Why has the Occupation lasted this long?

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Below is an excerpt from Gershon Shafir’s new book, A Half Century of Occupation: Israel, Palestine, and the World’s Most Intractable Conflict (UC Press). In it, Shafir explores the strategies, policies, and historical continuities that devised and promoted Israel’s colonization of Palestinian territory. 


Israel did not invent colonization in the wake of the 1967 War. When Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was asked in 1968 what the Labor Party should do with regard to the recently conquered occupied territories, he found it easy to answer: “The first step is the traditional one in the realm of action in the State of Israel—settlement.” Yigal Allon, deputy prime minister, reiterated the purpose of Israeli colonization in the OPT in unmistakable terms:

We accustomed ourselves and the entire world to treat [our settlement] activity as facts with particularly weighty significance. This turned into one of the weapons of our revival movement. It can be assumed, therefore, that no one will misunderstand the importance of this activity.

Israel Galili, a leader of the socialist Kibbutz Hameuchad movement and Prime Minister Golda Meir’s closest confidant, reiterated in the 1971 Congress of the Labor Party that “the trust accorded the Labor Party by the public” stemmed, first and foremost, from “its settlement ethos.” Thus, in Galili’s words, expansion, whether to the Jordan River or to Tel Aviv, originated from the same pure source of national revival.

“A Half Century of Occupation
Israel, Palestine, and the World’s Most Intractable Conflict,” by Gershon Shafir (UC Press), 2017, cover. (Image: UC Press)

Israeli colonization, to paraphrase William Faulkner, is not dead; it isn’t even past. The tools of colonization, honed before 1948 to a sharp edge, and subsequently deployed within Israel’s new boundaries, were available and ready to be pressed into service in the territories newly occupied in 1967. When the state of Israel was established in 1948, the colonizing institutions that had been instrumental in creating it—the WZO, the Jewish Agency (JA), the Jewish National Fund (JNF), et cetera—were no longer needed, certainly not in their previous forms. The WZO’s settlement activities could easily have been handed over to the new state, allowing the organization to focus on its role as a bridge between Israel and supportive Jewish communities around the world. There was even less need to keep alive the JA, a coordinating body between the Yishuv and the British Mandate. The JNF, which had purchased and held the land reserves of the Jewish people in Palestine, could have vested its holdings in the state of Israel. Even the various kibbutz and moshav settlement movements were part of the prestate sectionalism rejected in the name of mamlachtiyut—the transfer of all loyalties from each sector to the new state—a principle promoted assiduously by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Nevertheless, each of these colonizing institutions was held over after the establishment of the Israeli state. The WZO, the JA, and the JNF were kept because they were the tools of Jewish privilege.

Israel preserved its state-building settler-colonial institutions precisely because they were not branches of the new state and, consequently, did not have to provide services to Israel’s Palestinian citizens (in the way that a state operating on the basis of the equal treatment of all its citizens would have been obliged to). In the years following the 1948 War, Israel expropriated the land of about 70 percent of Palestinian localities, and an even larger share of the land previously belonging to the Bedouin of the Negev. It then employed such nonstate institutions as the WZO, the JA, and the JNF to colonize this land. The post-1948 settlement was carried out under the innocuous slogan of “population dispersal,” though in fact the Israeli government sought the wider dispersal of the Jewish population and the simultaneous concentration of the remaining Palestinian population within smaller areas. Between March 1950 and December 1966, while Israel was settling hundreds of thousands of new Jewish immigrants along its newly acquired borders, it was placing its Palestinian citizens under military government, which served as one of the tools enabling the continued territorial dispossession of privately owned Palestinian land. In the wake of the 1967 War, the self-same institutions were pressed into the service of colonization in the OPT, this time jointly with Israeli ministries and under the auspices of the Israeli government.

A clear illustration of the continuity of settler colonialism across the divide of the 1967 War is found in the adjudication of the 1972 Rafah Approach appeal. This was one of the first High Court of Justice (HCJ) cases to examine the reasoning behind an order of the military government in the newly occupied land. It became a precedent-setting ruling. Following the eviction of 1,500 Bedouin families (see Section I), Israel established in that newly abandoned territory a Nachal military settlement to serve as a security buffer. In 1972, Bedouin sheiks, assisted by nearby socialist kibbutzim, sued the military for having founded this settlement for political rather than security reasons. Justice Witkon accepted the deposition signed by General Israel Tal and ruled that “settlement of Jews . . . in itself, in this case, is a security measure.” In the subsequent Beth El ruling from 1979, the same security reasoning was accepted, though the settlements of Beth El and Beka’ot (which were built on expropriated private Palestinian land) were civilian from the start. Of course, viewing settlements as performing a military task potentially renders them legitimate targets of attacks. But more importantly, by accepting that civilian settlements were part of the military’s regional defense plan, the HCJ incorporated into its interpretation of IHL the Israeli state-building method of colonization. IHL allows for the protection of the occupying forces’ security, but by treating civilians as soldiers and settlements as military camps, the HCJ molded IHL to fit Israeli history and not only stretched it beyond recognition but annulled its prohibition on colonization.

Professor Gershon Shafir.(Photo: UCSD)

General Tal later conceded that he had only supplied the signature on the document placed before him. His confession raises the question, Just how important is colonization in the OPT for Israeli security? According to a telling 2012 report from the Council for Peace and Security, a body composed of retired Israeli military and security experts, “The settlement project not only does not contribute to the overall security of the State of Israel, but it incurs significant security, political, economic, and social prices and risks.” The report goes on to suggest that it is the presence of military forces, rather than settlements, that increases security, contradicting General Tal’s affidavit and the court’s approval of his approach. It is, of course, not surprising that colonization inevitably leads to conflict with those it displaces. But the willingness to undertake colonization in spite of the risks it incurs indicates that—instead of enhancing Israeli security—colonization merely marks the boundaries of land Israel wishes to eventually annex.

The Rafah Approach settlements were part and parcel of the same “military frontier” colonization that Israel had already commenced in the OPT. The 1973 War and the rapid evacuation of settlements on the Golan in the face of the advancing Syrian military raised even more serious questions as to the ability of military colonization to achieve its declared aim of achieving security. Even so, after a short lull the tail end of Labor Party’s rule witnessed the expansion of settlements in all parts of the OPT more rapidly than at any other time since 1967. If additional proof was needed, the March 1979 Camp David peace treaty with Egypt demonstrated most clearly that Israeli security could be attained without the construction of settlements altogether. Detaching the goal of security from the means of military frontier settlements left continued colonization as an end in itself without justification. But already other interests and groups were waiting in the wings to justify settlement in new terms so as to continue and expand the venture that had begun in the Labor Party era. New patterns of colonization required a new and more radical legitimation, which was provided by a refocused and reinterpreted Judaism.

There is another, related, urgently important difference between colonization by the Labor Settlement Movement (LSM) during the Yishuv (up until 1977) and by Likud-led Israeli governments after 1977. Similarity, even continuity of the two practices does not imply their identity. Si duo faciunt idem, non est idem.

The vineyards and orchards planted by the earliest wave of Jewish settlers who arrived between 1882 and 1903—the First Aliya—thrived on the employment of low-paid Palestinian workers. Second Aliya members, who reached Palestine from 1903 to 1914, sought to persuade First Aliya farmers to hire them instead, in solidarity with other Jews, instead of Palestinian laborers. But Jewish agricultural workers were unable to subsist on the low wages paid to Palestinian workers and wanted European wages. By 1908, their futile struggle for “Hebrew labor”—through the “conquest of labor” from the lower-paid Palestinian workers—was supplemented by a more promising tactic, the “conquest of land.” This transformation took place through an alliance of the LSM with the WZO and the linkage of their respective institutions the JNF (the WZO’s land-purchasing arm) and the Histadrut (the LSM’s trade union). The colonization led by the LSM was separatist in intent: instead of employing Palestinian laborers it resorted to forming its own distinct—and exclusively Jewish—cooperative economy, starting in the Ottoman period. The respective aims of the JNF and the Histadrut were to close Palestine’s land and labor markets to Palestinians and to make these “closed shops” available to Jews only. These institutions were the mainstays of the Israeli state-to-be and the LSM leadership. This separatism, however, was the result, not the cause, of the Jewish-Palestinian conflict.

What was the significance of the LSM’s separatist method of state formation for the Jewish-Palestinian conflict? In the astute observation of the historian Anita Shapira,

The ideology of Hebrew Labor…brought about the reduction of the settlement area in Eretz Israel. In the long run, the establishment of separate Jewish areas of settlement entailed the relinquishment of those areas that did not possess a Jewish majority. This decision was the first step on the way toward Eretz Israel’s partition.

It was from the LSM’s mainstream that the majority of the supporters of the various partition plans emerged, the plans being the 1937 Peel Commission’s Plan and the 1947 UN plan. If by the mid-1930s partition was already grounded in Palestinian reality, this was in large measure due to the LSM’s strategy of state formation. Having supported economic bifurcation and consequently being less dependent on Palestinian labor than any other Jewish group, the LSM was best equipped to support de jure partition. In this they radically differed from the white South African mining economy or the southern plantation economy of the United States. Being militant in its demand for exclusive Jewish employment, the LSM had become more modest in its demands for territorial expansion. To increase the ratio of population to land, the LSM agreed to have the latter diminished so that the density of the former would grow. Prioritizing demographic strength over territory was in the natural interest of the LSM, which, on the basis of its formative experience in the labor market, grasped the demographic limits of Zionism. The LSM recognized that an effective demographic presence was necessary to secure the Jewish population’s permanence and safety in Palestine. This recognition predisposed the LSM to entertain territorial compromise in order to enable the entry of Jewish refugees both before and after the Second World War. The aim of the LSM became the realization of a homogeneous (i.e., Jewish) settlement society within Palestine. Such homogeneity in the conditions of a small country like Palestine would always be partial: even within the boundaries of Jewish state set by the 1948 UN Partition Resolution, the Arab population was to make up 45 percent, though the arrival of Jewish refugees from DP camps in Europe was expected to change the ratio rapidly.

The Allon Plan, as we observed in the first essay, supported colonization mostly in the less densely populated part of the West Bank in the Jordan Valley, though Allon soon gave in to new temptations and incorporated into his map the Gush Etzion and Hebron settlements—even though Prime Minister Rabin had ejected Gush Emunim’s unauthorized Elon Moreh settlement nucleus eight times from the densely populated mountain range of the northern West Bank (Samaria). The post-1977 colonization of the West Bank overthrew this demographic calculus and prioritized territory over demography.

Ironically, the Likud had not engaged in settlement or had settlement institutions or potential settlers. Consequently, the Likud turned to Gush Emunim to be its foot soldiers. Through Gush Emunim, colonization took a big leap from its demographic to its territorial version. The day after the May 1977 election that made the Likud the largest party for the time in Israel’s history, Begin visited the settlement of Ellon Moreh and declared, “We stand on the land of liberated Israel. There will be many Ellon Morehs.” Without Gush Emunim’s religious commitment, most post-1967 colonization would have taken place in the less densely populated parts of the OPT—in the Jordan Valley and along the Green Line—rather than in the heart of the densely inhabited West Bank. By 1981, the Likud would offer its own plan for intensive colonization, the Drobles Plan, which opened up the whole of the OPT to settlement. It combined demographic and territorial colonization in one package. The Drobles Plan and the Likud’s colonization efforts differ in one additional way from earlier colonization under the Allon Plan. New waves of Jewish immigrants, such as those from the USSR, could have been accommodated within the state of Israel, but the Likud government sought to direct them (and the even larger flow from the USSR’s successor states) to the new colonies, though most of these immigrants would have preferred to live in Israel’s urban centers within the Green Line.

Begin’s colonization and the settlements of Gush Emunim members in the densely populated parts of Palestine were intended to make territorial partition impossible and colonization irreversible. The new radical geography- centered approach to colonization replaced the demography-centered approach of the LSM, intensifying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also led to the first large-scale, coordinated Palestinian resistance movement to Israel’s military rule in the West Bank, which lasted through the late 1970s and early 1980s.


A particularly effective way of examining the (dis)continuity of the colonization project in Israel is to trace it through the generations. Since generations overlap and rarely possess beginning and concluding dates, they are a notoriously amorphous social phenomenon. But occasionally, as suggested by Karl Manheim, the biological and historical cycles interlock. At such times, under the influence of a singular historical event, a cohort is politicized and converted into a self-conscious generation. In Israel, the 1967 War played such a formative role.

The founding fathers and mothers of Israel—David Ben Gurion, Itzhak Ben-Zvi, Golda Meir and others, who arrived in the Second (1904–14) and Third Aliyas (1918–24) waves of immigration—were followed by the first native-born generation of Israel, which overlapped with the second generation of the LSM. Led by Moshe Dayan, Yigal Allon, Israel Galili, and Yitzhak Rabin, this sabra generation devised the “Stockade and Watchtower” form of military settlement during the years before the Arab Revolt of 1936–39. This first native Israeli generation not only militarized colonization but later commanded the military units that fought in the 1948 War. They were groomed to take over leadership from the state’s founders, but according to Yonathan Shapiro they remained dwarfed by the founding fathers’ generation, never developing an independent worldview of their own. Consequently, this first native generation merely reproduced the outlook of the previous generation and adopted and expanded its goals. In doing so after 1967, they legitimized the colonization project and found justification for their own life project. Though there was much talk of expanding the colonization of the OPT, the Labor Party government only halfheartedly implemented the settlement planks of the Allon Plan. The LSM could no longer summon its erstwhile commitment to its own Zionist pioneering ethos. All in all, at the end of the Labor era in 1977, there were fifteen settlements in the Jordan Rift, one or two established per year, still directed by a demographic framework for colonization. The area—once planned for a population of 20,000—was inhabited in 1986 by only a few thousand settlers. Having reopened the door of settlement, however, the Labor Party could no longer close it.

The driving force behind Israel’s second era of colonization belongs elsewhere. The decisive victory of the 1967 War—which achieved the conquest of the biblical land of Jewish antiquity (the West Bank or Samaria and Judea) was a generation-forming experience for the religious Zionist community. This generational cohort interpreted the victory as an advanced stage in the course of messianic redemption and proclaimed its convictions in the context of its own intergenerational experience. In contrast to the Labor Party, with its formidable foreign-born leaders who were the state’s founders, religious Zionism (organized in the National Religious or Mizrachi Party, today the Jewish Home Party) remained a junior partner in the performance of national pioneering tasks rather than a leader. Religious Zionism served at most as an interest group or a religious lobby representing sectoral interests with leaders fearful of losing the group’s youth to assimilation in secular Israeli society. The first generation of religious Zionist leaders signed up for Zionism to “solve” the practical concerns of diaspora Jews but not of Judaism. Having rejected the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodoxy of Agudat Yisrael (which left redemption in the hands of providence), but becoming only a pale imitation of the LSM, they were ultimately criticized and humiliated by both camps.

Taking on the mission of frontier expansion allowed the second generation of religious Zionists to place itself on a new footing. From its ranks emerged the Gush Emunim (Bloc of Faithful) settlement movement, which also served as a powerful lever in the intraparty generational conflict. As pointed out by Shmuel Sandler,

By turning the issue [of settling the West Bank] into both a national and a religious cause the Mizrachi camp emerged as a leading force in both areas, for in taking the lead on settlement in the territories, it could demonstrate its loyalty to the sacred ideals of settling the land and security, while at the same time criticizing Agudat Yisrael for their disloyalty to the Land of Israel.

Gush Emunim arose from the well-integrated network of Israel’s religious Zionist educational institutions. These schools—which have autonomy in determining their curricula, even though they are funded by the state Ministry of Education—transition religious Zionist youth from kindergartens, elementary schools, and the Bnei Akiva youth movement into the yeshiva tichonit high school network (where high-level traditional religious studies are coupled with secular education) or into the military yeshivat hesder and all the way to the national religious university, Bar Ilan. Religious Zionist, as well as haredi, education has flourished under this arrangement, which allows a measure of separation between religious and secular Jews. It has been an anomaly in Israel, given that under the Labor government of Prime Minister Ben Gurion, nonreligious independent schools were unified under state authority and paramilitary forces were folded into the IDF.

From within the second generation of religious Zionists, a particular subset received their graduate education at the Merkaz Harav yeshiva. This group was best equipped to claim the mantle of leadership. Unlike the Mizrachi, which joined the LSM mostly for pragmatic reasons, the yeshiva’s spiritual leaders—Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and his son Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook—took a more sympathetic view of the LSM and Zionism in general. For the rabbis Kook, Israel has not only practical but divine significance. Secular Zionists, in the Kooks’ view, were the unwitting tools of a messianic design whose beginnings were slow but whose forward direction was certain. Zionist immigration was the first step in the providential fulfillment of the process of redemption (atchalta degeula). It is therefore no surprise that the occupation of the Old City of Jerusalem and the other holy sites of the West Bank was seen by students and graduates of Merkaz Harav as the vindication of their faith and as a decisive step toward complete redemption.

As heirs to the settler-colonial project, Gush Emunim succeeded in mobilizing support not only from within the national religious camp but from nonreligious groups and individuals as well. Several political bodies in which secular activists joined with religious settlers played a crucial role in transferring the mission of pioneering from the LSM to Gush Emunim. The new movement replaced the old and, in the process, synthesized Rabbi Kook’s faith with the aspirations of the Second Aliya. LSM veterans supported Gush Emunim precisely because it followed the traditional course of settlement, which had an aura of legitimacy in a society where pioneering had been a core element of nationalism and a major source of prestige and influence. Even Prime Minister Rabin, who fought hard against early Gush Emunim settlements, found it useful to express his admiration for their “pioneering zeal.” Individual LSM leaders, among them Allon, Rabin, and Peres, acted as mentors and facilitators for the settlements of Qiryat Arba, Ofra, and Kadum, which would not have been established without their help.

Though Gush Emunim claimed the mantle of the LSM, its colonization project was a “revolution within a revolution,” both different and more radical in three important respects. First, the kibbutz and the moshav (a cooperative community of individual farms)—the agrarian settlement colonies of the LSM—were replaced by the semiurban, nonagricultural middle-class yishuv kehilati. After an initial period of resistance, in 1977 the WZO’s Settlement Department recognized the yishuv kehilati as a “pioneering settlement,” making it eligible for financial support from the Zionist movement.

Second, though Gush Emunim took great pride in presenting itself as what Rabbi Moshe Levinger, a settlement leader from the Qiryat Arba settlement near Hebron, called “the direct and legitimate offspring of the pioneers of Zionism,” Hanan Porat, the other prominent Gush Emunim leader from Kfar Etzion, rudely told LSM opponents, “You finished your role, just don’t interfere with our attempt to continue it.” In short, to gain national legitimation, Gush Emunim made the great legacy of colonization its own even as it reinterpreted it through a religious lens. After a conversation with Gush Emunim representatives in July 1974, Shimon Peres concluded: “We are living in two separate countries. You live in a country that needs to be settled, while I live in a country that needs to be defended.” Porat rejected the assertion that the role of Zionism was to constitute a safe haven for Jews so they could hold their own in the world. Gush Emunim viewed Zionism differently, as “the process of redemption in its concrete sense—the redemption of the people, and the redemption of the land—and in its divine sense—the redemption of the godhead, the redemption of the world.” Just how far Gush Emunim had distanced itself from the idea of maintaining a “military frontier” may be seen from its rejection not only of the principle of security but also of the goal of peace. “A secular peace,” said another founder of Gush Emunim, “is not our goal.” Its starting point with regard to peace was religious and messianic, so it saw peace as attainable only in the end of days.

Third, Gush Emunim colonization rejected demographic criteria for choosing the location of Jewish colonies. The odd “N”-shaped pattern of colonization during the Yishuv—running from Upper Galilee down to the Bet Shean Valley and then diagonally across the Jezreel Valley (Marj Ibn-Amer) up to Haifa and Nahariya, and down again to Gedera—followed the layout of the valleys and coastal areas, less secure during Ottoman times and consequently less densely inhabited by Palestinians. Gush Emunim colonization, in contrast, was aimed at the mountainous regions where the vast majority of Palestinians resided (see map 2). As Gush Emunim saw it, Jewish settlements up to the 1948 War had spread out over the “wrong” part of the Palestine, the coastal region that in antiquity was inhabited not by the Jews but by the Philistines. Gush Emunim wanted not only to correct this pattern and restore history by moving Jews into the lands they had held in biblical times but to join the ancient homeland to Israel within the Green Line. In the process, Gush Emunim tossed overboard the LSM’s goal of creating an ethnically homogeneous colony. It advocated pushing settlement into the locations of ancient Jewish towns and villages that had a dense Palestinian population in order to undermine the possibility of territorial partition. It also raised the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s stakes by leaving little contiguous territory for a potential Palestinian state, increasing friction, and producing higher levels of violence in which the settlers themselves played the role of both vigilantes and soldiers drafted into regional military units that protected their settlements.

Shafir, Gershon, A Half Century of Occupation: Israel, Palestine, and the World’s Most Intractable Conflict. Published by the University of California Press, 2017 © Regents of the University of California.

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The occupation is quite kooky. Named after rabbi Kook. It is also pretty Stupid, named after Rabbi Mendel WTF . The key institutions of Israel were taken over by ideologues. It was like what Lenny Bruce said when asked why the Jews killed Jesus. A little pahty that got out of hand, you know.

Thanks for this excellent historical analysis of the occupation! It helped me to better understand the situation.

I don’t know if this was Gershon Shafir’s intent, but it’s hard to read his research in Land, Labor and not come away with the impression that if the WZO could have founded a state at that point based on their cooperative settlement program it would have been segregationist. The conduct towards the Jewish Yemenis in particular makes me err on the side of no sympathy for Zionism.

Dear Gershon , You are making a mistake . Zionist occupation is 69 years old , not 50 as you mentioned.

seems like there are billions (usd/yrly) of reasons
that plus the usual lies
G-d Bless