The strong reaction by left-wing Israelis to the recently passed “boycott law” must have astounded many in the country’s right-wing government and made them wonder why such a strong reaction now. The controversial law penalizes anyone who calls for an economic, academic or cultural boycott of Israel or its West Bank settlements.
For more than four decades successive, democratically-elected Israeli governments have been working assiduously to establish and enlarge illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, beyond the 1949 armistice line that marked Israel’s boundary until the 1967 war. A large number of enactments were passed increasing the linkage between the settlements and Israel making it possible for an Israeli citizen living in one of these West Bank settlements to be considered as living in Israel — even though no country considers the West Bank part of Israel.
This was done through passing laws and rules that applied Israeli income tax laws and other fundamental legislation to those living beyond the boundaries of the state. Over the years successive governments allocated billions of dollars to the settlement project — resources that should have gone to finance development of deprived sectors of Israeli society, in particular Palestinian citizens of Israel who disproportionately make up Israel’s growing ranks of people living below the poverty line. Throughout the left remained acquiescent, rarely, if ever, making its voice heard.
Nor was there a strong reaction when in 1981 the dual system of law was developed in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip through the creation of the Civil Administration. This gave rise to the dual system of law and administration whereby Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs living in the same area of the West Bank were subject to different and discriminatory laws and administrative structures. In 1995 this system was consolidated by the Oslo accords whereby through an Israeli Military Proclamation the Israeli Military Commander of the West Bank transferred some of the powers over civil matters that he exercised as Head of the Civilian Administration to the Palestinian Authority and its Palestinian head. This did not include powers over 60 percent of the territory dubbed Area C which were retained intact under the jurisdiction of the Israeli Head of the Civilian Administration that was never abolished. Notably, according to the Oslo accords and subsequent agreements, except for Area A comprising some of the Palestinian cities, the Palestinian Authority does not exercise jurisdiction over land, but only over Palestinian people. It has no authority, for example, over Israeli settlers who enter areas under its control.
It is only fair to mention that over the years there were Israelis on the left who were able to see the danger to their country posed by the consolidation of the settlements and their annexation in every aspect except by name to Israel. Yet the majority remained passive and uncritical.
Now that it has become accepted throughout the world that the presence of Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands occupied in 1967 constitutes the most serious obstacle to the creation of a Palestinian state, the left in Israel seems to have woken up from its long slumber. As part of their struggle against the boycott law they have submitted a challenge against its constitutionality to the Israeli high court.
While the left vacillated the settlement lobby worked diligently at increasing its political power, becoming a force to be reckoned with. But perhaps their greatest success was to convince most of their countrymen that the territory occupied in 1967 belongs to Israel and challenging Israel’s hold on it whether by calling for the boycott of goods produced there or through any other means is tantamount to threatening Israel itself. This seems to weaken the hope that a change of direction regarding withdrawal from the settlements can occur through a change of policy engineered from within the country itself. It merely strengthens the position of those who argue that only external pressure brought about through boycotts and other political means will convince Israel to change its colonial course.
Raja Shehadeh is the author of Palestinian Walks, Forays into a Vanishing Landscape, which won the Orwell Prize for Political Writing and more recently A Rift in Time: Travels with my Ottoman Uncle.