Mass Protests in Israel. What Next?

Richard Abernethy

Summary: A diverse mass movement has confronted Israel’s far-right government, with some temporary success. What are the prospects, for Israelis and Palestinians? — Editors

Since Israel’s current government – an extreme right-wing coalition under the premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu – took office at the end of 2022, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have joined in a wave of protests, the largest in the nation’s history, building up through the first three months of 2023, and culminating in a general strike on 27 March.

For now, the opposition movement may be said to have won “round one” of the contest. Netanyahu has paused (not withdrawn) his plans to change the judicial system.

The plan to end the relative independence of the Supreme Court and bring it under the control of the government of the day has been the trigger issue for the protests.

Under this set of proposals, a simple majority of 61 out of 120 Members of the Knesset would be empowered to override Supreme Court rulings, and the government of the day would have the power to appoint judges.

This is widely – and rightly – seen as clearing the way for attacks on women’s and LGBT+ rights, and generally on a modern, secular lifestyle, at the behest of religious fundamentalist parties in the coalition. Many women came to the demonstrations wearing red costumes in reference to The Handmaid’s Tale. Protesters chanted: “Iran is already here”.

The government could also use its majority to halt Netanyahu’s prosecution on charges of corruption.

The gravest threat is to the Palestinians. Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) is minister for public security, in charge of the police. A fascist in all but name, he has a string of criminal convictions for inciting racism and supporting terrorism, and wants Israel to permanently annex the West Bank. Ben-Gvir’s price for consenting to the pause on “judicial reform” was the formation of a National Guard, under his own control.

Finance minister Bezael Smotrich has called for Huwara – the Palestinian village subjected to a pogrom by Israeli settlers who beat residents and burned houses and cars on 26 February – to be “wiped out”. He has declared that “There is no such thing as a Palestinian nation. There is no Palestinian history. There is no Palestinian language”.

While the Supreme Court sometimes restrains the government’s actions, many of its rulings have contributed to the oppression of the Palestinians. It generally allows settlement building in the occupied West Bank, contrary to international law. It allows the Israeli state to demolish homes belonging to the families of Palestinian resisters – acts of collective punishment banned by the Geneva Convention. In 2021 it upheld the Nation State Law, which defines Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people and declares that “fulfilling the right to self-determination in the state of Israel is unique to the Jewish people”.

Israeli society is divided as never before, to such an extent that the president, Isaac Herzog, warned of civil war.

The opposition is very diverse, united by what it is against, the agenda of the far right. How long it can hold together remains to be seen. It includes “business leaders”, representatives of private capital, especially the hi-tech sector. Thus, there was the extraordinary phenomenon of a general strike supported by employers as well as unions. Former high-ranking officers of the Israel Defence Forces have also given support. Military reservists have played a prominent role (military service is compulsory in Israel). Many participants have carried the blue-and-white, Star-of-David national flag, to show their patriotic and Zionist credentials. Within this multifarious movement, the Israeli left, peace activists, women’s and LGBT+ movements are a minority presence.

So far, the protests have addressed Palestinian issues only to a very limited extent. Israeli left activists who carried Palestinian flags to the demonstrations initially met with hostility. That attitude shifted somewhat after the settler attack on Huwara.

On 4 April, hundreds of Palestinian Muslim worshippers were arrested and beaten when Israeli police raided the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a sacred site for Muslims, and a space that Palestinians consider their own, in the face of Israeli encroachments, such as the demolition of homes in East Jerusalem. The stated reason was that some of those at the mosque intended to occupy the area, to prevent Jewish fundamentalists of the Temple Mount movement from performing a ritual animal sacrifice nearby. While this is clearly part of the government’s expansionist agenda, Netanyahu and company may well hope that raising the tension with the Palestinians and provoking acts of terrorism will drain support from the protests among Israelis. Still, support for the latest demonstration on 8 April remained strong.

It is a great thing that so many Israelis want to halt and reverse the slide of their country into far-right authoritarianism. If they are to prevail in securing freedom and democracy for themselves, the logic of history will require them to support the same for the Palestinians.


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