By Anna Violante

On Saturday 28 October, for the first time since the 7 October Hamas attack on southern Israel and the start of Israel’s war on Gaza, a few hundred Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv to call for a ceasefire. They chose to meet at the Israeli military headquarters on Kaplan Street, where tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators had gathered every Saturday night since January 2023. A few hundred metres away, families of Hamas hostages held a separate protest demanding a prisoner exchange: Israeli captives in Gaza for Palestinians held on security charges in Israel. Some of the hostages’ families joined the peace activists. That evening, the demonstrators were not attacked by the police because of the proximity of the victims’ families, but the crackdown by the authorities and right-wingers on Palestinians and opponents of the regime had already begun.

Since 8 October, ordinary Israeli Palestinians have lived in fear of being attacked in the streets or even at home by right-wing extremists shouting ‘death to Arabs’.   Those who have dared to post on social networks in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, or simply to call for a ceasefire, have been arrested, lost their jobs or even been threatened in a public speech by the police chief with being sent to Gaza.

In an interview with Time magazine, journalist, activist and left-wing Hadash party MK Touman-Sliman recalls that Minister of National Security Ben-Gvir allowed ordinary Jewish citizens to buy and use weapons for self-defence, that Israeli authorities arrested several senior Israeli Arab leaders for organising a protest vigil against the ongoing war in Gaza, and that Netanyahu and his government are pursuing the political goal of conquering Gaza and annexing large parts of the West Bank.

For left-wing Jewish activists, the repression hasn’t been much softer. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports on the emblematic case of Dr Meir Baruchin, a teacher of civics and history in Jerusalem, who was released on Monday 13 November after spending five days in prison without being charged. Only a few days earlier, the police had asked to keep him in custody for “indicating a decision to commit treason, a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison”.  He had only called for a ceasefire in Gaza on his Facebook page. Although he avoided a severe criminal punishment, he was fired from the high school where he taught. “Baruchin was used as a political tool,” the paper continues, “to send a political message. The motive for his arrest was deterrence – to silence any criticism or hint of protest against Israeli policies”.

If demonstrations by relatives of hostages demanding the immediate and safe release of their loved ones have always been tolerated, those demonstrating against the bombardments in Gaza or the abuses and killings in the West Bank have so far “violated the law”, even if they’re Orthodox Haredi Jews. That’s the case with Jerusalem’s anti-Zionist community, who were recently beaten by the police for holding signs demanding equal rights for Jews and Palestinians.

After a few and small demonstrations ended in clashes with right-wingers and police, last Saturday’s joint rallies of captives’ families and Jewish-Palestinian peace activists across the country were not attacked. Among the slogans calling for negotiations to free the hostages and a ceasefire in Gaza, they all demanded Netanyahu’s resignation, accusing him of “doing nothing to secure the hostages” release.

But the Prime Minister has no intention of stepping down, nor does he want to stop the war on Gaza. On 6 November, he simply ignored an open letter by 35 high-profile human rights groups. The letter entitled “A joint Jewish-Arab declaration for peace” called on the government to immediately “promote a broad prisoner deal, stop harming innocent civilians, act to curb the rampant settler violence in the West Bank, and end the persecution and oppression of Palestinian citizens of Israel and those who express solidarity with the residents of Gaza and oppose the war”. The declaration ends with a phrase shared by many inside and outside Israel: “There are no winners in war. Only peace will bring security.”

Those most convinced of the futility of this war are a group of former soldiers called Breaking the Silence, who before 7 October organised tours to Hebron to show people what was happening in the West Bank, often facing stone-throwing by settlers.

With the situation in the West Bank so tense, they have now stopped, but are still speaking out in a newsletter to their supporters. In the latest, dated 13 November, senior director Nadav Weiman expresses no surprise at the bombing of Gaza: “The army is following the same doctrine it used in previous operations. The Dahiya Doctrine,” he writes,  “was formulated around the 2006 Lebanon War. Its main tenet was: disproportionate attacks. The heavy bombings in the 2006 Lebanon War were meant to create deterrence. They did not wipe out Hezbollah, which has grown stronger. Israel also used this doctrine during the last ground invasion of Gaza in 2014.

The doctrine is based on the idea of “rounds” of fighting, as they’re referred to in Israel. It’s not meant to be decisive, but to postpone and deter the next, inevitable, round. It looks like our government is choosing to repeat, albeit with greater intensity, what it has unsuccessfully done in previous rounds. Under the Dahiya Doctrine, the result is always the same – pushing the long-term security farther out of reach in favour of a short-term sense of calm.

Israel went to war because of a criminal, horrific massacre. If we keep harming a population that has done nothing wrong, a population more than 40% of which is under the age of 15, our only achievement will be perpetuating the cycle of violence and bloodshed.
What will the day after the war look like?  the answer must take into account a free and safe future for everyone – citizens of Israel, residents of Gaza, and yes, residents of the West Bank too. Otherwise, the next war is only a matter of time.”

*photo by Taylor Brandon on Unsplash