The decade drawing to a close (and social media memes with people comparing themselves in 2009 to 2019) invites comparisons about how things have changed – or not – in the decade since I lived in southern Israel– even more so given Israel’s recent political news. Eleven years ago on New Year’s Eve, Beer Sheva, the city where I was living, was under rocket fire from Gaza in response to Israel’s Operation Cast Lead. Now, with a decade of distance, Israel is simultaneously in unprecedented political tumult and feels like its issues are the same as ever.
Last month, Israel’s “targeted killing” of Islamic Jihad leaders led to 34 Palestinians – almost half civilians, and many children – being killed, and hundreds of rockets being fired indiscriminately into Israel. The day after a ceasefire was declared, two rockets were fired at Beersheva. That cycle of military “deterrence” met with increased rocket attacks, ending with no real truce and no real peace, has been performed countless times before, including in 2008-2009 during Operation Cast Lead. I remember being furious in 2009 at the feeling that my life and those of my friends and neighbors were being put at risk because government leaders were at best unwilling to take the risk of pursuing real peace, and at worst trying to use a show of force to garner political support. As then, you don’t have to be very cynical to wonder if politicians didn’t time the upswing in violence to bolster their popular support and quell opposition. After all, to borrow a phrase from George Orwell, we have always been at war with Eurasia. And that has always at worst killed and at best traumatized everyday people.
The day after last month’s post-ceasefire rockets in Beer Sheva, Netanyahu targeted his xenophobic rhetoric at Palestinian citizens of Israel, calling The Joint List (a coalition of Arab-Israeli political parties) an existential threat. While his statement was galling enough to get significant pushback in the Israeli media, the fact is that it isn’t much (if at all) more extreme than what Israeli government actions have communicated for decades. From Arab areas being under martial law for most of the first two decades of the state’s existence, to discriminatory zoning policies resulting in dozens of “unrecognized villages” – without access to basic water and electricity infrastructure, to the dearth of bomb shelters (a common part of the urban landscape in Jewish parts of Israel) in Arab areas, Israeli government officials have systematically under-invested in Arab parts of the country in ways that sometimes literally send the message that the establishment doesn’t care if its Arab citizens live or die.
At the same time as all of this, the Israeli government has been attacking free speech by other civil society institutions. Last week it expelled the Human Rights Watch’s director for Israel and the Palestinian territories for allegedly supporting a boycott of Israel. Human Rights Watch does not support a boycott of Israel proper, but does urge companies to avoid doing business in West Bank settlements. Supporters of a two-state solution – a policy that the majority of U.S. Jews favor – have historically tried to highlight which goods are produced in those settlements so as to differentiate them from goods produced in Israel proper. Unfortunately, Israeli lawmakers have very intentionally made that harder, passing a law in 2011 making it illegal to call for a boycott of West Bank settlements, and another in 2017 allowing for the expulsion (or refusing to admit) anyone who makes a similar call. The latter is the basis for the recent expulsion of Human Rights Watch’s director.
With Netanyahu charged with corruption and Israeli seemingly headed towards its third elections in less than a year, it would be easy to focus on how much is different from a decade ago. But the reality is that real change – finding alternatives to cycles of violence, devaluing Arab lives within Israel, and restricted speech – will take more than new elections and a new Prime Minister. The NGOs and activists who have been fighting the good fight for years need support now more than ever. From groups like Who Profits that continue to highlight companies profiting from the Occupation, to groups like Dukium (the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality) and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel that fight for equality within Israel proper, to the Parents Circle that strives to create a vision of a sustainable peace, they could all use support. I hope that at the end of 2029 those who care about there being a peaceful and equitable democracy in Israel can look back and feel proud.
Rachel Metz is a DC-area-based analyst, and occasional writer on social justice issues, who lived for two years in southern Israel while earning her masters degree in Middle East Studies.