by Mason Herson-Hord. Posted November 5, 2023.
Over the course of the past several weeks, millions of people have flooded the streets in cities around the world in resistance against the latest and deadliest Israeli onslaught on the Gaza Strip. These have faced widespread repression, with protesters beaten, kettled, and arrested from New York to Paris, while even gently worded calls for peace have been met with purges, firings, and other arbitrary discipline. Amid demands for a ceasefire by progressive factions of electeds (universally rejected by those actually in power in the global North), the clarion call for the street movement around the world has instead been three simple words: “Stop the Genocide.”
Liberal commentators, even if dismayed by Israeli brutality, have been bewildered by this language, seeing it as needlessly hyperbolic or inflammatory amid a tragic situation.1 They are deeply, devastatingly mistaken. Our amnesiac media commentariat only understands these events as if they began on October 7; they have never been able to sustain attention on the conflict when bloody keys are not being jingled in front of their faces. Their comprehension exists only in the shards of time when the bombs are falling or Israelis lie among the dead. Yet this growing mountain of Palestinian bodies can only be made sense of out of the fascistic turn in Israeli political life over the past decade—itself, in the longer view, a crystallization of the genocidal logic at the heart of Zionism itself.
My purpose here is to chart the trajectory that recent weeks’ events are only the most bloody successions of, and to attempt to bring political and moral clarity about the real stakes of the struggle for the lives of the people of Gaza. The movements in the streets are correct that these stakes are existential, that genocide is the prospect of abandoning Palestinians to their fate. And I will show that this is not a new conclusion drawn from social media echo chambers or the news cycle. Those of us who have closely followed Israeli political developments over the Netanyahu years have long seen this cresting over the horizon, as mass expulsion or extermination of the Palestinian people as a political solution to the conflict has moved from the fringe of the Israeli radical right into the political mainstream.
* * *
Detailed histories of Zionism are in fact stories of a multiplicity of Zionisms. Labor Zionists on the left found themselves challenged by the stridently racist and expansionist Revisionist Zionists on the right; secular nationalists faced off with messianic religious currents; cultural movement priorities contended with political ones. All but a handful were explicitly colonial in their goals and conscious framing of their project. Austrian Zionist philosopher Martin Buber, as an important counter-example, wrestled with Theodor Herzl (the founding father of the Zionist movement) over fundamental questions of nationalism, state-building, and the spiritual underpinnings of their project. At the Zionist Congress in 1921, he argued that the movement should proclaim “its desire to live in peace and brotherhood with the Arab people and to develop the common homeland into a republic in which both peoples will have the possibility of free development”—an explicitly non-nationalist project, in which immigrating Jews would work in partnership with Palestinians towards an independent, binational (or multinational), and democratic state. Nevertheless it is important to not lose sight of the fact that this period of open contestation of visions within Zionism was short-lived and decisively concluded in favor of Zionism as an ethnostate-building project. From the very beginning that project possessed an internal logic of ethnic cleansing which its humanist currents could struggle against but never undo. The primary slogan of the Zionist movement—a land without a people for a people without a land—is premised on erasure of that land’s indigenous inhabitants. Perhaps this mantra was initially persuasive for those in London and Brooklyn and Berlin swept up in the cause, but upon their arrival in Palestine it was of course obvious that the land was full of people, who these Zionist settlers were initially entirely dependent on for their survival. For the land to be seen as empty, its inhabitants needed to be unpeopled, their own aspirations rendered as thorny obstacles to higher aims. It is what the scholar of settler colonialism Patrick Wolfe described as “the logic of the elimination of the native.”
From the moment these settlers arrived in Palestine with the vision of creating a Jewish state, they set themselves on a trajectory of ethnic cleansing, without which such an ethnostate would never be possible. The great dispossession of the Palestinian people—the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” in which more than 700,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes and sent into exile as a society of refugees—and the creation of the State of Israel are the same historical event.2 While at the center of Palestinian national consciousness, this fact was for decades erased from or distorted in the Israeli national narrative. Military archives describing war crimes and officers responsible were buried, with a cover up policy ordered by David Ben-Gurion (Israel’s first Prime Minister) himself. Even in the first years of the state, as troops were deployed to Israel’s new borders to shoot unarmed refugee families attempting to come home to their villages and as a military-police state was built to rule over those Palestinians of the Negev and the Galilee who had managed to remain, the rule of the day was a collective forgetting. Israel could imagine itself as a democratic and socialistic society because the Palestinian question had been, in its people’s eyes, resolved. The answer was the refugee camp and a game of national pretend, hoping against hope that those they had expelled would be integrated and absorbed into the places they had been banished to and safely forgotten.
Civilians from the Palestinian city of al-Ramleh, penned up in a barbed wire concentration camp by Zionist militia forces without food or shelter, awaiting their expulsion from their homeland. It is today known as “Ramla” in central Israel. Images source: From Palestine to Israel: A Photographic Record of Destruction and State Formation, 1947-1950, by Ariella Azoulay.
This was of course swept aside in a single week in 1967, when Israel captured great swaths of new territory from its belligerent neighbors—the inhabitants of which included many of the very same people Zionist forces had ethnically cleansed in 1948 to establish Israel’s Jewish demographic majority. “A land without a people for a people without a land” was again rendered more complex, with Israel’s status as an ethnostate and as a democratic state thrown into starker opposition. The whole history of the Zionist project can be distilled down into a single exchange among the country’s leadership in those fateful days of 1967. At a meeting of the leftist Mapai party, Golda Meir asked what on earth Israel was going to do with “a million Arabs” after occupying the remaining Palestinian Territories. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol replied, “I get it. You want the dowry, but you don’t like the bride!” This has been the essential contradiction of the Zionist project from its inception: that even successful territorial ambitions in an already-inhabited land bring non-Jews under their political control. Apartheid is merely a holding pattern, a means of deferring this Palestinian question that results. This contradiction is only ultimately resolved within Zionism via expulsion or extermination of the native inhabitants.
Many horrifying developments took place over the long and bloody history of Israel’s military occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, which helped poison Israeli political consciousness in a right-ward direction, towards a full-chested embrace of ultra-authoritarian racism. For our discussion here, to trace this paving of the road to genocide, there are two such developments that I consider to be most thematically important: one subjective and ideological, the other objective and material.
The first concerns Israeli understanding of the events of 1948. In the 1980s, the Israeli government declassified its documents from that period. The very first historian to gain access to these archives was a man named Benny Morris, who then published the first book based on their contents: The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949 (1988). He was soon joined by Ilan Pappé, Avi Shlaim, and Simha Flapan. These four became known as Israel’s “New Historians,” as they upended the state’s mythology about its creation. They uncovered smoking gun evidence of a deliberate program of ethnic cleansing carried out by Zionist forces, “verifying” Palestinian accounts of their experience in the Nakba. Most Israeli Jews had never actually heard the word “Nakba” before this moment in the late eighties.
For most on the communist and anarchist left, this meant severing themselves from Zionism entirely. Pappé in particular is associated with the radical left and with the anti-Zionist position favoring a single democratic state for all Palestinians and Israelis as equal citizens. This more fundamental reevaluation of the Zionist project as a result of this historical research, however, never made such in-roads with the wider Israeli public as one might expect. The reception was instead more often rather darker.
Illustratively, Benny Morris, the most famous of the New Historians, is in contrast a figure of the Right. Reading his work can be disorienting; his documentary historical accounts depict atrocities against Palestinians, gang rapes as well as massacres, discussions that any morally sane person would interpret as implicit criticisms, for which his first book was in fact attacked as being “biased” against Israel, but in his political commentary he makes clear that he believes the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians to have been both necessary and justified.3 In Morris’s words, “Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history.” His criticism instead of Ben-Gurion and the founding generation of Israel is in fact that they “got cold feet” and did not do “a complete job” on the Palestinians. “If Ben-Gurion had carried out a large expulsion and cleansed the whole country…as far as the Jordan River,” Morris says, then “he would have stabilized the State of Israel for generations.”4
The second development for Israeli society that is part of this story is of course the settler project. With the military conquest of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the state embarked again on expulsion, this time in an incremental fashion. Strategic considerations of water resources, agricultural land, defensible terrain, and the future territorial goals of the state shaped a steady march of removal from the early 1970s on into the present. Contemporary Zionist dithering about a two-state solution aside, we must remember that the occupation was never intended to be temporary, and Israel—not even under left-wing leadership—never even acknowledged the possibility of a Palestinian state until the 1990s after being forced to do so by the First Intifada. The Palestinian population was seen at best as a captive market for Israeli goods and a migrant workforce for colonial exploitation, both interests in fluctuating tension with the hunger for land. In a dance between the administrators of the Zionist state and the militants of the Zionist movement, many “little Nakbas” have been carried out on rocky hilltops, in the segregated streets of Hebron, and neighborhood by neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Expulsion in the era of settlement was no longer a distant original sin, but a daily practice of colonial power.
Over the course of these decades, there was a resulting shift in Israeli political consciousness where the historical necessity of the Nakba for the creation of the Jewish state transitioned from a truth to be masked or denied to one to be embraced and carried forward into Israel’s expansionist future.5 As Meron Rapoport and Ameer Fakhoury write,
If there is neither a political nor a military solution, if the Palestinians refuse to surrender, and if there is no intention to grant them equal rights or allow them a seat at the table, the only way for Israel to preserve the “Jewish state” in the face of Palestinian resistance — both armed and unarmed — is to kick them out. If it worked in 1948, the thinking goes, why would it not work again?
This, more than anything else, is today the unifying current of Israel’s otherwise fractious and squabbling Right. That ideological realignment of Israeli society is still in process, but I believe we are rapidly approaching its terminal consensus in the movement from the merely racist and anti-democratic to the expulsionist and exterminationist.
As a process, it is most readily illustrated in changing Israeli reception of the ideas of one man: Rabbi Meir Kahane. He was born in Brooklyn in the 1930s into a family of Orthodox Jews, and was active as a violent extremist in both Israel and the United States until his assassination in 1990. In the late sixties he founded an organization in the United States called the Jewish Defense League (JDL), which adopted the language of radical Black organizations like the Deacons for Defense or the Black Panther Party, with its motto “protect Jews from antisemitism by whatever means necessary.” In New York, where Jews are an at-times threatened minority, this association is at least on the face plausible—JDL units “patrolled” predominantly Jewish neighborhoods to defend them (though specifically from Black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers).6 In Israel and the Palestinian Territories, however—Kahane made aliyah and brought the JDL to Israel in 1971— where Jews are instead a ruling racial class, it operated much more nakedly like fascist street thugs or the Ku Klux Klan.7
In Israel he also formed a political party, called Kach, dedicated to the cause of expelling all Palestinians (who he referred to as “dogs”) from the territory controlled by Israel. On this platform, he served as the party’s lone member in the Knesset from 1984 to 1988. When he spoke in the Knesset, the other members would stand up and walk out, leaving him to address an empty chamber. In 1988, the Knesset passed a new electoral law (specifically to bar him from office) that banned parties if they opposed democracy or incited racism.
In 1994, another Brooklyn-born Kahanist, West Bank settler, and member of the JDL named Baruch Goldstein walked into a mosque in the occupied city of Hebron during Ramadan, waited until the precise moment in their prayers when all heads were pressed to the floor, threw a grenade, and opened fire with an IMI Galil assault rifle. He shot more than 150 peaceful worshipers, 29 of whom died.8 Thankfully one of the Palestinians was able to strike him with a fire extinguisher, and he was swarmed by survivors who disarmed him and beat him to death. In the days following this Cave of the Patriarchs Massacre, as it came to be known, the JDL posted to its website “We feel that Goldstein took a preventative measure against yet another Arab attack on Jews. We understand his motivation, his grief and his actions. And we are not ashamed to say that Goldstein was a charter member of the Jewish Defense League.”9
Though organizationally unaffiliated, these same political currents—anti-Arab militia initiatives, opposition to any peace deal that would grant Palestinians political rights, and settler extremism—carried out the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister who had signed the Oslo Accords. In the political moment of the mid-1990s, with Kahane dead and his party illegalized, the horror of the Cave of the Patriarchs Massacre, and the martyrdom of Rabin for the cause of peace, Kahanism was anathema.10
Today, however, Kahanism is no longer the criminalized radical fringe. It is everywhere, both implicitly and explicitly. On signs help aloft at demonstrations and stickers on telephone poles and mass printed on t-shirts you can read the words “Kahane was right.” (You can buy a face mask with this phrase here for fifteen shekels.) This genocidal ideology has sunk its roots deep into Israeli civil society. Chants of “Death to Arabs” and “May your village burn” that were illegal to say 1995 are present at virtually every right-wing march in the past five years. Many such marches morph into actual pogroms, especially for attacking defenseless Palestinians in East Jerusalem.11 Reference to the Nakba—which is in fact illegal for Palestinians in Israel to discuss openly—is everywhere in recent years among the Israeli right, as a jeer and a threat to Palestinians.12 Earlier this year, settlers in the pogromist movement Hilltop Youth recorded and released their own song (a remix with one by religious Zionist pop singer Hanan Ben Ari) celebrating the settler rampage against the Palestinian village of Huwwara. Their lyrics include “What is burning down…Huwwara / Houses and cars…Huwwara / Evicting from [Huwwara] old women, the young and girls too.” Youth activists with Lehava roam the streets of Jerusalem hunting for mixed Palestinian-Jewish couples or lone Palestinians to attack. Lehava is a fascist and Jewish supremacist organization founded by one of Kahane’s students, whose primary focus is “anti-assimilation [i.e. anti-miscegenation] advocacy.”13 Teenage members seek out altercations with Palestinians, summon additional (adult) thugs via their WhatsApp groups for the actual assaults, and march chanting “Arab, watch out, my sister is worth more!”, “The daughters of Israel belong to the people of Israel!”, and “Kahane was right!”14 In 2014, their members torched a non-segregated school (i.e. one with both Palestinian and Jewish Israeli students, which is extremely rare in Israel) in Jerusalem and spray painted its walls with “You can’t coexist with cancer,” along with the usual “Death to Arabs” and “Kahane was right” slogans. As of 2018, Lehava had more than ten thousand registered members with chapters in every city. Despised and largely rejected while he was alive, Kahane is now the recipient of mass memorial events across Israel at each anniversary of his death, with public billboards announcing them on the streets of Jerusalem.
“Today Everybody Knows: Kahane Was Right!”
“Gas the Arabs! — JDL” (Jewish Defense League), graffitied on the door of a Palestinian girls’ school in occupied Hebron. It is highly unlikely that there is any organizational continuity between the original JDL and the settler fascists responsible for this graffiti, but the JDL and the Kahanist project more broadly remains an inspiration for them. Photo source here.
By 2016, half of Jewish Israelis polled agreed with the core Kahanist position that Palestinian citizens of Israel should be expelled from the country.15 Only 15% of Jewish Israelis believed this when Kahane was first elected to the Knesset in 1984 (and only 1.3% actually voted for him).16 In 2022, sixty percent of Israeli Jews polled believed that ethnic segregation in their country is needed.
Most terrifying has been to watch this genocidal ideology over the past decade make its way from the fascist settler movement in the streets into the halls of state power, where it now possesses a decisive foothold—what my comrade Joshua Leifer has called the “Kahanization” of Likud and the Israeli right more broadly. While an extremist vanguard has thrust these ideas out into the open, they have also been careful to strategically moderate and normalize themselves as just another voice in the parliamentary system, whose proposals are to be assessed on their own terms. Amid the collapse of Israeli confidence in any peace process, they have found a large receptive audience. Those representatives of Kahanism in the state have wielded their platform to build broader social consensus around basic Kahanist assumptions, steadily psychologically priming the Israeli public for the necessity of a second Nakba.
In July 2014, an elected Knesset member of the fascistic settler party Jewish Home, a woman then in her late thirties named Ayelet Shaked, took to to Facebook to post the following:
This is an article by the late Uri Elitzur [a far-right extremist Israeli journalist, advocate for the settler cause, and close advisor to Netanyahu, previously his chief of staff, who died of cancer in May 2014], which was written 12 years ago, but remained unpublished. It is as relevant today as it was at the time.
[beginning her block quote of Elitzur] The Palestinian people has declared war on us, and we must respond with war. Not an operation, not a slow-moving one, not low-intensity, not controlled escalation, no destruction of terror infrastructure, no targeted killings. Enough with the oblique references. This is a war. Words have meanings. This is a war. It is not a war against terror, and not a war against extremists, and not even a war against the Palestinian Authority. These too are forms of avoiding reality. This is a war between two people. Who is the enemy? The Palestinian people. Why? Ask them, they started it.
I don’t know why it’s so hard for us to define reality with the simple words that language puts at our disposal. Why do we have to make up a new name for the war every other week, just to avoid calling it by its name? What’s so horrifying about understanding that the entire Palestinian people is the enemy? Every war is between two peoples, and in every war the people who started the war, that whole people, is the enemy. A declaration of war is not a war crime. Responding with war certainly is not. Nor is the use of the word “war,” nor a clear definition who the enemy is. Au contraire: the morality of war (yes, there is such a thing) is founded on the assumption that there are wars in this world, and that war is not the normal state of things, and that in wars the enemy is usually an entire people, including its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure.
And the morality of war knows that it is not possible to refrain from hurting enemy civilians. It does not condemn the British air force, which bombed and totally destroyed the German city of Dresden, or the US planes that destroyed the cities of Poland and wrecked half of Budapest, places whose wretched residents had never done a thing to America, but which had to be destroyed in order to win the war against evil. The morals of war do not require that Russia be brought to trial, though it bombs and destroys towns and neighborhoods in Chechnya. It does not denounce the UN Peacekeeping Forces for killing hundreds of civilians in Angola, nor the NATO forces who bombed Milosevic’s Belgrade, a city with a million civilians, elderly, babies, women, and children. The morals of war accept as correct in principle, not only politically, what America has done in Afghanistan, including the massive bombing of populated places, including the creation of a refugee stream of hundreds of thousands of people who escaped the horrors of war, for thousands of whom there is no home to return to.
And in our war this is sevenfold more correct, because the enemy soldiers hide out among the population, and it is only through its support that they can fight. Behind every terrorist stand dozens of men and women, without whom he could not engage in terrorism. Actors in the war are those who incite in mosques, who write the murderous curricula for schools, who give shelter, who provide vehicles, and all those who honor and give them their moral support. They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads. Now this also includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there. [emphasis my own]
A week later, Mohamed Abu Khudair, a Palestinian teenager, was kidnapped by settlers and burned alive.
The next year, following new elections that shrunk Netanyahu’s Likud party’s lead and brought major advances for the Israeli far-right, he entered into a new coalition with Shaked’s party, through which she received the coveted post of Minister of Justice—a position she held through 2019. (She today remains one of the most influential legislators in the Knesset, though is not in the cabinet.) She was the first member of a ruling Israeli government to draw genocide as a political solution to the Palestinian problem out from the Kahanist shadows and into Israeli public discourse.
The same year Shaked took over the Ministry of Justice, Avigdor Lieberman called for the beheading of Palestinian citizens of Israel who were insufficiently loyal to the Jewish state at a rally. He has also argued that Palestinian citizens of Israel should be required to sign loyalty oaths or be politically disenfranchised. He is not a marginal figure at the ideological fringes of Israeli politics. At the time of these remarks, he was the government’s foreign minister. He had previously served as the Minister of National Infrastructure, the Minister of Transportation, the Minister of Strategic Affairs, and twice as the Deputy Prime Minister. Since 2015, he has also served as the Minister of Defense and the Minister of Finance. Over the course of the late twenty-teens, a steady avalanche of Likudniks began making noises about the necessity of expulsions and threatening the civil and political rights of Israel’s Palestinian citizens—both in order to shore themselves up against emerging opposition from their right and because political space was opening to be able to say what they do actually believe.
The most disturbing advance of Kahanism, however, has taken place through the career of a man named Itamar Ben Gvir, who was first elected to the Knesset in 2021. His party—Otzma Yehudit, or Jewish Power—is the ideological successor to Kahane’s Kach party. Before entering into electoral politics, Ben Gvir was a legal activist for the far-right with a specialty of providing legal defense to Jewish terrorism suspects, and before that a teenage member of Kach. (There is also an infamous video of a teenaged Ben Gvir threatening then-Prime Minister Rabin in his car, snapping off the Cadillac emblem on the hood, saying “We got to his car, and we’ll get to him, too”—three weeks before Rabin was actually assassinated. Ben Gvir had also personally known Yigal Amir, Rabin’s assassin, from operating in the same far-right circles.) Throughout the 2000s, he was charged with multiple counts of racist incitement and support for terrorist organizations (and convicted on eight of these charges). In 2007, he was found guilty of carrying signs saying “Expel the Arab enemy” and “Rabbi Kahane was right, the Arab MKs [Members of the Knesset] are the fifth column.” Ben-Gvir also served as the attorney for Gopstein, the founder/chairman of Lehava, with whom he is a close personal friend. For years, he hung a portrait of Baruch Goldstein in his living room (though he removed it during the winter 2020 electoral campaign so that Jewish Power could merge with other right-wing parties). He and his wife’s first date was a visit to Goldstein’s gravesite.17 When the settlements in Gaza were evacuated, the two of them (along with Gopstein) attempted to hold out in an abandoned Jewish-owned hotel on the shore for several months, ultimately with a hundred and fifty other squatters. They stayed there, spray painting “Death to the Arabs” on the walls until Israeli police came to evict them. Today, those police answer to him.
MK Itamar Ben Gvir (left) seated next to Bentzi Gopstein (right), founder and chairman of the fascist street organization Lehava, in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in May 2021, during the pogroms driving Palestinians from their homes. Image source: The Times of Israel. During the riots, Ben Gvir and Gopstein organized busloads of Lehava street militants to go to mixed Jewish-Arab cities in Israel (Lod, Ramla, and Acre) and attack Palestinian neighborhoods.
As a result of Netanyahu’s electoral challenges in 2022, Likud entered into coalition with the fascist right (the Jewish Power-Religious Zionism alliance) who had received the third largest bloc of votes, bringing Ben Gvir’s party into the government. Ben Gvir specifically sought out and received the post of Minister of National Security, granting him control over the nation’s police. The former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert—no left-winger himself—had described Ben Gvir as a greater danger to the State of Israel than a nuclear Iran.18 This past April, the cabinet approved Ben Gvir’s plan to create a “national guard,” a militia force of two thousand troops that would answer to the National Security Minister alone. For a deeper discussion of the rise of Ben-Gvir and his role in bridging Kahanism from the terrorist fringe into the political mainstream, I highly recommend this piece in Jewish Currents by Joshua Leifer. He writes, “As Ben-Gvir has gained prominence, he has brought ideas such as the forced expulsion of Palestinians from Israel—ideas which shaped Israel’s founding but were later confined to the ideological margins—back into the heart of Israeli political discourse.”
Out of this radicalization of the right-wing ruling coalition has come a host of chilling warnings and threats about their willingness to carry out a second Nakba should the opportunity present itself.
In March 2022, Uzi Dayan—a career military commander and Knesset politician—went on Channel 14 to deliver this message in response to a lone wolf shooting attack in Tel Aviv:
The thing we need to tell the Arab community, even those who didn’t participate in the attacks, is to be careful. If we reach a civil war situation, things will end in one word and a situation you know, which is Nakba. This is what will happen in the end… The war of independence was not completed, especially from within.
In May 2022, Likud Knesset member Israel Katz issued a warning to Palestinian citizens of Israel after students at Israeli universities had publicly commemorated Nakba Day:
I warned the Arab students, who are flying Palestine flags at universities: Remember 1948, remember our independence war—and your Nakba. Ask the elders among you, the grandfathers and grandmothers, and they will explain to you that eventually the Jews wake up and know how to protect themselves and the idea of a Jewish state. Don’t stretch the rope too much… If you don’t calm down, we’ll teach you a lesson that won’t be forgotten.19
The events of October 7 elevated both the genocidal right’s bloodlust and their sense of political opportunity for a new great expulsion to resolve the Palestinian question. On October 8, a Likud Party Knesset member posted “Nakba to the enemy now! This day is our Pearl Harbor. We will still learn the lessons. Right now, one goal: Nakba! A Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of 48.”
Open, virulent dehumanization of Palestinians was dialed up far beyond anything that has come before in Israeli public discourse. On October 9, Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant declared in a televised speech that “We are imposing a complete siege on Gaza. There will be no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel, everything will be closed. We are fighting against human animals and we are acting accordingly.” Later that day, he donned a bulletproof vest and reiterated his statement that the Israeli state is “fighting against human animals,” and followed it up with “Gaza will not return to what it was before. We will eliminate everything.”
Major General Ghassan Alian, the head of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (the successor entity to the Civil Administration, in charge of managing the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories), addressed the people of Gaza directly: “Human animals must be treated as such. There will be no electricity and no water, there will only be destruction. You wanted hell, you will get hell.”
The following day, Sara Netanyahu—wife of Benjamin Netanyahu—challenged this way of speaking about Palestinians. She said in an interview that “I do not call them human animals because that would be insulting to animals.” On the same day (October 10), Knesset member Limor Son Har-Melech (a member of Ben Gvir’s party Jewish Power in the governing coalition) tweeted that “There are no innocents in Gaza… They all need to be deleted!”
On October 12, former Major General of the IDF and former head of the Israeli National Security Council Giora Eiland wrote in an opinion piece, “Israel needs to create a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, compelling tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands to seek refuge in Egypt or the Gulf… Gaza will become a place where no human being can exist.”
Amid the mobilizations of hundreds of thousands of Israeli reservists in preparation for this assault on Gaza, a 95-year-old man named Ezra Yachin who had participated in the 1948 war made international headlines as the oldest person to re-enlist in the IDF. He was called upon to speak to the troops to inspire them and connect their present assault to the history of Israel’s creation. Recorded in a video that has now circulated widely through Israeli media, he states:
Now, I am over 95 years old, and I have seen much in my lifetime. I’ve been wounded, badly. I’ve been blinded in one eye from Arab bombshells. But I’m alive to tell the story of our fight, the story of the creation of the Jewish state, and now I’m going to make the story of the liberation of this land from all of our enemies. Our enemy is an enemy that doesn’t have the right to live one day in our world… Now I hope, with the spirit of our army, we are going to put an end to those beasts, wild beasts in human face. They have human faces but murderers’ hands. They are the most cruel beasts in the world. Now I call my army, go ahead! Burn every creature who wants to hurt us. [This is] the victory that will make us inherit this land, that we’ve been commanded to inherit by God, by our scripture. Now is the time. We are going to burn them, and with the light of the fire we’ll light our way to our freedom, to our peace.
In another address recorded for fellow IDF reservists (and, it seems, the wider Israeli public) he said,
Be triumphant and finish them off as quickly as possible until there is no memory of them, and leave none behind. Erase them, their families, mothers, and children. These animals can no longer live. Nowadays we have no excuse. Tomorrow Hezbollah could send air strikes on us, and all the Arabs in the land here may rise against us. So in these days, we have no excuse. Every Jew with a weapon should go out and kill them. If you have an Arab neighbor, don’t wait until he comes into your house. Enter his house and shoot him.
Yachin is no stranger to the genocidal slaughter of Palestinian civilians. In the 1940s, he was part of a Zionist paramilitary terrorist organization called Lehi, or “the Stern Gang.”20 My use of the word “terrorist” here is not pejorative, hyperbolic, or ideological. Lehi consciously thought of itself in those terms, using the word “terrorist” to describe its militants and embracing tactics that it itself described as terrorism, as political necessities for establishing an independent Jewish state.21 Lehi was an offshoot of the more well-known Zionist terrorist organization called the Irgun (responsible for the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946, seeking to destroy documents incriminating the Jewish Agency for Palestine in armed attacks on the British, and killing 91 people in the process).22 During World War II, the position of the Irgun leadership was that the Zionists needed a temporary truce with the British despite the eventual imperative to drive the British out of Palestine. This caused a split—Avraham Stern left the Irgun to form Lehi, based on the reasoning that the British were the primary impediment to further Zionist immigration and that attacks on their forces in Palestine must continue. Lehi made several attempts to establish contact with Nazi Germany to form an anti-British alliance. They pledged to assist Germany in the conquest of the Middle East in exchange for recognition of a Jewish state in Palestine and unlimited Jewish emigration from Europe. This was not merely a desired marriage of convenience; Italian fascism was a particular source of influence on the racialist Lehi ideology, and when the organization pivoted towards the Soviet Union after Hitler’s defeat, they embraced National Bolshevism.23
Most infamously and most relevant for the discussion here was the Deir Yassin Massacre on April 9, 1948 (a month before Israel’s declaration of independence and the official start of the war), carried out by joint Irgun and Lehi forces. Ezra Yachin himself was personally a perpetrator of this massacre, in which over a hundred Palestinians in the village of Deir Yassin were slaughtered.24 Most of them were unarmed, many of them women and children, and many were shot when running away or summarily executed when attempting to surrender. This massacre is central to the Palestinian national consciousness, particularly for the role it played in their expulsion from their homeland. Both the traumatized survivors and the triumphant Zionist militias spread the news of the killings far and wide, prompting terrified Palestinian civilians to flee for the duration of the fighting in the hope of avoiding that same fate themselves. They were never allowed to return. Yachin is now back in uniform to finish what he started, hoping for a second Nakba—an opportunity to systematically kill or at least expel every Palestinian in the territories that Israel claims.
A Jewish family “moving into” a house in Deir Yassin, two months after its prior inhabitants had been massacred by Yachin and his comrades. It was renamed Givat Shaul Bet, today a neighborhood of West Jerusalem. Image source: From Palestine to Israel: A Photographic Record of Destruction and State Formation, 1947-1950, by Ariella Azoulay.
Returning to our chronology of the present escalation towards genocide, the Israeli military issued an order on October 13 to the people of Gaza City and the rest of northern Gaza—a population of 1.1 million—that they had twenty-four hours to move to the south of Gaza. Any who remain, the order states explicitly, will be deemed terror accomplices by default and treated as military targets for elimination. Among this million people were many thousands who could not ever safely move: babies in incubators, dialysis and cancer patients, the elderly and disabled. On the basis of road space and lack of fuel alone it was also physically impossible for a million people to move in a single day, and of course Israeli forces launched airstrikes on the very “safe corridors” they had directed civilians to evacuate along. Bodies litter these roads; running away is as much a death sentence as staying. This military order will be cited in future history books and war crimes tribunals alike as an official declaration of genocidal intent.
Isaac Herzog, the Israeli president, stated at a press conference that same day that “It is an entire nation out there that is responsible. It is not true this rhetoric about civilians not being aware, not involved. It’s absolutely not true. They could have risen up. They could have fought against that evil regime which took over Gaza in a coup d’etat.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “This is collective punishment and a violation of international law. We cannot starve nearly a million children to death over the horrific actions of Hamas.” Israel Katz (the Israeli Minister of Energy and Infrastructure, who has held a variety of top ministry posts, and who is quoted above threatening Palestinian students with another Nakba) quote-tweeted his reply to her: “Indeed, Madam Congresswoman… All the civilian population of gaza is ordered to leave immediately. We will win. They will not receive a drop of water or a single battery until they leave the world.”
On October 16, Netanyahu addressed the Knesset to say “This is a struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle.” Member of the Knesset Boaz Bismut declared “We must not forget that even the ‘innocent citizens,’ the cruel and monstrous ones from Gaza, took an active part in the pogrom inside the settlements of Israel, in the systematic murder of Jews and the shedding of their blood, in the kidnapping of children, the elderly, and mothers and in the spooning of babies and burning them alive!25 We must not show mercy to cruel people, there is no place for any humanitarian gestures—we must erase the memory of Amalek.” Amalek (or the “Amalekites”) are a people described in the Hebrew Bible who were enemies of the Israelites, invoked as an injunction to “slay both man and woman, infant and suckling.” Bismut’s phrase quotes Deuteronomy 25:19, which reads “Therefore it shall be, when the Lord your God has given you rest from your enemies all around, in the land which the Lord your God is giving you to possess as an inheritance, that you will blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven. You shall not forget.” It is a call to carry out a war of extermination against an enemy people.26
In a Knesset hearing, Knesset member Amit Halevi (Likud party) declared “There should be two goals for this victory: 1. There is no more Muslim land in the Land of Israel… After we make it the land of Israel, Gaza should be left as a monument, like Sodom, that is not sown or beareth. 2. The second and final goal: full Israeli control. Full military and civilian control. Nothing less than that… The world looks to us…to know what is the judgment of these infidels, those unbelievers who disavow the way of Abraham.”27
On October 17, the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy released a position paper calling for a complete ethnic cleansing of the Gaza Strip, through which the present conflict is exploited towards the end of the “relocation and final settlement of the entire Gaza population.” The report’s subtitle states “There is at the moment a unique and rare opportunity to evacuate the whole Gaza Strip in coordination with the Egyptian government.” This organization has close relationships to the Netanyahu government. It is headed by Meir Ben Shabbat, a career Shin Bet officer who served as the government’s national security advisor and head of the National Security Council from 2017 to 2021. Its other chairpersons and founding associates include a former Minister of Communications; a former Vice Prime Minister, Minister of Strategic Affairs, Minister of Defense, and Chief of General Staff of the IDF; a former ambassador to the United States, Minister of Defense, and Minister of Foreign Affairs; and many other influential right-wing political figures.
On October 19, the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Nissim Vaturi tweeted “Nakba?! expel them all. If the Egyptians care so much for them – they are welcome to receive them in cellophane tied with a green ribbon.”
On October 21, the IDF air dropped leaflets across Gaza City which stated that “Everyone who has not evacuated from northern Gaza to the south may be treated as a member of a terrorist organization.”
On October 24, an internal document drafted by the Ministry of Intelligence at the direction of Minister of Intelligence Gila Gamliel was leaked. It examines three possibilities for a post-war Gaza, recommending only one of them “that will yield positive and long-term strategic results”: the expulsion of all Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to Egypt.28 Gamliel is actually one of the few moderate Likudniks in the current Israeli government. Her embrace of mass expulsion indicates just how total this new right-wing consensus has become. One source claims that the report was leaked by a Likud official to find out whether “the public in Israel is ready to accept ideas of a transfer from Gaza.” The government also offered Egypt’s government a set of enticing proposals in exchange for accepting large numbers of refugees from Gaza, including writing off Egypt’s crippling debts.
On October 25, Israel’s previous ambassador to the United Nations, Dan Gillerman, said the following in an interview on live British TV when questioned about Israel’s stated policy of collective punishment against Palestinian civilians in Gaza: “I am very puzzled by the constant concern which the world…is showing for the Palestinian people…for these horrible, inhuman animals who have done the worst atrocities that this century has seen.”
Moshe Feiglin, previously a Likud member in the Knesset and now the leader of the Zehut party, spoke on Israeli TV (Channel 4) to say, “Gaza needs to turn to Dresden, yes. Complete incineration. No more hope.” (He had also tweeted on October 12 that “It is not Hamas that should be eliminated. Gaza should be razed and Israel’s rule should be restored to the place. This is our country.”) He called for protests in front of Netanyahu’s home because of the IDF’s policy of dropping small bombs on Palestinian homes as “warnings” that they should evacuate minutes before their actual airstrikes—a betrayal of Netanyahu’s supporters, in Feiglin’s view, to take any steps that do not fully maximize Palestinian death. The demand, he says, must be “Annihilate Gaza now! Now!” Speaking in apocalyptic terms about the stakes of these operations for Israel’s future, he said “If the goal of this operation is not destruction, occupation, deportation, and settlement, we have done nothing. In the end, the whole country will be [Kibbutz] Be’eri.”29
Dresden was not an idle comparison—it was one Feiglin invoked in other interviews these past weeks, and is part of the broader project of Holocaust revisionism pushed by the Israeli right. Other Israeli figures have been describing Hamas and the people of Gaza as “the new Nazis.” In one of Ezra Yachin’s speeches that I quoted above, he also said “I hope our army is now going to put an end to those Nazis of today, today’s Nazis, those Arabs. They have no right to live in our land.” No less than Netanyahu himself has embraced Holocaust revisionism, a version in which responsibility for the genocide of European Jews lies not with Hitler and the Nazis but with the Palestinians. At a speech in 2015, Netanyahu said “The Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini…was later sought for war crimes in the Nuremberg trials because he had a central role in fomenting the Final Solution. He flew to Berlin, and Hitler did not want to exterminate the Jews at the time. He wanted to expel the Jews. And Hajj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and he said ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here [to Palestine].’ ‘And so what should I do with them?’ [Hitler] asked. [The mufti] said, ‘Burn them!’” This was met with widespread condemnation by historians of the Holocaust as an obscene falsehood, but Netanyahu has repeated this multiple times in the years since. We can see a disturbing parallel between Gaza and Ukraine, with the discourse of “de-Nazification” laying the justifications for warfare conducted against the population as a population.
Netanyahu has also embraced Bismut’s use of the genocidal Biblical language of “Amalek” in reference to the people of Gaza. “Remember what Amalek did to you, says our Holy Bible,” he said in an address to the Israeli people (in tweet format here). He here invokes the first book of Samuel 15:2-3, which states “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.” As Noah Lanard writes for Mother Jones:
Joshua Shanes, a professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston, explained that the biblical animosity toward the Amalekites stems from what is described as the merciless ambush they launched against vulnerable Israelites making their way to the promised land. The attack leads God to tell Moses to wipe out Amalek. Hundreds of years later, Saul nearly fulfills the command by killing all Amalekite men, women, and children. But he spares their king, who keeps his people barely alive by having a child. Many more generations later, one of his descendants, the villain Haman, goes on to develop a plot to kill all the Jews living in exile under a Persian ruler. The lesson, when read literally, is clear: Saul’s failure to kill every Amalekite posed an existential threat to the Jewish people.
For those literate in the discourse of the Israeli religious right, the linkage made between Palestinians and the Amalekites means only one thing: extermination.
On November 1, Likud Knesset member Galit Distel-Atbaryan (until very recently the Minister of Information) tweeted of the Palestinians of Gaza, “Don’t hate each other. The monsters hate you enough. Hate the enemy. Hate the monsters. Any vestige of internal bickering is a maddeningly stupid waste of energy. Invest this energy in one thing: erasing all of Gaza from the face of the earth. The Gazan monsters must fly to the southern fence and try to enter Egyptian territory, or they must die… Gaza should be erased, and fire and smoke on the heads of the Nazis in Judea and Samaria…30 A vengeful and cruel IDF is needed here. Anything less is immoral, is just unethical.” Nissim Vaturi (a Likud MK) tweeted “The war will never end if we don’t expel them all.”
The genocidal intent of the Israeli state has raised unprecedented alarm. Israeli historian Raz Segal who directs the Holocaust and Genocide Studies program at Stockton University wrote that “Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza is quite explicit, open, and unashamed. Perpetrators of genocide usually do not express their intentions so clearly.” Genocide researcher and survivor of the Bosnian genocide Arnesa Buljušmić-Kustura said in an interview,
My initial reaction to seeing the destruction of Gaza — the videos of children being pulled out of rubble, the bodies of the dead — was that it reminded me so much of my own experience. It was hard for me these past two weeks to go to sleep and sleep through the night. I would dream of Gaza. I would dream of Sarajevo, I would dream of Visegrad, I would dream of Srebrenica. I was seeing it all play out and it was terrifying. So my initial reaction was: Dear God, this is going to be a genocide.
She also noted, crucially, “Genocide is a process. Genocide neither starts nor ends overnight. It is a long process that requires detailed planning, propaganda, objectification and dehumanization.”
Nearly 800 other scholars of international law, conflict studies, and genocide studies released a public statement “sound[ing] the alarm about the possibility of the crime of genocide being perpetrated by Israeli forces against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.” Francesca Albanese, the UN’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territories wrote “Israel has already carried out mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinians under the fog of war. Again, in the name of self-defence, Israel is seeking to justify what would amount to ethnic cleansing.”
Director of the UN’s Human Rights office in New York, Craig Mokhiber, resigned after thirty years of service over the UN’s failure to intervene to stop this unfolding genocide in Palestine. His letter of resignation reads:
I write at a moment of great anguish for the world, including for many of our colleagues. Once again, we are seeing a genocide unfolding before our eyes, and the Organization that we serve is powerless to stop it… [T]he current wholesale slaughter of the Palestinian people, rooted in an ethno-nationalist settler colonial ideology, in continuation of decades of their systematic persecution and purging, based entirely upon their status as Arabs, and coupled with explicit statements of intent by leaders in the Israeli government and military, leaves no room for doubt or debate. In Gaza, civilian homes, schools, churches, mosques, and medical institutions are wantonly attacked as thousands of civilians are massacred. In the West Bank, including occupied Jerusalem, homes are seized and reassigned based entirely on race, and violent settler pogroms are accompanied by Israeli military units. Across the land, Apartheid rules. This is a text-book case of genocide. The European, ethno-nationalist, settler colonial project in Palestine has entered its final phase, toward the expedited destruction of the last remnants of indigenous Palestinian life in Palestine.
He said in a subsequent interview that:
Usually the most difficult part of proving genocide is intent, because there has to be an intention to destroy in whole or in part a particular group. In this case, the intent by Israeli leaders has been so explicitly stated and publicly stated—by the Prime Minister, by the President, by senior cabinet ministers, by military leaders—that that is an easy case to make. It’s on the public record… I feel quite confident as a human rights lawyer in saying that what I see unfolding in Gaza and beyond is genocide.
I think it is also worth cursorily reviewing how these genocidal ambitions are being expressed outside of the state. My list here is, it pains me to say, far from comprehensive. These are only a small number of illustrative snapshots of the bloodlust presently consuming Israeli civil society.
One prominent Israeli journalist took to Twitter to say:
One principle that needs to be abandoned today: proportionality. We need a disproportionate response. May Israel see what she is hiding in the basement. If all the captives are not returned immediately, turn the strip into a slaughterhouse. If a hair falls from their head – execute security prisoners. Violate any norm, on the way to victory—for them to see and be seen.
Another, with hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, posted that “Gaza should be wiped off the face of the earth.” Palestinians and Israelis alike understand the current bloodshed as a continuation of the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948. This same journalist also posted:
If we really understand what the war is now, it is a continuation of the War of Independence. We need to finish it with two important achievements. Area: Canceling the Green Line with Gaza and taking over all the open areas in the Gaza Strip from which there will be no withdrawal in any case. Population: Diluting the population of the Gaza Strip as much as possible by encouraging them to leave in a variety of ways. It depends only on us.
Yinon Magal, previously a member of the Knesset and another journalist with a third of a million followers, said that “It’s time for Nakba 2.”
On October 9, a Channel 2 News Anchor stated that “The world finally understands who the animals we are dealing with are. There are golden hours that are running out. This allows the IDF to exact a much heavier price from Gaza. Not only from Hamas. Everyone who is celebrating now in Gaza – should cry. It’s as simple as that. In Gaza they are still not begging for their lives. Neither Hamas nor the citizens. Wake up.”
Military correspondent for the Israel Broadcasting Authority Roy Sharon wrote, “In order to finally eliminate the military capabilities of Hamas…we need a million corpses. Then let there be a million corpses, or else we will not be able to get rid of it.” Israeli pop star Eyal Golan said in a message to Channel 14 News “Erase Gaza, leave not a single person there.”
In a televised interview with CNN’s Abby Phillip, Israeli soldier Betzalel Taljah “corrected” her softball question about how he and his fellow soldiers were preparing for a “prolonged war with Hamas,” and stated “The war is not just just with Hamas. The war is with all the civilians.”
A banner drop over the largest highway through Tel Aviv read “Victory Means Zero Population in Gaza.” Celebratory rallies of Israelis assembled singing “There’s no school in Gaza, because there are no children left in Gaza!”
In a massive Israeli telegram channel (with more than a hundred thousand members) called @dead_terrorists, Israelis share “comedically” captioned images of dead Palestinians, referring to them as “cockroaches” and “microbes” and making memes ridiculing and celebrating their deaths.31 On Israeli social media, images of Palestinian children with gun sights trained on them are being shared widely, captioned “Kill today the terrorists of tomorrow.”
In a podcast interview, the former Israeli ambassador to Russia said of Palestinians, “They have bestial Asian instinctive hatred which is inherent in animals. They are not people, but animals, with completely unhealthy, psychopathic instincts to destroy everything that is around. You should have seen this mass of primitive, cruel, defective, brutal population of Gaza, which came in the second wave after their militants. First the militants came, and then they [Gazan civilians] went in their flip-flops—dirty, unwashed, unshaven.”
Tzipi Navon, the director of Sara Netanyahu’s public office, posted the following on Facebook: “We keep saying to flatten Gaza. flatten Gaza. I think it’s not enough. It will not calm the storm of emotions, it will not dull the intensity of the thunder and pain that cannot find an outlet. Every time, when I am exposed to a video or a picture that illustrates the terrible horror that took place in our districts, I imagine the IDF capturing all the terrorists and residents of Gaza who participated in the massacre, gathering them in one place and broadcasting live so that the entire people of Israel can see, taking them one by one and anointing them well with pig fat, starting with the eyes. First their nails are pulled from their hands and feet, then pieces of skin are torn from different parts of the body. Little by little, in order to keep the creep from dying so that he has to suffer and endure as the scum is stripped of his skin, his genitals are cut off and they fry his testicles in canola oil and make him eat them, and so they slice him into pieces slowly and patiently (we have a lot of time). We save his tongue for the end, so that we can hear his screams.”
Running counter of Palestinian casualties on Israeli news station Channel 14, referring to all Palestinian dead (from infants to the elderly) as “Terrorists we eliminated.”
In the weeks since October 7, with the whole world’s eyes turned instead towards Gaza, settler pogroms have also driven more than 500 Palestinians from their homes in over a dozen different communities in the West Bank, while National Security Minister Ben Gvir has been personally distributing more weapons to West Bank settlers to carry out these attacks.32 In Salfit in the West Bank, settler extremists and pogromists left flyers on the windshields of Palestinians’ cars, which read,
You want war, so wait for the Great Nakba… You wanted a catastrophe similar to 1948, and by God a great catastrophe will descend on your heads soon. You have the last chance to escape to Jordan in an organized manner, after which we will destroy every enemy and forcefully expel you from our holy land… Grab your belongings immediately and leave wherever you are. Do you think we will come?
Other settler groups have sent messages to Palestinians that show a photo of themselves masked and posing with axes, chainsaws, and cans of gasoline, with text reading “To all the rats in the sewers of Qusra village, we are waiting for you and we will not mourn you. The day of revenge is coming.” In Qusra, settlers murdered three Palestinians, and then attacked their funeral procession the following day, killing two more.
According to the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din, there were one hundred separate settler attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank in the two weeks between October 7 and October 22. In the West Bank Bedouin village of Wadi al-Siq, three Palestinians were held captive by settlers and soldiers, who beat them, stripped them naked, urinated on them, extinguished lit cigarettes against their skin, and anally raped one of them with a foreign object. Leftist Israeli activists who showed up to help defend Palestinians in Wadi al-Siq from settlers were also attacked and beaten. In the words of one of these armed settlers, “All the [Jewish Israeli] leftists are traitors. I think we need to kill them all.” The activists’ phones were confiscated and the pictures and videos they had taken of the settler attack were deleted. This terrifying spike in settler attacks follows months of ethnic cleansing in the West Bank at their hands, which was even being discussed as another Nakba this summer.
I am hesitant to suggest a “descent into fascism” narrative about Israel. The State of Israel has always been fascistic in relation to its Palestinian subjects. In the entirety of Israel’s modern history, there were only a scarce few months where at least hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were not living under its martial law and military dictatorship: between the end of apartheid military rule over the subject class of Palestinians remaining after the Nakba in what became Israel (1949-1966) and the capture of the other Palestinian territories and the creation of the Israeli Military Governorate (1967 onwards).33 These systems of Israeli military rule over Palestinians can only be adequately described as totalitarian: through 1994, they entailed complete bans on any Palestinian political activity or freedom of expression; incarceration (often without trial or even charges) at rates far exceeding anything seen in Soviet gulags or the American prison-industrial complex; and state control over all areas of life through checkpoints, secret police, kangaroo courts, torture, and surveillance.34 Taken together with the racial ideology of the state, it is difficult to draw clear boundaries between the Israeli occupation regime and other fascist states historically.
That being said, a qualitative shift in Israeli civil society and political life has nevertheless been underway, as the fascism that characterizes the occupation has metastasized within the body politic on the other side of the Green Line. A campaign is being waged to eliminate checks on the government’s power, criminalize dissent, and strip so-called “enemies of the state” of civil and political rights. Netanyahu has led this effort with increasingly dark and fascistic language, moving the needle towards dictatorship ever further. In 2018, for example, Prime Minister Netanyahu declared that “In the Middle East, and in many parts of the world, there is a simple truth: There is no place for the weak. The weak crumble, are slaughtered and are erased from history while the strong, for good or for ill, survive. The strong are respected, and alliances are made with the strong, and in the end peace is made with the strong.”
Israel was rocked by mass protests during all of 2023 over Netanyahu’s push for “judicial reform.” His proposed reforms would consolidate power in the Knesset by limiting the courts’ independence and authority to review/reject laws the Knesset has passed. There are four main components to the judicial overhaul: removing the power of the Supreme Court and all lower courts to cancel government decisions deemed “extremely unreasonable” (officially passed this July); empowering the Knesset to overturn any Supreme Court decision about the legality of a given law with a simple majority (it seems this measure may not proceed); granting the government control over judicial appointments, including to the Supreme Court; and eliminating the requirement that government ministers obey the advice of their legal advisors. These have faced overwhelming opposition by the Israeli public, with two-thirds of voters polled rejecting each of these planks of the overhaul proposal.
There are two reasons the ruling far-right coalition has pushed these “reforms” forward anyway. First is the simple fact that Netanyahu himself is on trial for corruption, bribery, and fraud. The independence of the judiciary is an immediate threat to his position (and his freedom from a prison cell).35 Second, the judiciary is the last remaining governing institution in Israel that has not been captured by the far-right. With the courts weakened, restrictions on the government as it attempts to carry out racist programs disenfranchising and expelling Palestinian citizens will evaporate, as will the court’s minimal protections for Palestinians in the West Bank. Political rights of opponents of the state will exist only at the discretion of the government in power. With fascists at the helm and a war of opportunity in their laps, Israel is in the process of institutionalizing illiberal democracy in the spirit of Hungary’s Fidesz and Poland’s Law and Justice. And with the mobilization against Gaza, these Israeli protest movements have scuttled their opposition and lined up behind the cause of national defense.
Often in the same breath as the far-right in power makes threats of expelling Palestinian citizens from Israel, they slip in the parallel threat of stripping Israeli leftists of citizenship. A poll in August 2022 found that 64% of Israeli voters supported Ben-Gvir’s proposal to deport any citizen, Jewish or Palestinian, who opposes the army or the state. Over the past decade, the word “leftist” has become an epithet, synonymous with “traitor” and “Palestinian lover.” Even if one is a Jewish citizen of the Jewish state, Israel is a terrifying place to be a left-wing radical, where beatings by fascist thugs may soon escalate to killings and where one’s civil liberties hang by a thread. This too has accelerated since Israel unleashed a tidal wave of violence against the people of the Gaza Strip; dissent among Israeli citizens against the bombing campaign has been criminalized. Pro-ceasefire protesters have been attacked by police everywhere they assemble, fired from their jobs, doxxed and assaulted by fascists, and arrested for posts on social media. Any journalists covering demonstrations are themselves arrested; Israeli police are attempting to uphold a media blackout on dissent to the war. Detainees from peaceful demonstrations are being charged with “support for terrorism.” Some leftist Jewish Israelis have declared that “Israeli is now a full-scale dictatorship.”36
Left-wing journalist Israel Frey recited an Orthodox Jewish mourning prayer for the deaths of children in Gaza, for which he faced a literal mob attack by fascists. Scores of them surrounded his home and hurled fireworks at his windows.37 Police did escort him and his family out of the building, but these officers themselves spat on him, struck him, accused him of supporting Hamas, then promptly abandoned him while far-right rioters were still present. He fled on foot to a hospital, chased by the fascists, who hunted for him room by room through the hospital. He thankfully escaped and has spent the weeks since in hiding. The mob was clearly bent on violence, but it is not clear whether they planned only to beat him or to go further. Are they prepared to lynch a Jewish journalist over memorializing dead children? It’s difficult to say, although the number of death threats Frey has received suggests yes, at least for some of them. It is to these extragovernmental militia forces that Ben Gvir’s National Security Ministry is distributing weapons and directing to supervise and threaten any Palestinian (or pro-Palestinian) dissent.
In Haifa, an organization called Women in Black has been hosting a weekly “anti-occupation vigil” every Friday for more than forty years—which they have been previously allowed to do. Such actions are no longer allowed. Yoav Haifawi, a leftist Haifa blogger, writes of his experience at the October 13 vigil:
We stood there quietly on the Bahai Circle in the German Colony, some 20 of us, mostly older Jewish women. I held a banner saying ‘No to revenge, For prisoners exchange,’ which was about the most radical choice available. Soon, the police came and explained that ‘because of the situation,’ no political demonstrations were allowed. When the organizers tried to argue with them, they simply forcefully took the banners from our hands and confiscated them along with the banners lying on the ground.
Two weeks later, police ransacked his home, confiscating any “political” material they could find (including his wife’s paintings).
This repression has been hurled against the families of hostages held by Hamas as well. These families have been remarkably united against the bombing campaign in favor of an exchange of prisoners, an “all for all” deal—Israel holds thousands of Palestinian prisoners, many of whom are convicted of nothing and indeed face no charges at all, over a thousand of whom are children, and Hamas has been able to trade hostages for the freedom of such prisoners in the past. The families of the hostages hope the same exchange deal can be struck, contrary to the government’s policy, and also broadly blame Netanyahu for the extent of the carnage on October 7. He sees these Israeli families as a political threat, and they are ongoing targets of police violence. Meanwhile, the indiscriminate Israeli bombing has reportedly killed 60 of these hostages—their loved ones—already.
On October 15, the Israeli Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi proposed emergency regulations allowing the state to arrest citizens and journalists who publish content deemed to “harm national morale” by being critical of the Israeli war effort. He also put forward a proposal that would empower his ministry to shut down media broadcasts and confiscate broadcasting equipment if an outlet’s output is deemed “harmful” to national security or public order, or as “enemy propaganda.”38 (This was approved by the government on October 20, granting Karhi the power to shut down, for example, Al Jazeera.)39 Kobi Shabtai, the Israeli Chief of Police, announced on October 18 that there would be “zero tolerance” for demonstrations in solidarity with Gaza. He quipped sarcastically, “Anyone who wants to identify with Gaza is welcome — I’ll put them on buses that will send them there.”40
Even private meetings against the war have been made illegal. On October 25, police shut down a joint Arab-Jewish indoor (i.e. non-protest) meeting in Haifa hosted by the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Affairs—the quite mainstream civic body representing the interests of Palestinian citizens of Israel, composed of Knesset members and heads of local government—on the grounds that they were “extreme elements” intent on “hold[ing] an event against the state and its action against Hamas.” Chairman of the High Follow-Up Committee Muhammad Bracha responded that “This step is extremely dangerous and expresses the worsening of the fascist and anti-democratic attack, and is part of a political blockade against the Arab citizens, which includes preventing dialogue with the progressive and democratic forces in Jewish society.”
Flyer of the High Follow-Up Committee announcing the planned October 26 meeting. “Faced with the attempt to build high fences between the Jewish and Arab public in Israel with the aim of aim of isolating the Arab society and giving free rein to fascist incitement against it, the High Follow-Up Committee decided to hold an emergency meeting based on the following five elements:
• A call for an immediate end to the war
• A call for an immediate exchange of prisoners and hostages
• A call for citizens’ complete removal from cycles of violence and enmity
• A call for a political solution based on the principles of justice, peace, and equality
• A call to stop the persecution and incitement of the establishment and the racist gangs against workers, students, political activists, and elected officials.
These ideas will be at the heart of the joint Arab-Jewish discussion and thinking that we wish to conduct.”
This is what has been repressed and forcibly silenced by the Israeli state as “extreme elements.”
In interviews with international media, Ofer Cassif (a Jewish-Israeli Marxist politician of the leftist Arab-Jewish Hadash party) accused the Israeli government of carrying out a massacre in Gaza. He argued the following:
We condemn and oppose any assault on innocent civilians. But in contrast to the Israeli government that means that we oppose any assault on Palestinian civilians as well. We must analyze those terrible incidents [the October 7 Al-Aqsa Flood attacks] in the right context – and that is the ongoing occupation… We have been warning time and time again…[that] everything is going to erupt and everybody is going to pay a price – mainly innocent civilians on both sides. And unfortunately, that is exactly what happened… The Israeli government, which is a fascist government, supports, encourages, and leads pogroms against the Palestinians. There is an ethnic cleansing going on. It was obvious the writing was on the wall, written in the blood of the Palestinians – and unfortunately now Israelis as well.
For these remarks, the Knesset Ethics Committee announced on October 18 that Cassif would be suspended from the Knesset for forty-five days.41 Cassif called this “another nail in the coffin of freedom of expression” in Israel. This is not the first time left-wing politicians have been arbitrarily removed from office for their opposition to the occupation, and new Knesset rules from a controversial 2016 law allow the body to permanently remove any of its members from office with a 75% majority vote if they are believed to support armed struggle against the state. This is of course a slippery standard. Any opposition to the bombing or ground invasion is framed in present Israeli discourse as defense of Hamas and implicit support for armed attacks on Israelis.
Hundreds of Israeli citizens (Jewish and Palestinian alike, but of course primarily Palestinian) have been arrested for posts on social media against bombing Gaza, or even liking posts making these arguments.42 Even essentially apolitical posts offering prayers for the people of Gaza have brought down arbitrary arrest, often in the middle of the night. This air of repression also has a mass character. In Israel’s universities, for example, right-wing student groups are systematically scouring through years of social media posts by Palestinian students and professors in pursuit of any criticizing the occupation, opposing Israeli bombings, or displaying the Palestinian flag. They exploit the current political climate to bring down expulsions and firings. The mayor of Rahat (a Bedouin city) was arrested for “aiding the enemy during wartime” because he posted a brief, neutral analysis of possible scenarios for Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza on Facebook. A Palestinian Israeli teacher in Tiberias was fired merely for following an Instagram account called “Eye on Palestine.” Sharaf Hassan, chairman of the Follow Up Committee for Arab Education, states plainly, “To use American terms, this is textbook Mccarthyism.” In the words of Adalah general director Hassan Jabareen,
Any expression of solidarity with the Palestinian civilian victims, opposing the war on Gaza, or calling it a war crime is being perceived as support for terror or a terrorist organization. These arrests and measures indicate that all institutions are now implementing the policy of Ben Gvir, who sees Arab citizens as enemies. I can’t make any distinction between Ben Gvir and the police, the attorney general, and the universities.
Even reading materials published by Hamas-affiliated outlets (i.e. any details about Palestinian casualties in Gaza) may soon result in a one-year prison sentence under a proposed amendment to the 2016 Counter-Terrorism Law.
While Israeli citizens who dare oppose the war on social media find police at their doors, the most nauseatingly racist and dehumanizing “content” imaginable is viral all over Israeli TikTok. In these videos, Israelis are donning hijabs, applying makeupped-on unibrows, acting out comic skits of Palestinian terror and suffering, and laughingly flicking on and off their lights and pouring themselves glasses of water to mock Gaza’s lack of electricity and drinkable water. It would be impossible for me to adequately describe the sickening nature of these TikToks—I can only ask that you watch some of them, and internalize the extent to which Zionism’s genocidal logic has poisoned the humanity of Israeli civil society.
Twitter post by Israeli “human rights lawyer” (i.e. anti-BDS legal advocate) Arsen Ostrovsky.
Earlier in 2023, Ben Gvir pushed forward a proposal allowing the police to use live fire against Israeli protesters blocking roads. It got no traction at the time, but is now being moved ahead, with Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara agreeing to fast-track the legislation amid the current “emergency.” This past Thursday, Interior Minister Moshe Arbel unveiled a proposal to strip citizenship from any Israeli expressing “solidarity with Hamas.”
The evidence at this point is, in my view, unmistakable: Israel is a fascist society, in the classical sense. It is not merely governed by populist right-wing would-be authoritarians, or fond of dog whistle racism, or other qualities characterizing the right-wing nationalist resurgence internationally that is often loosely given the label “fascist.” It is the real deal. Fascism in Israel has a mass character—there are violent street movements attacking enemies of the state while carrying out the settler project of ethnic cleansing block by block with the state’s simultaneous approval and (im)plausible deniability. And the end goal of this fascism is the expulsion of all Palestinians, killing all who refuse to leave, and the violent suppression of all democratic elements of Israeli society who would object to this.
In Benny Morris’s 2004 interview with Haaretz that I quoted above, he said,
If you are asking me whether I support the transfer and expulsion of the Arabs from the West Bank, Gaza, and perhaps even from Galilee and the Triangle [i.e. ethnically cleansing even those Israeli citizens who are Palestinian], I say not at this moment. I am not willing to be a partner to that act. In the present circumstances it is neither moral nor realistic. The world would not allow it, the Arab world would not allow it, it would destroy the Jewish society from within. But I am ready to tell you that in other circumstances, apocalyptic ones, which are liable to be realized in five or ten years, I can see expulsions.
It is precisely this perceived apocalyptic circumstance that Israeli society now finds itself in, where genocide as a political solution to the conflict is now out in the open and on the table, where the far-right leadership in power and large swaths of the population at large believe it to be an existential necessity, and where the opportunity to carry it out with the blessing of the world’s imperial powers has arrived. As Morris puts it, in reply to the journalist’s accusation that he is embracing “the killing of thousands of people, the destruction of an entire society”: “A society that aims to kill you forces you to destroy it. When the choice is between destroying or being destroyed, it’s better to destroy.”
Although the Israeli state would perhaps prefer it otherwise, a “mere” expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza will not be possible. Even if evacuation corridors to Egypt were open, vast numbers of Palestinians will refuse to go. When Israeli military orders went out to evacuate the northern part of Gaza, many openly defied it.43 The memory of the Nakba is alive in Gaza like nowhere else on earth. Fully 70% of the people of Gaza are refugees, ethnically cleansed from the land that is now Israel, or direct descendants of those who were. They know from the experience of their own families that if they ever leave, if Israel is able to drive them from their land, they will never be allowed to return. They will become permanently double or even triple refugees.
Instead, if the Israeli state seeks a massive population removal, as it seems absolutely intent upon, they will need to systematically kill Palestinians by the tens or hundreds of thousands. This is the road to genocide that the settler state is driving down, to the cheers of its voters and with the unconditional support of its allies. They are well on their way—in a matter of hours, the Palestinian death toll will break ten thousand.
Where does this leave us?
Despite the incredible moral and physical courage of the anti-Zionist Israeli far left, it is clear that there are no social forces within Israeli society capable of putting a halt to the genocidal state. Those resisters will in all likelihood be targeted themselves for incarceration or far-right mob violence in the coming days and weeks. Our strategic orientation must instead be focused on obstructing Israel’s ambitions from without: cutting off aid and diplomatic support from its imperialist allies, shutting down shipments of arms and supplies through direct actions, and militantly reorienting discourse and attention internationally on the existential stakes of this bloodshed for all Palestinians. If Israel is able to reoccupy and ethnically cleanse northern Gaza without punishment, without being starved for resources, it will do the same to the rest of Gaza and to the West Bank.
We face, as is so often the case, the impermeability of the bourgeois state to popular opinion. When asked their view on whether the US should leverage its diplomatic relationship with Israel to demand a ceasefire—a stance that the Biden administration rejects outright and even slanders as antisemitic—fully 80% of Democrats, 57% of independents, and 56% of Republicans agreed. Twelve percent, 31%, and 34% respectively disagreed. The question of Israel’s right to pummel Gaza with the explosive equivalent of two nuclear bombs is a gaping chasm between the conscience of the people and the inhumanity of their rulers. We are then left with direct action, as in efforts to halt arms shipments by worker-activist alliances (examples here and here). Sabotage of complicit corporate activities and confrontations with the US foreign policy apparatus in DC and abroad will be required. Courage, conscience, and comradeship to you all. To save the people of Palestine, we are called to fight the state.Leave a comment