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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‘The Present’ – On Netflix – Makes Apartheid Visible

This year at the Oscars ‘The Present,’ directed by Farah Nabulsi, represented Palestine in the short live-action film category. It did not win. It did win, however, the best short film at the ‘British Academy for Films and Television,’ as well as at the Cleveland, Brooklyn, and Palm Springs Film Festivals. Incidentally, an Israeli film in the same Oscar category, ‘White Eye,’ also didn’t win. Maybe the two films had simply canceled each other out (more about it later).

What brings me to write about the film, which I recently watched on Netflix, is the question of Apartheid in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in regard to the Palestinian people, very much in the news lately. Just earlier this month, according to the Times of Israel: “Poll finds a quarter of US Jews think Israel is ‘apartheid state’.” These numbers are higher in Europe and elsewhere, while Israel keeps rejecting this label as libel. However, for Israelis and Jews worldwide to bury our heads in the sand regarding this escalating sentiment won’t help matters, or change the terrible situation on the ground. Which is what the short film ‘The Present” had set out to show.

With limited success, in my view. As for the plot: The film centered on a father and daughter in the Palestinian enclaves of the Israeli-occupied West Bank who are trying to buy a wedding anniversary gift. From their small village they travel to Beitunia, a Palestinian town near Ramallah, where they buy some groceries and a new refrigerator. Their progress in both directions is impeded by roadblocks and checkpoints, culminating in a harrowing scene when at a checkpoint near their home, a group of young Israeli soldiers tries to prevent them from passing through with their present back home.

As for the film itself, I do understand why the Academy voters hadn’t selected it the winner. While as the story of the father and daughter (Saleh Bakri and  Maryam Kanj) rings true, is well-acted, and very emotionally engaging, some of what they go through—especially at the end—doesn’t make sense at all. In the beginning there is a scene at a real checkpoint, when the father goes to work in the morning, which is very real and horrifying. But the checkpoint near their small village is utterly ridiculous and cartoonish.

Yes, checkpoints are placed in the West Bank in strategic locations where Palestinians cross into Israel and coming back from Israel. There are roadblocks and such when military situations demand them. But no checkpoint, quite an elaborate one at that, is placed near a small Palestinian village of a few houses, separating that village from a nearby Palestinian town where the father goes to buy the groceries and the present. No Palestinian in the West Bank leaves his village to buy milk and toilet paper and has to pass through a checkpoint in order to do that. Checkpoints are bad, absolutely so, but this one was placed there artificially by the director just to score a point. She misses. *

The ‘bad’ Israeli soldiers (speaking Hebrew with an Arabic accent) aren’t real, just as the whole situation isn’t real. To make things worse, the little girl (who earlier peed in her pants just seeing the Israeli soldiers and their threatening behavior towards her father) now saves the day by wheeling the trolley with the refrigerator on the road. It’s no more plausible than if I’ll try to push an elephant off the road. For no apparent reason—another artificial plot point—the truck that brought the fridge had to stop, so that the father will continue his journey by wheeling his fridge back home on a trolley. Sympathetic as I am to the Palestinians’ plight and aspirations, the last scene at the “checkpoint” stretches the imagination big time, and it is just about ludicrous. It’s a pity that such a good idea, and overall a good film at its core, gets a propagandistic treatment at times, especially at the end. **

However, regarding the larger point the film tries to make (including, I assume, female empowerment), it is more successful. That the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own, was pointed out here in this blog plenty of times. That the occupation must end, likewise. The inhumanity of it all, of course. But concerning Apartheid, it was a close call for me so far. In fact, in my April post—”What’s Behind the Latest Buzzwords: ‘Israeli-Palestinian Confederation’?”—I termed it “an Apartheid-in-progress.” I stick by this definition, for now, though no doubt every day that passes without a solution brings the situation on the ground closer to a real Apartheid.

What Israel doesn’t get, not only regarding the Palestinian people and conflict but also about the increasing discomfort and doubts spreading among American Jews, is that the current situation is unsustainable. Just ‘managing the situation’ won’t solve anything and doesn’t work anymore. Calling it ‘unfeasible’ and ‘unsolvable,’ likewise. The last flare-up between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has shown, at least as to the ‘media wars’ and the opinions of most people around the world, that Israel is losing that war. And rightly so. A film like ‘The Present’ most definitely underscores this point, and helps spread the word. 

* According to the IDF, a Palestinian civilian in the West Bank can travel from the northern city of Jenin to Bethlehem just south of Jerusalem, without encountering a single military checkpoint. (Wikipedia.)

** According to program director Col. Triber Bezalel, the IDF employs humanitarian officers at various checkpoints. These officers are tasked with making life easier for those who cross the borders and aiding the elderly and sick. (Wikipedia.)

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