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Israel: State of denial

The Israeli government has fashioned the occupation into a ‘permanently temporary’ state of affairs — and made a policy of denial one of its cornerstones. 

By Gershon Shafir

An Israeli soldier tries to prevent a photograph being taken of construction on the separation wall, Bethlehem, January 7, 2006. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

An Israeli soldier tries to prevent a photograph being taken of construction on the separation wall, Bethlehem, January 7, 2006. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Military occupation is a rare phenomenon in today’s world. A half-century-long occupation, like Israel’s control of Palestinian territories captured in 1967, is even rarer. Grappling seriously with its dynamics and consequences is made even more difficult by the fact that in the past half century, Israel has constructed not only settlements but also a three-story denial palace. Israel is now an official residence of occupation denialism. The most compelling demonstration of the grotesque nature of this denial palace is that each of its floors is located in a different imaginary time zone.

In public, Israeli governments describe the West Bank and East Jerusalem as contested rather than occupied territories. On the palace’s first floor, however, they justify the occupation’s outcomes under the branch of international humanitarian law that regulates belligerent military occupations.

A crucial requirement of this law is that occupation be temporary, and an obliging Israeli Supreme Court explicitly bases many of its decisions on this premise.

But can a 50-year-long occupation be considered temporary? Under the “Shamgar Doctrine” — which I name after the Military Advocate General during the 1967 Six-Day War and the president of the Supreme Court in the 1980s — “pending an alternative political or military solution, this system of government could, from a legal point of view, continue indefinitely.” Within the palace the occupation is permanently temporary.

The second story of the denial palace houses the Israeli fixation with land while concomitantly denying the political expression of Palestinian national identity. Occupations are riven by many smaller and bigger denials, but ultimately they are the story of a people denied. Indefinitely prolonged control over another people, without incorporating them into the polity or according them citizenship rights, was once a standard practice in colonies and protectorates. But that era has passed.

50 Years Too Many in-text banner

Denying that reality requires freezing historical time at the moment before the successful post–World War II decolonization movement that led to the tidal wave of independence in Asia and Africa. The project of permanent Israeli occupation is a throwback, colonialism under a new name. It effectively writes the Palestinian people out of the history of Palestine while, conversely, demanding that Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people. It also depicts Palestinian resistance as inexplicable and pathological.

In the third story, extensive settlement has allegedly made the occupation irreversible and a Palestinian state impossible. Many critics of the occupation share this illusion. In fact, as time goes on, Israeli colonization is running out of steam.

The original Likud settlement plan from 1981 projected that by 2010, 1.3 million Jews would live alongside 1.8 million Arabs in the West Bank. In mid-2016, among almost three million West Bank Palestinians, 405,158 Jewish settlers resided in 126 settlements, making up 13.8 percent of the region’s population. Palestinians maintain a crushing demographic dominance.

Even more striking, as calculated by Shaul Arieli, the annual growth rate of the settler population shows a long-term decline from about 10 percent in the 1990s, to 5.3 percent in 2009 and to 3.9 percent in 2016. Most damningly, almost 80 percent of the Jewish population increase in the West Bank comes from natural growth, since Israelis from across the Green Line are staying away, and half of these births occur in just two haredi towns: Beitar Ilit and Modi’in Ilit.

Percentage of settler population growth, 1995-2015.

The geographical and economic impact of Israeli colonization remains equally limited. The built-up area of the colonies takes up 2 percent of the West Bank. Most settlers commute to Israel for their employment. Many are employed in inflated educational, security and service jobs in their settlements. The few hundred who engage in agriculture employ Palestinians to do the actual work.

The exceptions are the ring settlements of East Jerusalem and three settlement blocs. The majority of Israeli settlers live in the Gush Etzion, Givat Ze’ev, and Modi’in Ilit blocs along the Green Line, which were the subject of advanced territorial exchange talks during the Olmert-Abbas negotiations. The removal of 27,000 settler households (including the town of Ariel) would enable a 4 percent exchange, and would allow Israel to retain these blocs as part of a territorial partition which would create the State of Palestine.

The religious-Zionist community is today are less unified than their image suggests. While the religious-Zionist settlers, about a quarter of the overall settler population, can easily mobilize throngs of supporters to oppose the occasional eviction of individual settlements or neighborhoods, their religious cohort, as shown by Israeli sociologist Nissim Leon, did not mobilize en masse to help stop the evacuation from Gush Katif in Gaza. They stayed away both for reasons of commitment to mamlachtiyut (roughly translatable to the idea of national interest) and because such opposition would endanger their hard-earned social status and mobility.

More recently, of the 4,210,884 Israelis who voted in the March 2015 national elections, a mere 1.9 percent live in settlements outside the settlement blocs (including Ariel). In total numbers, they cast 81,381 votes; of these only 48,861 were for the Jewish Home and Likud parties that are fully committed to continued colonization outside the settlement blocs.

In short, the settlement project has not created the conditions for the annexation of the West Bank to Israel nor made it inevitable. Time does not favor Israeli colonization because its demographic footprint is too small. My feasibility analysis leads to the conclusion that the term ‘irreversible’ is best rejected, while fully recognizing that the remaining obstacles to territorial partition, though not insurmountable, are formidable. The obstacles to the evacuation of settlers are political, not geographical.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the occupation, the conspicuous unreality of permanent temporariness and historical anachronism, along with the stalling of colonization, demonstrate that the palace of denial is uninhabitable.

Gershon Shafir is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego, past President of the Israel Studies Association, and author of ‘A Half Century of Occupation: Israel, Palestine, and the World’s Most Intractable Conflict,’ published this month by the University of California Press.

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    1. Firentis

      The occupation is only permanent if one presumes that the Palestinian desire to destroy Israel is permanent. As the author points out settlements are not really an obstacle to a political solution. It is rather the refusal of the Palestinians to accept a Jewish state in any borders that ensures that the peace process continues to fail.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Firentis: One reason the Palestinians won’t declare that Israel is the State of the Jews (nor should they) is explained in Shafir’s book “A Half Century of Occupation”: it would weaken the already weak rights of the 20% of the Israeli citizens who are of Palestinian ancestry.

        I also don’t recall that any Israeli government has announced their recognition of the Palestinians as a native people. Given the vast imbalance of power between the two parties, perhaps Israel should make the first concession by making that announcement?

        Reply to Comment
        • Itshak Gordin Halevy

          It is unfortunately not possible because nobody heard about the “Palestinian people” before the 60’s. There has never been a “Palestinian” State in Judea and Samaria. If the Arabs do not accept Israel as the Jewish State there will not be any confidence.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            There has never been an “Israeli” state in the West Bank either.

            Reply to Comment
        • Firentis

          The Palestinian leadership isn’t willing to accept a formula of “a Jewish state with equal rights for all citizens” which would give ample protection to Israeli Arabs. So Shafir’s argument is complete garbage regardless of how many times it is pulled out. Their problem is recognizing a Jewish people, any right of the Jewish people to self-determination, and any recognition of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. They say so quite openly and it is only their useful idiots in the West that bother to try to use misdirection to avoid this simple truth.

          Certainly within the context of a peace agreement Israel will recognize the State of Palestine as a Palestinian Arab homeland of the Palestinian people. If they want to be an Islamic caliphate or Islamic imperial democracy that is entirely up to them and Israel would be willing to recognize that.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Itshak Gordin Halevy

      Who is this Shafir who gives Israel advice from CXalifornia?

      Reply to Comment
      • Joshua Fisher

        He’s a real jew with a heart, not a faceless racist bigot like you and your hasbara squad here

        Reply to Comment
    3. i_like_ike52

      Apparently, the use by the writer of the term “settlement” which most “progressives” use in their attempt to delegitimize the Jewish communities of Judea/Samaria is not believed by him to be enough to emotionally arouse his readers, so he instead calls them “colonies” which he seems to think will resonate even more strongly with the public, since, of course, everyone today opposes “colonialism”. Now, the question is, does he consider Tel Aviv a colony as well? Or how about Israel in general? Many “progressives” including people who write here think they are.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ray

        How about “carpetbaggers?” I think it fits better

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        How about “gangsters”? That fits even better. More down to earth, not progressive and intellectual-sounding. Yesha is a mafia.

        Reply to Comment