Forty Years of Occupation

A Forum

by Lori Allen , Yoav Peled , Samera Esmeir , Robert Blecher , Mouin Rabbani | published June 6, 2007

An outpouring of retrospectives—good, bad and indifferent—has marked the fortieth anniversary of the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Predictably, and perhaps appropriately, most looks backward have also attempted to peer forward, and consequently most have focused on the impasse between Israel and the Palestinians. This question, though predating 1967 and not the only one left unresolved by the war, is nearly synonymous with “the Middle East” in the global media. Plentiful as the 1967 commentary has been, the relative silences have also spoken volumes. Middle East Report asked six critically minded scholars and analysts for their reflections on what has been missing from the conversation about Israel-Palestine occasioned by the passage of 40 years since that fateful June.


Lori Allen

In 1970, the UN Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Population of the Occupied Territories presented its first report to the UN Secretary-General. That first report, written before the policies, practices and intentions of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem had been made known to international diplomats and publics across the globe, adopted a stern tone about refugees’ right to return, deplored Israel’s “acts of destroying homes of Arab civilian population, deportation of inhabitants and the resorting to violence against inhabitants expressing their resentment to occupation,” and then called upon the government of Israel “to put an immediate end to such acts.” 

While the intervening years have changed many things, so much of the essence of the occupation has stayed the same. Twenty years ago, when the occupation was 20 years old and the first intifada broke out, the UN Special Committee was still dutifully submitting its annual report. By that time, the reports had started to betray a sense of weariness. 1987 was marked, the Committee noted, “by a recrudescence of tension and violence in the territories. According to evidence observed by the Special Committee, it seems that, after 20 years of occupation, the tragedy of the Palestinian people persists.”

Indeed, the tragedy not only persists, but grows in scale and becomes more entrenched. In addition to the slow destruction of enforced poverty, Israeli air force attacks on neighborhoods, land confiscations, house demolitions, tree uprootings and the incarceration of thousands of Palestinian political prisoners produce more spectacular forms of devastation. During the last week of May 2007, the Israeli army killed 19 Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories and injured 67 people. Those are only some of the events in one of the 2,080 weeks of life under occupation that have stretched Palestinians’ fortitude thin.

Ending its 1987 report on a note of desperation, the Special Committee reiterated “its hope that in view of the plight of the civilian population, the international community will be more determined than ever in its efforts to improve the conditions prevailing in the occupied territories.” But now, 20 years on, it seems that the international community has become more determined than ever to keep the Palestinians down. This “community,” including Israel and the US, punished Palestinians’ democratic success after the January 2006 election of Hamas by imposing a financial siege on the Palestinian Authority and tightening the noose around the Gaza Strip. 

Statistics from 2006 reveal the results of this policy: Eighty percent of households in the Gaza Strip earn less than $1 per day. The economic suffocation produced by international sanctions and Israel’s checkpoints and (no-) permit system reduced the Palestinian Authority’s income by 60 percent. Poverty among government employees—the teachers, nurses and doctors who provide vital services of daily life—showed an increase from 35 percent to 71 percent. In 2006 alone, food insecurity rose by 13 percent. Israel’s visa restrictions have meant that fewer internationals are able to witness these conditions and offer their own forms of assistance. 

Palestinians have known poverty, oppression and existential insecurity since the occupation began. Just as the UN, that structure and symbol of the “international community,” has known about it through its Special Committee, rapporteurs, agencies and observers. These physical and economic pressures are not the result of any natural disaster or irreversible social process. They are the deliberate orchestrations of human agency. Israeli, US, Palestinian and EU governments, as well as the citizens who vote them into office, are responsible. Their tax dollars pay for the Apache helicopters and Caterpillar bulldozers. Their companies sell the cement that become checkpoints and walls. 

The warring factions of Hamas and Fatah in Gaza are also responsible. The murderous, thuggish behavior of a handful of Palestinian men vying for a pitiable form of partial power over an occupied strip of land has thrown Gaza into chaos. That a political vacuum and crushing economic conditions should lead to chaotic eruptions is not surprising. That this should happen given how long and unceasing has been their oppression is even less so. What is surprising is that social chaos did not start to emerge sooner. 

While this bloody infighting gains immediate mainstream press coverage, the ways in which most Palestinians manage to get by, and do what they can to protest the inhuman conditions that the Israeli occupation forces them into, are ignored. Palestinian teachers have held strikes over unpaid wages, exercising a union’s democratic right to pressure their government—a right those living in the union-bashing US may have forgotten exists. Thousands marched on International Labor Day with banners proclaiming: “We want to work and get paid, but we don’t want begging.” Palestinians blog to express their disgust and frustration as much as their hopes. Teenage girls rap: “With unity we’ll be stronger.” Artist collectives make funny documentaries mocking inept Arab leaders and delighting in their own sarcastic talkativeness. Scholars write critical histories trying to learn from a past of foiled efforts to realize independence. And Palestinians continue to remind themselves, and ask others, to learn that when the occupation ends, more of this creativity can be nurtured and put to building a thriving society. As we stand in the shadow of 40 years of occupation, is there anything we can we do to achieve that?

Lori Allen is an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies and an editor of Middle East Report.


Yoav Peled

With the fortieth anniversary of the Arab-Israeli war of June 1967, the accumulated ills of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, coupled with the devastation wrought by neoliberal economic policy, have brought the country to its worst crisis of governability. While the economy is booming and Israel’s international standing remains high thanks to the September 11, 2001 attacks, since the summer 2006 Lebanon war, most Israelis feel like passengers stranded on a rudderless ship. Support for the government is in the single digits, and the only thing keeping Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in office is the fear of most members of the Knesset that they will not be reelected if new elections are called. In the meantime, lacking any legitimacy, the government cannot tend to the country’s pressing business, most importantly, ending the bloody conflict with the Palestinians. 

It was Olmert’s bad luck to succeed Ariel Sharon just as the steam was running out of Sharon’s miracle: the wedding of an aggressive war of politicide against the Palestinians with an aggressive economic war against all but the richest Israelis. Until Sharon came to power in 2001, it was widely believed that Israel had to choose between economic liberalization and accommodation with the Palestinians, on the one hand, and continuing occupation and a welfare state, on the other. Sharon tried to cut that Gordian knot and pursue liberalization and war simultaneously. The price he was willing to pay was the withdrawal of Israel’s military forces and Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. The idea, however, was not to relinquish control of the Palestinian territories and population, but to make that control more cost-effective. 

Sharon’s scheme would have backfired with him at the helm too, but the process was expedited by the inept Olmert. After two relatively minor military provocations from Hamas and Hizballah, Olmert abdicated his authority in favor of Chief of the General Staff Dan Halutz, who launched a war for which the Israeli military was ill-prepared and for which it did not possess any workable plan. The sorry state of Israel's military resulted from years of policing the occupied Palestinian territories, a process intensified by the second intifada in 2000. 

While irresponsibly launching the Lebanon war of 2006, the government abandoned the civilian population of northern Israel to Hizballah’s missile attacks. Economic liberalization had meant the extensive privatization of public services and the gradual stagnation of those that could not be made profitable enough to be privatized. Maintenance of public bomb shelters and supplying the needs of the people who find refuge therein when under attack are not profitable activities. Thus, these services were cut off, or provided very inadequately.

Lately, the southern town of Sderot has been bombarded by Qassam missiles from Gaza, an area that Israel has nominally evacuated, but that it keeps under tight siege. Although Qassams have been falling on Sderot on and off for years, the government has done nothing either to solve the problem politically or to provide shelter for residents. Enter Arkadi Gaidamak, a controversial multi-billionaire of Russian origin who is being investigated for alleged financial misdeeds. In the summer of 2006, Gaidamak evacuated 30,000 people from the north and kept them housed and fed at his own expense for a month. He has now taken it upon himself to fortify 1,300 apartments in Sderot against Qassam missiles, taking on the state’s responsibility for protecting its citizens even as the state fails to find a political resolution that addresses the roots of the violence. There could be no more apt manifestation of the demise of Israel’s social democracy after 40 years of occupation. As prophesied, the occupation—in addition to its effects on the Palestinians—has brought about the moral and political bankruptcy of the Israeli state.

Yoav Peled is professor of political science at Tel Aviv University.


Samera Esmeir

1967 was a year of setback for the Palestinians not only because Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but also because the new occupation effectively set the older one of 1948 in stone. As political attention quickly turned to the newly occupied areas, it became more difficult to mount challenges to the earlier stages of the occupation, or even to name them occupation. The “occupied Palestinian territories” became the name of the Palestinian areas occupied in 1967, not in 1948. While Israel, in many of its official narratives, refers to the events of 1948 as occupation, the reference to 1948 as occupation dropped from the international vocabulary, effectively naturalizing the existence of Israel and concealing the violence constitutive of its creation.

Since then, attempts constantly to “catch up” with new forms of Israeli subjugation shaped much of Palestinian politics, as Israel consistently raised the stakes on its dispossession of the Palestinians. If the settlements and green areas were the main vehicle for dispossessing Palestinians and confiscating their lands, soon the networks of highways and the separation wall became new mechanisms. But among many Palestinians, this “catching up” produced tragic politics characterized by amnesia. For, if the Palestinians were expected to respond systematically to the newly enacted empirical ends of the occupation, they had to suspend their responses to previous ends. The trouble was that new ends were always being introduced. 

The politics of amnesia produce a narrative that speaks of 1948 as an historical event belonging to the past. This historicizing narrative, with its understanding of history as moving forward from past to present, is premised on forgetting the extent to which the deaths 1948 generated continued to live on in the present, and also on forgetting the impossibility of redemption or the dissipation of such death when attending only to the troubles of the present. Consequently, the historical consciousness that resulted separated historical time into discrete periods, while associating certain political aspirations with confined temporal periods. But this consciousness did not only guide Palestinians in their understanding of their journey. More crucially, it also informed their political practice.  This was evident in the main forms of struggle that the Palestinians waged since the establishment of the PLO in 1964. In the 1960s, activism on Palestine focused on the demand to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. With the solidification of the occupation, the occupation itself defined the Palestine question, and Palestine conceptually shrunk into the areas occupied in 1967. With this shrinking, the solution to the Palestine question came to be conceived as the end of the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state on the territories occupied in 1967. Since then, Palestine, and its question, have undergone a further metamorphosis. Palestine has become the Palestinian Authority, established on much less than the land occupied in 1967, and the question of Palestine has become the Israeli-Arab conflict, effectively erasing the injustice that the vocabulary of occupation emphasizes. Instead, victims and perpetrators become two parties to a conflict awaiting its international resolution, or worse, intervention. 

So, rather than conflict, it might be best to insist on the persistence of the question of Palestine. This persistence suggests that we separate the struggle against the occupation from the struggle to reach a resolution to the question of Palestine. The second should not be subsumed in the first, though the first requires our urgent attention. Equally important is to separate both the question of Palestine and the struggle against the occupation from the establishment of the Palestinian state. Put differently, state building should not constitute an alternative to, or the mechanism for, ending the occupation or genuinely considering the question of Palestine. 

On the fortieth anniversary of the 1967 war, it is worth remembering that the struggle for a Palestinian state is a product of the same history of dispossession that this state is meant to overcome. It, the state, too, is trapped in a historicizing logic and can only offer a solution to some of the recent ends that Israel set in stone. And even this is no longer evident. With the network of highways and the separation wall, it is unclear that a Palestinian state can indeed constitute a response to the most recent escalations in Israeli policy. This presents the Palestinians with two options. The first is to persist with the politics of amnesia and to demand the end of the wall and the end of checkpoints. The second is to consider Israel’s escalations as an opportunity to redefine the question of Palestine as a history of escalations, not as their last episode. Rather than confining the question of Palestine, and therefore its solution, the Palestinians might rescue it from the nothingness Israeli policies have reduced it to. Ironically, it is Israel’s arrogance and insistence on further shrinking the question of Palestine that might lead, if the appropriate politics were practiced, to a reconfiguration of that which was destined to vanish.   

Samera Esmeir, an editor of Middle East Report, is a former lawyer who now teaches in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California-Berkeley.


Robert Blecher and Jeremy Pressman

Since 1967, Israeli politics have been defined by the question of what to do with the West Bank and Gaza and the Palestinians who live there. This question, in some ways, is as old as Zionism itself; early Jewish settlers upon arrival were confronted with the physical reality of another people in the Holy Land. In a profound sense, however, the 1967 war was a watershed that transformed Israel’s geographic and political topography shortly after the state’s nineteenth birthday. Once diplomacy came to focus on the occupied territories, the spotlight shifted away from the lands of pre-1967 Israel. The former borders—which Foreign Minister Abba Eban, shortly after the 1967 war, famously dubbed “Auschwitz borders”—quickly came to be seen as indefensible despite his country’s overwhelming victory. When the partition of Palestine between Jews and Arabs reemerged as the focus of diplomatic activity, it was the West Bank and Gaza that were up for discussion, not the territory of Israel itself.

Yet with the marking of the fortieth anniversary of the 1967 war, many in Israel feel that the clock has been turned back, with fundamental questions about the essence and future of the Jewish state open to question. Despite Israel’s military dominance and nuclear prowess, the waxing of Islamist movements in Iran, Lebanon and the occupied territories have stoked existential fears. The definition of Israel as a Jewish state, seemingly put to rest after contestation by Palestinian citizens in the late 1950s and early 1960s, has returned to the agenda as a new generation presses for an end to Jewish privilege.

The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, for its part, has not proven any more tractable. The traditional solutions for resolving the territorial deadlock are frozen: Proponents of the main ideological positions—trading land for peace and annexing the occupied territories—have suffered major setbacks, as have those backing a more recent fad, unilateral Israeli withdrawals. Surveying her state’s travails, a Jewish social worker confessed, “I’m starting to think we have no future here.”

In the face of these challenges, the state’s leadership is paralyzed by corruption and incompetence. Corruption has reached such a startling degree that, according to a January poll, Israelis believe the highest priority for their country is cleaning up the establishment and “salvaging the state”—a concern they ranked ahead of rehabilitating the Israeli military and peacemaking with the Palestinians. Coupled with the army’s lackluster performance in the war with Hizballah and Lebanon, the scandals have crippled the Israeli government’s ability to tackle the serious challenges the country faces.

Public soul-searching has generated anxiety over the country’s moral decline, but in a way that differs from that expressed in the past. For many on the left and even in the center of the Israeli political spectrum, ethical unease has often centered on the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Today by contrast, almost two years after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four settlements in the West Bank, the Jewish state’s anxieties are directed inward. Israelis have taken former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s assertion that his country no longer bears “responsibility” for Gaza quite literally; their ethical imagination, too, has disengaged from the Palestinians. “We got out,” say many Israelis, “and still, the Palestinians shoot rockets at us every day. It doesn’t matter what we do.” The ball is now on the other side of the separation barrier. Until Palestinians “prove their desire for peace,” as Sharon phrased it to the UN in September 2005, they will have no claim on the Israeli collective conscience.

Four decades after the 1967 war changed the face of Israeli politics, the legacies of 1948 remain central. When Israeli Jews look around the region, they see an array of military threats, while at home, their Palestinian compatriots assertively challenge the nature of the state. The Winograd commission report, Labor Party primaries and coming shakeups in the Kadima Party might seem to offer transformative possibilities, but a substantive reorientation of the Israeli political trajectory is improbable. 

Robert Blecher is an editor of Middle East Report. Jeremy Pressman is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Connecticut.


Mouin Rabbani

June 5, 2007 may well be the last time we commemorate a further decade of Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. At the rate things are going—the accelerated colonization of West Bank territory most visibly represented by the wall that Israel is building, and unprecedented levels of international neglect/support for such policies—these are unlikely to remain occupied territories for much longer. 

Prolonged military occupation lasting successive decades was an untenable proposition to begin with, and has been sustained only by international law, the refusal of the international community to formally recognize Israel’s territorial claims and, most pertinently, the presence and resistance of the Palestinians in the form of individual communities and, until recently, a coherent national movement. 

By 2017 that is likely to change. How the international community seeks to accommodate Israel’s claims to strategic portions of the West Bank while maintaining effective control over the rest, and how the Palestinians and others in the region will respond, are interesting questions. The answers are likely to combine elements of the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries: the colonialism and ethnic structures of the first, the formal adherence to independence of the second, and the belief of the third that advanced technology can resolve the political challenge resulting from the inherent contradictions of the first two.

Absent drastic changes, remaining doubts about the feasibility of a two-state settlement are also going to be removed in the coming years. Many believe the point of no return has already been passed. Most view it as imminent. The one certainty is that the two-state settlement paradigm is not going to be replaced by that of a secular democratic state—desirable as the latter may be. Rather, the more likely scenario is a regression toward existential conflict, on a more bloody scale than seen thus far and probably with a greater regional dimension than in recent decades.

In that context, the fortieth anniversary of the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip may well coincide with the completion of Israel’s victory over the contemporary Palestinian national movement. The murderous squabbling recently observed in the Gaza Strip—which can only be characterized as being about nothing of even remote political or national significance and is essentially a rumble between prison gangs about seats in a dining room where meals are only occasionally served—has the air of a movement’s death throes about it. 

The short- and medium-term prospects therefore seem increasingly dim. Yet, over the longer term, Israeli domination is equally unrealistic. Just as its victories over Fatah produced Hamas, those over the Palestinian national movement as a whole will produce something fiercer still among Palestinians and others in the region—perhaps represented in its embryonic stages by Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon. Just as the concept of a benign occupation or one accepted by the occupied has proven a fantasy, so the idea that its ramifications can be contained to the occupied population is equally illusory.

Mouin Rabbani is a contributing editor to Middle East Report.

Filed under: