News | War / Peace - Israel - War in Israel/Palestine The Domestic Consequences of Israeli Militarization

Against the backdrop of war, debate is violently intensifying in Israeli society — posing a very real threat to opposition groups



Gil Shohat,

A protester is detained during a demonstration against the Israeli government near the Knesset.
A protester is detained during a demonstration against the Israeli government near the Knesset, Jerusalem, 17 June 2024. Photo: picture alliance / REUTERS | Marko Djurica

For the past eight months, viewers of Israeli television have grown accustomed to the evening news opening with the latest updates on the Israeli hostages in Gaza and military developments on the various battlefronts — in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and on the Israel–Lebanon border. These reports virtually always use video footage from the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, which documents combat operations from the perspective of Israeli forces and casts the actions of the country’s soldiers in a heroic light.

Gil Shohat directs the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Israel Office in Tel Aviv.

For many (Jewish) Israelis, these news broadcasts are their sole source of information regarding events since 7 October — and the Israeli government is stepping up its efforts to restrict the availability of alternative news sources, as demonstrated by its recent move to ban Al-Jazeera from operating and broadcasting within Israel.

A Reservist Rebellion?

On the last weekend in May, however, Israeli news channels broke an unusual story: an Israeli reservist publicly threatened to stage a revolt. A video shot on a mobile phone showed a man dressed in full combat gear, wielding a machine gun, and standing in front of a wall plastered with far-right slogans. The soldier swears his unwavering allegiance to the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. He also simultaneously refuses to pledge allegiance to the Chief of the General Staff of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) Herzi Halevi and Minister of Defence Yoav Gallant because — as he declares against dramatic backing music — they “cannot win this war”.

The man claims to speak on behalf of the roughly 100,000 reservists been drafted by the IDF since 7 October 2023, saying: “We refuse to hand over the keys to Gaza to any Palestinian authority. [...] We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to win this war. You [Netanyahu] have 100,000 reservists behind you who are ready to die for the people of Israel.” His message is that anyone — in this case, Gallant and Halevi — who would even contemplate negotiating an exchange of the Israeli hostages for Palestinians imprisoned in Israel would be betraying the people of Israel and as such should be considered a domestic enemy: “We’ll stay here until the end, until we are victorious.”

From an anti-militarist, left-wing perspective, the discourse surrounding the video raises far more profound and alarming concerns.

The video sparked a great deal of heated debate and raised doubts about the combat morale of reservists, who have played a crucial role since the start of the war launched in response to the massacre perpetrated by Hamas on 7 October 2023. With the sole exception of Arutz 14 (Channel 14, the Israeli equivalent of Fox News), which invited the soldier from the video into its studio as a prime-time guest, the overwhelming majority of observers concurred that the reservist’s statement was tantamount to a threat of mutiny. It should come as no surprise, then, that the military police were quick to track him down and dismiss him from duty.

The majority of experts have expressed concern about these developments in terms of “combat morale”, but from an anti-militarist, left-wing perspective, the discourse surrounding the video raises far more profound and alarming concerns. First, the disastrous consequences of Israel’s ongoing devastating military campaign in the Gaza Strip, which continues unabated despite international condemnation and concrete measures taken by international courts. The immeasurable suffering that has ensued, which has since claimed the lives of approximately 40,000 people, also forms part of an ongoing, even more extensive catastrophe that many Palestinians are referring to as a “second Nakba”, due in part to the mass displacement that has occurred as a result.

Militarizing Society

That said, when it comes to the internal constitution of (Jewish) Israeli society, which is currently experiencing mounting levels of political, media, and cultural (self-)isolation from the international community, the most recent events raise questions regarding what impact the ever-increasing militarization since 7 October will have on binational Israeli society.

Historian Ofri Ilani recently contextualized the phenomenon of discontented, seditious reservists in his Haaretz column. He also referred to the example of the modern US, where a considerable proportion of the far-right militia members who stormed the Capitol in January 2021 were veterans of the US armed forces. His hypothesis: disgruntled soldiers discharged from combat constitute one of the most politically dangerous groups.

By the simple fact of being armed, these reservists pose a serious potential risk to the general Israeli population — in particular to those whom they blame for the failure of the nation’s war objectives. In the current Israeli context, this includes “the Left” (a moniker currently applied to anyone who attended the mass protests against judicial reforms in 2023), the relatives and loved ones of the Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip who have been campaigning for months — even in the wake of tragic reports of hostage deaths — for a prisoner exchange, Palestinian Israeli citizens, and finally the anti-occupation activists who refuse to submit to the agenda of military force.

The ongoing militarization of Israeli society also involves a policy of arming Jewish Israelis en masse, in accordance with a directive from the Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir. According to the ministry, more than 100,000 Israelis received a new weapons licence by the spring of 2024 as a direct result of the conflict. The fact that essential background checks were bypassed and applications were examined by under-qualified personnel has thus far been met with no real consequences.

Fuelled by reporting from the overwhelming majority of Israeli media outlets that focuses solely on the Israeli perspective, the majority of Israeli society is being sucked into a cycle of resentment and intransigence.

As such, Israel once again finds itself at a crossroads — and not just in terms of foreign policy. Fifty-seven years since the illegal occupation and disenfranchisement of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip began, and in the midst of an ongoing existential crisis, Israeli society is now witnessing a renewed coarsening, even brutalization, of domestic debate.

I recently witnessed this at a conference, officially organized by Aida Touma-Sliman, a left-wing Palestinian opposition member of the Knesset, on the urgent need to recognize a Palestinian state. In the middle of the event, two representatives from governing parties stormed the chambers, entirely unchallenged by security personnel, in order to spout their fascist, genocidal tirades. Addressing the left-wing Palestinian politicians, the messianic settler and Knesset member Zvi Sukkot said: “You are the enemies, you are all terrorist sympathizers and we will drive you all out of here, all of you. There will never be a Palestinian state.”

At the same time, Palestinian Israelis and anti-war activists continue to face mounting levels of repression, while smear campaigns against intellectuals and academics critical of the government are also on the rise. These factors combine to form a lethal sociopolitical cocktail that is increasingly isolating the population internationally while also fuelling division at home.

Opposition to the War

At the same time, there is also growing recognition in some segments of Israeli society that it is not in Israel’s interests to continue the war — considering the government’s lack of discernible objectives or prospect of freeing the more than 120 hostages who have been held captive by Hamas for 257 days (as of 20 June 2024). This knowledge has, however, not yet translated into a widespread anti-war movement, which is the ultimate goal of left-wing Jewish–Palestinian initiatives such as Shutfut HaShalom (Partnership for Peace).

Acting on the initiative of prominent members of the left-wing Hadash party, Partnership for Peace is mobilizing civil society organizations to campaign for an end to the war. However, despite the steady growth of the protest movement, the initiative has thus far been unable to recruit those people to the campaign who, although not fundamentally opposed to Israel’s military operations in Gaza since 7 October, protest the Israeli government’s neglect of the Israeli hostages ever more vehemently and advocate for a ceasefire in order to facilitate a hostage deal. Political analyst Dahlia Scheindlin believes there is definite mobilization potential for the anti-occupation Left here.

Yet despite all of these existential domestic divisions, the Jewish Israeli population continues to feel misunderstood or even mistreated by the international community, especially in times of mounting international pressure to end to the war. Fuelled by reporting from the overwhelming majority of Israeli media outlets that focuses solely on the Israeli perspective, the majority of Israeli society is being sucked into a cycle of resentment and intransigence with regard to anyone who refuses to adhere to the narrative of Israel’s “necessary war”.

The sheer untenability of the situation for Israel’s “peace camp”, which is currently in a state of flux, means it will need to make renewed efforts to expand its own base and reach within the country. A great deal of things are motion, and political and civil society actors are actively striving to set aside ideological differences for the sake of a greater shared objective: namely an immediate, permanent end to the bloodshed in Gaza, the immediate release of all hostages by means of a prisoner exchange, and a policy initiative for Israelis and Palestinians to live together in equality, justice, and dignity. It is imperative that the international Left do more to advocate these practical and politically feasible proposals.

This article first appeared in nd.aktuell in cooperation with the Rosa Luxemburg FoundationTranslated by Marty Hiatt and Louise Pain for Gegensatz Translation Collective.