The real danger of outlawing Palestinian political movements

Banning and persecuting political groups like the Islamic Movement and Balad has the effect of disengaging Palestinian citizens of Israel from the state and its political system. That is very, very dangerous.

Israeli police carry away documents and computers from offices of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, November 17, 2015. (Photo by Israel Police Spokesperson)
Israeli police carry away documents and computers from offices of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, November 17, 2015. (Photo by Israel Police Spokesperson)

The Israeli government has done very few things that worry me more than its ongoing assault on the country’s Palestinian citizens’ political representation. In the latest such move, the government outlawed the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement and seized assets and properties belonging to 17 affiliated organizations on Tuesday.

One of the things that enables Jews and Arabs to live together in this country, which despite everything is still happening, is that both sides participate in civil society and politics (Arab society’s political and economic grievances are debated in the Knesset and the court system, and religious and civil institutions operate under the laws of the state and with its acceptance of them).

There is no love lost: the Jews don’t share power with the Arabs, and the Palestinians clearly don’t identify with the idea of a Jewish state, and even boycott some of its institutions. Yet system works, more or less. That is no small accomplishment, especially considering both the internal and external pressures at play here, like the fact that Israel keeps millions of Palestinians under military rule.

The Jewish side decided in the past few years that it has had enough. If its red line used to be aiding the enemy (a line only a very small number of people actually crossed), today, rejecting the idea of the State of Israel has become cause for delegitimizing Palestinian political parties and movements. That is a very dangerous development.

The decision to outlaw the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement and efforts to disqualify the Balad political party from running in elections do not stem from incitement or support for terrorism — those are crimes that already exist in the law books and are regularly enforced — but rather because both movements represent radical schools of thought. The accusations suggesting Sheikh Raed Salah and Haneen Zoabi are somehow responsible for the wave of stabbing attacks are ludicrous. Most of the attackers have come from areas like Hebron and East Jerusalem, where the influence of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement and Balad are marginal compared to, say, Hamas (which won the last Palestinian elections in East Jerusalem). It takes a special kind of crazy to think that Sheikh Salah or a few op-eds or speeches by Balad politicians could make a 13 year old stab someone — and if there is anyone “inciting,” one can easily find far worse things on the Internet.

MK Haneen Zoabi sits alongside members of the Joint List during a Supreme Court hearing on her disqualification from the Knesset. The court reversed an Election Commission decision to disqualify her. (photo courtesy of the Joint List)
MK Haneen Zoabi sits alongside members of the Joint List during a Supreme Court hearing on her disqualification from the Knesset. The court reversed an Election Commission decision to disqualify her. (photo courtesy of the Joint List)

The significance of outlawing these movements and parties is that it pushes large portions of Palestinian politics beyond the confines of the law. The Islamic Movement and the charitable and religious institutions operating under its aegis provide important services to Arab citizens of Israel — and more importantly, they serve as an outlet for expressing Palestinian political and social grievances. Balad has the support, or at least the appreciation, of a lot of the Palestinian intelligentsia in Israel. And it is clear that the government’s assault won’t stop here. The spotlight will soon shift onto the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement (the differences between the two aren’t all that great), and to Hadash, the communist party. In the end, only those Arabs willing to join Zionist movements will be allowed to participate in politics, and there aren’t very many of those.

People ask: why should the Israeli establishment permit a movement that denounces its very existence? There are two answers. Firstly, Balad or the Islamic Movement (or any other non-Zionist political party) do not want to annihilate Israel’s citizens — they want to change the legal system in the country, which is a legitimate demand in a democracy. The political right wing intentionally distorts that very important distinction. Secondly, Palestinians in Israel will never see themselves as part of a Jewish state — because they are not and cannot be Jewish. That they accept the state in practice, that they interact with its institutions and follow its laws is the best thing the Jews could hope for. Yet for some reason the Jewish public decided to take that miracle and throw it into the trash.

A dangerous consensus

From a security perspective, of course, that is a disaster. As long as the Islamic Movement operates within the confines of Israeli law its leaders know they are being scrupulously watched, thereby dramatically reducing the risk that they will engage in subversive activities. When political movements are made covert, their obligation to follow the law disappears and the process of radicalization is almost inevitable. Think about all the effort going into getting the Palestinian political movements in the territories to accept the State of Israel and reduce the violence. That’s the point of departure with the Palestinian political movements in Israel, and we are pushing them away from that point. There is no shortage of examples of Islamic movements that became militant the moment they were outlawed — the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, for example. There is a good chance that one day we’re going to miss the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, which may have talked about attacks on the State of Israel but never actually did much of anything about it.

Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement and former mayor of Umm al-Fahm. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement and former mayor of Umm al-Fahm. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

But the worst part about banning the Northern Branch this week was the complete consensus behind it — the exact same consensus that formed around efforts to disqualify Haneen Zoabi from running for office. The Labor party not only participated in the foolishness, it complained that it didn’t happen sooner. And that is most menacing phenomenon of the past decade in Israel. Among Jews, an absolute consensus has formed around the ideas that: Palestinians are not a legitimate part of the Israeli political system; that Israeli means Jewish; that the minimum requirement of Arabs is absolute obedience; that Arabs’ rights are guaranteed only in the economic realm, and only on a personal basis; and that those rights are not actually rights, but favors that we bestow upon them.

Faced with that worldview it would be prudent to remember that there is and always has been a bi-national reality in Israel, even if its institutions don’t reflect that. The proportion of Palestinian citizens in Israel is larger than the population of African-Americans or Hispanic-Americans in the United States — and that count leaves out the Palestinians in the territories, who also live under de facto Israeli sovereignty. Without mentioning the region in which we live, even if we are a white villa in the jungle, there is clearly no future in this land that isn’t a shared future, for Jews and Arabs. It is not a question of democracy or human rights; this is our life here.

I don’t get how people think that France can’t manage a five-percent Muslim minority but that Israel can control a 20-percent Muslim minority of which it demands compete obedience. It is madness for a country stuck in the middle of an entirely Arab region to espouse the idea of a war of civilizations between Muslims and Christians and Jews. Even if there were some legitimacy to that worldview (and there isn’t), the fact is that Europeans and Americans can afford that Armageddon — we cannot. And despite all that, we are taking the political spaces in which Jews and Arabs are succeeding to exist together, and we’re systematically dismantling them. For that, there is no rhyme or reason.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.