Last Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood at the site in occupied East Jerusalem where a 64-year-old Israeli driver was injured after his car hit a pole and later died.
“We are declaring war on those who throw stones and bottles and rioters,” he declared.
Police said stone throwing led to what they called a “self-inflicted accident,” but acknowledged that they were unsure about it. Netanyahu called for police use of Ruger .22 rifles – which appears to have been put on hold – and minimum sentences for stone throwers, which comes after Israel passed legislation to imprison Palestinians convicted of throwing stones for up to 20 years.
But it’s not as if stone throwing has presented any kind of serious threat. Even if the Israeli driver was killed by stone throwing, he would be the first to have been killed by stone throwing this year, and even that would be unusual.
Stone throwing is a form of popular resistance that rarely results in serious physical damage but carries a message of refusal to submit to occupation. Meanwhile, settlers commonly attack Palestinians with rocks and even attacked a US consulate envoy last year. And that’s the least of the violence settlers inflict upon Palestinians.
Suddenly, after one Israeli dies, Netanyahu reacts in a hugely disproportionate measure and declares war. For reference, Netanyahu didn’t even declare a war when he spoke of revenge at the funeral of the three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped and killed in what appeared to be a botched operation in the West Bank in the summer of 2014. The ensuing mega-assault on the Gaza Strip last summer was called an “operation,” and was only officially recognized as a war months later.
Israeli cops have long been killing Palestinian citizens without consequence. Last year in the northern village of Kfar Kana, Khair Hamdan, a 22-year-old Palestinian citizen of Israel, was shot dead on video by cops when he presented no threat. The state backed the cops. The three officers who beat nearly to death Palestinian-American teen Tareq Abu Khdeir so brutally that his mother couldn’t recognize his face appear to have been let off.
Clearly, the police are already operating with impunity. So what is Netanyahu’s declaration of war really about?
Now that thwarting the Iran deal is out of reach, Netanyahu’s political calculus demands a new threat – and stone throwers have replaced the nuclear duck.
For Israelis, the war on stone throwers continues to divert attention from massive inequalities that constantly plague Israelis by uniting against a common enemy. Israel’s second-longest serving Prime Minister, Netanyahu is a master of this tried and true method and knows exactly how to manipulate Israeli society into fits.
Indeed, Netanyahu used this tactic last year when politicians and media figures called what appeared to have been a few lone-wolf attacks as a “car intifada.” This rhetoric led to a right wing demonstration I documented in which Israelis demanded that police “mow the lawn” on Palestinian protesters in East Jerusalem and that the government had been restricting police from “winning.”
This level of violence is what Netanyahu is expanding the legal framework to execute.
For some Israelis, the killing of Palestinians is a form of entertainment. During bombing campaigns on Gaza, groups of Israelis gathered on a hill to watch the explosions as a spectator sport. Just days ago, Israelis celebrated a video of an Israeli sniper shooting a Palestinian who was throwing stones.
For Palestinians, this is another tightening of occupation and erosion of the partial rights Palestinian citizens of Israel have. The war on stone throwers is not actually about stones, but about violently repressing dissent and any form of resistance.
Meanwhile, the Israeli military and police are prepared for the possibility of a full-scale invasion and have mapped out of occupied East Jerusalem and Palestinian areas inside Israel in unprecedented detail.
Fueling the tensions in Jerusalem are incursions by extremist Messianic Jewish groups and attacks by Israeli police on the Al-Aqsa compound that have increased as of late. While major elements of these groups openly call for destruction of Al-Aqsa, they are raising the prospect of Israel unilaterally partitioning the compound between Palestinians and Jews.