A Civil War Is Brewing, and Will Only Worsen if Ignored

Carolina Landsmann
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A Jewish right-wing activist and a Palestinian demonstrator face off at a protest in Sheikh Jarrah, last month.
Carolina Landsmann

It’s impossible to sever the return of police batons from the broader context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These batons weren’t brought back to prepare for the next demonstration outside the prime minister’s residence or to beat ultra-Orthodox Jews who refuse to obey coronavirus regulations. Rather, they are intended first and foremost to impose Jewish law and order on Palestinian bodies. It’s important to remember that, and not to be dragged into a general debate over police brutality.

During the first intifada (1987-93), the baton became the symbol of Israeli oppression, just as the stone became the symbol of the popular Palestinian uprising. Now, in the wake of the rioting that erupted in Arab towns and mixed Jewish-Arab cities throughout Israel during last month’s fighting in the Gaza Strip, the baton has returned to battle. Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai ordered the police’s operations department to relax the conditions for its use.

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With the batons having returned, it’s impossible not to remember the controversial order attributed to then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin – “break their arms and legs.” The reaction of Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev sounded like an effort to clarify the motivation behind the current directive to use batons. “I can say from experience...sometimes it’s better to use a baton than a 9mm pistol,” he said. The message is clear – this is an attempt to avoid the use of guns against civilians. In other words, an attempt to restrain the police’s use of force.

But it never ends with batons, not then and not now. The police recently obtained approval to buy crowd-control equipment through a fast-track process – stun grenades, tear gas grenades and sponge-tipped bullets. They are also preparing to quickly recruit more people for the Border Police and to move forces from the West Bank into Israel, as well as investing in training.

Mikhail Gorbachev wrote in an article in Time magazine in 2017 that judging by the arms race, the world seems to be preparing for war. That’s also what you see when you look at the Israel Police. And since it isn’t an army, but a police force, it’s clear that the only war it’s preparing for is a civil war. Or as it’s called here, “another wave of rioting in Arab and mixed cities.”

Police claim that from now on, every security escalation will require them to beef up their deployment. In other words, an internal front has been added to Israel’s other fronts.

You don’t have to be a security expert to know that batons and crowd-control equipment won’t suffice to suppress a civil war. And that’s all the more true given the working assumption that this internal front will flare up in sync with rounds of fighting in Gaza. Moreover, it’s not clear how the West Bank will react.

Israel managed to suppress the riots once, and Israeli society is starting to return to normal, albeit slowly and cautiously. But it’s hard to imagine Israeli society tolerating cycles of the kind familiar from our relations with Gaza – periodic rounds of fighting in the streets of Jerusalem, Acre, Lod, Jaffa, Haifa, Ramle and so forth. It simply won’t work. It’s impossible to live like that.

The current government, which was formed with an intent to focus on civilian issues to avoid ideological battles, may yet discover that a civil war is awaiting it. Jewish-Arab tensions don’t allow us the luxury of setting aside the Palestinian issue, because that issue affects the roots of our daily existence within Israel. If tensions that erupted during last month’s fighting in Gaza aren’t given explicit, serious attention, the problem won’t go away; it will only worsen.

It’s impossible to buy quiet with government funding or crime prevention programs. Such measures merely complement the construction of an inclusive Israeli ethos. And this ethos can’t be built while ignoring the occupation.

Fortunately, the United Arab List is part of the government. One step in the right direction would be to insist on inviting the other Arab ticket, the Joint List, to join as well. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, it’s not possible to run away from the conflict.

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