The term “Occupation” has become almost a cliché in describing Israel’s presence in the territories conquered in 1967. Within Israeli society, the word is little used anymore (Hebrew: כיבוש ). Many maps published in Israeli school textbooks no longer show the “Green Line”, but through various graphical techniques, implicitly or explicitly indicate that the entire country is “Israel”, or “The Land of Israel”. There is certainly no indication on most maps that Israel occupies/administers territory that is not part of the state. Palestinian maps, of course, often depict the entire country as “Palestine”.
Despite the obvious challenges, can Israel transform itself from a colonial/settler state into a more democratic society? For almost fifty years Israel’s Jewish population has expanded into occupied territory, about 700,000 settlers according to recent estimates. For more than two generations, Israelis have relocated to East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights – no longer to Gaza, which in any case never had more than 6,500 settlers at its peak. The number of Israelis who have been born in the settlements is increasing, and the vast majority of settlers are native Israelis, who move across the Green Line for cheaper housing and quality of life, with only about 15% relocating for ideological reasons. Several hundred kilometers of new highways have been built to connect their communities with the Israeli heartland. The new light rail system in Jerusalem reaches deep into occupied territory, to Pisgat Ze’ev in the north-east of the city, and a southern extension is planned to Malka, near Gilo and Bethlehem. The entire region is dotted with Israeli fortresses and concrete pillboxes. Israeli companies mine raw materials, the state controls the electromagnetic spectrum, and the water resources are extracted to benefit mostly the Jewish population.
The Gaza Strip remains locked territory. Israel, with help from Egypt, denies entry or exit except with an Israeli permit, of which few are granted. Raw materials and finished goods are also subject to Israeli permission before they can move into or out of the Gaza Strip. Access by land, air and sea are controlled by Israel, thus maintaining the Gaza Strip as an integral part of Israel’s matrix of control.
In Area “C”, about 60% of the West Bank, the Israeli government continues to confiscate land by declaring it “State Land”, facilitating de facto annexation of more than half the Occupied Territories. Informing most Israeli land policies is the fundamental assertion that the West Bank is “disputed”, not occupied. Within Israeli law this legalizes the creeping annexation. On the land that Palestinians were led to expect as their new state, huge Israeli farms have taken over large swaths of territory and Jewish-only cities have been built. Industrial zones have been developed, quarries established, and settlements continue to grow unabated. These communities are well provided with shopping malls, supermarkets, banks, and all the other infrastructure of modern life – largely servicing only the Israeli Jewish residents.
Their two and a half million Muslim, Christian, Bedouin and Samaritan neighbors (the Palestinians), are generally not allowed to step foot in most Jewish communities without a special permit and even then are often required to be accompanied by an armed guard. They are also not allowed over the Green Line into “Israel proper”, without a permit. The Separation Barrier snakes in and out of the West Bank, separating Israel and the major settlement blocks from the bulk of the Palestinian population. The Israeli government disingenuously claims that the Barrier is for security reasons only, but at the same time there is an ongoing massive expansion of settlements on both sides of the Barrier, in the areas that are increasingly denied to Palestinians. The latest settlement block being consolidated in the West Bank heartland is the Shiloh Block, encompassing several tens of square kilometres of land and thousands of settlers.
Is this Occupation? Is this colonization? Is this Apartheid? Is it none of the above? Regardless of one’s choice of definition, the process is certainly a sophisticated plan to expand and consolidate the nation-state of Israel on most of the lands conquered in 1967. If we set aside any ideological stance one way or the other regarding the Jewish/Israeli or Arab/Palestinian claims for sovereignty over the land, and take a fresh look at the technical aspects of the Occupation, then certain questions beg to be answered.
The fundamental question is whether the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 have passed an invisible line of history and are now an indivisible and integral part of the Israeli sovereign sphere.
How does one define this “invisible line of history”? There are several indicators that can be examined, and it’s useful to seek parallels with other conquests and state building enterprises, in particular the conquest of parts of the North American continent that became the United States of America.
For the first few decades after achieving independence in 1776, the USA welcomed about 60,000 new immigrants each decade. Then suddenly in the third decade of the 19th century the number more than doubled, then doubled again in only five years. The rate of immigration accelerated to a peak of almost 2 million people during the fifth decade. However by 1850 the US flag still had just 30 stars (today there are 50 states). The rest of the country only had territorial status at that time. California joined that year after being wrenched away from a sleepy Mexico that had no idea that the Gold Rush had started. California made the transition from “Territory” to “State” in only two years due to its rapid development and the subsequent political clout it garnered as a result.
The Great Irish Famine (Irish: an Gorta Mór) of 1845 – 1852 contributed greatly to immigration, as did the Federal Government’s final defeat and ghettoization of the Native American population into reservations, and the land giveaway that immigrants who went west could expect. Until the final decades of the 20th century it was possible to “homestead” and stake a claim to “government land” in many states, and receive 5 to 60 acres for free. Much of this land of course is the patrimony of the Native Americans, but that’s a minor detail that most US citizens have long forgotten.
The civil war was yet to come and would shape this new nation in far reaching ways. However it was during the mid-1800s that the United States of America solidified its claim over most of the land that remains part of the USA. And today of course, few question the right of the USA to exercise its sovereignty over the territory under its control. Native Americans, of course, may disagree, especially with the concept of “Manifest Destiny”, which lent justification to the genocidal policies rooted in the belief that Europeans were destined to conquer and rule.
So how does all this relate to the Occupation of Palestine and the growth of the Israeli State? If we continue the comparison, then Israel today could perhaps be viewed as being in a similar stage of development as the USA was in the mid-1800s. If this is true, then the final phase of state consolidation will likely happen soon and relatively fast.
The population growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank has consistently hovered between 4 to 5% annually for most of the past 20 years, whereas the growth of the population on the “Israel” side of the Green Line has been around 1.5 to 2%. In other words, as a result of Israeli government policies, the settlers grow in number at least twice as fast as the general population. This was also true in mid-nineteenth century USA. Between 1820 and 1850 the rate of immigration grew to a peak of almost 10%, while general population growth was about 3% annually. The growth of immigration was therefore about three times the growth of the general population – similar to the growth of Israeli settlers. Of course the comparison between immigrants to the USA, and settlers in the West Bank breaks down when one considers that most settlers are Israeli citizens and not new immigrants, yet they are in a sense migrants since they are relocating to territory not yet within the Israeli state.
Another consideration is that the number of Israeli Jews living across the Green Line is now almost 15% of the entire Jewish population of Israel. They have full civil and political rights while their Palestinian neighbors have been under military rule for almost 50 years. Despite its assertion that it is a nation-state, the powers of the Palestinian Authority are not sovereign, and rarely exceed the powers of a municipal or county government in Europe or the USA. This is unlikely to change in the current political climate. Such is the legacy of the Oslo Agreements.
There seems to be no explicit end game for Zionist expansionism, other than the confiscation of more territory to be annexed, while excluding as many non-Jews as possible from citizenship and “encouraging” them to relocate to one of the eight to ten Palestinian reservations, known as Areas “A” and “B” (about 40% of the West Bank). These areas have been variously called warehouses, cantons or Bantustans. I prefer the term “reservation”. This strategy worked well in 19th century USA since the indigenous people were completely overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of settlers/immigrants, and the genocidal policies of the colonial and US governments. Zionism, like Manifest Destiny in the USA, has evolved into a political and legal framework of structural discrimination against non-Jews.
In order to consolidate the network of reservations, and reduce the numbers of non-Jews in Area “C”, Israel has built the Barrier, developed the reservation system & permit regime, conducts deportations, home demolitions, and extra-judicial executions. The fundamental difference with the USA is that the current demographic reality, combined with relatively low net Jewish immigration to Israel, ensures that the numbers of Jews will never overwhelm the numbers of non-Jews unless there are mass expulsions, as happened in 1948. This is unlikely in today’s international political climate, and there is currently almost parity of numbers between the Jewish and non-Jewish populations of Israel and the Occupied Territories combined.
So back to the original questions. Is this an “Occupation” that can be ended through Israel’s withdrawal of sovereign claims, and retreat to the Green Line? Or does this process constitute the consolidation of a colonial state? Has Israel implemented a form of Apartheid in the West Bank? Are we now in a post-colonial era?
Contradictory as it may seem, the answer to all the questions seems to be “yes”. However for the reasons mentioned above, none of the supposed “solutions” put forward by the UN, Quartet, by direct negotiations, or advocated by civil society activists, have been successful. A democratic single state, two states, or a federation is just not happening. Israel is moving forward and implementing the historic Zionist mission to establish and maintain a state controlled by Jews, and to expand it when expedient. There is an inexorable historic process at work here that played out in the Americas, Africa, and other regions that were settled by Europeans during the past few hundred years.
The Zionist narrative and ideology diverges from other colonial enterprises in two important elements. Firstly, Zionism justifies Jewish immigration and control by citing a prior claim based on the connections between modern Jews and the ancient Hebrews of the Bible. The second is that the Zionist Enterprise was never sponsored by a state, but for more than a century has built a formidable network of state surrogates expressed in the collective strength of a variety of interlocking Jewish multi-national organizations, including the Jewish Agency, Jewish National Fund, World Zionist Congress, Jewish Colonial Trust Company (now Bank Leumi), AIPAC, Taglit Birthright, and others.
Nevertheless the process of settlement is remarkably similar to other colonial adventures.
The great question remains. Will Israel survive this process – as the USA survived as a Eurocentric colonial project, or will there be a transformational process such as happened in many African countries such as Algeria or Zimbabwe? In those cases the political control passed to the indigenous populations and most of the colonists departed, even if they were the descendants of the original settlers and arguably also indigenous. If the latter, then Zionism will not survive. It is possible though, that a kinder, gentler form of Zionism will eventually prevail, and some type of shared sovereignty or pluralistic society may emerge. In my view this is the likely outcome. However other options – Apartheid – Fascism – or other form of authoritarian government, are still possible, indeed probable in the short term given the power shifts and trends in Israeli politics.
Just as Manifest Destiny gave way to more liberal forms of government and social organization in the USA, so too within Zionism are the seeds of a similar transformation. Keep in mind that like the original European settlers to North America, many Jewish immigrants to Palestine and Israel during the first half of the twentieth century were fleeing oppression in Europe and Russia. After WWII and the Holocaust, Zionism hardened into the more virulent ideology that is evident today. Yet like the USA, democratic ideals are embedded in the culture and the political structure, and today’s struggle in the face of an emergent powerful right wing is to keep these ideals alive. Just as the USA took almost 200 years after its founding to finally embody in law, that all citizens are equal, so too Israel still has the potential to fully realize the promise of its declaration of independence.
“It (the State of Israel) will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
Israel obviously has a long way to go, but this founding statement is far more liberal than any comparable declarations of independence of the colonial era. The State is now almost 70 years old. The conquest of the Territories is almost 50 years old. The last couple of generations of Israelis have become so accustomed to the situation that most of them never question its morality. It’s time to recognize the passage of the “invisible line of history”, lay the term “‘Occupation” to rest, and move on to recognize a reality that many of us are not yet comfortable with – a Jewish controlled Greater Israel that will take decades to reform into some version of a pluralistic society, just as the Christian-controlled countries of Europe and the Americas dragged themselves out of barbarism (slavery, burning witches, the Crusades, etc) and emerged into a more liberal future.
Thus Israel will likely follow a similar process that shaped Western Europe and their colonies, where the Christian countries (many still have a cross on the flag) reluctantly, and after centuries of oppression, permitted non-Christians to become citizens and full members of their societies. The Jewish State will need to follow suit, hopefully in decades rather than centuries, if it wants to fully join the family of civilized nations.