Israel has just emerged from its extended, three-week high holidays, a period that in recent years has been marked by extremist religious Jews making provocative visits to the al-Aqsa mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem.
Many go to pray, in violation of Israel’s international obligations. Most belong to groups that seek the mosque’s destruction and replacement with a Jewish temple – and now enjoy support from within the parliament, including from prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party.
A rash of such visits last autumn outraged Palestinians and triggered a wave of so-called “lone-wolf” attacks on Israelis. The attacks only recently abated.
Taking advantage of the renewed quiet, Israel allowed a record number of ultra-nationalists to visit the mosque, figures released last week show. Parties of Israeli soldiers are also now entering the site.
The police, whose recently appointed commander is himself from the extremist settler community, has recommended too that restrictions be ended on visits by Jewish legislators who demand Israel’s sovereignty over the mosque.
Israel’s treatment of this supremely important Islamic holy site symbolises for Palestinians their powerlessness, oppression and routine humiliation. Conversely, a sense of impunity has left Israel greedy for even more control over Palestinians.
The gaping power imbalance was detailed last month at a special hearing of the United Nations security council. Hagai El-Ad, head of B’tselem, which monitors the occupation, termed Israel’s abuses as “invisible, bureaucratic, daily violence” against Palestinians exercised from “cradle to grave”.
He appealed to the international community to end its five decades of inaction. “We need your help. … The occupation must end. The UN Security Council must act. And the time is now,” he said.
Israeli politicians were incensed. El-Ad had broken one of Israel’s cardinal rules: you do not wash the country’s dirty linen abroad. Most Israelis consider the occupation and Palestinian suffering as purely an internal matter, to be decided by them alone.
Netanyahu accused B’tselem’s director of conspiring with outsiders to subject Israel to “international coercion”.
With the US limply defending El-Ad’s freedom of speech, Netanyahu found a proxy to relaunch the attack. David Bitan, chair of his party, both demanded that El-Ad be stripped of his citizenship and proposed legislation to outlaw calls for sanctions against Israel in international forums.
Unsurprisingly, El-Ad has faced a flood of death threats.
Meanwhile, another UN forum has been considering Israel’s occupation. Its educational, scientific, and cultural body, UNESCO, passed last month a resolution condemning Israel’s systematic violations of Palestinian holy sites, and especially al-Aqsa.
Again, Israelis were enraged at this brief disturbance of their well-oiled machinery of oppression. The abuses documented by UNESCO were overshadowed by Israeli protests that its own narrative, one based on security paranoia and Biblical entitlement, was not the focus.
While Israel exercises ever more physical control over Palestinians, its moral credit is rapidly running out with foreign audiences, who have come to understand that the occupation is neither benign nor temporary.
The rise of social media has accelerated that awakening, which in turn has bolstered grassroots reactions like the boycott (BDS) movement.
Aware of the dangers, Israel has been aggressively targeting all forms of popular activism. Facebook and Youtube are under relentless pressure to censor sites critical of Israel.
Western governments – which joined the chorus of “Je suis Charlie” after ISIL’s lethal attack on the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo magazine last year – have cracked down on the boycott movement. Paradoxically, France has led the way by outlawing such activism, echoing Israeli claims that it constitutes “incitement”.
And left-wing social movements emerging in Europe face loud accusations that any criticism of Israel is tantamount to an attack on all Jews. Notably, a British parliamentary committee last month characterised as anti-semitic parts of the opposition Labour party under its new leader Jeremy Corbyn, a champion of Palestinian rights.
In these ways, European governments – fearful of upsetting Israel’s patron in Washington – have been trying to hold in check popular anger at a belligerent and unrepentant Israel.
Illustrating that caution, UNESCO was forced last week to vote a second time on its resolution, this time removing the word “occupation” and, against normal practice, giving equal status to the occupier’s names for the sites under threat from its occupation.
Even with the resolution neutered, UNESCO’s usual consensus could not be reached. The resolution – pushed by the Palestinians and Arab states – passed by a wafer-thin majority, with European and other governments abstaining.
Israel and its enablers have successfully engineered a hollowing out of official discourse about Israel to blunt even the mildest criticism.
Gradually, as the UNESCO vote and Corbyn’s experiences in the UK highlight, western powers are accepting Netanyahu’s doubly illogical premises: that criticising the occupation is anti-Israel, and criticising Israel is anti-semitic.
Incrementally, western leaders are conceding that any criticism of Netanyahu’s policies – even as he tries to ensure the occupation becomes permanent – is off-limits.
El-Ad called for courage from the UN security council. But his words have fallen on deaf ears.
A version of this article first appeared in the National Abu Dhabi.