BDS and the problem of not seeing the people behind the veil

West Bank Barrier (Separating Wall)

West Bank Barrier (Separating Wall) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No, not that veil.

I had an interesting conversation with a pro-BDS Israeli man (‘BDSM’) and an anti-Zionist Jewish woman (‘AZJW’) recently that made me think. To paraphrase, it went something like this:

MK: I get what you’re saying and I’m not denying that there are huge problems with Israeli policy in the West Bank, but why don’t you just target specific policies? Why can you only talk grandiose solutions, as though the only way to make the situation better would be for the Israeli government to fall and a whole new regime put in place? [Note: this would not make things better, but that wasn’t what I was arguing with them]

BDSM: Because it all comes from occupation! And the government is part of it!

MK: Ok, let’s take an example. Why don’t you advocate for Israeli soldiers to be responsible for preventing settler attacks on Palestinians? At the moment, they have to protect the settlers from Palestinians, but have no power to use any kind of force against the settlers. If they were able to arrest them and hold them accountable, the whole atmosphere would change in the West Bank. Settlers would stop feeling so entitled.

BDSM: It’s deliberate.

MK: Sure, but that doesn’t mean it can’t end.

BDSM: But that is just one part of the whole approach. Look at Susya, the settlers are making a big push to drive all the Palestinians out of area C so that they Israel can annex it.

MK: Yes, but if they couldn’t attack Palestinians without repercussions, it would make that much harder for them to do.

AZJW: But it’s part of the whole occupation system. It won’t just change.

MK: It can. There is one IDF officer somewhere who can sign an order and it will change overnight.

BDSM: But they won’t! The government supports the settlers.

MK: Not all of them do.

BDSM: What do you mean? It was Labor that started the settlements in 1967. Every party has supported them since then. During Oslo when the two state solution seemed so close, it was Rabin that was building more settlements and letting them carve-up the West Bank with settler-only roads.

MK: Yes, but it wasn’t his initiative, it was a deal that he made. Labor is not pro-settlement. Even Likud has a strong anti-settlement faction.

AZJW: Or is that just what you want to believe?

BDSM: What do you mean? The settlers and the government are one and the same!

It carried on like that for a while and I gave up eventually, but something did strike me about what they said.

From their perspective, they are completely right. The awful law-enforcement policies in the West Bank are part of The Occupation. Every Israeli government in history has supported The Occupation. There is no political party with any kind of record of ending The Occupation, so all Israeli governments would be bad and the only way to end The Occupation would be to overthrow the current regime.

The problem, as always, is a lack of nuance – but this nuance is particularly difficult to grasp. I can see why they are wrong because I have been immersed in the political/lawmaking system in Australia and all democratic systems work similarly on some basic level. They have been outside the system and so they cannot truly appreciate what is going on.

They see The Occupation and The Government. When governments do not end pro-settlement policies despite political leaders promising to do so, these two see that The Government is in bed with The Settlers.

I don’t. I see a holistic political system full of competing interests. The Knesset has 120 members, all from an unnecessary number of different parties, and within the major parties are factions.

An overview of the Knesset

The opposition: the traditional Israeli left represented by Meretz and Avoda (Labour); an Arab bloc made-up of socialists, secular nationalists and Islamists; the extreme religious-Zionist parties, which range from far-right to borderline Jewish Fascism;  and of course the leading opposition party Kadima – the largest single party in the Knesset – which contains a faction of former Likudniks who were loyal to Ariel Sharon and a faction of more leftist politicians sourced from various other places.

The Government: Shas, the haredi party that mostly cares about holding onto the State Rabbinate, welfare for large families and keeping Haredim exempt from the military;  Yisrael Beitenu, which has a large base of Russian immigrants, is fiercely secular and nationalist, has left-wing social policies, is very hawkish on foreign policy, and rife with anti-Arab racism; Habayit Hayehudi, the religious-Zionist, pro-settler party; Atzmeut, Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s offshoot of the Labour party; and, of course, Likud.

Likud is the party of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionism. Jabotinsky was a strong, secular nationalist and a classical liberal. He believed in an Israel on both sides of the River Jordan and believed that the Jews had to fight for everything they get as the rest of the world hates Jews and would only ever try to hurt Israel. This message was being declared on the eve of the Holocaust – had he been listened to, history could have been very different.

Likud today has a pragmatic faction, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu, which stays true to Jabotinsky’s liberalism while keeping their thinking in the modern world. There is a less savoury faction, led by Deputy Speaker Danny Danon, which follows Jabotinsky’s militant ‘Whole Israel’ ideas while ignoring the humanitarian, anti-racist and democratic pillars of Jabotinsky’s beliefs. There is also a faction led by Moshe Feiglin, who is pro-civil liberties and does not believe peace to be a priority.

My Point

Why that little aside? Well, all of those factions have different agendas and interests that govern how Israeli policy is made. Netanyahu relies on pro-settlement factions for support in order to maintain government, so has every Israeli government for decades. In the scheme of things, Labour and Likud have always made a trade-off: they accept support from settlers, turn a blind eye to what they do in the West Bank, and concentrate on domestic and other issues.

The important thing to notice is that there is a majority in the Knesset who are against settlement, or at least indifferent. The problem is that they will not work together.

My pro-BDS interlocutors do not see this because they do not see through the veils of the parties and the government. They cannot break The Occupation down into a series of policies and policy vacuums that have evolved over time to create a certain dynamic in the West Bank.

The settlers are basically like spoilt children who become bullies. They have been allowed to do whatever they want in the West Bank without limits and have developed a sense of entitlement.

I believe that small changes could be very easy to make and could have huge consequences. One order from the Defence Ministry could introduce effective law enforcement and prevent daily harassment and abuse of Palestinians. Adopting some of the Levy Report’s recommendations could end the dubious zoning policies around Area C.

If these two things happened, the resentment from the Palestinian side would immensely reduce and the settlers would have limits to their actions. The entire mindset would begin to shift.

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  1. #1 by Michael on August 15, 2012 - 4:30 pm

    The Likud party has an excellent track of expelling Jews out of their homes and giving up IDF control over huge tracks of land – in Sinai, for example. The consequences of such moves are another matter all together, but there’s your example of a political party ending the so-called occupation.

    As far as the Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria are concerned, they are citizens of the State of Israel and are under the responsibility of regular law enforcement units – the police. I don’t see a reason nor a legal possibility for using the army in law enforcement on citizens, when there’s a fully functional system of police, prosecutioners and courts of law in place.

    Further, I doubt whether increased law enforcement on Jews (by the IDF or the police) will reduce resentment of the Arabs of Judea and Samaria. It seems to me that its the Arabs who act like spoiled children, who can’t accept the fact that in a democratic society ruled by law, you have to prove your point to a judge and that such a judge is indeed independent to make a decision. And to me, the independency of the Israeli judicial system has been proved beyound reasonable doubt by numerous decisions against individual politicians as well as government policies.

    • #2 by MK on August 15, 2012 - 5:07 pm

      I don’t see a reason nor a legal possibility for using the army in law enforcement on citizens, when there’s a fully functional system of police, prosecutioners and courts of law in place.

      Sure. Unfortunately, none of those things are in place in the West Bank.

      The police there are extremely ineffective – there are never any prosecutions and settlers are given carte-blanche.

      The prosecutors and courts? Well there are no courts, there are military tribunals and the judges are chosen from the military’s Civil Administration division and so are hardly independent.

      And the Palestinians do not live in a democratic society with the rule of law. They have no vote.

      More importantly, why should the military be restrained from enforcing the law? What does that achieve? They don’t have to conduct investigations etc, but it’s probably the only military in the world that has no arrest powers at all over it’s own citizens when they break the law. How can you possibly justify that?

      • #3 by Michael on August 15, 2012 - 7:09 pm

        As far as I know, the police is present and prosecutions are being made. If the effectiveness of these is deemed insufficient, its a reason to improve the policing, not a reason for using the military. Furthermore, the army is trained and geared to engage in a military conflict, not to performe civic duties such as law enforcement. Using soldiers for policing has been proven disastrous numerous times, for example in Northern Ireland.

        As a counter-example to your statement to the exclusiveness of the IDF in performing arrests, the US Army is banned from being used on US soil unless there’s a direct presidential order allowing to do so. By the way, your statement is incomplete, as the IDF actually has special units trained and geared to perfome (pseudo) policing duties, the Border Police (compatible to the French Gendarms or Italian Carabinieri). Also, the military law that applies to Judea and Samaria allows the high command amongst other things to proclaim certain areas a closed military zone where soldiers govern the acccess and arrest those (Israeli citizens) who violate this order. These powers seem to me sufficient as giving the military the power to arrest and trial the state’s citizens without conducting proper investigation results in a military dictatorship Egypt or Argentina style, not a happy place.

        As to the courts – there have been numerous cases of succesfull application by Arab residents of Judea and Samaria to the Israeli High Court of Justice against for example house demolitions or the proposed trace of the security barrier. Some claims have been granted, others rejected. So the Arab and Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria are subject to the rule of law, whether they like it or not.

  2. #4 by MK on August 15, 2012 - 8:21 pm

    As a counter-example to your statement to the exclusiveness of the IDF in performing arrests, the US Army is banned from being used on US soil unless there’s a direct presidential order

    This isn’t on Israeli soil, unless Israel chooses to annex it, in which case the Palestinians get citizenship.

    Meanwhile,

    By the way, your statement is incomplete, as the IDF actually has special units trained and geared to perfome [sic] (pseudo) policing duties

    But I thought you just said,

    Using soldiers for policing has been proven disastrous numerous times, for example in Northern Ireland.

    So Israel is using a disastrous policy? Or the policy is not so disastrous?

    Meanwhile, the army already plays a policing role – over Palestinians but not Israelis. That is the whole problem here! It needs to be either both or neither.

    giving the military the power to arrest and trial the state’s citizens without conducting proper investigation results in a military dictatorship Egypt or Argentina style, not a happy place.

    But it’s ok for that to happen to people who are ruled over by the state but aren’t citizens? You’re really not helping your case here.

    As to the courts – there have been numerous cases of succesfull application by Arab residents of Judea and Samaria to the Israeli High Court of Justice

    Sure there have, but that’s nowhere near sufficient. It’s actually ridiculous that they have to appeal to the highest court in the land before they can have their case heard by an independent judiciary.

    Have you ever been involved in a High Court case? They take years and are prohibitively expensive. The High Court is only supposed to be for a few particularly complex cases, not every land issue that arises from an entire jurisdiction.

    Are you honestly trying to defend the fact that the Civil Administration Tribunals and Appeals Committee are made-up of people from that administration?

    These are actually problems that the Levy Commission identified, although unfortunately the report was buried under political pressure. There is an urgent need for reform in the West Bank administration.

    • #5 by MK on August 16, 2012 - 5:24 pm

      Well, here’s your answer: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/137825/daniel-byman-and-natan-sachs/the-rise-of-settler-terrorism?page=show

      violent incidents against Palestinians have proliferated, rising from 200 attacks in 2009 to over 400 in 2011. The spike in assaults on Palestinians by settlers has come despite the fact that over the same period, Palestinian terrorism fell dramatically.

      According to Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organization, of 781 incidents of settler abuse monitored since 2005, Israeli authorities closed the cases on over 90 percent of them without indictment. And the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has reported that the IDF is currently probing 15 cases, all of which took place between September 2000 and December 2011, of Israeli soldiers witnessing clashes between settlers and Palestinians and failing to intervene.

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