the greatest threat to the legitimacy of the Israeli state is precisely the type of peaceful protest that points out the internal contradictions of an allegedly ‘democratic’ state founded on discriminatory principles.

When even the Financial Times starts pointing out that Israel’s democracy is “eroding” as “the Jewish state appears to be shackling some of the freedoms that are central to its standing abroad,” you know the activists are onto something. This, ultimately, is why the Netanyahu government is responding so hysterically to a few “sandal-wearing Europeans” who come to build a school in Bethlehem.

In a colonial state dependent on the indoctrination and ignorance of a vast majority of the population, the peaceful protester ultimately becomes more dangerous to the survival of the regime than the most lethal suicide bomber could ever be — for no amount of bombs will ever liberate Palestine; at the current rate, the Israeli state will simply end up destroying itself by delegitimizing its occupation in the eyes of the world.

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