Israel’s New Leaders Won’t Stop “Death to Arabs” Chants, but They Will Feel Bad About Them

Israel's "change coalition" facilitated, then criticized, a Jewish supremacist rally in East Jerusalem, where Palestinians were threatened by racists and assaulted by the police.

15 June 2021, Israel, Jerusalem: People gather at the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem with flags of Israel during the controversial Flag March, organized by Israeli right-wing nationalists. Photo: Ilia Yefimovich/dpa (Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Ultranationalist Israelis rallied at the Damascus Gate in occupied East Jerusalem on Tuesday to celebrate Israel’s military conquest of the Old City in 1967. Photo: Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images

Palestinians in Jerusalem were given a stark demonstration of how little has changed for them since Israel’s so-called change coalition took power this week, as they watched Israeli police officers close the center of the Old City to its Palestinian residents on Tuesday so that Jewish supremacists could wave Israeli flags and chant “Death to Arabs” outside their homes.

Ahmad Tibi, a member of the Joint List, an alliance of Palestinian parties in Israel’s parliament, told reporters before the march that since the new government had made the same decision as the one led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to enable it, “it seems that in these issues — national and political issues — there is no change, as they are claiming.”

The decision by Israel’s new government to allow the provocative march to take place was also criticized by the leader of the only Palestinian faction in the new coalition government, Mansour Abbas, who pointed to the country’s legal framework for restricting freedom of speech when it is likely that an expression could cause “real harm” to public safety or incite violence or racism.

Before the rally, Abbas said that the public security minister and the police should have canceled the march on just those grounds, calling it “an unbridled provocation, which is based on shouts of hatred and incitement to violence, and an attempt to set the area on fire for political reasons.”

After video of the “Death to Arabs” chant and others celebrating ethnic cleansing and murder circulated online, one of the Israeli coalition’s leaders praised the police for securing the march but denounced the young religious extremists who called for the murder of the city’s non-Jewish residents.

That, it seemed to many observers, is the extent of change on offer from Israel’s post-Netanyahu government: facilitating a racist rally intended to demoralize and terrify the millions of Palestinians who live under Israeli rule without equal rights, but feeling bad about it.

The criticism was tweeted in Hebrew by Yair Lapid, the new Israeli foreign minister who assembled the “change coalition” that took power on Sunday. Lapid wrote that the annual march past Palestinian homes to celebrate Israel’s military conquest of the Old City in 1967 had to be permitted but denounced the racist chanting, even though it is heard year after year.

“It’s inconceivable how one can hold the flag of Israel and chant ‘Death to Arabs’ at the same time,” Lapid tweeted. “This isn’t Judaism, it isn’t Israeli, and it definitely isn’t what our flag represents. These people are a disgrace to Israel.”

Palestinians and their supporters were unmoved by Lapid’s criticism, which was hedged by praise for the police, and made no mention of other viral videos, which showed Israeli officers assaulting Palestinians, some for merely holding their own flag or sweeping up after the rally.

The Palestinian American activist Ali Abunimah dismissed Lapid’s comments by comparing them to the genre of autobiographical Israeli films known as “shooting and crying,” in which liberal Zionists recount their personal distress at having to fight Israel’s wars.

Nooran Alhamdan, a research fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., pointed to the double standards of some defenders of Israel. “Palestinians are constantly forced to clarify what they mean by ‘from the river to the sea,’ & even when clarified have their intentions assumed, meanwhile a significant portion of Israeli society finds nothing wrong with ‘death to Arabs’ & we’re told ‘they don’t really mean that,’ Alhamdan wrote. “We’re expected to extend grace to fascists because ‘they could be uneducated’ or ‘that’s what they were taught they don’t know any better’ while Zionists and supporters of Israel go out of their way to ruin the lives of Palestinians based on our words.”

Nadim Houry, executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative, tweeted that the muted reaction to the chants was “Another example of double standards in the way media/pundits cover region. Groups of young Israelis chant ‘death to Arabs’ -> Little mainstream outrage. Portrayed as marginal phenomenon in Israeli society. Palestinian or Arab says something hateful, whole society deemed violent.”

Video of the racist chanting, recorded by Nir Hasson, who covers Jerusalem for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, generated widespread disgust among American progressives, including Rep. Jamaal Bowman, the New York Democrat. “This is a genocidal chant. Let’s call it what it is,” Bowman commented. “I represent many within the Jewish community who disavow and condemn this hateful language,” he added. “So why does only a small portion of our Congress?”

Yanal Jbareen, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who also reports for Haaretz, tweeted that the ultranationalist mob was so eager to taunt and insult Palestinians that they turned on him and his colleagues. “The only Arabs at Damascus Gate during the march were us journalists,” Jbareen reported. “We were physically assaulted, cursed the Prophet Mohammed in front of us & threw flags at us and our colleagues.”

Despite the ugliness of the rally, Israel’s new security minister, Omer Bar-Lev, tweeted praise for the police and retweeted praise for himself from a member of the previous government.

That struck observers like Daniel Seidemann, the director of Terrestrial Jerusalem, as odd, because Bar-Lev, a former peace activist from the center-left Labor Party, had called for the march to be canceled just 10 days ago, when he was in the opposition, to deny the extremists an opportunity to incite violence.

Sarit Michaeli, the international advocacy officer for the Israeli rights group B’Tselem, joined in the criticism of the new coalition’s security minister. “Anyone who allowed hundreds of Jewish supremacists with their leaders … anywhere near the Damascus gate, should have known they will end up with chants of death to the Arabs,” she wrote. Bar-Lev, Michaeli added, “failed his first big test.”

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