Will Israel’s protest movement expand to include the occupation?

Prominent Israel scholar says protests’ potential could be limited if they fail to include occupation and Arab citizens.

Anti-occupation movement
A small number of activists have been seen waving Palestinian flags at the protests, but they have largely remained on the sidelines [File: Adam Sella/Al Jazeera]

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis, including members of the military, have poured into the streets this year to protest against a judicial overhaul plan by their far-right government.

The issue of the decades-long occupation of Palestinian lands and citizens, which has only escalated in intensity in recent years, has been largely absent from the protest.

A small number of activists have been seen waving Palestinian flags at the protests, but they have largely remained on the sidelines.

However, as the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains adamant about pushing through with its proposed changes to the judicial system, speculation has grown that protests could potentially grow in scale to include the occupation of the West Bank.

For now, potential complications caused by the entry of current and former members of the Israeli army into the protest fold appear to top Netanyahu’s agenda, and the premier has been accused of trying to shift the blame for the fallout to the military.

Thousands of Israeli army reservists have said they will refuse to report for duty if the judicial changes are not shelved, something Netanyahu has privately decried as “insubordination”.

The hundreds of reserve pilots protesting are of particular concern for the government and the army as they could be deemed ineligible to fly by next month if they do not do regular refresher flights to be considered combat-ready.

The divisions in the army reflect fractures in Israeli society as critics express concern that the judicial changes could take the nation towards more authoritarian approaches.

‘A new political opening’

According to Dov Waxman, a political scientist and Israel scholar, the most remarkable positive development of the protests has been the political awakening of the Israeli centre, which includes large swaths of Israeli society.

Israeli Jews have been somewhat depoliticised for a long time, he explained to Australia-based outlet The Conversation, having been mostly concerned with economic issues and the rising influence of the ultra-Orthodox, and at much lower levels with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

“You had a small and shrinking left that was almost on the verge of extinction, and a growing and increasingly confident and assertive Israeli right,” he said.

But now, he said, Israelis who normally would not take to the streets are changing their approach, and “the fact that they are outraged by what their government is doing and have mobilised has created a new political opening”.

Due to the sweeping powers, it could bestow Netanyahu and his ultranationalist administration, the judicial overhaul is also seen to be driven in large part by a desire to fully annex the West Bank.

In the past two years, as Israel significantly ramped up its often deadly operations in occupied territory, rights groups like Amnesty International have said its practices amount to an “apartheid” system that constitutes crimes against humanity, something Israel vehemently rejects.

Waxman said the exclusion of the issue of occupation in the protest movement, and a failure to include Palestinian citizens of Israel could endanger its potential.

“If the protesters really want to ‘save’ Israeli democracy – as they have declared – in my view, they need to address the ongoing occupation and annexation of the West Bank,” he said.

“So, ultimately, the movement will not succeed in its stated goal if it doesn’t recognise that the judicial overhaul is a symptom of a broader crisis.”

Killings on the rise

The United Nations Middle East envoy, Tor Wennesland, told the UN Security Council on Monday that more than 200 Palestinians and nearly 30 Israelis have been killed so far this year in the occupied West Bank and Israel.

This has been a level of violence surpassing last year’s entire already high death toll and the highest number of fatalities since 2005, he said.

In this environment, a number of high-profile Israelis have begun publicly decrying the government’s hardening approach.

Amiram Levin, a former commander of the Israeli army’s northern forces and deputy director of Mossad, earlier this month accused the government of “total apartheid” and appeared to compare its actions in the occupied West Bank to Nazi Germany.

“Walk around Hebron and you will see streets where Arabs cannot walk, just like what happened in Germany,” local media quoted him as saying, referring to the southern West Bank city where Palestinians live in close quarters with a Jewish settler minority backed by the army.

Source: Al Jazeera