Arab voices are absent from Israeli protests

Demonstrations largely miss the reality that Palestinians are living under occupation

Police use water canon to disperse anti-government protesters in Tel Aviv on Monday. AP
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The past 12 weeks in Israel have arguably witnessed the country’s biggest internal challenge in decades. The mass protests over the government’s planned judicial reform have been accompanied by a ministerial dismissal, army reservists refusing to report for duty and the sight of the security forces using water cannon on Jewish Israelis.

The news on Monday night that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government would suspend discussions on the planned judicial overhaul until next month may offer breathing space for a compromise. Even committed allies, such as US President Joe Biden, have expressed reservations about plans to limit the Supreme Court's powers to rule against the Knesset and the executive, while giving coalition politicians more power in appointing judges.

But it is noticeable that Arab and Palestinian voices are almost entirely absent from all the protests and heated debate. Although some Israeli NGOs and left-leaning individuals campaign on issues that disproportionally affect Palestinians – such as illegal settlements in the West Bank – the demonstrators’ calls to save the country’s current governing system largely miss the reality that millions of people, not very far from Tel Aviv, are living under a decades-long military occupation.

Israeli demonstrators in Tel Aviv block streets and clash with police during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system. AP

Although those Israelis who have taken to the streets over the past weeks may be sincere when they say they want to safeguard their political and civil rights, about an hour’s drive away, Palestinians live with a very different set of legal rules and security responses. The rights and protections that Mr Netanyahu’s opponents say they want, should be available to all.

Israeli society is having a debate with itself that should also take into account Palestinians’ experience and testimony. It is a debate that is taking place amid widespread polarisation between left and right, secular and religious, and at a time when voices of intolerance are making themselves heard, even at the level of the Israeli Cabinet.

Indeed, the demands and attitudes of dogmatic parties in Israel’s coalition government remain a cause for concern and threaten to strain the hard-earned trust of the country’s Arab partners. The Arab world will be watching closely to see if Israel’s internal turmoil eventually results in policies and security measures that could further hurt Palestinians.

Palestinian citizens of Israel too will be watching closely to see what happens next. Last December, The National reported on how many Arab citizens were unnerved by the prospect of a government with far-right figures assuming ministerial power. Suha Salman-Mousa, executive director of the Haifa-based Mossawa Centre, described how Arab communities had not forgotten the intercommunal violence of May 2021, fuelled by an assault on Gaza and tension in Jerusalem amid incursions on Al Aqsa and the East Jerusalem district of Sheikh Jarrah.

Mr Netanyahu’s announcement that the judicial reform process will be postponed may give time to find a way out of this political impasse and reduce street tensions as major Jewish and Islamic religious holidays approach. How Israel’s government rules is a matter for the Israeli people but for a meaningful dialogue about the future that offers stability and peace, the societal conversation about rights, civil liberties, responsibilities and representation should be one that everyone feels they can join.

Published: March 29, 2023, 3:00 AM