Last week, Israeli Member of Knesset Naftali Bennett wrote an op ed in the New York Times defending Israel’s new blacklist. The blacklist bans members of 20 European and US organizations from entering Israel, based on their support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.
This ban is just, argued the leader of Israel’s nationalist Jewish Home party. Israel has been “forced to battle a new enemy,” Bennett wrote. “This one lacks tanks and missiles, but it, too, poses a serious threat to the Jewish state. And we aren’t hesitating to fight back.”
Throughout the piece, Bennett’s tone is above all reasonable. “Any other country in a similar situation would do the same,” he insists. Furthermore, “The logic behind this new policy is sound: We won’t welcome enemy soldiers into our territory,” never mind that he just admitted that there are no tanks or missiles at work in the BDS movement. “Israel’s decision to expose those out to hurt us sends a clear message,” writes Bennett. “Those who seek our destruction are not welcome in our home.”
It all sounds so moderate, so reasonable. Which other country would invite in soldiers who seek to destroy it? Who could possibly fault Israel for wanting to protect itself? What crazy country would allow people in who dispute its right to exist?
This tone of moderate reason is one Bennett specializes in. Who indeed could fault Israel for trying to protect itself from attacking soldiers? “Like any normal democracy, Israel has as its No. 1 priority defending its citizens,” writes Bennett.
The problem is, Israel isn’t a normal democracy. I am one of millions of people Israel excludes from its democratic proceedings, just as Bennett expertly excluded me from his piece.
Far from normal, Israel is a democracy that is occupying millions of Palestinians. And it is this fact – the denial of civil liberties to millions of people – that BDS uses nonviolent means to oppose. And it’s this fact that Naftali Bennett is so good at hiding.
I want to explain to you what it’s like to be a Palestinian whose life is ruled by a government I don’t get to vote for that includes someone like Naftali Bennett. Because Bennett after all doesn’t only write op eds in the New York Times. He is a Member of the Knesset, the governing body that exerts its rule through occupation over us Palestinians.
I want to explain to you what I see when I read Bennett’s words, what I hear when he speaks.
Far from reasonable and moderate himself, Bennett is one the most dangerous and extremist politicians in Israel. His party, Habayit Hayehudi, represents the settler movement – illegal according to international law. He uses his considerable political clout to further settlement expansion into what was supposed to be the land used to create a Palestinian state.
In other words, Bennett actively works to undermine the two state solution and to perform land grabs.
Imagine for a moment what it’s like being Palestinian and watching the settlements get approved for expansion again and again and again, seeing the new settlements sprout up under the auspices of a country that denies you civil rights.
Imagine what it’s like to open the New York Times and find an op ed by a man who once told a Palestinian politician, “When you were still climbing trees, we had a Jewish state here.”
But his policies are much worse than his casual racism. He openly calls for annexation of the West Bank. In a 2015 interview with the Washington Post, Bennett said he didn’t believe Israel should give up any concessions at all to Palestinians. In 2016, he said he expected to achieve Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, meaning full annexation, within a few years. In January 2017, he called on Israel to seize the “unique opportunity” presented by Donald Trump’s inauguration, promising legislation to first annex the Jerusalem area settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim, and then all of area C.
“By the end of the month, we will submit the bill for applying [Israeli] law to Judea and Samaria,” he said. Judea and Samaria is the name Israeli settlers use to refer to the West Bank, adding a linguistic tool to their campaign to confiscate Palestinian land.
Imagine living as I do, along with millions of Palestinians, and hearing a man like this speak of measures that would further undermine my non-existent civil rights, ratifying this inequality forever.
But by far the most deplorable thing Bennett said was in 2016. Speaking to supporters, he called for Israelis to “give our lives” to annex the West Bank. “On the matter of the Land of Israel, we have to move from holding action to a decision,” Bennett said, according to Haaretz.
“We have to mark the dream, and the dream is that Judea and Samaria will be part of the sovereign State of Israel. We have to act today, and we must give our lives. We can’t keep marking the Land of Israel as a tactical target and a Palestinian state as the strategic target.”
His comments went largely unnoticed. But a chill went up my spine when I heard his remarks.
His comments reminded me instantly of a time a settler did just what Bennett suggested, giving up his life to annex the West Bank. Twenty-four years ago, in my city of Hebron, Brooklyn-born Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein gave his life to the goal of West Bank annexation. On February 25, 1994, he walked into the Ibrahimi mosque and opened fire, killing 29 Palestinians in worship and injuring 125 more. Eventually, he was stopped and killed.
Following Goldstein’s mass murder, our main street in Hebron was taken from us. The Israelis erected military checkpoints; there are now 23 of them in our city. Movement barriers were also put in place, and the front doors of over 1,000 Palestinian apartments and stores were welded shut, over 1,800 Palestinian shops closed by force. Meanwhile, 31 new settlement units have been approved.
In other words, Goldstein perfectly embodied what Bennett calls for: sacrificing one’s life to annex the West Bank.
When I heard Bennett call for sacrifice, this is what I thought of. For how could he mean sacrificing lives without taking some Palestinian lives along too?
And even if Bennett wasn’t calling explicitly for violence, he was creating a climate in which violence – the giving up of lives, the taking of lives – is the only solution.
This is the exact opposite of the BDS movement’s aims. BDS is first and foremost a nonviolent movement. And it is this nonviolent means of ending Israel’s occupation that Israel has now banned from its borders.
Bennett claims the purpose of the ban is to target those who support BDS. But its real goal is to isolate the work of people like me. Regularly in Hebron and across the West Bank, I along with others engage in nonviolent direct actions to change the situation on the ground. Activists come from Israel, Europe and the US to join us. Together, we protect families being displaced by settlers. We campaign to save villages slated for demolition. We establish infrastructure, like kindergartens and cinemas. We give hope to our community.
For these actions we are attacked, beaten and arrested. We sit in jail cells under administrative detention with no official charges filed, and we face military court where the conviction rate is over 99%. I am currently facing 18 charges in Israeli military court for such advocacy. And these are punishments for nonviolent actions. What kind of “normal democracy” as Bennett put it jails people for nonviolent advocacy for civil rights?
As a Palestinian, I have no freedom and no rights to criticize or peacefully protest the government or military that rules me. Under military law, which all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and most in East Jerusalem are subject to, here are some things I cannot do:
It is illegal for me to gather with ten or more people for a political purpose in opposition to the occupation.
It is illegal for me to fly a Palestinian flag.
It is illegal for me to advocate for my rights.
Just as Israel cracks down with an iron fist any time I try to peacefully advocate for my freedom, the groups around the world now on the blacklist are being punished not only for using the nonviolent tactics of BDS, but also for their success in advocating for their governments to support Palestinian rights.
While not all of the six US groups on the blacklist currently run specific BDS campaigns, five of the six have successfully advocated for Palestinian rights in US congress. Last June, these groups procured the largest number of signatures ever on letters calling on the Israeli government to reconsider the charges against me. Now, they are backing legislation in the US House of Representatives to end Israeli military detention of Palestinian children.
Thankfully, Israel’s BDS ban seems to have little implementation on the ground. Last week, the cofounders of one of the banned organizations came to visit me. They did so despite and in defiance of the blacklist. They joined us for a joint protest in front of Abu Rajab house in Hebron, which, despite verified Palestinian ownership and a decision by Israel’s high court, continues to be occupied by illegal settlers.
Their visit, in defiance of the new ban, brought me hope that it will only be a matter of time until the whole world sees it is Naftali Bennett who is the extremist, and freedom, justice and equality for Palestinians that is moderate and reasonable.
Issa Amro is a human rights defender living in Hebron.