Epitomizing freedom: an Israeli soldier aims a gas grenade launcher at a Palestinian demonstrator in the occupied West Bank. (Oren Ziv/ActiveStills)
The world is suffering from a “freedom recession” according to a new report from the American think tank Freedom House (“Freedom in the World 2010,” 12 January 2010).
Established in 1941, Freedom House markets itself as “an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.” Its board of directors, chaired by a former US deputy secretary of defense, is a who’s who of Democratic and Republican former US government officials, prominent neoconservatives and Israel lobby stalwarts such as Tom Dine, former executive director of AIPAC. In 2007, more than two-thirds of its $16 million budget came directly from the United States government.
Not surprisingly then, Freedom House’s report reveals more about the groupthink of the US establishment — especially with respect to its continued efforts to dominate the Middle East and ensure Israel’s supremacy — than it does about the countries surveyed.
Focusing on two categories of “freedom” — “civil liberties” and “political rights” — the report divides the world’s 194 countries into three groups: “free” (89), “partly free” (58), and “not free” (47).
Interestingly, Freedom House records “declines in freedom” in “countries that had registered positive trends in previous years, including Bahrain, Jordan, Kenya and Kyrgyzstan.” Jordan was one of only six countries to move from the “partly free” category to “not free.” What does it say about US “democracy promotion” that Jordan, Bahrain and Kyrgyzstan — major political and military operating bases for the “war on terror” and US-led occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan — have become less free as their dependence on the US has increased?
Sadly, while the report frets that “the most powerful authoritarian regimes [such as Russia and China] have become more repressive, more influential in the international arena, and more uncompromising,” it has nothing at all to say about the US role in restricting freedom and spreading mayhem around the world. Sometimes this is truly absurd as the report points to “continued terrorist and insurgent violence in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen,” but fails to note that two of these countries are under direct US military occupation (Afghanistan and Iraq) while the US is intervening militarily in the other three. (The report presents a mixed picture for the US-occupied countries; both are “Not Free” but Iraq allegedly became more free during 2009 and Afghanistan less free.)
Rather than offer any introspection on the inverse relationship between US efforts at global domination on the one hand, and the spread of freedom on the other, the report’s overview essay concludes with a call for more vigorous intervention: “The United States and other democracies should take the initiative to meet the authoritarian challenge …”
Freedom House’s approach to Israel provides the starkest example of the abyss into which liberal thinking has fallen on the relationship between colonialism and freedom. Israel, we are told, “remains the only country in the [Middle East] region to hold a Freedom in the World designation of Free.” We are informed euphemistically that “The beginning of the year  was marred by fierce fighting between the Israeli military and the Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip.”
There is no mention of the deliberate targeting by Israel of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure and the resulting massive destruction, and death and injury to thousands of Palestinian civilians. Nothing is said of the denial of fundamental political, civil and human rights, or freedom of movement, association and education to four million Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation and siege in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There is no mention of the systematic discrimination, and social and political exclusion faced by 1.5 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, nor of the denial of the right of return of millions of Palestinian refugees.
There is an acknowledgment that “Hundreds of people were arrested during demonstrations against the Gaza conflict, and the parliamentary elections committee passed a measure banning two political parties from national elections, though the ban was quickly overturned by the Supreme Court.”
Despite this, on the tables accompanying the report, “Israel” receives the highest score of “1” for political rights, and a very respectable “2” for civil liberties — on a par with Italy and Japan. The overall impression is of minor glitches that could occur in any exemplary “Western” democracy.
Then on a separate table of “Disputed Territories” we find “Israeli-occupied territories” and “Palestinian Authority-administered territories” both listed. Both are given the designation “Not Free” and nearly the lowest scores for political rights and civil liberties. There is no narrative to explain who is responsible for this dire state of affairs. This convenient separation allows for all the ugly realities of what “free” Israel does in the occupied territories to be pushed out of sight and ignored.
But in what scheme can Israel be awarded freest of the free status when for two-thirds of its existence, since 1967, it has ruled directly over millions of disenfranchised Palestinians through violence and repression? The idea that the political regime in Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries can be looked at as a “democracy” even while the situation in the occupied territories can be criticized as undemocratic is very widespread among Israelis and American liberals.
Former US President Jimmy Carter has been excoriated (and recently forced to apologize) by the Israel lobby for calling the situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip “apartheid.” Yet even he had simultaneously claimed that within its pre-1967 boundaries, “Israel is a wonderful democracy with equal treatment of all citizens whether Arab or Jew.” True, Palestinian citizens of Israel can vote and are accorded civil rights far wider than their Palestinian counterparts in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But even Israeli Jews commonly concede that Palestinian citizens suffer systematic and severe disadvantage and total exclusion from key political decisions about the country.
Israeli Jewish leftists (a rapidly dwindling group) and Western liberal sympathizers tend to view Israel within its 1967 boundaries as a flawed democracy — perfectible with a reallocation of resources and less discrimination against non-Jews, even as they remain fully invested in maintaining Israel as a “Jewish state” with a Jewish demographic majority.
They view the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as the original sin that corrupted a purer Zionist vision, and thus remain fixated on the chimera of “ending the occupation” through a “two-state solution.” Once this nirvana is reached, so they believe, Israel can resume its destiny as a liberal democratic state among others.
But it is not just the discrimination and limited rights of Palestinian citizens and other non-Jews that undermine the claim that Israel — considered separately from the West Bank and Gaza Strip — is a democracy. Nor is it even that Israeli settler-citizens in the West Bank have full voting rights for the Israeli parliament while Palestinians in the same territory have none. It is that “Israel” and the “occupied territories” are two sides of the same coin.
Israel’s 1948 and subsequent ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, and ongoing repressive rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are not exceptional or temporary conditions. They are constitutive of the situation that allows Israeli Jews to currently claim they live in a (flawed) liberal democracy.
To be clear, the argument is not that conditions in Israel and the occupied territories are indistinguishable; rather it is that they form a single interdependent system. Israeli Jews can “freely” elect a Jewish government in Israel only because most Palestinians have already been ethnically cleansed. Thus the maintenance of this “liberal democratic” Jewish space depends directly on the permanent denial of fundamental rights to Palestinians.
Palestinian citizens of Israel — who form 20 percent of the population within Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries — are, as noted, accorded limited liberal rights. This helps boost Israel’s external image as a “wonderful democracy,” but if the exercise of these rights ever threatens Jewish domination, they are curtailed. Examples include the constant legal harassment of Palestinian members of the Knesset, and various legislative projects for loyalty oaths or to ban commemoration of the Nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians. Overwhelming Israeli Jewish opposition to calls by Palestinians in Israel for the country to be a “state of all its citizens” is an indication that Israeli Jews value their own supremacy over democracy.
Israel has sometimes been described as an “ethnocracy” — a state where one ethnic group dominates and enjoys a wide range of liberal rights which are denied to others. But these liberal rights depend directly on the successful repression of the non-privileged ethnic group(s). As rebellions by the disenfranchised require ever greater levels of repression and violence to control, the repression must also be turned inwards.
In recent days, Israel extended for six months a ban on Sheikh Raed Salah, an Israeli citizen, and leader of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, from traveling to Jerusalem, Israel’s ostensible capital, where he had been exercising his civil rights to campaign against Israeli efforts to “Judaize” the city. (Separately Salah was also sentenced to nine months in prison for allegedly assaulting a police officer during a 2007 demonstration; a conviction condemned as political persecution by other Palestinian leaders inside Israel.)
Such repression does not only affect non-Jews. The United Nations-commissioned Goldstone report noted “that actions of the Israeli government” within Israel, during and after Israel’s invasion of Gaza last winter, “including interrogation of political activists, repression of criticism and sources of potential criticism of Israeli military actions, in particular nongovernmental organizations, have contributed significantly to a political climate in which dissent with the government and its actions in the Occupied Territories is not tolerated.”
These means of “internal” repression resemble the movement bans, censorship and other forms of harassment that the South African apartheid regime began to deploy in its late stages against dissenting whites, eroding the “liberal democratic” space they had for so long enjoyed at the expense of the country’s black majority.
Maintaining a Jewish-controlled “liberal democratic” regime in Palestine/Israel is incompatible with the exercise of the inalienable rights of Palestinians. It emphatically depends on their permanent violation, especially the right of return. But the exercise of the inalienable rights of Palestinians — an end to discrimination against Palestinian citizens, dismantling the 1967 occupation regime, and the right of return for refugees — is fully compatible with Israeli Jews exercising the human, civil, political and cultural rights to which they are unquestionably entitled.
As a first step toward imagining and creating such a framework, we have to ditch the absurd idea reproduced by Freedom House, that Israeli Jews can epitomize perfect freedom while imposing perfect tyranny and dispossession on a greater number of human beings who belong to the same country.
Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.