The Occupation Myth and Conundrum

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Following the Six-Day War of 1967 my army unit—Sayeret Tzanhanim, the elite reconnaissance unit of the Paratroopers Brigade—patrolled the streets of East Jerusalem and the neighboring villages for a couple of months. Later that year, and throughout 1968—in March of that year we led the ‘Battle of Karameh’*on the hills overlooking the Jordan River—we spent most of our time guarding Jericho and the Jordan River border and valley, what was known then as Eretz Hamirdafim: The “area of pursuit,” referring to the nightly pursuit of terrorists who crossed the Jordan River. In fact, my lieutenant rank was exposed by my commander (Matan Vilnai), in an old Jordanian army base.

Why am I telling you all this? Because at the time our small unit and the Israeli Army as a whole were occupation forces par excellence. There were no settlements yet, and as young soldiers, hardly twenty, we didn’t even know that there was a “Palestinian Entity,’ or “Palestinian People.’ Only after my compulsory army service had ended in 1969 that I began to read and learn of the Palestinian People and their history and legitimate national aspirations and rights. Concurrently, settlement activity had begun in earnest then, step by step. When I returned to Israel in 1977, following my studies in London, I refused to serve in the occupied territories, in particular the West Bank.

Luckily for me, the army solved my personal revolt quietly and intelligently, and reassigned me to a reserve unit guarding the Jordan River in Israel proper, pre-1967 war, and not far from the kibbutz where I was born. It’s hard even for me to believe that since my Shichror—literally ‘liberation,’ in Hebrew—from compulsory service in 1969 I never set foot in the West Bank. Like others in the peace camp (I signed the letter to then Prime Minister Menachem Begin, along with some 350 IDF reserved officers, calling for an immediate peace with Egypt and thus giving birth to the ‘Peace Now’ movement), I considered it occupied territory, and the settlement activity illegal according to international law.**

Since then, like so many others, I’ve used the term ‘occupation’ often to describe Israeli policy, both de facto on the ground and in the political arena, in regard to Israel’s control over the West Bank; i.e. the ‘occupied territories.’ Only lately I concluded that the term ‘occupation,’ while easy on the tongue and on paper, is at best wrong, and at worst misleading. You see, the settlement endeavor began in earnest in 1970. Slow at first, faster later, not only by the settlers themselves but supported and financed by every Israeli government since the war of 1967.

That’s not occupation, is it? That’s colonialism. Or liberation, if you’re a messianic Jewish settler. Back in 67-9, yes, we were an occupying force. We patrolled the West Bank’s streets, dirt roads, and villages, we guarded the border. There were no settlements back then. But once a settlement is built, people move in and live there, raise their children and work the land, the endeavor becomes colonialism. You’re settling the land you conquered in war, after all, in order to stay there permanently. The definitions of occupation and colonialism are varied in different dictionaries, but in essence, as defined by Thought Co: “Colonialism is an act of political and economic domination involving the control of a country and its people by settlers from a foreign power.” ***

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The short end of it is that occupation is temporary, colonialism is permanent. Now whether you call it liberation or colonialism, or both, depends on your point of view. But either way, you have to give the people living there equal rights under the law. Make them citizens of your country. If you don’t do that, you discriminate against them. They become second-class citizens. The state becomes an Apartheid state. With different rules, different schools, different roads, different political systems, and mainly: this state-of-affairs and the unending situation is enforced by the army that controls the land and its people.

It is, in part, the reason I declared the two-state solution dead in 2012, in speech and here on this blog. Dead, or comatose at best. As long as we were indeed an occupying force, in the first years after the 1967 war, such a solution was still possible. But Israel refused to take this road, and chose instead the road of colonialism (again, I understand, if not accept, that some refer to it as ‘liberation’). There is no going back now. The sooner both sides understand that the better. An acceptable solution might be found then and established.

* Regarding the Battle of Karameh, see my article in this blog, ‘The Battle That Never Ended,’ from March 2018: (Published also online in Moment Magazine.)

** Regarding illegal settlement activity and international law see Haaretz article by Yotam Berger from July 2016: “Secret 1970 Document Confirms First West Bank Settlements Built on a Lie.” “In minutes of meeting in then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan’s office, top Israeli officials discussed how to violate international law in building the settlement of Kiryat Arba, next to Hebron.”

*** “Settler colonialism is a form of colonialism that seeks to replace the original population of the colonized territory with a new society of settlers. As with all forms of colonialism, it is based on exogenous domination, typically organized or supported by an imperial authority. Settler colonialism is enacted by a variety of means ranging from violent depopulation of the previous inhabitants to more subtle, legal means.” Wikipedia

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