Israel has been rocked by weeks of ongoing protests against high house prices and the cost of living. To avoid being painted as “extremists”, the organisers have avoided the obvious ― the cost of the occupation of Palestinian territory and protecting the illegal Jewish settlers has directly contributed to the Israeli state's neoliberal austerity policies.
The August 18 attack in southern Israel, in which eight Israelis died and no one has claimed responsibility for, provided the Israeli state with a golden opportunity for a fresh war drive to undermine the protests. In the aftermath of the attack, Israeli bombings in Gaza killed at least 22 people ― including children ― by August 26, Xinhuanet.com said.
At least three Egyptian border guards on Egypt's border with Gaza were also killed by Israeli fire on August 18 ― sparking huge protests outside Israel's embassy in Cairo.
A protester, Ahmed al-Shehat, became a hero across the world when on August 20 he climbed to the top of the 22-floor building housing the embassy and ― to the cheers of the crowd, took down the Israeli flag and replace it with an Egyptian one.
Protesters burned the Israeli flag.
Independent journalist and author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution, Antony Loewenstein, spoke to Green Left Weekly's Simon Butler.
* * *
Israeli warplanes have bombarded Gaza for days straight, which Israel’s government says is in retaliation for an attack on August 18. The Israeli government has also been under increasing domestic pressure from a large movement for housing rights. Do you think this domestic situation influenced Israel’s decision to bomb the Gazan population?
Quite possibly ― this has been said quite clearly by Jewish columnists in Haaretz. I don’t think it’s really a secret.
[Israeli PM Benjamin] Netanyahu was looking for a gift, and a terrorist act or act of aggression against the Israeli Defence Force or Israeli civilians is a glorious gift for the Israeli government.
All the discussion that has been going on in Israel about housing rights and all these other issues, which are legitimate questions, have been totally replaced by armchair generals and real generals and politicians saying, basically, that we need to bomb Gaza back into the stone age.
We realise how totally deformed the Israeli political debate is when Kadima, the main opposition party headed by Tzipi Livni (which is supposedly the mainstream quasi-centre-left) is saying we encourage the government to bomb Gaza and root these terrorists out.
So there really is no mainstream political party in Israel that is against the occupation.
A future potential Israeli Labor Party prime minister gave an interview to Haaretz recently and also said: “I support the occupation.”
This is Labor, which liberal Zionists claim is the great hope of Israel’s political system.
One of the things that really clarifies things, and you can feel this fear in Israel, is that the relationship between Israel and Egypt is changing.
The so-called peace deal that has existed for 30 years between Israel and [former Egyptian dictator] Hosni Mubarak didn’t really help the average Egyptian at all.
I’m not at all encouraging for a second the notion that there should be a beginning of war, but what I’m saying is that there is a profound hatred within Egypt itself towards that peace treaty.
This is because it hasn’t helped the Palestinians at all. It essentially allowed Gaza to be sealed in a ghetto for the past five years, supported by Israel and Egypt.
This recent attack on Gaza puts that question back to the forefront, to the point where many of the more sensible voices in the Israeli press are saying: “We need to recognise the Middle East is changing.”
They are saying it’s changing and it’s changed, that they cannot simply rely anymore on dictatorships that do their bidding.
That’s the way Israel has survived until now. And as I’ve been saying for the past nine months since the uprising in Tunisia, the only way Israel can survive as an occupying state ― which is essentially what it proudly wants to be ― is with dictatorships nearby supporting it.
That’s the only way.
In Egypt, which is still run by a dictatorship, there nonetheless are cracks and questions appearing. There was a guy a few days ago in Cairo ― now dubbed the “Flagman” ― protesting outside the Israeli embassy.
He scaled the embassy, with a huge crowd below, and replaced the Israeli flag with the Egyptian flag. It was very symbolic and has caused a lot of Twitter conversation and press in the Arab world.
Something is changing and Israel has always known to never miss a good opportunity to distract the world from what they are actually doing by talking about terrorism ― and therefore either bombing Gaza or running new operations in the West Bank.
On August 21, as an example, there were the greatest number of Palestinian civilians arrested in Hebron in the West Bank since 2004.
This sort of thing is happening at a time when the world is looking away.
Although the recent huge protests in Israel give an indication that many people are dissatisfied with the status quo, one of the things that is not being talked about is the elephant in the room: the occupation.
You can’t win social justice in Israel unless you address the fact that there are billions spent every year on the occupation. You just can’t.
The organisers [of the housing movement] argue that as soon as we mention Arabs or the occupation, we are going to divide the crowd.
Well, I think that is very tragic if that is the case.
They make legitimate points about the need for cheaper housing ― Israel has implemented neoliberal policies for the past 30 years ― but ignore the fact that there are Arabs who aren’t worrying about housing rights, they’re worrying about have they got a home.
I think again that this comes back to the profound disconnect that happens when you have the debate about the boycott, divestments and sanctions (BDS) campaign here in Australia.
I think there is a danger that major politicians and unions are trying to put pressure on the one major NGO ― APHEDA ― that is trying to actually send people over to Palestine to see what is happening in our name.
And they are trying to shut that down, because most people who go over there on trips funded by the Israel lobby come back with only one message.
So they don’t want a situation where union leaders are coming back and saying: “You know what, I support BDS. You know what, our policy here is insane.”
And that is what has been happening, and makes it a threat that has to be shut down.
Footage of Ahmed El-Shahat climbing the wall where Israel's embassy is housed in Cairo to tear down the flag.