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Are Israel’s new repressive policies really that new?

Punitive measures approved by the Israeli cabinet this weekend are only a continuation of de facto policy towards Palestinians. But with Netanyahu weakened, Ben-Gvir is free to pursue his political agenda of "total war in the region", says former MK Sami Abu Shehadeh.

Jerusalem24 – The Israeli cabinet approved on Saturday night a string of punitive measures aimed at Palestinians, following two shooting attacks in occupied East Jerusalem which killed seven Israeli settlers and injured five.

Among the bills the cabinet decided to expedite and are still up for voting are the following: the shortening of the process to acquire civilian gun licenses; the demolition of the family homes of Palestinian attackers; the revoking of social security benefits of attackers’ families; and the deportation of attackers’ families.

Steps were also decided on to “strengthen” settlements in the West Bank.

The bills will have to go through several readings before they become law, and some have already passed preliminary readings in the Knesset this week.

On Sunday, Israeli police and forces sealed off in preparation for its demolition the occupied East Jerusalem family home of Khairi Alqam, who committed the shooting attack on Friday, after Netanyahu introduced a proposal during the cabinet meeting to “immediately” seal the homes of the two East Jerusalem attackers, namely Alqam, and a 13-year-old boy from Silwan who injured two settlers on Saturday.

In addition to the measures introduced during Saturday’s cabinet meeting, the Knesset voted on Monday in favor of a bill that would rescind the citizenship or residency permit of any Palestinian who receives a financial compensation from the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons are entitled to a financial allowance from the PA as per PA policy.

Zaid Amali, Director of Public Discourse and Communication at MIFTAH, tells Jerusalem24 that while “cruel”, the Israeli cabinet’s proposed bills are not actually “anything new”.

“The current Israeli government is escalating the course of previous governments,” he says, “and is now working to legislate policies of collective punishment that amount to war crimes under international law, making use of an unprecedentedly extremist coalition in government and international inaction.”

De facto policy

Not only has the proposed legislation of punitive demolitions or residency and health insurance withdrawals been de facto policy for several years, and “strengthening settlements” part of nearly every Israeli political party’s manifesto in the recent and past elections, but the loosening of Israel’s (relatively strict) gun laws has also been called for numerous times, most notably after the events of May 2021.

Far-right extremist leader of the Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit) party and Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir, who pulled a gun on Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah during his electoral campaign last October and called on Israeli police at the scene to shoot any Palestinians who threw stones, called on Tuesday for gun permit application processing to be “sped up”, lest the authorities responsible be fired.

When Ben-Gvir arrived at the scene of the shooting in occupied East Jerusalem on Friday night, the very first question he reportedly asked the crowd present was if anyone “had weapons” on their person during the attack.

“We must change the firearm policies,” he immediately declared, before complaining that “they don’t let me carry a gun.”

By comparison, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement following the attack was restrained, enjoining Israelis (in a comment it is assumed was aimed at Israeli settlers who had just shot three Palestinians in Beita in suspected revenge for the Jerusalem shooting) not to “take matters into their own hands”.

“Seeking total war”

Ben-Gvir was booed by the crowd at the scene of the shooting for “allowing” the attack to happen “under his watch”, and had to be escorted away by police.

“He’s a very dangerous man,” Sami Abu Shehadeh, a Palestinian politician with Israeli citizenship and a former member of the Knesset, tells Jerusalem24. “Netanyahu thought that such a terrorist can be a member of his government which says everything. So we shouldn’t be surprised, the man isn’t just a far-right activist or a politician, he’s a terrorist.”

Ben-Gvir has accumulated over 50 charges for incitement on his record and was convicted in Israeli courts of incitement to racism, interfering with a police officer performing his duty, and support for a terrorist organization.

Abu Shehadeh believes that bloodshed in the region is part and parcel of Ben-Gvir’s strategy and goals.

“He is planning to instigate violence during Ramadan, this is part of his political agenda,” affirms Abu Shehadeh. “Anyone who reads the political agenda of the party Ben-Gvir is leading, understands that they are seeking a total war in the whole area.”

For his part, Amali believes that Netanyahu’s extreme far-right coalition, and elements such as Ben-Gvir, is merely a reflection of Israeli society which voted “such an extremely racist coalition into power with a comfortable majority.”

“Every election cycle, Israeli officials compete on who can dehumanize and brutalize Palestinians more,” says Amali.

Turning against the minority

Abu Shehadeh asserts that a majority of Israel’s citizens are part in one way or another of the security system. “The majority are now planning to turn against the minority: the Palestinians who live in the state of Israel.”

He says those specifically targeted by “increased violence” will be the Bedouin communities as well as Palestinians with Israeli citizenship who live in so-called “mixed cities” in Israel.

Proposals to establish an Israeli “civilian national guard” first arose in the aftermath of the May 2021 war on Gaza and subsequent protests and riots in those mixed cities, during which Palestinians were “disproportionately” targeted by excessive police violence. The plans were reportedly kept from the Israeli public until a year later, when then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett publicly called for its establishment.

Abu Shehadeh points out that 20% of the citizens within Israel are Arab-Palestinian citizens, 90% of which live in segregated areas away from Jewish Israelis. Only 10% live in mixed cities.

“Life within the state of Israel is built on racial separation,” he says. “Now Ben-Gvir, along with extremist settlers, is trying to terrorize the Arab minority.”

“Fanatics in power”

Abu Shehadeh believes the government will continue on their current trajectory, fast-tracking the long-term repressive policies Israel has been deploying against Palestinians.

“Occupation by definition is a terrorist act – and Israel is an occupying force, occupying Palestinians and destroying their lives on a daily basis,” he says.

Ben-Gvir went as far as to affirm that an armed conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza was “imminent”, during a press conference alongside Israeli Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai last week, in which he called for reinforcing police forces in addition to deploying the national guard.

Ben-Gvir’s statement followed Netanyahu’s surprise visit to King Abdallah II in Jordan, during which he “agreed on the importance of maintaining the status quo at Al-Aqsa Mosque” – comments largely aimed at reassuring the Hashemite Kingdom in light of Ben-Gvir’s own recent visit to the holy site, which he intended to be provocative.

Reacting to Netanyahu’s visit, Ben-Gvir assured his supporters that he would challenge this “mutual agreement”, and would be storming Al-Aqsa again.

Abu Shehadeh believes him.

“He has the power to do anything,” he emphasizes. “More than 20% of the Israeli government are fascists, so, anything can happen when these fanatics are in power.”

A weakened Netanyahu backs himself into a corner

Abu Shehadeh says while the current outcomes may be bad for Palestinians, the situation in the Israeli political arena is also “deteriorating really fast” – something which is to be expected, he says, from the “two convicted terrorists Ben-Gvir and [Bezalel] Smotrich.”

Compounding the risk is the fact that Netanyahu in his present situation “is very weak” and cannot do much, according to Abu Shehadeh.

“He cares about his Likud party and keeping himself out of prison. That’s why he wants to keep himself as prime minister and try to change the laws in Israel, and prevent his conviction and incarceration.”

And with Netanyahu’s priorities elsewhere, the current events are ripe for exploitation by the more extreme elements in his coalition.

“Itamar Ben-Gvir and his gang said they will do whatever they think is right,” says Abu Shehadeh. “They are known for using violence and terror to get what they want – whether Netanyahu likes it or not, whether Netanyahu agrees or disagrees.”

But for Abu Shehadeh, all hope is not yet lost.

“I like to think that the world will see what’s happening before the disaster these dangerous people can cause.”

Nadeen Alshaer

Alshaer is a Palestinian journalist, a Birzeit University graduate with a B.A. in TV and Radio Broadcasting Journalism. Alshaer has 6 years of experience in journalism. She currently works as a reporter, editor and presenter/producer for PBC-Palestine TV and Jerusalem24 radio. She’s a UN and Kelley School of Business alumna.

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