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Arab citizens, not Israeli leftists, pay the real price for speaking out

The Israeli government may be cracking down on human rights NGOs and left-wing activists, but Palestinians citizens of Israel are the ones suffering from concrete persecution — with sometimes fatal results.

A boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) activist in a Santa suit uses a sledge hammer to smash SodaStream appliances in Oslo, Norway, December 6, 2014.

A boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) activist in a Santa suit uses a sledge hammer to smash SodaStream appliances in Oslo, Norway, December 6, 2014.

The recently-passed law prohibiting the entry of boycott supporters into Israel is just the latest in a string of legislation and administrative measures aimed at curtailing freedoms and cracking down on dissent against the occupation. But this broad trend actually obscures two separate phenomena, with distinct dynamics and implications.

The first one is the ongoing oppression of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Although better off than the non-citizens in the West Bank and Gaza, this minority has long suffered discrimination and mistreatment at the hands of Israeli authorities. Unfair budgeting and planning, land confiscations, surveillance and political suppression, even outright state violence, are some of the methods used to marginalize almost a fifth of the country’s population. While the level of mistreatment ebbs and flows — sometimes in response to political or cultural assertion by Palestinian citizens — its fundamental nature remains the same.

The second phenomenon, which has developed more recently, is the targeting of mainly Jewish dissenters from civil society, academia and the arts. Ironically, this trend was pioneered from within civil society itself, by groups such as NGO Monitor, Israel Academia Monitor, and Im Tirzu, who have initiated public campaigns to demonize human rights organizations and university professors critical of the occupation. Soon enough, however, they were joined by legislators and the government. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) has been tracking this issue, including several laws that passed, dozens that have been proposed, numerous administrative measures, and numerous statements by government officials.

Palestinian citizens of Israel demonstrate against the government's housing discrimination and policy of home demolitions, Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, April 28, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Palestinian citizens of Israel demonstrate against the government’s housing discrimination and policy of home demolitions, Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, April 28, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

These two phenomena are interlinked and often overlap, but they are very clearly distinguished in their scope and actual effect. Palestinian citizens of Israel suffer concrete persecution, with sometimes fatal results. Jewish dissenters have been maligned and intimidated, but so far, have suffered much more limited material consequences.

In fact, these two crackdowns appear to serve different ends. Moves against Palestinian citizens are aimed at keeping them down and maintaining Jewish privilege. Palestinians are seen as a significant threat which needs to be contained, and treated as such. Jewish dissenters, on the other hand, are mainly targeted as a way of grandstanding for the right-wing public, with the marginal benefit of causing distress and sowing fear among them. Non-Palestinian activists and organizations are not viewed as a major threat — at least not by those with actual decision making authority.

We can observe this difference through the different strategies of suppression in play. Most of the actions against Palestinian citizens are routine: they are embedded, sometimes tacitly and sometimes explicitly, in a wide variety of laws and regulations, including in arcane subjects such as building regulations or civil service standards. A lot of this suppression has no legal basis, and is even formally illegal, but nonetheless diligently implemented by officials at different agencies and levels of seniority, often claiming to act out of other considerations. The overtly public measures, such as the law currently being discussed that targets the Muslim call to prayer under the guise of noise regulations, are just the tip of the iceberg. It is the invisible and quiet work that is the main edifice of oppressive policy.

Actions against (mostly) non-Palestinian groups play out quite differently. There the main focus is on rhetoric and public measures. Most of the legislation that is proposed doesn’t pass, and when it does, it is often diluted to the point of being virtually superfluous. The recent law against the entry of boycott supporters is a case in point. Presently, the Interior Ministry has broad discretion on entry to Israel, and often uses it to block entry and harass anti-occupation activists, whether they support boycotts or not. The law appears to cement this approach in regards to boycott supporters, but establishes no enforcement mechanism, even allowing the ministry to exempt any individual it wants as long as it documents unspecified “special considerations.” Even in the unlikely scenario that a future interior minister would want to be lax toward boycott activists, this law is not effectively designed to constrain such a policy.

Israeli left-wing activists march to protest the recent incitement against "Breaking the Silence" and other left wing NGOs, in central Tel Aviv, December 19, 2015. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Israeli left-wing activists march to protest the recent incitement against “Breaking the Silence” and other left wing NGOs, in central Tel Aviv, December 19, 2015. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

The gap is even more pronounced when it comes to NGOs. In recent years the Knesset has passed legislation, clearly aimed at human rights and anti-occupation groups, imposing irksome transparency requirements on NGOs receiving funding from foreign entities. So far, however, it has resulted in little harm to these organizations. What’s odd about this is that Israel’s current NGO laws are notoriously draconian, especially as they are interpreted by the Ministry of Justice, currently headed by an extreme right winger. Yet there is no real evidence of administrative enforcement targeting these groups, even if only to harass them and get them caught up in red tape.

If one is trying to sabotage the operations of anti-occupation organizations or prevent the entry of BDS activists, the measures undertaken so far are actually counter-productive. They provoke international criticism and evoke sympathy for the targets, even from those who are otherwise hostile to their cause but supportive of liberal political norms. And this price is paid in return for laws that don’t actually make life that much harder for their intended targets. In fact, hindering them would be much more effectively achieved by silent and targeted action, such as working through administrative channels.

The comparison with suppression of Palestinian citizens makes it clear that this goes beyond mere incompetence. When it wants to, the state can be quite competent at stifling dissent. It appears that when the target is non-Palestinian, the agenda is dictated by politician’s need to appear more-nationalist-than-thou to her or his right wing audience — rather than by actual concerns over dissent. With that goal in mind, making a lot of noise without material consequences makes more sense.

That is not to say that these campaigns against non-Palestinian have no effect. They de-legitimize, marginalize, and intimidate those working against the occupation. There is genuine fear among activists, and organizations devote considerable resources to this issue, which they could otherwise turn toward direct anti-occupation activities. But if the government really wanted to, it could achieve much greater effects for a smaller price. That’s what it does to Palestinians.

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    1. i_like_ike52

      Israeli Arabs serve in the Knesset where they daily curse the state that pays their generous salaries and perks and which is the parliament of the country which gives them a much better and freer life than their brothers in the neighboring Arab states.
      At a recent demonstration against the “Muezzin bill” (which is meant to show Arabs that they can not impose their religion on non-Muslims by waking them up in the middle of the night) in the Israeli Arab town, the protesters marched with Palestinian flags with nary an Israeli flag in sight. Thus, they openly show their contempt for the state they live in. So please don’t tell me that their freedom of expression is constrained. They have a lot more than any of the citizens of the neighboring Arab states.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Ike: Good point. The next time a black friend of mine complains about being roughed up by the cops I’ll just tell him he should quit showing contempt for his country – he can always go back to Africa where the social security system doesn’t work as well.

        Reply to Comment
        • i_like_ike52

          Black Americans don’t work against their country. They want to be equal citizens in what they view as THEIR country along with the rest of their fellow citizens. There may or may not be “endemic racism” but what they want is a fair shake. Unfortunately, the Arab representatives in Israel’s parliament show their contempt for the very existence of the country they live in. It is preposterous to make the comparison you are making.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Well, Bruce’s good analogy, like all good analogies, has its natural limits, and those limits are revealing. Black Americans’ country does not define itself as the nation state of the White Christian People (though Trump and Bannon are trying) and stand there in self-righteous indignation when American blacks have a problem with “recognizing” that. Nor did anything like the clash between native, indigenous Arabs and newly arriving Jews occur in the black-white American context. Israeli Jews did not import Palestinians in chains on slave ships, you know. They were already there.

            And what did I just read in Yoni Mendel’s article?

            “A few months ago, the Foreign Ministry released an official English-language hasbara video that tells the story of the history of this country. According to the ministry, history began with the biblical figures Jacob and Rachel, who were followed by a series of foreign occupiers — including the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Crusaders, the Mamluks, the Ottomans, and the British. After that, somewhere in the first half of the 20th century, came the Palestinians. Without batting an eyelid, the Foreign Ministry turned the Palestinians into strangers in their own land, who arrived here shortly after the British.”

            Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Even the right wing Jerusalem Post thinks your characterization of this is false. Contrast your “which is meant to show Arabs that they can not impose their religion on non-Muslims by waking them up in the middle of the night” with “The issue is the noise being made, not who is making the noise or what the intentions – or purported intentions – of those making the noise.”

        Reply to Comment