The occupation of the West Bank, a place where Jewish identity was founded, became a major formative force in the restructuring of the present Jewish Israeli identity and the Israeli regime. Israel was established as a Jewish and democratic state, as stated in its Declaration of Independence. In practice, however, Israel acted as a faulty democracy. Ben-Gurion led an authoritative political system that was replaced by an increasingly democratizing political system, especially with the peace agreement with
Egypt. Following the failure of the peace process with the Palestinians in 2000, however, signs of the authoritarian regime began to emerge. Since the ascendance of Netanyahu to power in 2009, authoritarianism has been increasing and prevailing.
A key question in this context is: To what extent was the rise of authoritarianism in the State of Israel stimulated by the occupation of the West Bank? No doubt other sociopolitical forces effected this trend, but has the occupation stimulated violation of international and Israeli laws and lack of respect for democratic norms by rightist parties and governments, while seeking to annex the occupied territories? In this article, we argue that the occupation affected the rise of authoritarianism in several ways.
Democracy and Authoritarian Regimes
Democracy is a regime that follows a set of principles: free elections; majority rule; respect for human rights; protection of minority rights; separation of powers; independent judicial system; rule of law; checks-and balances system; equality before the law; transparency; freedom of speech and assembly; and absence of corruption. The freedom to strike and protest are among the most important principles. There are few democracies that are close to fulfilling all these characteristics, but even in the past Israeli democracy was deficient in observing these principles, especially the valuative part of democratic requirements.
Authoritarian regimes are characterized by populism: focusing on external enemies; disseminating a discourse of fear and xenophobia; glorifying the supporters of regime dogma and exhibiting loyalty to the leader; discriminating against others, particularly minorities; monopolizing patriotism, limiting human rights such as freedom of speech, controlling minorities; disregarding the law and ignoring democratic values; weakening checks-and-balances institutions and disempowering the legal system and other gatekeeping state institutions.
Conquest of 1967
Returning to 1967, the occupation of the West Bank raised strong emotions among Israelis. After weeks of fears that Israel may be destroyed in the coming war, Israel experienced a great victory over three Arab armies, and Jews got control of the holy places and the biblical sites of Jewish identity. But Israeli Jews ignored and repressed the fact that the occupied territories were populated by Palestinians. The territories as the cradle of Judaism possessed mythical significance, fertilizing a Jewish national religious identity that had remained marginal to the Hebrew secular and humanist identity up to the 1967 war.
Jewish settlements in the conquered Holy Land became the ultimate command of the followers of the new ideology. The territories themselves became not only the focus of settlement efforts but also the core of the new particularistic Jewish identity that replaced the prophets’ messages for humanism and justice adopted by the former version of Judaism. The new territorial identity could not tolerate Palestinian rights to the land and transferred the relations between the definition of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state from complementary to antagonistic.
The first effect of the occupation was to restructure the political system in Israel. Up to 1967, the religious parties were part of the leftist coalition. The Orthodox Mafdal (National Religious) Party held moderate political positions, while the ultra-Orthodox parties did not express an opinion on political matters. However, due to the enthusiasm of the religious sectors caused by the ‘return to the old fatherland’ following the 1967 war, a new rightist hegemony crystalized as the religious groups replaced their marginal status in the old leftist coalition with a dominant status in the new rightist coalition. Despite the different attitudes of the coalition parties toward the enhancement of authoritarianism and the weakening of democracy, their shared attitudes toward the occupation brought them together in one coalition that has the power to change the democratic system in Israel. The climax of this direction came with the establishment of the new government in November 2022, after winning the election. This is an extremely nationalistic-religious-racist government, with a determinative tone set by the extreme leaders of the Likud, Religious Zionism, and the ultra-Orthodox parties.
Confiscation of the Palestinian Land
The formal attempt to legislate undemocratic laws under the current government is the result of a long process that started immediately after the occupation in 1967. The first step was the settlers’ disregard for the law. There are many testimonies of settler violence against Palestinians that was not dealt with by the police or the army. The praxis of shooting at any Palestinian who comes within 1 kilometer of any Jewish settlement or illegal outpost is backed by the military. The result is that Palestinians are cut off from their fields. In many cases, settlers commit acts of revenge by burning Palestinian cars or destroying stores and at times even houses — at times following a Palestinian terror attack but also at times without provocation—just to take control of agricultural fields, olive groves, or pastures. In most cases, the army does not show strong determination to prevent the evil action or try to catch the violent settlers.
International law does not allow building civilian settlements on occupied land. It permits the confiscation of land only for military purposes. But Israel has created its own legal realities and, to justify land expropriation, several practices have been developed, although their connection to international law is totally nonexistent. In the first stage, the state took over 25% of the West Bank land owned by the Jordanian state and inhabited it with Jews in the Jordan Valley, the Jerusalem environs, and a number of outposts in the West Bank.
One of the practices was the false claim that army officers have used when testifying to the Supreme Court, asserting that the lands taken over were needed for military purposes. The Supreme Court accepted these claims, while, in reality the land was actually given to civilian settlements. Menachem Felix truthfully testified that his core group had settled Elon Moreh in 1979, due to God’s commandment and not as a result of security considerations. That was the only time since the Six-Day War that the Supreme Court ruled against the settlers.
The change of government in 1977, brought the Likud to power. The new government led to the second stage of land takeover that amounted to half of the West Bank. It was done through massive expropriation based on loopholes in Ottoman law regarding land ownership which made it difficult for Palestinians to prove ownership of their land.
A third example is the case of government building for Jews on private Palestinian lands. According to the right-wing NGO Regavim, from May 2015, about 2,026 homes in approximately 25 Jewish settlements have been built illegally on private Palestinian land. In August 2017, however, it became clear from data issued by the Civil Administration that in the Israeli settlements of the West Bank, 3,455 homes and public buildings had been built on private Palestinian land. The courts and the government echelons had supported this construction and aided it. Not only were 222,395 acres of privately and collectively owned Palestinian land appropriated based on the declaration, dubiously rooted in Ottoman law, that these were state lands, but also Jewish homes were built on this private Palestinian land in a clear and usually intentional violation of the law. When this practice was exposed, the government declared that this was done by mistake. At that point, instead of returning the lands to the Palestinian owners, the government decided to legislate laws, approved by the Supreme Court, that the ownership of these lands would be retroactively transferred to Jews.
The seminal 2021 book by Kretzmer and Ronen, The Occupation and Justice: The Supreme Court of Israel and the Occupied Territories, concluded 500 pages of analysis with many examples in the following way:
“In its decisions relating to the Occupied Territories, the Supreme Court has legitimized all controversial policies and practices of the Israeli authorities, including those incompatible with international law […] With few exceptions the court has not intervened in policies and practices of the authorities in the Occupied Territories. Rather than subjecting the legality of such policies and practices to strict judicial scrutiny, the Court has generally placed the emphasis on issues of procedural fairness and whether the implementation of the policy or practices in specific cases meets the demands of reasonableness and proportionality. This has meant that, in practice, the most problematic policies and practices in the Occupied Territories have received explicit or implicit judicial approval1.”
Penetration of Authoritarianism to the State of Israel
Once the changes and distortions of laws according to immediate political interests of parties or leaders were normalized in the occupied territories, the Knesset started to constantly change laws to serve their immediate interests. For example, several times the Knesset changed the Basic Law: The Government regarding the number of ministers allowed. Similarly, the government tried to change the law that forbids politicians with criminal records from being appointed government ministers in order to allow Shas leader Aryeh Deri to be nominated a minister despite two legal convictions and a plea bargain that he would leave politics. Changing laws for immediate interests of the coalition erodes the status of the law, transforming it into a tool to keep the opposition from power.
Another way of breaking the principle of equality before the law is manifested in the law that applies Israeli law to the settlers in the occupied territories, while Palestinians are subject to martial law that treats them as occupied residents with no basic civil rights. The different status of the Jewish settlers and the Palestinian residents creates an apartheid regime in the occupied territories. This is mainly so since the 1980s, as the government has applied creeping annexation of the territories. Thus, the apartheid order is becoming an internal characteristic of the regime. Greater Israel may be divided into three closed castes: privileged Jews who enjoy favorable communal rights; Palestinian citizens of Israel who enjoy personal rights but are deeply discriminated against institutionally and even legally as a community; and Palestinians residents of the occupied territories with no civil rights.
The import of discriminating policies against Palestinians leaks also into Israel proper within the Green Line. The most prominent example is the police response to the riots in October 2000, when they killed 13 Arab demonstrators. Among other charges, Or Commission convened to investigate the incident concluded that the police too easily used rubber bullets and sniper rifles, tactics imported from the occupied territories, which led to the large number of casualties. During recent years, several laws were legislated that discriminate against Palestinian Israelis. It started with the Muezzin Law of 2017, which determined that calls to prayer constitute unreasonable noise and reached its peak in 2018, with the discriminatory Nation-State Law which, inter alia, revoked the status of Arabic as an official state language.
One of the severest blows to a democratic government is the attempt to instill totalitarian thought in contradiction to the central principles of democracy: pluralism and freedom of expression. In Israel, this is unavoidable because the government policy of continuing the conflict and the occupation requires that it make ongoing institutional efforts to instill Jewish society members with conflict-supporting narratives in order to mobilize the nation to support and even take an active part in perpetuating the occupation. At the same time, the government, with the aid of official and unofficial supportive institutions, must suppress the flow of information that contradicts these narratives. Thus, from the very nature of this process, freedom of expression, the free flow of information, and freedom to be exposed to alternative information are negatively affected. In other words, an important foundation of democracy is certain to be abused.
Specifically, in the State of Israel, the leaders of the right and even the political center attempt to block legitimate freedom of expression from the left by delegitimizing it. Thus, in a long process that already began in the late 1990s, the label “left” became illegitimate in Israeli public discourse. The lack of openness to alternative information intensified during the 2000s, and the control that prevents freedom of expression and obstructs the free flow of information has penetrated not only the political system but also the cultural and educational systems. In addition, the right wing uses all the tools in its arsenal by virtue of its governmental status to try to block information disseminated by various human rights organizations that document the injustices done by the security forces, various government branches, settlers, and pro-settlement organizations. This information details the unnecessary killing Palestinians, illegal arrests, collective punishments, abuse of Palestinians, harsh violations of human rights, and more. These organizations have been persecuted by state institutions, parties, leaders, associations established precisely for that purpose, and even the general public. They were even banned from entering the high schools where appear rightist and religious organizations. This policy even received support from the Supreme Court when, on Nov. 5, 2019, it approved the expulsion of the senior representative in Israel of the human rights organization Human Rights Watch and thus gave even greater authorization to the occupation, as it prevented the voicing of legitimate criticism of Israeli behavior in the occupied territories. The justification for the expulsion was that Human Rights Watch supports BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) and should be banned from Israel. And again, this pattern of ostracization can be distinguished: boycott of the settlements by those who oppose the occupation and ostracizing those who call for these boycotts by the Israeli Government.
Thus, the occupation polarized Israeli society politically between leftists who seek compromise with the Palestinians in order to maintain a solid Jewish majority in a smaller Israel and rightists who seek to annex the entire land of Eretz Yisrael in the name of either religious commandments or a historical one-sided narrative. Two groups on either edge of the political spectrum found it more and more difficult to remain loyal to the traditional political center that balanced between the Jewishness and the democracy of the state: Arabs and national religious groups.
The annexation of the territories is the direct motivation of the national religious parties, the Ultra-Orthodox and some of the Likud Knesset members. The ultra-Orthodox are motivated by their refusal to legitimize the secular state, avoiding army service and devoting their careers to religious studies only. As these inflated rights are rejected by the Supreme Court, the ultra-Orthodox joined the anti-democratic coalition that is willing to support the requested discriminating laws in their favor. A third group are Likud members who wish to annex the occupied territories without giving the Palestinians citizenship. A fourth group are those who wish to save Netanyahu from being convicted of breach of trust and bribery. The new coalition that crystalized around their plan to annex the territories supplied an umbrella to all these wishes.
Furthermore, the right wing under the leadership of Netanyahu tries to consolidate their status as the new political hegemony by delegitimizing the left based on their attitude toward the occupation. They monopolized the neo-Zionist narrative, defining the settlements as the only way to practice Zionism and presenting the Arabs as traitors and terror supporters due to their refusal to adopt the neo-Zionist narrative. Netanyahu in his election campaigns presented the left as those who forgot how to be Jews, Arab lovers who support Palestinian rights at the expense of the Jews’ security, supporters of ISIS, etc. The campaigns succeeded to a large extent, and the
word leftist gained a negative connotation.
Thus, the rightists succeeded in consolidating their political hegemony around the occupied territories as the cradle of Neo-Zionism by neutralizing the power of Arab voters in the political struggle and by delegitimizing the left to be disloyal to the Neo-Zionist narrative that put the occupied territories at the core of the new Israel.
In sum, we can see a deterioration in the commitment to the rule of law that started in the occupied territories, first by the settlers with the backing of the authorities and then by the authorities themselves, and led to an apartheid regime in the occupied territories. By the de facto annexation of the territories and by the seeping of oppressive practices into the Green Line, disrespect for democratic laws became a major characteristic of the Israeli political system. The crystallization of a new hegemonic coalition that negates democracy for the annexation of the occupied territories but also for additional reasons and the rightist delegitimization of first the Arabs citizens of Israel and then the leftists increased the determination of the rightists to crush the democratic system as a mean to consolidate their rule.
1 Kretzmer, D., & Ronen, Y. (2021) The occupation and justice: The Supreme Court of Israel and the occupied territories. Oxford University Press. New York. pp. 489-490.