How Israel uses its ‘security needs’ to justify discrimination

Ben White asks: how much longer will the international community buy it?

Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National
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Israel’s “security needs” are routinely cited by officials in Tel Aviv and western capitals as a justification for everything from the continued occupation of the West Bank to the bombardment of the Gaza Strip.

Back in June, Israel’s parliament voted to extend for another year a law that “allows the government to avoid granting Israeli citizenship or residency status to Palestinians married to Israelis”.

In the words of Haifa-based legal advocacy group Adalah, the law “bans family unification where one spouse is an Israeli citizen [in practice almost all of whom are Palestinian citizens] and the other a resident of the [West Bank and Gaza Strip]” – though, of course, this excludes Jewish settlers.

The legislation was originally passed in 2003 as an emergency measure. According to Adalah, "thousands of Palestinian families have been affected by the law, forced to split apart, move abroad or live in Israel in fear of constant deportation".

The Israeli government justifies the law on the grounds of security.

According to Silvan Shalom, the interior minister, Palestinians “took advantage of their status in Israel as a result of family-reunification processes to become involved in terrorist activities, including aiding in carrying out suicide attacks”.

Others, however, do not cite security concerns in support of the law but rather the goal of defending Israel’s Jewish majority. Daniel Atar, from the Isaac Herzog-led Zionist Camp political party, explained why he voted for the extension: “We must not be naive. Our aspiration is for a Jewish and democratic nation. I intend on supporting the extension if only to protect ourselves and the character of our country, and I call on the members of the opposition to also vote in favour.”

This demographic justification echoes a 2012 judgment by Israel’s high court, when it upheld the law against an appeal by rights groups: according to Justice Asher Grunis, “human rights are not a prescription for national suicide.”

In response, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel accused the court of having “stamped its approval on a racist law, one [that] will harm the very texture of the lives of families whose only sin is the Palestinian blood that runs in their veins”.

Adalah, for its part, claimed that the court had “approved a law the likes of which do not exist in any democratic state in the world, depriving citizens from maintaining a family life in Israel only on the basis of the ethnicity or national belonging of their spouse”.

A second example of the “security” rationale masking a political agenda is the blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip, which includes restrictions on both goods and the free movement of people.

The real motivation for preventing goods manufactured in Gaza being sold in Ramallah, or banning students from Gaza studying at universities in the West Bank, is not security, but a so-called separation policy that has deliberately de-developed the Palestinian economy.

In the words of the Israeli army’s Eitan Dangot, the policy aimed to “separate” the Gaza Strip from the West Bank to put pressure on Hamas.

In April, Israel prohibited the entry into Gaza of wooden boards thicker than five centimetres. In August, this restriction was extended to boards thicker than a mere 1cm. According to Israel, wood is being used by armed groups for tunnel constructions.

Last month, Robert Piper, a UN special coordinator, told a conference in Israel that in all his career dealing with post-conflict reconstruction around the world, he had never had to contend without wood.

According to the UN, as of last month – well over a year after the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel – just one destroyed home has been fully rebuilt, while reconstruction is under way for a mere 9 per cent of Gaza’s destroyed homes.

Finally, consider perhaps the most well-known example of Israel’s disingenuous security narrative: the separation wall. Israel and its supporters describe the wall as built to stop attacks by Palestinians, and as having been successful in doing so. Neither claim is accurate.

If the construction of the wall was all about security, then how to explain its route: 85 per cent of which lies inside the occupied West Bank?

That is why the International Court of Justice in The Hague found in 2004 that the wall constitutes an impediment to “the exercise by the Palestinian people of its right to self-determination”.

According to Shaul Arieli, a negotiator under three Israeli prime ministers, the need for the wall stemmed from the fact that the “tens of thousands of Palestinians” seeking to work in Israel with or without permits, would “slowly lead to a Palestinian ‘return’ to Israel”.

Did the wall itself even stop Palestinian attacks? In 2002, the year when construction of the wall began, there were 55 suicide bombing attacks inside Israel, according to the government. In 2003, this fell to 25 such attacks, with four in 2006 and one in 2007.

Yet, by mid-2003, the wall was only 20 per cent completed, while in 2006, only half the route had been completed. So what else was going on?

Operation Defensive Shield, a large-scale Israeli military assault on West Bank in 2002 resulting in numerous atrocities, “suppressed … suicide bombings”, in the words of security correspondents for Haaretz.

Meanwhile, according to a Shin Bet report in 2006, “the main reason for the sharp decline” in attacks the preceding year was, they stated, “the [Hamas-called] truce in the [occupied] territories”.

The wall is still not even two-thirds complete. As recently reported in Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, “tens of thousands” of Palestinians “support their families by crossing illegally into Israel”, of whom “only a tiny fraction” have carried out “attacks” inside Israel.

Earlier this month, one Israeli journalist similarly reported that “only a handful” of those Palestinians who, in his words, cross through “the relatively easy route through the gaps in the separation fence”, do so in order to “carry out attacks”.

An incomplete wall, whose route separates Palestinians from their land and loops around large illegal settlements, is not about security but colonisation.

A law that separates Palestinian spouses to protect Israel’s “Jewish majority”; a blockade of Gaza that constitutes collective punishment and a wall used to advance a land grab. As these three examples demonstrate, Israel uses the “security” excuse to defend and advance discrimination and colonisation. How much longer will the international community buy it?

Ben White is a journalist and the author of Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide

On Twitter: @benabyad