Protests have changed Israeli attitudes to occupation

Fighting for their own civil rights has made many Israelis more aware of the injustices experienced by Palestinians, writes MICHAEL CHAITOW.

Growing up Jewish in Australia, I was taught that Yom Ha’atzmaut was a day to celebrate the birth of the State of Israel. My education at a Jewish Day School in Sydney focused on Independence Day as a time to rejoice in the strength and security that Israel afforded the Jewish people; a national homeland which would always welcome Jews from all over the world to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust could never be repeated.

Unfortunately, this representation of 1948 failed to reflect reality for the majority of those living in the land in the years prior to Israel’s birth. That it took so long for me to learn about the Nakba, or the catastrophe, as Palestinians term Independence Day, is a significant shortcoming of my education.

The year 1948 marked a turning point for both the Palestinian and Jewish peoples and this needs appropriate recognition.

As Naomi Chazan has said, “[The time period] between 1948 and 1967 was marked by Palestinian displacement and dispersion on the one hand, and Israeli consolidation and construction on the other.”

Professor Chazan, who will be visiting Sydney and Melbourne in May as a guest of the New Israel Fund Australia, has been explaining why the occupation is “untenable and immoral” for years.

But this understanding is finally beginning to enter mainstream Israeli political consciousness, thanks to the protest movement formed to push back against the Netanyahu government’s far-right political agenda.

While spurred by defending civil rights for Israeli citizens, these protests also represent a political awakening for many of the participants.  Some protesters chanted, “No democracy with occupation”, an unprecedented mainstreaming of the occupation as a civil rights issue.

Ironically, Netanyahu’s government is responsible for a fundamental change in Israeli society. It has galvanised protesters against the occupation, a previously unspeakable term in mainstream Israeli politics.

In the months since the protests started, the occupation has taken a more central role in public discussion as more Israelis become aware of the irony of defending their own rights without considering those of Palestinians.

As Muhammad Shehada, a journalist based in Palestine, wrote, “In the early weeks of the demonstrations, those who raised the Palestinian flag and call[ed] for a democracy for all were assaulted by fellow protesters. And the small, anti-occupation corner of the demonstrations was never visited by any of the leaders of the main opposition parties …Yet the situation improved as the protests went on. The anti-occupation bloc grew substantially, with people raising the call that ‘a nation that occupies another will never be free.’ It became more energetic and harder to ignore, and there were no renewed attacks on demonstrators holding the Palestinian flag.”

Israeli protesters are now showing signs of understanding the Nakba and the dangers of the occupation that began in 1967. But for Palestinians, the Nakba dates back to the War of Independence, when 750,000 people were expelled from their homes, evicted or forced to seek asylum outside of Israel. We also now have reliable reports of some massacres and the erasure of some Palestinian villages. 

This is why for the more than six million Palestinians living in the diaspora today, the Nakba is a reminder of their inability to return to their homes, to live within their communities in the land in which they or their ancestors were raised.

To be a progressive Jew in the diaspora is to wrestle with how one can celebrate on a day that represents mourning for so many others.

Violence is flaring up across Israel and Palestine yet again, with realistic fears of further escalations and even war. There are parallels between the recent raids and arrests on Al-Aqsa Mosque, with evictions and policing changes only two years ago that precipitated an 11-day exchange of rockets and bombings between Israelis and Palestinians.

But the notable difference between 2021 and 2023 is that Benjamin Netanyahu is again the Prime Minister of Israel, supported by an ultra-nationalist coalition. The cycle of violence is likely to continue, with powerful cabinet members led by National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich protecting the settlements at all costs and continuing to agitate against the status quo on the Temple Mount.

Within this darkness, I find some optimism in the protesters who are pushing back against the Netanyahu government’s agenda in cities across Israel.

I find comfort in 14 weeks of sustained protests, mobilising hundreds of thousands of protesters across more than 150 cities in Israel.

On Yom Ha’atzmaut, a day that many will mark as the Nakba, I will celebrate the decision of the protesters to go beyond the judicial reforms that galvanised them and demonstrate against the root cause of so much injustice: the occupation.

I will reflect on the significance of protesters chanting “Where were you in Huwara?” and asking security forces “What were you doing in Al-Aqsa?”

Ironically, Netanyahu’s government is responsible for a fundamental change in Israeli society. It has galvanised protesters against the occupation, a previously unspeakable term in mainstream Israeli politics.

This Yom Ha’atzmaut I’ll be reflecting on what this day means to those mourning as well as to those celebrating.

I’ll have hope for the future knowing that many Israelis are beginning to understand that the occupation is “untenable and immoral”, and I’ll look forward to a day when it no longer exists. 

Photo: A Palestinian flag carried during a protest in Tel Aviv against the Israeli government (EPA/ABIR SULTAN)