Replacing the peace process with civil rights


What would happen if Israeli progressives and their supporters demanded an end to the military court system, or called for freedom of movement for Palestinians? A lot more than you might think. From the openGlobalRights debate, Human rights: mass or elite movement?

Noam Sheizaf
16 September 2014

The two-state solution in Israel has long transformed from a means (to solving the problem of the occupation) to an end. We aren’t on the road to two states or to one state. We are deep in the status-quo solution, a reality that is stable, institutionalized and not going to change in the foreseeable future.

The common wisdom in Israel today is that every evacuated territory will eventually become another hub for Middle Eastern anarchy. The security establishment believes that only the IDF can prevent forces such as Islamic State from crossing the Jordan River. Israel would also like to make sure that Hamas doesn’t take over the West Bank. In other words, even if a Palestinian “state” is formed, it won’t have even the minimal degree of independence. No credible Palestinian leadership can be expected to agree to that.


Sharron Ward/Demotix (All rights reserved)

A young man holds a placard reading in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv during a peace rally against the Gaza conflict on August 16, 2014.

There is also no form of international pressure that would force the two-state solution on Israel. Much of the international community is clearly unhappy with Israel’s policies of the last decade, but this is nowhere near the mobilization against South Africa in the 1980s or, more recently, Iran. In both cases the tipping point was the US decision to support and impose sanctions. And while the US might end up distancing itself from Jerusalem, it will continue to use its power to prevent sanctions against it. The EU is also unlikely to extend its measures beyond some steps against the settlements. So there is truly no end in sight.

On a more positive note, there is renewed recognition in Israel that the occupation overwhelmingly dominates all other political problems. You even see conservatives voicing some concern over the failure to solve the Palestinian issue. In other words, there is some new recognition of the problem, but there is no political strategy to accompany it among progressives, except for continuing to bang one’s head against the peace process wall.

 Civil rights are easy to understand and focus on the lives of real people under occupation

The solution is to replace the diplomatic process with a civil rights struggle, to break the occupation into pieces, and deal with each one of them. The list of challenges is long: the fact that Palestinians do not enjoy freedom of movement; the fact that they have been tried in military courts for almost half a century; the limits on their freedom of speech and their right to freely assemble; the lack of proper detainee rights (including minors); and finally, the disrespect for their property rights and their lack of political rights.

Of course, many Palestinians have been engaging this idea for a long time. But Israeli progressives and peaceniks have always placed it second only to the diplomatic process. In other words, instead of the Palestinian state becoming a means for the fulfillment of Palestinian rights, it was made the only desired political object. Those rights no longer held value once they were separated from the idea of statehood—as if because the Palestinians have no state they don’t deserve freedom of movement or a fair trial. Thus, progressives find themselves justifying an authoritarian regime in Ramallah in the name of Palestinians rights, and many other absurdities.

On a tactical level, a civil rights struggle opens the door for Arab-Jewish cooperation on both sides of the Green Line, and leaves aside the questions of statehood and historical narratives that people love to debate. Instead, civil rights are easy to understand and focus on the lives of real people under occupation.

What could such a struggle look like? It should raise specific political demands that touch the basic liberties and rights of human beings. The military court system is a good place to start. Military tribunals could be accepted in very specific contexts and for a limited period of time. They aren’t meant—nor could they be used—to run the lives of a civilian population for decades, as Israel does.

There is no way to justify military commanders ruling over civilian issues for half a century the way they do in the West Bank. There is no way to justify administrative detentions. What prevents a “pro-peace” party or organization—say, Meretz or Labor or J Street—from right now demanding an end to the military court system, regardless of diplomatic developments? The fact that such an idea is not even debated demonstrates the degree to which even the “pro-peace” camp has adopted the mentality of the occupation.

What about freedom of movement? The Palestinians are held like Israel’s prisoners, not only in the West Bank but also in Gaza. It takes a permit from a military commander to allow a Palestinian to visit his or her family in Jordan. Why not turn this policy on its head, and have the security authorities state who they forbid from traveling, and allow everybody else free passage? Surely this is a reasonable enough request?

Human rights groups have been monitoring and discussing these issues for decades, but they have yet to enter progressive politics, which is still chained to the endless peace process. Imagine what would happen if mobilization by the international community around Israeli relations with the PA or its settlement policies was directed at the rights of Palestinians.

To some this might seem like back-door annexation by Israel—an idea that most Israelis and Palestinians still oppose. But the fact of the matter is that de-facto annexation has already taken place, only without allowing the civilian population their basic human and civil rights. Recent cries over the appropriation of some 1,000 acres of land by Israel sound hollow compared to the massive human rights violations that have been taking place for decades. Even if Israel was to hand the Palestinians full voting rights in the Knesset tomorrow, we could end up with some version of a two-state solution or a confederative model, because both people here are interested in national sovereignty.

This piece does not intend to tell Palestinians how to run their affairs, or what form their struggle should take. But make no mistake: keeping the Palestinians without rights is not some temporary holding pattern on the way to a final status solution (or peace). For Israel, this is the solution. And giving Palestinians their rights will not postpone an agreement – quite the opposite. It would force Israelis to really think about the kind of future they want, alongside the Palestinians.


Noam Sheizaf blogs at +972 Magazine.


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