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(Note: this is a guest post from Jewish Currents contributing writer Elisheva Goldberg)
An Israeli soldier assaults a left-wing Israeli Jewish activist in Hebron in the occupied West Bank, November 25th, 2022.
Courtesy of Breaking the Silence
December 6th, 2022
On Friday, November 25th, Israeli soldiers verbally and physically attacked left-wing religious Jewish activists—Israeli citizens—in the city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank. One of the soldiers taunted the activists, vowing that Itamar Ben-Gvir—the Kahanist lawmaker who is expected to become Minister of National Security in Israel’s new right-wing government—would “make order here.” “You’re through,” the soldier promised. Another soldier put one of the activists in a chokehold, punched him in the face, and stuck a loaded gun in his back. “They were like thugs with guns,” Mikhael Manekin, a longtime activist who was present on the scene, told +972 Magazine.
The assault stoked a national debate over the position of the Israeli armed forces in society and politics—raising basic questions about what they should be allowed to say and do. Aviv Kochavi, IDF chief of staff, wrote a public letter denouncing the soldiers’ behavior. Two soldiers were suspended. The one who taunted the activist was sentenced to 10 days in military prison by his commander, a punishment Avner Gvaryahu of the veterans’ organization Breaking the Silence called “a slap on the wrist” in an interview with Jewish Currents. Ben-Gvir, on the other hand, decried the punishment as “not reasonable,” “disproportionate,” and “inappropriate.” The soldier who punched the activist is currently awaiting military trial.
The public split between Kochavi and Ben-Gvir showcased an increasingly dramatic ideological and socioeconomic cleavage in Israeli society. “Kochavi is perceived as a symbol of the army of high-tech,” Manekin said—that is, the army of the elite, who tend to fill the IDF’s intelligence and cyberwarfare units. Meanwhile, “Ben-Gvir—who didn’t even serve in the army—is the symbol of the ground troops.” (Ben-Gvir was exempted from service due to his extremist views and association with the Jewish supremacist activist Meir Kahane.) In other words, from the standpoint of many enlisted soldiers, Ben-Gvir stands for the little guy—and for empowering the little guy to act with impunity. He campaigned on making the army’s already lax open-fire rules even more permissive, and on granting soldiers immunity from prosecution should they commit violent crimes against Palestinains. Last month he put his position bluntly: “If they throw stones, shoot them.”
Ziv Stahl, executive director of Yesh Din, an organization that tracks human rights violations in the West Bank, agrees that Ben-Gvir’s rise encourages violence. “A soldier that knows he can do whatever he wants and no one will prosecute him, no one will hold him accountable, will likely use violence more easily than before,” she said in an interview with Jewish Currents. Stahl believes that this atmospheric shift has already led to the use of more lethal force on the ground. She noted that in the last month, there has been “a definite rise in Palestinian death from lethal injuries.” Back in October, the UN Mideast envoy said that 2022 is on course to be the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since the institution started tracking fatalities in 2005. The UN’s latest figures, which run through the third week of November, count 168 Palestinians killed by Israelis so far this year, including more than 130 in the West Bank; media and human rights organizations report at least ten more killed in the West Bank in the past week alone.
The attack on the activists occurred on the heels of a coalition deal, signed by presumptive Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that also pitted Ben-Gvir against Israel’s top military brass. The agreement grants Ben-Gvir authority over parts of the Border Police which had previously operated in the West Bank under the authority of IDF leadership. In other words, Ben-Gvir’s authority over the Border Police fractures the military’s monopoly on power in the West Bank. Benny Gantz, Israel’s outgoing Minister of Defense and former IDF chief of staff, warned that Ben-Gvir’s newfound authority over the Border Police risked politicizing the entire security system and causing “serious harm,” likening the move to Ben-Gvir “establishing a personal militia.”
Meanwhile, many combat soldiers have celebrated Ben-Gvir’s ascent. Yagil Levy, professor of political sociology and public policy at the Open University of Israel, argues that Ben-Gvir’s message resonates in part because of a long-standing class divide within the IDF. The cyber and intelligence units that tend to be filled by the Israeli elite—who are often associated with the political center and left—provide an alternative to draft-dodging and a pathway to a career in Israel’s lucrative high-tech sector, Levy says. By contrast, the combat units that draw mainly from Israel’s socioeconomic and geographic periphery offer little prestige or professional benefit in exchange for doing the army’s dirty work. In a recent opinion piece for Haaretz, Levy wrote about the profound frustration of combat soldiers, who feel that they receive the blame when the army fails to prevent the deaths of soldiers, and complain that their “hands are tied” by the army’s rules of engagement. Levy says that these same combat soldiers see Ben-Gvir as their champion. “He treats them as castrated heroes, prevented from triumph by the politicians,” he said, and endows “blue-collar policing with the significance of a national mission . . . Suddenly these soldiers feel that their work matters, and they stand up straighter.”
Not only are Ben-Gvir’s new executive powers likely to influence the behavior of soldiers on the ground—they also serve to formalize a de facto one-state reality. This past Monday, Ben-Gvir’s running mate, Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionism party, signed a separate coalition agreement with Netanyahu, which gives his party unprecedented power to appoint the heads of various bodies responsible for the government’s civil policy in the West Bank—bodies previously under the full authority of the army. Like Ben-Gvir’s coalition agreement, Smotrich’s agreement takes power away from the military and puts it into the hands of elected politicians. But the people governed by Israel in the West Bank did not elect Smotrich or Ben-Gvir. Nor, of course, did they elect Israel’s military commander, who has long acted as sovereign in the occupied territory. But the partial shift from military to political authority in the West Bank signals Ben-Gvir and Smotrich’s intentions to make Israeli domination there an official as well as de facto reality. As Stahl told me, when the keys to Palestinian lives are handed to Israeli politicians, it is “a big step towards annexation.”
Denise Guidoux (left), the mother of French Palestinian lawyer Salah Hammouri, gives a press conference with Hammouri’s attorney, Leah Tsemel, in Jerusalem on December 2nd. The previous day, Israel’s interior minister announced that Hamouri, who has been detained without charge in an Israeli prison since March, will be deported to France. Amnesty International said the forced deportation would constitute a war crime. Photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills
As part of the Tuesday News Bulletin, Jewish Currents is publishing a photograph taken by members of Activestills every week, archiving ongoing dispossession and resistance from the river to the sea. You can find more information on this collaboration here.
- Last week, the BBC obtained footage of Israeli soldiers killing Raed Al-Naasan, a 21-year-old Palestinian. The video undermines Israeli authorities’ justification for the November 29th shooting. The soldiers who shot Al-Naasan had raided the West Bank village of al-Mughayyir to demolish a Palestinian home; the army said they opened fire at a Palestinian who was throwing Molotov cocktails. But the video obtained by the BBC shows some Palestinians throwing stones at troops, with “none . . . seen throwing petrol bombs,” the broadcaster reports. In the footage, Al-Naasan “stands in front of his family home apparently holding stones, when two gunshots can be heard.” The killing of Al-Naasan was followed three days later by another Israeli shooting of a Palestinian man, which was also caught on tape. Widely-shared video footage shows an Israeli border police officer fighting with 22-year-old Ammar Adili in the West Bank village of Huwara. After Adili tries to grab the officer’s assault rifle, the officer shoots Adili with his pistol four times at close range, killing him. Israeli authorities said that Adili had a knife and had attempted to attack Israeli civilians. Palestinians have called the killing an unjustified extrajudicial execution. Al-Naasan and Adili are two of more than 10 Palestinians killed by Israeli troops in just the past week.
- Israel’s army on Wednesday removed the Netzah Yehuda battalion, an ultra-Orthodox Israeli military unit linked to a series of human rights abuses, from serving in the occupied West Bank. Instead, the battalion will deploy to the occupied Golan Heights. Netzah Yehuda soldiers were responsible for the January death of Omar Assad, a 78-year-old Palestinian American man who was arrested, blindfolded, and left face-down in an abandoned yard, where he stopped breathing and died. Netzah Yehuda soldiers have also been accused of other human rights abuses, including the killing of 38-year-old Iyad Hamed, a Palestinian with a mental disability who was shot dead by soldiers in 2016. Last week, the human rights group Democracy for the Arab World Now called for the US to deny the Netzah Yehuda battalion access to US military equipment.
- Last Wednesday, the United Nations General Assembly voted to adopt, for the first time, a resolution that commemorates the Nakba—the word, Arabic for “catastrophe,” that Palestinians use to describe the events of 1947–1949, when 750,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes by Zionist and Israeli forces. “Today, this General Assembly will finally acknowledge the historical injustice that befell the Palestinian people,” said Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian representative at the UN. The resolution passed by a 90–30 margin; the United States and Israel were among the countries that voted against the measure. “Try to imagine the international community commemorating your country’s Independence Day by calling it a disaster. What a disgrace,” Israeli ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan said of the Nakba resolution. “The Palestinians’ lies must no longer be accepted on the world stage.”
- Activists with the anti-occupation group All That’s Left invited members of the New York City Council, who were touring Israel on a Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) trip, to join a protest against Israeli settlers’ forced displacement of Palestinians in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Eric Dinowitz, the head of the council’s Jewish Caucus and the leader of the trip, declined the invitation. Palestinian-rights advocates say the council’s annual JCRC trip normalizes Israeli occupation and settlements. “The trip fails to be in any way evenhanded and show the reality of state and settler violence against Palestinians,” Sophie Ellman-Golan, director of strategic communications for the progressive group Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, told The Forward.
- Earlier today, Al Jazeera submitted the case of Israel’s killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh to the International Criminal Court (ICC), asking them to investigate and hold the perpetrators accountable. Abu Akleh was a journalist with the network for 25 years. Al Jazeera said it uncovered new evidence and video footage that “clearly show that Shireen and her colleagues were directly fired at by the Israeli Occupation Forces.” The Al Jazeera filing follows a September filing to the ICC by Abu Akleh’s family. Separately, on Monday, chief ICC prosecutor Karim Khan announced he planned to visit the occupied Palestinan territories next year for the first time. Last year, the ICC announced the opening of a probe into war crimes committed in the occupied territories by Israel and Palestinian militant groups.