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Pathway to Progress in Israel Runs through International Law, Local and Global Action

While Israel moved away from the far right in last month’s elections, the new coalition is unlikely to alter the occupation. But change may come from divestment campaigns, the new U.N recognition of Palestinian statehood, and in the Israeli and Palestinian campaigns of nonviolent resistance.

Yair Lapid.

Yair Lapid, a leader of Israel's new centrist political party, speaks to supporters on election night. Photo by The Israel Project.

The results weren’t nearly as dire as many predicted. The Israeli elections last month didn’t bring about a complete victory for the far right (and Israel’s far-right is very far indeed!). Right-wing prime minister Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s Likud Party, in alliance with the right-wing extremist Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) party, lost at least 10 seats.

Clean drinking water, photo by Living Water International
Only the People of the United States Can End Israel’s Occupation
Peace will remain out of reach until the American people pressure the Obama Administration to end Israeli impunity.

The biggest victor was the new centrist party Yesh Atid, led by charismatic television personality Yair Lapid. He ran on the basis of personality and a claim to represent Israel’s middle-class interests, from the price of cheese to affordable housing to his most popular call, for “sharing the burden”—a euphemism for drafting ultra-Orthodox young Jewish Israelis into the military. Israeli commentators described the new Knesset as divided almost down the middle between center-right and center-left blocs.

That’s all good. But. The campaign was waged virtually entirely on economic and social issues affecting the 80 percent Jewish population of Israel; the needs of the 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are Palestinians were largely ignored. Israel’s continuing occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the besieged Gaza Strip were off the agenda, let alone its violations of international law and human rights. On the question of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the elections represented a clear victory for Israel’s status quo: the occupation will be left in place.

Palestine’s new status as a non-member state at the U.N. will allow it to join the International Criminal Court.

The far-right settler party known as Jewish Home, led by the American-Israeli Naftali Bennett, won 12 seats, and is a likely coalition partner with the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu bloc. It calls directly for annexing about 60 percent of the West Bank, with few, if any, rights for Palestinians living there. And while it may be useful to clarify what mainstream discourse means in Israel, the rising power of a party explicitly calling for consolidation and legalization of Israeli apartheid –defined in international law as a legal system that privileges one group over another—is hardly something to cheer about.

Sure, Yair Lapid says he supports a two-state solution, and has said that even though the Palestinians can’t be trusted, Israel should still negotiate. (On exactly what Israel should negotiate isn’t so clear.) But doing anything to actually end Israel’s occupation wasn’t anywhere on his election platform. And of course Bibi Netanyahu says he supports a two-state solution, too—the kind of “two-state solution” that leaves Israel in permanent control, that leaves non-contiguous Palestinian Bantustans scattered across 40 percent of the West Bank while 60 percent remains fully under Israeli control, that leaves East Jerusalem part of the “undivided” capital of Israel, and Gaza remains permanently under siege.

Some optimistic Israelis seem to be hoping that the elections reflect the broad social protests that erupted in the summer of 2011, with hundreds of thousands pouring into the streets and the creation of a protest tent community on Tel Aviv’s upscale Rothschild Boulevard. That may be so, but one of the unfortunate things that the election results share with those protests was the complete sidelining of the occupation. Israeli activists made a conscious decision—rejected by a few brave Palestinian and Jewish participants—not to include ending the occupation in their wide-ranging demands for social justice. To do so, they felt, would have divided the “left.”

Looking beyond the election

The real optimism of the moment stems not from the Israeli elections, but from the continuing rise of nonviolent resistance across the Palestinian territory and throughout the world. The most recent development is the creation of Palestinian villages on Palestinian land under Israeli control. Utilizing the tactics of illegal Jewish settlers, who seize and hold Palestinian land, and build outposts considered illegal even under Israeli law (which of course does not acknowledge that under international law, specifically Article 49 of the Geneva Conventions, all settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are illegal), the young Palestinian activists are claiming land as well. The difference is that they are building these new villages on Palestinian land, not occupying someone else’s.

The Israeli government response, of course, has been entirely different when those claiming land are Palestinians. The Jewish outposts are mostly left alone, with legal efforts underway in the courts and in the Knesset to legalize them. On the rare occasion that one is shut down, there is great care taken that no violence is used. In closing down the Palestinian villages, however, significant violence has been routine. At least six Palestinian protesters were hospitalized after the first resistance village was shut down by the military.

One of the unfortunate things that the election results share with the street protest of 2011 was the complete sidelining of the occupation.

Outside of the occupied territories, Palestinians continue to investigate possible trajectories for engaging the International Criminal Court, perhaps the International Court of Justice, and other United Nations-related agencies. The goal is to take advantage of the U.N. General Assembly’s recognition of Palestine as a non-member state on Nov. 29—a status that allows the State of Palestine to sign treaties, join the ICC, and potentially the ICJ as well.

And globally, the civil society movement known as BDS—or boycott, divestment and sanctions—continues to grow. Initiated by a call from Palestinian civil society in 2005, the movement continues to bring nonviolent economic and cultural pressure on Israel to end its violations of international law and human rights. In one recent victory, the great musician Stevie Wonder cancelled a long-scheduled benefit concert for the Israeli military after other cultural workers, African and African-American leaders, and a wide range of international activists urged him to do so.

Ma'ale Adumim

Settlement of Ma'ale Adumim in the West Bank, where Sodastream machines are manufactured. Photo by Decode Jerusalem.

And the widely anticipated (and multi-million dollar) SuperBowl ad for SodaStream was spoofed on Youtube, mimicked online, and ridiculed on Twitter—undermining the popular upscale soft drink machine’s appeal. SodaStream is marketed as “made in Israel,” but is actually manufactured in the industrial zone known as Mishor Adumim, a sector of the huge city-sized illegal settlement of Ma’ale Adumim in the West Bank. The factory exploits Palestinian land, resources, and labor.

Israel’s settlement policy began and continued throughout years of Labor Party governments. A new Knesset, even one including a new “centrist” party that is centrist only relative to Israel’s far-right polity, is not likely to change things now.

As Palestinians have learned, after 46 years of occupation and 65 years of dispossession, they’re going to have to rely on international law, human rights, changing U.S. and global policy, and their own work to end the occupation.


Phyllis Bennis wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions.Phyllis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.

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