The National – 1 November 2016
Israel has just emerged from its three-week high holidays, a period that in recent years has been marked by extremist religious Jews making provocative visits to Al Aqsa mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem.
Many go to pray, in violation of Israel’s international obligations. Most of them belong to groups that seek to replace the mosque with a Jewish temple. They now enjoy increasing parliamentary support, some of it from within prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party.
A rash of such visits last autumn outraged Palestinians and triggered a wave of so-called lone-wolf attacks on Israelis. The attacks have recently abated.
Taking advantage of the renewed quiet, Israel allowed a record number of ultranationalists to visit the mosque, figures released last week showed. Parties of Israeli soldiers are also entering the site.
The police, whose recently appointed commander is himself from the extremist settler community, have recommended that restrictions be ended on visits by Jewish legislators who demand Israel’s sovereignty over the mosque.
For Palestinians, Israel’s treatment of this supremely important Islamic holy site symbolises their powerlessness, oppression and routine humiliation. Conversely, a sense of impunity has left Israel greedy for even more control over the Palestinians.
The gaping power imbalance was movingly detailed last month at a special hearing of the UN security council. Hagai El-Ad, head of B’tselem, which monitors the occupation, termed Israel’s abuses as “invisible, bureaucratic, daily violence” against Palestinians exercised from “cradle to grave”.
He appealed to the international community to end its five decades of inaction. “We need your help. … The occupation must end. The UN Security Council must act. And the time is now,” he said.
Israeli politicians were incensed. Mr El-Ad had broken one of Israel’s cardinal rules: you do not wash the country’s dirty linen abroad. Most Israelis consider the occupation and Palestinian suffering as an internal matter, to be decided by them alone.
Mr Netanyahu accused B’tselem’s director of conspiring with outsiders to subject Israel to “international coercion”.
With the US limply defending Mr El-Ad’s freedom of speech, Mr Netanyahu found a proxy to relaunch the attack. David Bitan, chair of his party, demanded that Mr El-Ad be stripped of his citizenship and proposed legislation to ban calls in global forums for sanctions against Israel. Unsurprisingly, Mr El-Ad has faced a flood of death threats.
Meanwhile, another UN forum has been considering Israel’s occupation. Its educational, scientific and cultural body, Unesco, passed a resolution last month condemning Israel’s systematic violations of Palestinian holy sites, especially Al Aqsa.
Again, Israelis were enraged at this brief disturbance of their well-oiled machinery of oppression. The abuses documented by Unesco were overshadowed by Israeli protests that its own narrative was not the focus.
While Israel exercises ever more physical power over Palestinians, its moral credit is running out with foreign audiences, who have come to understand that the occupation is neither benign nor temporary. The rise of social media has accelerated that awakening, which in turn has bolstered grassroots reactions such as the boycott (BDS) movement.
Aware of the dangers, Israel has been aggressively targeting all forms of popular activism. Facebook and YouTube are under relentless pressure to censor sites critical of Israel.
Western governments – which joined the chorus of “Je suis Charlie” after ISIL’s lethal attack on the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo magazine last year – have cracked down on the boycott movement. Paradoxically, France has led the way by banning such activism, echoing Israeli claims that it constitutes “incitement”.
And left-wing social movements emerging in Europe face loud accusations that any criticism of Israel is tantamount to an attack on all Jews. Notably, a British parliamentary committee last month characterised as anti-semitic parts of the opposition Labour party under its new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a champion of Palestinian rights.
In these ways, European governments have been trying to hold in check popular anger at a belligerent and unrepentant Israel.
Illustrating that caution, Uneso was forced last week to vote a second time on its resolution, this time removing the word “occupation” and, against normal practice, giving equal status to the occupier’s names for the sites under threat from its occupation.
Even with the resolution neutered, Unesco’s usual consensus could not be reached. The resolution passed by a wafer-thin majority, with European and other governments abstaining.
Israel and its enablers have successfully engineered a hollowing out of official discourse about Israel to blunt even the mildest criticism. Gradually, western powers are adopting Mr Netanyahu’s doubly illogical premises: that criticising the occupation is anti-Israel, and criticising Israel is anti-semitic.
Incrementally, western leaders are conceding that any criticism of Mr Netanyahu’s policies – even as he tries to ensure that the occupation becomes permanent – is off-limits. Mr El-Ad called for courage from the western powers that dominate the security council. But the signs are his words have fallen on deaf ears.