This article originally appeared in “The Landline,” +972’s weekly newsletter. Subscribe here.
Itamar Ben Gvir has finally said “sorry.” On Wednesday night, Israel’s national security minister went on Channel 12’s flagship news show to discuss the staggering number of killings from violent crime among the state’s Palestinian citizens since he assumed his role late last year, as well as the growing number of Jewish-Israeli deaths at the hands of Palestinian militants. After Ben Gvir bragged to host Yonit Levi about how hard he is working to bring down violence among Palestinian citizens compared to his predecessors — on his watch, the Arab death toll soared to 156 between January and August 2023, as opposed to 68 in the same period last year under the previous government — the panel turned to the question of “Palestinian terrorism.”
When asked why his government has failed to protect Israeli citizens from terror, Ben Gvir retorted that he does not have enough power within the government to shift course — if he got his way, Israel would go back to consistent targeted assassinations and annulling entry permits for Palestinian workers. Moreover, Ben Gvir said, he does not agree with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s “problematic” policies in the occupied West Bank, which, according to the Otzma Yehudit head, leave settlers like “sitting ducks.” While Gallant wants to preserve the “quality of life” of Palestinians, Ben Gvir said, his own priorities are different: “My right, my wife’s right, my kids’ right to move around freely on the roads of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] is more important than that of the Arabs.”
Then, turning to panelist Mohammad Magadli, the only Arab on the panel and a journalist who has become a staple on Channel 12’s news shows, Ben Gvir said: “Sorry Mohammad, but this is the reality.” Levi thanked the Kahanist minister before moving on to the next segment.
Ben Gvir’s flippant evoking of Israel’s apartheid reality understandably inspired outrage (and satire) on social media, including from stalwart supporters of Israel. That an Israeli minister — in charge of the police, no less — thinks Palestinians’ “quality of life” is subordinate to the rights of his family (and by extension, of all Jews) should strike any decent person as racist and wrong. But for those who have been following the words and deeds of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s sixth government, the most extreme in Israeli history, Ben Gvir’s remarks are only the tip of the iceberg.
Members of the coalition — whose founding guidelines affirmed the Jewish people’s “exclusive and indisputable right to all parts of the Land of Israel” — have called for shooting any Palestinian who runs away from or approaches an Israeli soldier; said they prefer “Jewish murderers over Arab murderers”; applauded their children for saying they want to kill Arabs; called for “wiping out” a Palestinian town; passed their own version of anti-miscegenation laws; frozen funds to Arab local councils; brought hilltop youth and accused terrorists into the halls of the Knesset; demanded the Shin Bet go back to policing school teachers; filmed themselves treating a left-wing member of Knesset like a farm animal; pushed a law to ban Palestinian flags on university campuses; and so on and so on.
None of these episodes are “slip-ups” or “mistakes.” This government was elected after many of its members promised to rip off the mask of hitherto respectability, and to free the state from what the right has always viewed as the shackles binding it from doing whatever it wants to whomever it wants. This is precisely why it is trying to hamstring the judiciary, and above all the Supreme Court.
The fact that Ben Gvir feels emboldened to speak so brazenly about the reality of Israeli apartheid is nothing more than an expression of the duties this government has taken upon itself. Whether or not Ben Gvir has failed at his job leading one of the most important and sensitive government ministries at this moment is completely secondary to the larger goal of breaking the shackles.
But Ben Gvir is no outlier, and his contemptuous “apology” to Magadli betrays as much. He is the natural conclusion of the many decades throughout which the Zionist project has subjugated and dispossessed, ghettoized and divided — and after which Palestinians have still refused to bow their heads or leave. From the Nakba to military rule over Palestinian citizens, land confiscations in the Galilee, the military dictatorship over the occupied territories, the siege on Gaza, the Jewish Nation-State Law and the ban on family unification, Ben Gvir is the most pristine manifestation of the supremacist impulses emanating from the very core of Zionism, and which have always necessarily come at the expense of the Palestinians. In many ways, “Sorry Mohammad” is a much more fitting name for the Israeli national anthem than Hatikvah — “The Hope” — ever was.
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Indeed, Ben Gvir’s “apology” — coming from someone who recently called the mother of Iyad al-Hallaq, an autistic Palestinian who was gunned down by police in May 2020, a “terrorist” — was nothing more than an imperious swatting away of a protest before it had even begun. “Sorry,” here, was not an apology; it was a dismissal, uttered with the arrogance of someone who believes they actually have nothing to apologize for. To that end, it is clear that to address Ben Gvir in any meaningful way, opponents of judicial reform and all the other deplorable policies coming our way will have to address the rotten roots that allowed him to blossom. Drawing a red line at this government, as some pundits have, is not only too little too late; it is missing the point entirely.