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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A Few Good Men & Women

As a dedicated, sometimes even astute (hopefully) observer of Israel and America’s relations and politics, I pride myself on some farsighted observations throughout the years of writing this blog. And yet, I didn’t see this one coming. Had you told me last year that in the space of a little over six months both Trump and Netanyahu would be gone, no longer in power, I would’ve found it hard to believe. But here we are, with the most surprising development of the two being the fall of the house of ‘King Bibi,’ after more than twelve years as Israel’s Prime Minister.

I’m in good company, not seeing it coming, though I gave it some 25% possibility before the elections. But let me tell you: On the first day after the latest flare-up between Israel and Hamas had ended, I listened to my favorite Israeli political observer talking about the possibility of a new government being formed. Here is what he said, more or less: “The only question is whether Yair Lapid (head of Yesh Atid, who had the mandate from President Rivlin to form a new coalition, H.D.), would hand the president his mandate now, saying he’d failed to form a coalition, or he’ll wait the 14 days left for him and then give it back without any positive results.”

Well, you know the outcome. Bucking all predictions and expectations, Yair Lapid was able to go back to the president before the hour struck midnight and tell him that he had succeeded, where others had failed. He, and not the current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is the true, and first good man of this semi-political revolution. He started during the elections, when he directed his campaign, and asked his supporters too, not to attack the parties to his left, Labor and Meretz, since he wanted them to be able to enter the new Knesset. What a noble act. And he reaped the rewards, since they joined his coalition.

His second noble, and novel idea was to put aside his ego, and though he is the leader of the largest party in this coalition with 17 members in the new Knesset, he offered to hand over the premiership to Bennett for the first two years, even though Bennett has only six MKs in his party. Unheard off. And that despite Bennett declaring during the latest war with Hamas in Gaza that coalition talks with Lapid are practically dead, as far as he was concerned. And yet Lapid was able to pull him in yet again, and together with seven other parties—among them an Arab Party—to form a governing coalition. What a miracle: putting your ambitions aside for the sake of what’s best for the country and its shaking democracy.

Before moving on to the next ‘good man’ on my list, let me return to America and to the much welcomed, disgraced as it were, fall of former President Trump. Unlike other observers I read, and also what seems to be the common belief among the public at large, it was not the constitution that had saved American democracy from collapsing (though it was very close to it). It was a few good men and women who stepped up to the plate and defended the constitution, the rule of law, and the integrity of the elections. I won’t name them here (you probably heard of them plenty), but when push came to shove they—most of them Republican officials—stood by the walls of the castle and defended our fragile democracy.

Though the political process and system in Israel are different, in essence, the same happened there, and without a constitution. This brings me to the second ‘good man’ on my list. Benny Gantz, the Defense, or Security Minister. He is the only minister to remain in office from the previous government. He too did the right thing for the country and joined Netanyahu in government throughout the pandemic. He was supposed to become Prime Minister this coming November, but Netanyahu betrayed him, as he betrayed others. And then, when in the last moment Netanyahu offered to resign immediately, and to hand him the premiership for the three remaining years in the coalition term, he didn’t hesitate to refuse. He is the leader, also, of the second-largest party in this coalition, yet has put his ambition aside and didn’t demand to be a Prime Minister too.

Next must be Naftali Bennett. While he was regarded from the outset as the kingmaker, it was not clear at all that he would crown himself as king. Not the least because for the first time in Israel’s history, a leader of a very small party became the Prime Minister and leader of the country. So in a way he has the most to gain, but also the most to lose. The attacks on him from Netanyahu’s camp are indeed ferocious, and threatening with violence. He, originally an extreme right-wing leader, a supporter of not only the settlement endeavor but the annexation of a large part of the West Bank, now sits in a government with two parties from the left, and an Arab party to boot. The outcome of this government, however long it would survive, is of course unclear, and at the end of it he might find himself with a party without any significant public support.

His right hand throughout the years, from working together in Netanyahu’s office to forming their party and remaining united through thick and thin, is Ayelet Shaked, currently the Minister of the Interior. And while I’m as far as can be from being a supporter of her, she deserves some credit too. If for nothing else, then for standing by this coalition agreement, despite heavy threats from Netanyahu’s camp, including death threats to her and her family. Another woman worth mentioning here, in closing, is Merav Michaeli, the current Minister of Transportation. She resurrected the Labor party from the dead in an impressive fashion, didn’t hesitate to join this strange coalition, and seems like a safe bet for a leader with a bright future.

All in all, while the days ahead will provide answers as to how long this government will stay in power (the predictions are not for long), and how much good it will be able to do (the expectations are not high), it has already succeeded in its main and most important goal: kicking Netanyahu out of office and saving Israel’s democracy. Not bad for a start.

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