The Fascisization of Israel



“For Israel, September 11 was a Hanukkah Miracle,” Ha’aretz’s political analyst recently wrote, citing Israeli officials.  Thousands of American fatalities are considered-in this cynical world-a godsend simply because their deaths helped shift international pressure from Israel onto the Palestinians, while allowing the Israeli government to pursue its regional objectives unobstructed.  And indeed, in the past months the United States has unfalteringly supported all of Israel’s actions.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government has exploited this change of mood in the Bush administration and is determined to wreak havoc on the Palestinian Authority (PA), precluding the possibility that an independent Palestinian state will emerge anytime soon.  Recent events suggest that Sharon is interested in unseating PA President Yasser Arafat, with the hope of precipitating an inner Palestinian conflict, perhaps even a civil war.  Israel, so the twisted logic goes, can then help set up a puppet government while changing the West Bank’s territorial demarcation-the Lebanon debacle revisited.

Silencing the Opposition:

As the cycle of violence consumes more lives, many an Israeli has lost the ability to think clearly.  According to a recent poll, which appeared in the country’s largest newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, 74 percent of Israelis are in favor of the government’s assassination policy.  But when asked if they thought the assassinations were effective, 45 percent claimed that they actually increase Palestinian terrorism, 31 percent stated that they have no effect on terrorism, and only 22 percent averred that assassinations help deter terrorism.  Almost half of all Israelis believe that the government’s reaction to terrorism is inimical to their own interests, but continue, nonetheless, to support assassinations.

This suggests that a visceral instinct has taken over the national psyche, marginalizing and repressing all forms of political reasoning.  Already in the Republic, Plato warns against the ascendancy of feelings and emotions in the public sphere, claiming that these traits characterize the emergence of despotic rule.  Many years from now people may ask how it was that a whole population did not realize what was happening.

What is left of the Israeli peace camp has been trying to mount some kind of viable opposition.  Weekly protests in front of the Prime Minister’s house, hundreds of people breaking the military siege by transferring basic foodstuffs to Palestinian villages, are just a few of the activities taking place.  These activities, however, have not managed to challenge the hegemonic spirit of war.

There are many reasons why the Israeli peaceniks have had little if any, impact on the local political scene.  While most commentators mention the dramatic decrease in the peace camp’s numbers following its disappointment with Arafat, no one has discussed the effect Israel’s fascisization has had on the political scene.  Indeed, Israel’s gravest danger today is not the PA or even Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, but the one it faces from within: fascism.

The fascisization of politics takes many forms, some more apparent than others.  Perhaps most conspicuous is the dramatic change in the Israeli landscape, currently covered by thousands of billboards, posters, car stickers, and graffiti with slogans like “No Arabs, No Assaults,” “Expel Arafat,” “Kahana was Right,” and “The Criminals of Oslo should be Brought to Justice.”  Israelis, so it seems, are neither shocked nor alarmed that their slain prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, has been criminalized by his own people.

The Israeli secret service routinely intercepts the emails of peace groups and often obstructs solidarity meetings or protests in the West Bank by declaring whole regions “closed military zones.”  Peace activists are “invited” to meetings with the secret service, where they are “warned” about their activities.  For months, the Gaza Strip has been totally closed off to Israelis from the peace camp-including Knesset Members-and only Jewish settlers, journalists, and soldiers can now enter the region.

Torture, finally banned in September 1999 after a decade-long struggle in the Supreme Court, has reemerged with a vengeance.  According to the Israeli Public Committee Against Torture, the secret service has not only replaced outlawed methods of torture with new ones, but ill-treatment, police brutality, poor prison conditions and the prohibition of legal counsel are now widespread.  B’tselem – the Israeli Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, has recently documented the torture of Palestinian minors, while the Association of Civil Rights has appealed to the Supreme Court against the new practice of holding suspects incommunicado.

Since September 2000, the Israeli media, which was well known for its critical edge, has reiterated the official line.  While Jewish opposition leaders and peace groups find it extremely difficult to get their opinions aired, the media is actively assisting the state not only in legitimizing its actions, but also in delegitimizing Israel’s Palestinian citizens.

The exclusion of almost a fifth of Israel’s citizenry from the demos is accomplished by attacking their leaders.  Jewish cabinet ministers and other Knesset Members repeatedly refer to the Arab representatives as Arafat’s agents, collaborators, and a fifth column.  Joining the fanfare, the mainstream media have not only marked them as “other,” but also as enemies, which serves to justify the harassment they are currently undergoing.

In the past year, six out of ten Arab Knesset Members from opposition parties have undergone police investigation for “anti-Israeli” statements they made during political speeches, while the immunity of one has already been stripped.  Simultaneously, Israel’s public radio and television have prevented the Arab leaders from voicing their claims and grievances by ceasing to interview them, and, in this way, have intensified the alienation felt by their constituency.

Israeli Opposition to Occupation:

A number of incidents that occurred in the past few weeks suggest, however, that the nationalistic refrain is beginning to be fractured.

First, the issue of “war crimes” was discussed for the first time by the mainstream media following the destruction of some 58 houses in Rafah on 10 January, leaving at least 500 people homeless overnight in the midst of a cold winter, 300 of whom are children.  In a number of interviews and articles it was suggested that soldiers should disobey commands that call upon them to commit illegal actions.

The second, and probably the most significant, form of resistance came from 50 combat officers and soldiers, who announced, in an open letter published on 25 January in the Israeli press, that they would no longer serve in the Occupied Territories.  Less than two weeks after the letter’s publication, another 150 soldiers signed up, among them many sergeants, lieutenants, captains, and even a few colonels (for a copy of the letter including the list of soldiers

Concurrently, thousands of Israelis have called a telephone hotline to support the soldiers and to donate money to help them publish ads in local papers.  A group of women are now organizing a petition, claiming that reservist men are not the only ones carrying the burdens of occupation, while a number of twelfth-graders, who will be drafted this coming summer, have also announced that they will not serve in the territories.

The uniqueness and force of the combat soldier’s letter, the fact that it has created such a stir both inside the military establishment and society at large, has to do with the profile of the people who initiated it.  These are not radical leftists, but rather young men who are affiliated with Israel’s political center.  They are members of the social elite who characterize themselves as having been “raised upon the principles of Zionism, sacrifice and giving é who have always served in the front lines, and who were the first to carry out any mission, light or heavy, in order to protect the State of Israel and strengthen it.”  Moreover, they experienced firsthand the effects of the occupation, and no one can tell them that they do not know what is happening in the territories.

Finally, Israel is experiencing an economic crisis, with an official unemployment rate of close to ten percent, and negative growth expected for the year 2002.  Only in the past weeks has this information been used to criticize the occupation, with the publication of studies showing the disproportional amount of funding allocated to Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and opinion articles criticizing the high costs of maintaining and sustaining these settlements.

Despite these and other pockets of resistance to Sharon’s policies it seems that darker times are lurking around the corner.  The Bush administration has extended its unequivocal support of the Sharon government, thus allowing the Israeli security forces not only to strike the PA, but also to silence all opposition from within.  The crucial point that many foreigners neglect to notice is that in Israel, democracy is also under attack.

Neve Gordon’s essay “Terrorism in the Arab-Israeli Conflict” co-authored with George Lopez, recently appeared in the book Ethics and International Affairs (Rowman and Littlefield). He teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel.