Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa | Analysis

MIDEAST: Israel in No Mood to Brook Dissent

Analysis by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM, Jan 13 2009 (IPS) - The war on Gaza is widening. Not so much on the battleground inside Gaza as inside Israeli society. The Israeli army continues the battering of Hamas, but on another front Israelis are firing on their own democracy – and from within the very halls of democracy itself.

Three weeks into the war, and just four weeks before they are due to exercise their right to choose the direction in which they want their country to go, the Jewish majority is demonstrating bluntly it believes this is no time to brook any dissent.

In the Israeli parliament, the Central Election Committee voted Monday to ban two of the three main Arab political parties from running in the Feb. 10 general elections. In the last elections, the two parties won seven seats in the 120-seat Knesset. Arab Israelis make up about a fifth of Israel’s population.

The committee voted overwhelmingly to ban the United Arab List – the Ta’al and Balad parties, accusing them of supporting Hamas. “Go and join Haniyeh (Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza) in his bunker – that’s where you belong,” a Jewish legislator yelled at Ahmed Tibi of the UAL.

Representatives from all the major political parties supported the measure initiated by two ultra-nationalist Jewish parties. They argued that the Arab parties “support terrorism” and “do not recognise Israel’s existence as a democratic Jewish state.”

“A democracy,” said Avigdor Liberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, “sometimes needs to protect itself against an irredentist minority.” Tibi retorted angrily, “this vote exposes Israel as a state of all its racists.”

Ta’al and Balad said they would appeal the ruling to the High Court of Justice. The court, which has until Friday to rule on the decision – the deadline for submitting Knesset lists – is expected to overturn the decision for lack of concrete evidence.

But, the ‘no dissent’ atmosphere goes beyond any hostility towards Arab citizens who have generally opposed the war.

Israel is in a peculiar single-minded mood. Used to priding themselves on their broad array of views, apart from the Arab minority, Israelis now appear 98 percent lined up behind the war, and demanding 100 percent commitment to the war effort.

International opprobrium is shrugged off, but it is not merely a case of not caring what the world thinks: the zero-tolerance for any questioning about the extent and nature of the war is directed also inward. Israel is a nation seemingly hell-bent not just on deterring its enemies but on deterring all troubling debate, a self-willed therapy to abate the doubts that erupted during the War in Lebanon against Hizbullah two years ago.

This national conformity is also reflected in a distinct unwillingness to know what exactly is happening in the war: apart from snippets of TV footage out of Gaza everything else that Israelis see is from their own side. Reporters who dare to grapple with the consequences of their government’s policies and of the nature of the military operations are branded ‘unpatriotic’, ‘traitorous’ and ‘self-hating’.

Unmoved by the broadsides, Ha’aretz columnist Gideon Levy, inveterate moral opponent of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, fired back: “Who’s a traitor? Who will decide for us whether launching this war of folly is patriotism, that rejecting it is treason?”

Government and military spokesmen insist regularly that “our only objective is to hit Hamas” and “Israel has no interest in waging war against the people of Gaza.” But, when mainstream media stars confront them about what’s actually happening to Palestinian civilians in Gaza, arguing somewhat apologetically, “it’s our job to cover all sides”, they too are lambasted by an unforgiving audience for “identifying with the enemy” and “undermining national morale.”

Even left-wing politicians and would-be peace advocates offer remarkably few challenges on the political context of the war and the effect it will have on any future relations with the Palestinians and the Arab world. Attempts to link the war in Gaza and the continued occupation in the West Bank are almost non-existent.

Israel may be unmasking its true self, says left-wing politician and a former education minister, Yossi Sarid. Writing in Haaretz, he sees a possible salutary impact: “The war is resolving a painful conflict between our self-image and our actual behaviour. We have consciously decided to relinquish what we regarded as our own moral supremacy.”

Dr. Ruhama Marton, president of the Israeli Physicians for Human Rights believes that’s wishful thinking. “We maintain that self-image of absolute morality. Day after day we hear this is the most justified war, that our army is the most moral army in the world. But at root, Israel still sees itself as victim,” says Dr. Marton, “and as a victim you’re always absolutely right. When you’re absolutely right, there’s no room for challenges.”

More prosaically, most Jewish Israelis feel good about the war not only because they regard it as ‘just’, but because they see it as successful. They simply don’t want any spoilers – from outside or inside, from the Arab minority, or even from the Jewish majority.

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