Last week, Israel’s new government was sworn into office, with Benjamin Netanyahu—already the country’s longest-serving Prime Minister—at the helm for the sixth time. Netanyahu has assembled the most far-right cabinet in Israel’s history, with notable posts given to ultranationalists: Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is the new minister of national security (a position that oversees the police), and Bezalel Smotrich, who will have significant power over Israeli settlements in addition to his role as finance minister. The government has promised to expand those settlements, and to weaken the authority of the judiciary; members of the new coalition have also made extensive comments denigrating the L.G.B.T.Q. community, and called for stricter definitions of who qualifies as Jewish. Making its larger vision clear, the government released policy guidelines last week announcing the Jewish people’s “exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the land of Israel.”
To talk about what the new government will mean for Palestinians, I recently spoke by phone with Raja Shehadeh, a Palestinian lawyer and activist who co-founded the human-rights organization Al-Haq. His latest book, out next month, is called “We Could Have Been Friends, My Father and I: A Palestinian Memoir.” During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed what will and will not change for Palestinians in the West Bank, the increased discrimination that Palestinian citizens of Israel are likely to face, and how to think about the Netanyahu government in the context of other far-right movements around the world.
What are your concerns specifically about relations with the Palestinians under this new government?
I think the new government is going to more strongly affect—and have a deleterious effect on—Israel than it will the West Bank and the Palestinians. But, first of all, let’s not speak about the Palestinians in general, because there are Palestinians in Gaza, there are Palestinians in Israel, and there are Palestinians in the West Bank. The effect on each is different. To start with Gaza, the worst thing is that this government may make war—or is very likely to make a war. And that of course will affect Gaza.
For Palestinians in Israel, the effect will be strong because they are going to be subject to more racist attitudes. The government is already planning to have more Jewish settlers and Israeli Jews in the Galilee, and fewer Palestinians. Palestinians can also be affected by the budgetary allocations of their local councils. They can be affected by the allocations for placements in jobs, in medical schools, and so on. The discrimination against Palestinians in Israel is very likely to happen, and already there is fear that the situation will be worse than it is now.
As to the West Bank, the situation is, I think, less structural and more a question of degree, because we have had already, since 1979, changes in the structures of the government of the area, whereby the settlers have been separated from the Palestinians and placed under a different regime and annexed to Israel, effectively. And so all the discrimination affects the Palestinians and not the Israeli settlers.
These structures are already there, and this new government is not going to create new ones but will use its powers of civil administration to increase the difficulties for the Palestinians. Under the existing rules, planning in Area C, which is about sixty per cent of the West Bank, is under the Israeli civilian administration. Smotrich will take power over this administration, and will apply stricter rules as to what is allowed and what is not allowed and how many more settlements and outposts will be legalized, and so on. And, of course, allocation of funds is in his hands, and so he would give more funds to build more settlements.
There is also the fear that Palestinians will be thrown out of the West Bank and Gaza. Members of the right-wing coalition have been very outspoken about the need to throw “extremist” Palestinians out of the land. They will use any opportunity to do that. One of the biggest opportunities would be war, of course, but short of a war they can make changes in the regulations whereby Palestinians who are unwanted can be thrown out to Jordan or from the West Bank to Gaza.
Just to take the West Bank first, you seem to be saying that this new government will use the existing structures to exacerbate policies that are already in effect. But short of a war or something like that, you think it’ll be a change in degree rather than a change in kind, because the status quo is already so bad. Is that accurate?
Yeah, this is what I think, and this is what I believe. Already the existing structures are so biased and so discriminatory and give Israel great powers—they don’t really need to change them. They’re already there, and they will just use the powers more extensively and more liberally in favor of the settlers and against the Palestinians.
When you think about the last forty-plus years, do you feel that the change in governments in Israel has had a big effect one way or the other on the lives of Palestinians? Or is it that Israel nominates a new Prime Minister, it forms a new government, and it might have a Labor-led government or a Likud-led government, but fundamentally things don’t change?
Well, let’s start with 1967, when the Israeli cabinet decided in secret meetings, the minutes of which have now been revealed, to erase the Green Line from Israel’s official map. The Green Line was the demarcation line drawn as a result of the armistice agreements after the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 that essentially functioned as the border between the West Bank and Israel. By deleting it, and by making all the official maps include Greater Israel, this indicated that they had in mind to expand Israel into the West Bank.
Now, this didn’t go through directly because there were times when they thought that maybe they could make some sort of arrangement for the Palestinians. There were different phases in the relationships between Palestinians and Israelis and Israel and the neighboring countries, so it’s not consistent. The only consistent thing is that it has moved increasingly toward annexation. But the extent of the pressure on the Palestinians has varied over the years. With some governments it has been less strong. With others it has been worse.
The people in the civil administration have made a difference. I have dealt with a lot of these people. Ephraim Sneh, for example, was an early civil administrator in the West Bank, and he was a person who you could argue with, who sometimes thought that it’s best to give Palestinians more leeway and more privileges and more possibilities to expand their areas, and so on. He was reasonable. And then he was replaced by somebody less reasonable. And now there’s no reasonable people at all. Now Smotrich is the one who will appoint the head of the civil administration, and he is likely to appoint the most extreme kind of person who would not give any concessions to the Palestinians. This will make a difference in the lives of the Palestinians, of course.
The last government, which was a coalition of some far-right and not far-right parties, brought Arab parties into the government. I don’t know whether that engendered a lot of hope, but it was something new in modern Israeli history, and I’m curious how you think that experiment went. Are there any lessons that you feel were learned from it?
I was reviewing the record of that government in terms of the violence in the West Bank—the treatment of civilians and the killings and the house demolitions and so on. And the record is terrible, terrible, terrible. Really worse than any other government, I think. The minister of defense was brutal toward the Palestinians. Now, whether in Israel itself Palestinians were able to do a little better under the government, I can’t really say. Maybe the presence of Palestinians within the government gave them some leeway to pressure for concessions at certain times. That’s how politics works: you are able to exert some pressure and get some concessions.