Netanyahu is calling to shut down Al Jazeera’s Jerusalem bureau, accusing the station of incitement to violence amid tensions over the Temple Mount. Has he heard what his own ministers have been saying recently?
Palestinian incitement has long been Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s scapegoat for the lack of progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For him, Palestinian calls to violence — not the settlement enterprise or 50 years of military dictatorship — is what prevents peace. Netanyahu regularly uses this rhetorical tactic to undermine an already impotent Palestinian Authority whenever it is politically convenient. In recent years, the prime minister has also used claims of incitement to take severe punitive measures against Palestinian organizations and individuals.
On Thursday, however, Netanyahu pulled a page right out of the playbook of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, when he vowed to shut down the Jerusalem office of Al Jazeera — one of the most popular news outlets in the Arab world and a steady critic of Israeli policies — accusing it of incitement to violence amid tensions over the Temple Mount.
In a Facebook post published Wednesday, Netanyahu said he had appealed multiple times to law enforcement agencies demanding the offices of the Qatar-based news network be closed. “If this does not happen due to legal interpretation, I will work to enact the required legislation to expel Al Jazeera from Israel,” Netanyahu wrote.
Over the past few years, Netanyahu’s government has taken active steps in outlawing several Palestinian political movements in Israel (a tactic that has its roots in the early years of the state). In September 2015, former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon signed off on the banning of two Muslim organizations, the Murabitun and Murabitat, for alleged incitement to violence on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Two months later, he outlawed the northern branch of the Islamic Movement for similar reasons.
In the occupied territories, the Israeli army regularly shuts down Palestinian radio stations under the pretense that their broadcasts incite the masses to violence. Meanwhile, Netanyahu lambastes the Palestinian Authority for naming public squares after terrorists who killed innocent Israeli civilians, and for fanning the flames of incitement when tempers flare around the Temple Mount.
Furthermore, Israeli law enforcement, as well as the Shin Bet, frequently round up and charge Palestinians — both in Israel and the West Bank — for alleged “incitement.” Just last week, Haaretz reported that Border Police officers arrested two Palestinian girls, 16 and 14, in East Jerusalem. One of the girls, claimed the police, wrote that she wanted to become a martyr, while the other called for revenge following the deaths of three Palestinians who were killed during clashes last week in Jerusalem. In October 2015, Israeli police arrested Dareen Tatour, a Palestinian poet based in northern Israel, for a poem she had published on Facebook. She was charged for incitement to violence, and put through a Kafkaesque trial that has yet to conclude. There have been hundreds of such cases since the breakout of violence in 2015.
But lest we think that “Palestinian incitement” has become the bon ton of the Israeli Right alone, it’s worth remembering that Israeli leaders of all political stripes regularly make use of the argument that Palestinian hatred of Israel is a built-in feature, bereft of any context. During her term as justice minister, Tzipi Livni claimed that “the incitement on the Palestinian side is horrible. It’s terrible to educate children to hate.” In 2015, opposition leader Isaac Herzog told Secretary of State John Kerry that unrest at the Temple Mount was triggered by incitement. Yair Lapid, a self-styled centrist, travels the world as Israel’s unofficial foreign minister to rail against Palestinians for inciting against the Jewish state.
Netanyahu and his ilk, however, conveniently ignore the hate speech that emanates from Israel’s top echelon. Just this week, Tzahi Hanegbi, a top cabinet member and close friend of Netanyahu, warned Palestinians that Israel would carry out a “third Nakba” if they don’t rein in their political and religious leaders. When Israeli police shot and killed Yacoub Abu al-Qi’an in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran earlier this year, the police accused him of being an ISIS-inspired terrorist. When widespread wildfires raged across the country in November 2016, top Israeli politicians, including Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Culture Minister Miri Regev, blamed the fires on Palestinian citizens — without a shred of evidence. In June 2014, as tensions were rising between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked published a Facebook status in which she cited an article by late settler leader, Uri Elitzur, which included the following paragraph:
Behind every terrorist stand dozens of men and women, without whom he could not engage in terrorism. Actors in the war are those who incite in mosques, who write the murderous curricula for schools, who give shelter, who provide vehicles, and all those who honor and give them their moral support. They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads. Now this also includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.
Shaked’s status received over 4,900 likes and more than 1,200 shares, as well as many racist replies calling for murder. Eighteen hours later, Muhammad Abu-Khdeir was kidnapped from his neighborhood in East Jerusalem and burned alive by three Israeli Jews. Shaked quickly removed the status. She was never interrogated for her blatant and extreme incitement, and less than a year later, she was appointed as Israel’s justice minister.
Netanyahu and law enforcement also tend to ignore incitement by far-right Israeli organizations and individuals. While the government focuses on curtailing the activities of left-wing NGOs through a series of draconian laws, it turns a blind eye to organizations like Lehava — an anti-miscegenation group that patrols the streets of Jerusalem, looking to assault young Palestinians. Activists have long complained about police inaction during incidents and subsequent investigations relating to such groups. Moreover, unlike Palestinian social media users, Israelis who use racist epithets and inciting rhetoric online are rarely arrested and charged. The underlying assumption for this inaction, Israelis claim, is that Jewish citizens are rarely moved to carry out nationalistically-motivated attacks, and therefore arrests are unnecessary as a tool of deterrence.
Palestinian incitement certainly exists, at times in spades, both at the political and public levels. But like any societies locked in a national, ideological conflict, each group demonizes the other by claiming history to be on its side, all while engaging in violence, killing and human rights violations. As Yizhar Be’er previously wrote on these pages, the narratives of both Israelis and Palestinians are to a great extent mirror images of each other, with each side insisting that the responsibility for violence and injustice lies with the other, while minimizing its own responsibility.
And yet, despite the incitement on both sides, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the incitement at the hands of a state — the most powerful state in the Middle East, and one that has built an entire military and civilian apparatus to maintain its 50-year occupation — is far more dangerous than that of an occupied population, or of a media outlet that supports them.