Opinion |

When Israel Threatens Palestinians With a New Nakba, It Threatens Itself With Extinction

There is an entire enterprise of incitement which Israeli officials have failed to address or even acknowledge for decades. It is the virulent hate-talk which begins at home

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Palestinian worshippers run for cover from teargas, fired by Israeli forces, following prayers outside Jerusalem's Old City in front of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, July 21, 2017.
Palestinian worshippers run for cover from teargas, fired by Israeli forces, following prayers outside Jerusalem's Old City in front of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, July 21, 2017.Credit: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

What does it say about Israel that a senior cabinet minister, who is also bland as mush, feels it necessary at a time of edge-of-war tensions with the Palestinians to take to Israeli television and to Facebook to deliver a message of pure, weapons-grade incitement?

Minister of Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi, a key Netanyahu ally who often enunciates and defends the policies of the prime minister, has long been seen as a force of relative moderation in the most fiercely hard-line government in the nation's history.

Nonetheless, this week, as Israel faced eruptions of violence at home and with its neighbors, Hanegbi used one of the most incendiary terms possible to warn Palestinians of the possible consequences of the brutal Friday night murders of three Israelis, a 70-year-old man and two of his adult children:

"This is how a 'Nakba' begins," Hanegbi warned the next day on his Facebook page.

"Exactly like this," he wrote, citing the Arabic word for "catastrophe," which has become synonymous with the Palestinian experience of the 1948 war, in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled by Israeli forces from the homes in the Holy Land.

"Remember '48," he then wrote. The war, which gave rise to the State of Israel, also created nearly three-quarters of a million Palestinian refugees. The Nakba is an event of profound trauma for Palestinians. The pain and anger surrounding the Nakba has been indirectly recognized by the Netanyahu government in efforts to keep the Palestinian narrative from being taught in Arab schools in Israel.

"Remember '67," Hanegbi continued. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, some of them refugees of the 1948 conflict, were displaced by the Six-Day War in which Israeli forces captured East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

Minister of Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi enters a cabinet meeting, June 19, 2016Credit: Marc Israel Sellem

Hanegbi, who said in an interview earlier in the day that the violence was headed not toward a third Palestinian uprising, but toward a third Nakba, emphasized the point in the Facebook post: "When you want to stop it, it'll already be lost. This will be already be after the third 'Nakba.'"

Hanegbi's scrupulous use of quotation marks to modify – more precisely, to diminish – the word Nakba was certainly not lost on Palestinian readers. Nor was the significance of his conclusion:

"This is twice now that you've paid the price for the insanity of your leaders. Don't test us again because the outcome won't be any different.

"You have been warned!"

Hanegbi's post came at a point when the social media-borne ash and molten rage issuing from that sacred volcano in the heart of Jerusalem were inflaming passions half a world away.

It also comes during a period when Israeli officials, from Benjamin Netanyahu down, are spending a tremendous amount of their precious time talking about incitement.

They talk about how incitement can become weaponized, translated into acts of murder and terror and escalation and intransigence and revenge and war. And they have no shortage of examples, as social media in Arabic carry countless examples of terror threats and vile anti-Semitic caricatures.

But there is an entire enterprise of incitement which Israeli officials have failed to address or even acknowledge for decades. It is the virulent hate-talk which begins at home. Flagrantly bigoted verbal attacks on Palestinians. Statements by Israeli officials and civil-servant rabbis branding all Arabs as murderous animals, sub-humans, a race of blood-lusting terrorists.

Aided and abetted by cooperative, tabloid-oriented news media, the thin-margin, brittle coalitions of Israeli politics have only accelerated Israeli incitement, as politicians scramble all over social media to show how destructively they can profess their willingness to change things for the more unbearable.

Thus it was that instead of working to calm the explosive atmosphere of the past week, hard right politicians vied for air time to push for measures to further deprive Palestinians of rights to worship at Al-Aqsa Mosque, at the same time lobbying for a green light for Jews to worship at the Temple Mount, part of the same complex. In a tone that may have been serious and may not have been, far-right MK Bezalel Smotrich suggested in a tweet that a synagogue should be erected immediately on the Mount.

As militant Muslims accused Israel of planning to take over the site for their exclusive use, militant Jews seemed only too pleased to confirm the allegations.

At the same time, as cabinet ministers called for imposition of the death penalty, a backbencher from Netanyahu's Likud party went them one better.

"I want to tell the truth without, heaven forbid, sounding too extreme," MK Oren Hazan said in a video posted over the weekend.

Backbencher Oren Hazan in a Knesset committee, April 25, 2017Credit: Lior Mizrahi

"But if it were up to me, I would have gone to the murderer's family house last night, grabbed him and his family, and executed all of them. Yes, just like that. Without any shame. Executed them."

What does it say about Israel? That if you want your voice to be heard, you can say – and get away with saying – "I'll see your house demolition and your death penalty, and I'll raise you mass execution of non-combatants."

What does it say about Israel's leaders? That for the sake of preserving the illusion that they're tougher than the next guy, they can make threats that amount to warnings of mass expulsions and ethnic cleansing – a new Nakba. The exact kinds of threats that in a world like ours could ultimately provide the pretext to threaten Israel itself with extinction.

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