Occupation Vs. Democracy


Occupation, as I mentioned in an earlier column, is one of the most unpopular terms in media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, some people say there is no occupation at all, meaning that occupation is not the right term to refer to Israel’s presence in the territories occupied in 1967 é the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. This claim is reflected also in the official Israeli denominations for them: the term “Occupied Territories”, used for a short while after 1967, was quickly replaced by “Administered Territories”. To avoid even that, the Israeli right-wing and army often speak of “Judea and Samaria”, biblical terms that were adapted so as to coalesce with the West Bank occupied in 1967.

The claim that the territories taken in 1967 are not occupied has one or two points to lean on. As one angry reader correctly comments, “there was never in history any state called Palestine governed by Palestinians”. Moreover, the so-called Green Line, marking the border between the West Bank and Israel, is not an international border, but just cease-fire lines set after Israel’s war of independence in 1949. It is not like the internationally acknowledged border between Israel and Syria (with the Golan Heights, under Israeli occupation too since 1967, belonging to Syria). So maybe it’s not occupation after all?

Occupation and Temporariness

As the very independent Israeli columnist Meron Benveniste recently noted, the term “occupation” is used é by Arabs and dovish Israelis é to make the Israeli presence in the territories look temporary. However, the fact that many people deny, ignore or simply do not know, and cannot be overemphasised, is that in the last decades Israel has been doing its best to “administer” the “Administered Territories” in a way that makes its presence there irreversible. From the outset, Israel has not treated the territories as a negotiation card that it keeps in order to return in exchange for peace, but as an asset that it intends to keep forever. For the present discussion, it doesn’t matter whether the point of irreversibility has already been reached (as Benveniste has been arguing for years now) or not. The point is that saying that the settlements were made just to be evacuated is either cynical right-wing propaganda (like David Horowitz’s: “the Jewish settlements in the Sinai were disbanded […] So there is no particular reason to think they would be an obstacle to a serious Palestinian interest in peace”) or wishful thinking of naive left-wingers.

Israel would not have been investing billions of dollars in the settlements é both before and during the Oslo process é just to evacuate them when peace is at hand. This has always been clear to any unbiased observer, but it still surprises some main-stream voices: Zeev Schiff of Ha’aretz, a top Israeli mainstream columnist, has recently sounded fairly astonished by the extent of the Israeli investment in “bypass roads” in the occupied territories, built to serve the settlers and to break up Palestinian contiguity (15.2.2002): “bypass roads amounting to NIS 228 million [$48 million] are now currently under construction […] Last year, partly under Barak and partly under Sharon, no less than NIS 200 million [$42 million] were allocated to bypass roads in the West Bank. According to one estimate, since Oslo, Israel has spent more than NIS 1.25 billion [$265 million] on bypass roads in the territories.”

Bypass roads are just a small part of Israel’s huge investments in the settlements. The total investment can hardly be calculated, since it comprises everything from military expenditure to reductions on taxes and education fees for settlers. Adva Centre é gathering information on equality and social justice in Israel é has recently prepared a thorough report on just some of the government funding of the settlements. The results are impressive. During the last decade, municipalities in the territories enjoyed an average government support of NIS 3,679 per settler a year, compared with an average of just NIS 1,458 per citizen in Israel. Of the NIS 11,5 billion [$2,5 billion] invested in constructing new houses in the territories during the decade, 50% of the money was public, compared with just 25% public financing inside Israel. And, returning to the bypass roads, whereas an average of 5,3 square metres of roads per capita were built in Israel, 17,2 square metres of roads per capita were built in the occupied territories. The settlers é socio-economically a very strong sector é are thus publicly overfunded by a factor up to 3,3 compared to the national average.

Puzzled Zeev Schiff concludes: “Three principal possible explanations stand behind this reality. The first is that these expenditures express an intention never to give up the territories and all the rest is an illusion. The second is that we have decided to build, step-by-step, the road system of the Palestinian state that will be established in the territories, at the expense of the Israeli taxpayer. The third possible explanation is that the governmental systems of Israel have been dragged into this as if forced by a demon and without anyone being able to put a stop to the parade of stupidity.”

The second explanation is ironic: the bypass road, as their name suggests, connect Israeli settlements and bypass Palestinian towns and villages; they can never become the road system of a Palestinian state. The third explanation is a superstitious formulation the first and only plausible explanation: Israel intends “never to give up the territories and all the rest” é all the rest: “negotiations”, “peace talks”, “interim agreements” etc. é “is an illusion”.

If Not Occupation, What Then?

In addition to these huge investments, the occupied territories are not treated as such by Israel from some legal aspects too: for example, international law prohibits moving the occupier’s population (say, Iraqi settlers) into occupied territory (say, into Kuwait), prohibits confiscation of land unless for the benefit of the occupied people (which can hardly be said of roads built to bypass them), and so on.

Supposing, then, we accept the argument that the territories are not under Israeli occupation, as right-winger claim and as Israel is behaving. What then? Interestingly enough, this claim is quite often made by the very same people who proudly count Israel’s blessings as the only democracy in the Middle East. Democracy?! If there is no Israeli occupation, there is definitely no Israeli democracy either. A country where six million people have citizenship and political rights, and other three million live without citizenship, without political and without human rights, is not a democracy. A country where one person (say, a settler in Hebron) enjoys democratic freedom whereas his next-door (Palestinian) neighbour lives under a hostile military regime, is not a democracy. A country that systematically dispossesses members of one ethnic group for the benefit of another is not a democracy. A country that pushes one ethnic group into besieged reserves in order to make room for another is not a democracy, even if it allows the besieged reserves to run their own schools and sewage or even to elect their local chiefs. These models are not unknown in human history: they are very reminiscent of South African Apartheid, where members of one “superior” group enjoyed some “democratic” rights, while other groups were subordinated and deprived of equal rights. No one would term it democracy.

End Occupation or End Democracy

So those who claim Israel is not occupying the territories é for whatever juridical, sentimental or fundamentalist reasons é have to give up the claim that Israel is a democracy. Moreover, since democracy means equal rights to all the permanent inhabitants of a political-geographic unit, the idea of canonizing the territories into several enclaves, surrounded by Israeli settlements, bypass roads and “buffer zones”, is also unacceptable. If Israel wants to be a democracy, there are just two options. On the one hand, if the territories are temporarily occupied, then Israel has to retreat, evacuate the settlements, and let the Palestinians establish a contiguous sovereign state, free of any Israeli presence. One must note, though, that Israel has been using the concept of “temporary occupation” and at the same time doing all it can to make this “temporariness” permanent. If, on the other hand, the territories are not just temporarily occupied, Israel must give full citizenship and equal political rights to all their Palestinian inhabitants. Any other “compromise” é especially the present situation of shutting the Palestinians in enclaves surrounded by de facto annexed Israeli territories é deprives Israel of its claim to be a democracy and turn it into one of the darkest regimes that survived into the 21st century.

Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and has grown up in Israel. He has B.A. in Computer Science, M.A. in Comparative Literature and he presently works on his PhD thesis. He lives in Tel-Aviv, teaches in the Department of Comparative Literature in Tel-Aviv University. He also works as literary translator (from German, English and Dutch), and as a literary critic for the Israeli daily Yedioth Achronoth. His work has been published widely in Israel. His column appears monthly at Antiwar.com.