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Holocaust should not prevent world from seeing Israel as it is

It is time for Israelis to adopt a different attitude towards the Palestinians - to treat them as equal human beings

A man holds the Israeli flag as he walks past a banner depicting Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu with a print of a bloodied hand across his face during an anti-government demonstration in Tel Aviv on June 8th. Photograph: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

For anyone who wanted to see, the truth was already abundantly clear in 1955: “They treat the Arabs, those still here, in a way that in itself would be enough to rally the whole world against Israel,” wrote Hannah Arendt.

But that was 1955, barely a decade after the Holocaust – our great catastrophe and, at the same time, Zionism’s protective suit. So no, what Arendt saw in Jerusalem at the time wasn’t enough to rally the world against Israel.

Almost 70 years have passed since then. Meanwhile, Israel has become addicted to both its regime of Jewish supremacy over the Palestinians and the ability to leverage the memory of the Holocaust, so that the crimes it commits against them won’t rally the world against it.

Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu isn’t inventing a thing: not the crimes, and not the exploitation of the Holocaust to silence the world’s conscience. But he has been the prime minister for almost a generation. During this period, Israel, under his leadership, took another big step towards a future in which the Palestinian people are erased from the stage of history – certainly if the stage in question is Palestine, the historical homeland.

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All this was not only carried out gradually – another dunam and another goat, another outpost and another farm – but in the end it was also declared publicly, from the 2018 basic law on Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, to the guiding principles of the current government, first and foremost the statement that “[t]he Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel”.

And the truth is that the consensus on these is far broader and more sweeping than support for Netanyahu himself. After all, who in Israel didn’t like the brilliant move, before October 7th, 2023, of normalisation with Saudi Arabia, in order to etch into the awareness of the Palestinians the fact that they are a defeated people?

But the Palestinians, those stubborn people, didn’t leave the stage. Somehow, through all the years and the oppression and the settlements and the pogroms in the West Bank, and the “rounds” of conflict with Gaza and the violence of the army and the absence of accountability and the expropriation of land in Jerusalem and the Negev and the Jordan Valley, in effect wherever a Palestinian tries to hold on to his land, after many years and a lot of blood and a lot of crimes, the recycled trick of Israeli Hasbara – the word literally translates to “explaining” but has come to mean state propaganda – has begun to lose its sting, since the trivial truth is that no, not everyone who sees the Palestinians as human beings with rights is an anti-Semite.

Meanwhile came the war in Gaza, with the destruction of biblical proportions that we have brought upon the strip and upon the tens of thousands of dead Palestinians. There has been so much blood and destruction that the question of whether this is genocide began to be seriously discussed at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

In Arendt’s words, what we’re doing to the Palestinians – those who are still in Gaza – is still not rallying the world against Israel. But the world is already permitting itself to think about it aloud.

All this still isn’t making us rethink the way we “treat the Arabs”. Instead, we are once again trying to breathe new life into the used Hasbara balloon. If in 2019 Netanyahu declared that the investigation at the International Criminal Court (ICC) is an “anti-Semitic decree” (that didn’t stop the investigation) and in 2021 he asserted that this was “pure anti-Semitism” (and that didn’t stop the investigation), then recently he started to shout about an “anti-Semitic hate crime”.

Netanyahu, as usual, embeds a few words of truth between one lie and the next. In his speech on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, it was true when he described the ICC as a body “established in response to the Holocaust and other horrors, to ensure that ‘Never Again’”. But with exceptional chutzpah, if one considers the setting and the timing, everything Netanyahu said surrounding this statement was a lie, especially when he asserted that if an arrest warrant is issued against him, “[t]his step would put an indelible stain on the very idea of justice and international law”.

The truth is that the stain on the foundations of international law is the fact that even after years of investigation (and, just recently, finally an application by the ICC prosecutor) there has yet to be an arrest warrant issued against Netanyahu or other Israeli war criminals. That’s in spite of the fact that for decades, Israel has been perpetrating, in broad daylight, crimes against the Palestinians, crimes that are government policy, crimes that are approved by the high court of justice, and which are protected by the opinions of attorneys general and whitewashed by military advocate generals. Although all that is overt and known, reported and published, nobody is being held to account for it, neither in Israel nor abroad, at least so far.

Issuing warrant for Netanyahu would banish perception of ICC as western proxyOpens in new window ]

We’re approaching the moment – perhaps it’s already here – when the memory of the Holocaust won’t stop the world from seeing Israel as it is. The moment when the historic crimes committed against our people will stop serving as our Iron Dome, protecting us from being held to account for crimes we are committing in the present against the nation with which we share the historical homeland.

Even if that moment is delayed, it is time for it to arrive. Israel will be without the Holocaust. Its image is now to be protected by clowns such as its minister of foreign affairs, Israel Katz, busy retaliating against Ireland’s recognition of a Palestinian state by issuing a troll-quality social media video mixing quintessential Irish dancing with October 7th imagery.

Come on. Maybe we would do better to open our eyes and adopt a different attitude towards the Palestinians: to treat them as equal human beings. That certainly is a far better lesson from the Holocaust. Arendt would probably agree.

Hagai El-Ad is the former executive director of B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. He tweets at @HagaiElAd. Originally published in Ha’aretz.