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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Israel’s Grand Illusion Collapses in Gaza’s Ruins

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The Film ‘The Grand Illusion’ by Jean Renoir, which I’ve been returning to occasionally through the years, is a 1937 B&W masterpiece that suggests, among other things, that “war is futile, and that mankind’s common experiences should prevail above political division, and its extension: war.” (Wikipedia.) “Renoir’s critique of contemporary politics and ideology celebrates the universal humanity that transcends national and racial boundaries and radical nationalism.”

I was thinking often about this film during the latest Israeli-Palestinian flare-up of semi-war with Hamas in Gaza. And what strikes me the most is not only the futility of war (it’s the fourth or fifth such round-of-hostility since Hamas took over power in Gaza in 2007), but the complete collapse of Israel’s belief that the Palestinian issue and conflict has been put to rest. The notion that—especially during the last twelve years of Netanyahu’s rule—the Palestinian political struggle for independence and a state of their own is practically all but over. That Israel has succeeded in squashing their national aspirations down. That they will agree, and get used to living as second, or third-class citizens under Israel’s occupation for good.

Maybe the biggest prize that Trump has given Netanyahu—more even than moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem, and declaring the disputed Golan Heights an Israeli territory—was the ‘Abraham Accords.’ The so-called ‘peace deal’ with the United Emirates and Bahrain, far away oil-rich Sheikdoms, and then Morocco and Sudan, all bribed and blackmailed to a degree by the Trump/Kushner administration with ‘huge’ presents to sign in on it. Of course, Israel was never at war with any of these outlier countries, and the agreement was at best a ‘normalization of relations.’ “We are witnessing the last vestiges of what has been known as the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Jared Kushner wrote in the Wall Street Journal two months ago.

Unfortunately, many fell into the fallacy of these agreements, including some experience, astute observers. For Netanyahu, the biggest prize was that by diverting the conflict away from the Palestinian issue—here we go, ‘The Grand Illusion’—that conflict would go away. So much so that he and others in the Israeli government were living under the delusion that the Palestinian issue is done and cooked on low heat forever, never to be irrupted again. “The deadly fiction that the Palestinians were so abject and defeated that Israel could simply ignore their demands,” wrote Michelle Goldberg in the NY Times recently.

Oh man, how wrong one can be—Netanyahu that is—when one’s sole purpose is to remain in power. And to use that power as means not for justice and humanity, but for victory at all costs. And make no mistake, the latest war was not about Gaza, nor was it about “Israel’s right to defend itself.” It was not even about the Palestinian elections and their inner power struggle, or Israel’s politicians attempting to form a governing coalition (as some have suggested). No: It was about the Palestinians right to exist in dignity. To have a state of their own. To be treated as human beings with equal rights under the sun. Not to be evicted at will from their homes in Jerusalem—where it all had started, this time and also many years ago—and to end the occupation once and for all. To borrow and paraphrase Bill Clinton’s campaign slogan, it was “The occupation, stupid.”

Israel’s refusal since the end of the Six-Day War of 1967 to realize that, to accept the consequences, and mostly its failure to stop the expansion of the settlement endeavor, is very costly and now almost behind repair. The two-state solution is dead, declared so here before, or at best is on death bed. Even with Biden in charge in Washington; even with a new Prime Minister in Israel (hard to believe it would ever happen); even if Israelis would realize their mistake (some do, the majority don’t), I don’t see how it can be reversed. I hope it can, but the facts on the ground, and the political challenges against it, are too immense. It is now a one-state solution. And how it would survive and thrive is anybody’s guess.

Case in point: Arab Israelis. Or Palestinian Israelis. For the first time in a long time they irrupted too. On the streets of Israeli cities with mixed populations—Lod, Accra, Haifa, Jerusalem, and Jaffa—they revolted and took to the streets, causing death, injuries, and havoc. They fought against extremist Jewish right-wingers who fought against them with the police mostly on their side. (Black Lives Matter, anybody?) It was ugly. It was violent. But it proved one point rather clearly: Put aside the political overture of some Israeli politicians and one Arab moderate politician to form a united governing coalition, the Arab Israeli people are not with them. They see themselves as Palestinians. That is how and where their hearts beat.

So deal with it, Israel, before it’s too late. If it’s not already so.

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