[This article was written as a commentary on the Israeli domestic divide that took place in the months prior to the current [October 2023] Israeli assault on Gaza.]
As far as the Palestinians are concerned, the domestic Zionist crisis prior to the war on Gaza was more than a political affair. Both ends of the Zionist spectrum – “liberal” Zionism and the extreme right – lean on the same conceptual and sensory building blocks directing the Zionist project towards Palestine and the Palestinians: the shoehorning of a biblical narrative into a modern political project, Jewish supremacy and exclusive sovereignty, a victimized mindset that demands indefinite militarization, and a settler-colonial logic of elimination that seeks to dispossess and replace the Palestinians politically, culturally, demographically and geographically (1). However, what distinguishes this crisis, as this paper seeks to explain, is a struggle over the political physics of the colonial system of elimination: its movement, rhythm, velocity, density, and spatial formation (2).
The eliminatory system adopted by liberal Zionism which currently makes up the Israeli opposition, and which has prevailed since 1948, operates according to a statist, complex and fragmentary structures, whereby different political institutions are brought into a relationship governed by a matrix of “checks and balances”. This system allows these bodies – the government, the opposition, the security establishment, the judiciary, civil society groups and so on – each to play a role (albeit an unequal one) in influencing how strategies of erasure and colonial expansion are crystallized and reshaped, modifying them according to local and global circumstances.
In particular, the Israeli judiciary, which has broad authority in its current form, plays a key role in modifying strategies of erasure and granting them “legal” legitimacy. This role is found in all the fundamental issues: from the drafting of legal definitions and rulings that permit Jewish supremacy and exclusive sovereignty (such as the Nation State Law), to the restructuring and legalization of mechanisms for the displacement of Palestinians, the confiscation of their land, and the establishment of colonies (such as the precedent-setting 1979 court decision over the outpost of Elon Moreh). It also legitimizes colonial violence in all its direct, “pre-emptive” and collective manifestations: house demolitions, closures, withdrawing of residency, deportation and so on.
Yet simultaneously, the Israeli judiciary sets the limits of these policies, regulating their rhythm and intensity by defining, differentiating, and calibrating between what is “acceptable” and what is “excessive” (unacceptable or undesired) violence. For example, the Israeli Supreme Court does not permit settlement outpost construction on lands whose Palestinian owners have been able to prove their private ownership of it, and in some cases has ruled that those outposts be demolished. Likewise, in some exceptional cases, the Israeli judiciary has mitigated the violence or damage resulting from Israel’s colonial policies, such as in Supreme Court rulings that modified the course of the Separation Wall in a way that reduces its acquisition of Palestinian lands, even if only marginally. The Supreme Court has also played a role in prosecuting perpetrators of “excessive” violence (albeit in rare cases and with minimal sentences), as was the case in soldier Elior Azaria’s killing of Abdel Fattah Al-Sharif as he lay wounded on the ground in the city of Hebron.
Accordingly, the role of the Israeli judiciary as regulators, as with those of the various legislative and governmental bodies, is based on a structural procedural pattern and an extended, lengthy, and extendable temporality. This temporal pattern of the judiciary is tied to a bureaucratic procedure whereby time is relatively fixed, predetermined, and extends into the future: legal proceedings, session dates, legal appeals through various courts in a hierarchical manner, etc. Seen in this light, the liberal system of elimination, while periodically resorting to rapid and intense colonial violence – i.e., decisive and calculated military operations – quickly returns to a relatively slow, gradual, and incremental daily rhythm of settler colonial conquest produced by a set of military, policing, economic, and planning policies and practices, among others.
This “mechanism” of the colonial system is precisely what the current, extreme right-wing government wants to dissolve or even completely remove, in order to accelerate the process of eliminating the Palestinians and establish an exclusive Jewish-settler sovereignty between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea (3). In contrast to the rational, balanced and relatively slow logic that regulates existing state agencies, this political stream takes on an anxious, affective momentum, determined to achieve political and religious (or rather political-religious) “salvation” in an immediate and decisive manner. It perceives any measures that would obstruct or slow down this colonial flow as an obstacle that must be fiercely tackled. This politico-physical tension between the two poles of the Zionist spectrum has been manifested in many events over the past three decades and has intensified since the formation of the current far-right Israeli government in November 2022. It is evident in three main, intersecting themes.
Firstly, when political leaders announce the intention (even if ostensibly) to provide any form of political recognition of the Palestinians, or to negotiate and “compromise” with them. This was clearly visible and reached a point of direct confrontation between the two Zionist camps during the Oslo talks in the early 1990s, as well as in subsequent conferences aimed at resuming talks with the Palestinians (such as Aqaba 2003 and Annapolis 2008). Even though the Oslo Accords reflected a reconfiguration rather than a retreat of Israel’s colonial strategy; and the granting of the Palestinian Authority some form of self-government intended to create a subordinate body in security and political terms rather than Palestinian sovereignty. Yet for the Zionist right, chiefly the national-religious stream, the Oslo Accords were considered a major betrayal of the Zionist project, they attacked it fiercely, and from it emerged the killer of the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Secondly, internal Zionist conflict arises with marked intensity when dealing with any seeming retreat in Israeli control over space, primarily during the evacuation of settlements. This was the case in the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 (Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement plan”), and in successive Supreme Court decisions to evacuate established settlement outposts on privately owned Palestinian land in the West Bank. Although such evictions are usually limited, temporary, or accompanied by plans to expand settlements in other areas, such decisions are fiercely attacked by the Zionist right, and in some cases are even followed by settler terrorist “price tag” operations, which usually target Palestinians, against Israeli army camps and soldiers.
Thirdly, the tension between the two poles of the Zionist spectrum peaks over the intensity and speed of colonial violence. One example is when the Israeli military eases Palestinians day-to-day access to things like transportation and work. Although these policies usually operate under the logic of “counterinsurgency” and primarily benefit the Israeli economy, the far right usually opposes them strongly. For example, when the Israeli army removed the Huwara checkpoint in 2009, right-wing Knesset members and representatives of settlements in the West Bank launched a campaign against the decision, going so far as to accuse then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak of being an “accomplice of terrorism”. Similar dynamics are seen when the Israeli government or court postpones the demolition of Palestinian communities located in Area C for procedural, legal, or political reasons, as with the villages of Susiya and Khan al-Ahmar. While all Israeli political and legal bodies agree that these two Palestinian villages must be demolished, the question of timing led to a sharp dispute between the two ends of the Zionist spectrum. The settler organization Regavim, one of whose founders is the current Minister of the Economy, Bezalel Smotrich, went as far as filing a judicial petition with the Supreme Court demanding that it put an end to the army and government’s “procrastination” and implement the demolition immediately (4). In March of this year, after the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the government and found that that it was not the right time to demolish Khan al-Ahmar (due to international pressure and potential legal consequences), settler groups launched a fierce campaign against the Supreme Court, and a serious dispute broke out within the government (5).
These latter tensions apply also with regard to the speed and intensity of “punitive violence” in response to Palestinian acts of resistance. The policy to demolish the homes of Palestinian attackers (and in certain cases revoking the residency permits and deporting their family members) is a form of collective punishment refined by the Israeli security establishment and approved by the Israeli Supreme Court. What raises the ire of right-wing Zionists in such cases is that family members or civil society organizations can appeal such demolition orders (even if such appeals are usually rejected by the courts) and that some time passes before the demolitions are implemented. For example, after Jerusalemite Palestinian Khairi Alqam carried out an operation in the Neve Yaakov colony at the beginning of this year, far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir clashed with the government’s legal advisor Gali Behrav Meara over how long it took to implement the demolition of the Alqam family home. While Ben-Gvir announced his decision to instantly demolish the home during a press conference held on the night of the operation, the government’s legal advisor demanded that he first submit a report on facts that require immediate demolition without allowing the family to appeal the decision, a request that prompted Ben-Gvir to launch an impetuous campaign against her. Yariv Levin, the Minister of Justice, joined the attack saying “Apparently the Attorney General's office does not take time into account. They are above time, and they don’t understand that if you fail to act quickly, you will receive [blows] later.” Ben-Gvir also announced another collective punishment decree during the same press conference: an order to the Jerusalem Police to accelerate and intensify the demolition of unlicensed homes in East Jerusalem. Speaking in a threatening tone, he added: “I hope this decision will not face any difficulties,” a veiled reference to the legal advisor.
It is worth emphasizing here that the process of refining and codifying these forms of colonial violence was produced by the Zionist colonial authorities in their liberal form. For example, the refusal to recognize Palestinian villages and communities located in Area C of the West Bank is a systematic policy of Israeli army planning bodies which, by preventing the development of these localities conjoined with intermittent demolitions, works to gradually exhaust the Palestinian population, thus gradually displacing them into the crowded enclaves of Area A in a manner that appears “voluntary.” The Supreme Court usually legitimates this policy by accepting the military’s planning and security considerations and rejecting Palestinian requests to license their buildings or their proposals for alternative master plans. Similarly, policies of collective punishment such as home demolitions, the withdrawal of residency cards and work permits, deportations and closures, as well as the legalization of new settlement outposts after Palestinian resistance operations, are all policies that enjoy principled consensus among the state’s security, political and judicial agencies.
What is new, then, as the discussion above indicates, is how these policies morph and unfold in space and time – the speed, rhythm, intensity, and density through which they are implemented. Based on this, we can argue that while Liberal Zionism seeks to manage the elimination of the “Palestinian question” (geographically and politically) in a measured and gradual manner, the Zionist right seeks to resolve it once and for all, the latter being clearly reflected in the title and content of Yitzalel Smotrich’s political project: the Decisive Plan.
But this physico-political conflict between management and resolution has various and significant political implications. The liberal Zionist system operates within a colonial subjectivity that sees itself as “moral” (such in the slogan “the most moral army in the world”) and “civilized” – instituted on rational thinking, separation of powers, and the rule of law. Under this view, colonial expansion is conceptualized as a legal-political “dispute” over sovereignty and land ownership, while the violence it produces is justified by the imperatives of “security” and “self-defense” in the face of Palestinian “terrorism,” which is not based on any legal or moral legitimacy. The complex and relatively slow procedures of this system make it possible to refurbish this self-image of Israeli settler colonialism and present the violence resulting from it as “the least of all possible evils”, “civilized” and “legal” – i.e., defensive, disciplined, follows chain of command, subject to judicial oversight etc (6).
The Israeli Supreme Court plays an essential role in sustaining this system and refining its imagined subjectivity through the role of calibration – that is, alleviating the impact of “excessive violence” by prosecuting its perpetrators and portraying them as exceptions (“bad apples”) – and by that suggesting the existence of supervision, control, and accountability mechanisms. This calibration role is directed not only internally to the settler society, but also externally, to the institutions of the international community. On the one hand, the Israeli judicial system rejects international law regarding the illegality of settlements and many of Israel’s repressive measures. However, on the other, its efforts to balance and control colonial violence through the implementation of legal accountability (albeit in a form that aligns with Israel’s colonial and security logics), and its selective use of international laws and norms, contribute to projecting an image of an independent legal authority similar to that of dominating Western states, and hence, provide it with relative “global” credibility.
As for the force of the extreme right-wing, it is driven by a colonial subjectivity that relies on national-religious group feeling infused with a messianic time: the summoning of an imagined biblical past and its intensification in the present towards “salvation” and “redemption the Promised Land” without delay (7). If the liberal Zionist apparatus subjects the biblical narrative to a linear, sequential, secular, and modernist narrative as means to legitimize its control over Palestine and the establishment of an exclusive Jewish state, then the intensification of this narrative at the hands of the Zionist right (especially the nationalist-religious movement) frees it from its secular restrictions to become a divine right, or rather an obligation. Therefore, when the liberal Zionist system suggests any “retreat” from the colonial project or attempt to mitigate its “excessive” violence, the victim mentality of the rival camp deepens and amplifies to the point where, paradoxically, it portrays the calibrating state bodies as “accomplices” in Palestinian “terrorism”, preventing or delaying the longed-for moment of “salvation”.
It is not surprising, then, that since the extreme Zionist right’s recent rise to power, the government made the bureaucratic infrastructure and temporal rhythm underwriting the liberal colonial system its primary target. In particular, targeting those pertaining to the judicial apparatus due to the perceived limits and constraints it places on the “divine right” to colonise. The recently enacted law curbing the Supreme Court’s use of the “reasonableness principle” as a legal check on government appointments and plans is only the beginning of the campaign to dismantle the calibrating role of the Israeli judiciary and limit Supreme Court’s powers to amend or overturn Knesset decisions. Indeed, the criterion of “reasonableness” (along with that of “proportionality”) is one of the main legal tools enabling the Israeli Supreme Court to draw the boundaries, checks and balances of the above-mentioned colonial policies. Therefore, the reduction of this criterion heralds a new phase of acceleration and intensification of colonial violence and expansion (8).
However, this law, like the rest of the far right’s string of proposed “legal reforms”, are working to undermine and replace the liberal Zionist system, and thus, stripping it of its façade of values and the structure that supports and protects it. As such, the intensification of colonial violence since the formation of the far-right government undermines the ideas of “legal”, “moral” and “defensive” violence. This was clearly reflected in the recent massive settler attack, in which they destroyed and set fire to the Palestinian town of Huwara in February 2023, which received widespread support within the current government, notably epitomized in Smotrich’s public call to “wipe the town of Huwara out of existence”. This latter statement provoked deep concern among the Israeli opposition leadership which described it as a “out of control,” a “security disaster,” and a “distortion of the chain of command in the army.”
At the same time, this uncompromising colonial subjectivity and the intensification of violence it produces also have political and legal implications on a global level. The far-right stream is hostile and openly launches attacks against foreign countries, institutions, and international organizations for supporting international law and the “two-state solution” (even if often remaining on a rhetorical level and biased towards Israel’s “exceptional” circumstances) as well as for providing any form of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians or material or technical support to the Palestinian Authority. This frank and public hostility, which rejects to manoeuvre internationally recognized political and legal premises, has provoked deep fear among the Israeli opposition of a deterioration of Israel’s international relations, especially with its strategic allies such as the United States and the European Union (9). At the same time, the continuous efforts to shrink the calibrating role of the Israeli judicial system would also weaken its role in protecting the perpetrators of colonial violence at the international level. This was clearly reflected in a petition to the Supreme Court against the current government’s abolishment of the “ reasonableness standard”, indicating a serious fear that members of the security apparatus could be tried at the International Criminal Court and the courts of foreign countries if the law were to be passed.
In conclusion, it must be noted that this physico-political conflict is not new. Rather, it dates back to the early days of Zionist settler colonialism in Palestine, in the form of the tension between Socialist Zionism (led by David Ben-Gurion) and Revisionist Zionism (led by Ze’ev Jabotinsky). Despite the historical discord between these two camps, which sometimes culminated in direct fighting (such as the Altalena ship incident), as far as the Palestinians were concerned, this relationship constituted a “unity of oppositions” providing the colonial project its movement and dynamism. Yet what has enabled this “unity” between “opposites” is the dominance of the secular liberal (formerly socialist) apparatus, which has long contained and harnessed (and at times suppressed) the counter-colonial impulse towards expanding the colonial frontier against the common external enemy – Palestinian, or Arab, and more recently Iranian – in a manner consistent with its own political, social, and economic values and interests.
Today however, with the rise of the extreme right, the very matrix that allows for the balancing of these two camps is itself undergoing a process of decomposition. As the fragmented structure melts down and friction is prevented, space remains only for a single current, and the other current is pushed out. This heralds a point of no return for the relationship between the two camps, and they head towards a collision. As Israel moves towards solidifying the closure of its eastern frontier and establishing its sovereignty over large parts of the West Bank, the logic of elimination intensifies and starts turning inwards, not only against Palestinian citizens of Israel but also against any domestic political opposition (even if this is not as severe as the forms directed against Palestinians – yet). It is this “existential” concern that has been pushing the liberal Zionist movement to confront the current government with all its might, as the rise of the right seeks to destabilize and even erase the liberal colonial subjectivity and the judicial system that protects it. This also has huge repercussions for the settler society in all areas of life – individual rights, education, health, military, public space, work, the economy, and so on. This nascent inwardly turned colonial violence reminds of the process that revolutionary scholar Aimé Césaire termed (in relation to World War Two) the boomerang effect (10):
At the end of all these treaties that have been violated, all these lies that have been propagated, all these punitive expeditions that have been tolerated, all these prisoners who have been tied up and ‘interrogated’, all these patriots who have been tortured, at the end of all the racial pride that has been encouraged, all the boastfulness that has been displayed, a poison has been distilled into the veins of Europe and, slowly but surely, the continent proceeds toward savagery.
And then one fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific boomerang effect: the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers standing around the racks invent, refine, discuss.
[This article was translated from Arabic by Paul Raymond, who is a journalist, Arabic translator, and MENA-focused research editor.]
1. In settler-colonial literature, the logic of elimination is perceived as the primary logic underpinning the relationship between settler colonial societies and indigenous peoples. It takes different forms and strategies that seek to dispossess the indigenous population, seize their land, and replacing them with an exclusive settler polity, as was (and is) the case in the countries known today as the United States of America, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and others.
2. “Political Physics” is a term used by scholar John Protevi in his 2001 book Political Physics: Deleuze, Derrida and the Body Politic, as an introduction to studying politics from the perspective of new-materialism and complexity theory. Inspired by this mode of thinking, the analysis in this article draws on notions from the field of physics and merge it with the field of politics in a productive manner.
3. It is worth noting that for some Israeli extreme right-wing movements, the borders of what they call the “Greater Land of Israel” are not limited to historic Palestine but extend from the Nile to the Euphrates.
4. For more on this, see Ghantous, W., & Joronen, M. (2022). “Dromoelimination: Accelerating Settler Colonialism in Palestine,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 40 (3), 2022: 393–412.
5. The government’s recent request to postpone the demolition of the village of Khan al-Ahmar was made amid a clash between its leading member Likud and the national-religious parties Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Greatness) and Religious Zionism. It should be noted that the division between the Zionist right and “left” in this article is somewhat forced and simplifies a more complex reality. This example demonstrates that even within the right-wing movement there are different streams that includes the less hardline and more “rational” forces, although the general trend is increasingly aligning towards religious-political extremism.
6. See Weizman, Eyal. 2017. The Least of All Possible Evils: A Short History of Humanitarian Violence. Paperback edition. London New York: Verso.
7. ‘Group feeling’ (Asabiyyah in Arabic) is a term coined by medieval Arab scholar Ibn Khaldûn that refers to collective emotional solidarity and tribal or national loyalty. For more on this see Ibn Khaldûn, Ibn. 2020. The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History - Abridged Edition. Edited by N. J. Dawood. Translated by Franz Rosenthal. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. For more on the concept of ‘messianic time’ see Benjamin, Walter. 1940. On the Concept of History.
8. It is interesting in this regard that all the examples mentioned by Yariv Levin (the current Minister of Justice and the “architect” of this law) in a speech before the Knesset before the vote on the law touch on political issues directly related to the Palestinians. Although this confirms the above claim, this does not mean that the law targets the Palestinians exclusively, but rather it has other domestic political goals. Most notably, the question of the court using this criterion to cancel the appointment of Shas party leader Aryeh Deri as Interior Minister, in light of his conviction in previous criminal cases. This is something that the current government wants to abolish.
9. For example, see the Institute For National Security Studies’ report “Strategic Alert for Israel: The Legislative Processes Regarding the Judicial Overhaul Constitute a Serious Threat to National Security”, INSS, March 2023.
10. See Césaire, Aimé. 2000. Discourse on Colonialism. New York: Monthly Review Press.