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The occupation is about people, not just land

Israel keeps millions of people under a system of rules so intricate and outlandish that often the military itself fails to make sense of it.

By Itamar Sha’altiel (translated from Hebrew by Noam Rabinovich)

Border police officers stand in front of Palestinians as they wait to cross from Qalandiya checkpoint outside Ramallah, West Bank, into Jerusalem to attend the second Friday Ramadan prayers in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, July 26, 2013. (Photo: Activestills.org)

Border police officers stand in front of Palestinians as they wait to cross from Qalandiya checkpoint outside Ramallah, West Bank, into Jerusalem to attend the second Friday Ramadan prayers in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, July 26, 2013. (Photo: Activestills.org)

Naftali Bennett posted a photo to Facebook on Wednesday of a vase found in an archeological dig in Beit Shemesh, bearing the words “Ishba’al son of Beda.” Bennett’s point, and his conclusion, was that “a nation cannot occupy its own land.” The phrase, “a nation cannot occupy its own land,” is a right-wing slogan that is repeated ad nauseam – by Bennett and others – and it has countless other forms, such as: “the Arabs have 21 other countries,” and, “we actually occupied the West Bank from Jordan.”

Noam Sheizaf contextualized Bennett’s manipulation well, writing: “the right wing’s consistent refusal to understand that it is first and foremost an occupation of people, and not of land, is astounding.” Maybe it’s worth repeating so the message can sink in: nobody cares from whom you occupied the land. What matters is that for 48 years we have been controlling a territory in which millions of people live with different rights than their Jewish counterparts.

It is not that they have no rights at all, but in order to begin describing the rights that we do grant them we would need to get into the type of expositions commonly found in sci-fi novels, only far more boring. A Palestinian’s life is controlled by things like the population registry which hasn’t been updated in years, the area they live in (a resident of east Jerusalem as opposed to a resident of Area C), who is the current military commander, which military brigade is currently in charge of their area, who is the current head of Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories Unit (COGAT). It’s so long, bureaucratic and convoluted that it becomes nearly impossible to describe to Israelis what the life of a Palestinian looks like; they would to understand too many details that are completely absent from their own lives.

Israelis can catch a glimpse into this kind of life through the regular news articles about easements for Palestinians. The current head of COGAT, Major General Yoav Mordechai (who is turning out to be an improvement from his predecessor Maj.-Gen. Eitan Dangot), announced a series of measures for Ramadan meant to make Palestinians’ lives easier. For example, as reported by Ynet: “The list [of measures] includes permitting men over the age of 40 and women of all ages to enter the Aqsa Mosque, increasing the number of people permitted to leave Gaza for Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa to several hundred, compared to 200 today. That relief will apply only to people over the age of 60.”

These relief measures are indeed important and long overdue, but they also aptly describe some of the regulations that govern the lives of Palestinians: before these measures were announced, for example, men over 40 and women of all ages were not allowed entrance to the mosque; and to be able to leave Gaza to pray there, you not only had to go through security screenings, but also to be over 60. Go ahead and make sense of that.

Another example: before operation Protective Edge, Gisha, for which I work, released a short video by Itamar Rose, that explored how Israelis respond to one of the criteria for permits to exit from Gaza. According to the criteria, it is possible to apply for a permit for a family visit in the case of grave illness, but only if one is a first-degree relative of the sick person. So, for example, if your mother is dying in the West Bank you can go see her, but not if it’s your grandmother. In the video an actress pretended to be a Palestinian girl whose grandmother is sick and asked Israelis to let her pass. We received tons of responses trying to explain the “complicated security situation,” of course. Except that after Protective Edge Israel modified the criteria slightly: now granddaughters are allowed to visit their grandparents.

This is what the occupation is about. Not some theoretical debate about who owns the land. We keep millions of people under a system of rules so intricate and outlandish that often the military itself fails to make sense of it. (Why, for example, are Palestinians forbidden from entering Eilat?) People can’t even dream of seeing their family members, let alone something so far-fetched as one day seeing the Sistine Chapel. They can’t protest. They can be arrested without trial, as can their relatives. They don’t know many of the rules, they just know the arbitrariness, the “no use in trying.”

I understand why Israelis are worried about relaxing their hold on the Palestinians, but they have to at least recognize that the stranglehold exists. They should, at the very least, think and discuss more about what can be eased and how. And the tendency of people like Bennett to deflect the debate toward questions about whether there is such a thing as a Palestinian people, demonstrates what a heartless person looks like, but it is also dangerous and will blow up in our faces. Distractions, too, have a short shelf lives.

Itamar Sha’altiel is the new media director at Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement. This article represents his own views.

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    1. Pedro X

      History is like a flowing river, it does not stand still.

      There would be no Israeli presence in the West Bank if Arabs had made peace and accepted the Partition Plans of 1937 or 1947. Jordan attacked Israel in 1967 and lost. It did not have to wage war. Israel urged Jordan to stay out of the war. It did not. So, Israel had to fight and in doing so liberated Judea and Samaria. After the war Israel offered to hand back most of Judea and Samaria for peace, negotiations and recognition. The Arabs said, no, no, and no. They said they would prepare to wage war, which they did with the War of Attrition in which over 1600 Israelis lost their lives and the Yom Kippur War in 1973 in which 2600 Israelis lost their lives.

      As a result Israel became the administrator of Gaza and the West Bank and it made rules.

      Israel and Egypt offered the Palestinians autonomy in 1977, which the Palestinians refused. They would not even join in peace talks. Autonomy would have resulted in statehood if the Palestinians would have stuck to state building. Instead of accepting peace the Palestinians from outside of the territories attacked Israel and sent terrorist into Israel to kill Israelis.

      Through much of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s Palestinians and Israelis had freedom of movement to travel in Gaza, Israel, the West Bank and Judea and Samaria. 40% of the Palestinian workforce worked in Israeli businesses. Israelis shopped and supported the Palestinian economy.

      In 1993 Israel entered the Oslo Accords which gave Palestinians autonomy over their day to day affairs and would in 2000, 2001 and 2008 make offers to create a Palestinian state. At the beginning of the Oslo Accords there was overwhelming support for a two state solution on both sides. However the Palestinian leadership, steeped in terrorism and not in building a nation state, turned the peace process into an opportunity to wage terrorism. One would have thought that Israel having taken steps towards peace would have resulted in less violence from the Palestinian side, not more, much more. First Gaza was separated by a fence from Israel. Next the West Bank. Palestinians lost the freedom of movement that they had not only in Israel but in the West Bank and Gaza where the terrorists operated.

      The Palestinians still wage terror. Their governments wage campaigns of incitement to hate and terror. They do not promote an atmosphere of peace among their people. They reward terrorists with salaries and glorify Palestinians who have committed the most heinous acts against Israeli civilians. These people serve as role models for their children. This incitement is a major stumbling block to any peace.

      A peace agreement or unilateral withdrawal would not mean an end of the conflict or end of terrorism. The withdrawals from Southern Lebanon and from Gaza, point to the fact that Israel needs to maintain a presence in the West Bank even with a two state solution until it is safe to withdraw its military. Gershon Baskin has made suggestions how that might be accomplished.

      It is obvious from all plans that the Palestinians will not achieve a right of return. Some Palestinians would be allowed into Israel to live. The major Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria would remain with land swaps.

      Until there is a negotiated solution Israel will continue its presence in Judea and Samaria and the West Bank.

      The bloggers at 972mag might put forth realistic plans for peace and how it would be achieved in reality. Simply stating there is an occupation which causes problems for Palestinians gets no one closer to peace.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        “History is more or less bunk” – Henry Ford ( https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Henry_Ford )

        It’s 2015, there are roughly equal numbers of Jews and Palestinians in Greater Israel, the Jews control it all. You don’t need a PHD in history to understand that the situation is unstable and the only way it can continue is if ever increasing numbers of Palestinians are disposed of.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Ben Zakkai

      The author’s point also explains why the settler Right often fails to comprehend the difference between 1948 and 1967, when it says, “Hey, you folks in Tel Aviv live on land expropriated (i.e. stolen) from Arabs in 1948, so please don’t lecture us about the fact that we live on land that’s been expropriated from Arabs since 1967.” Of course it’s true that Israel should admit to stealing land in 1948 and pay reparations to the Palestinians people. However, it’s also true that on the Tel Aviv side of the Green Line, Arabs are citizens with rights that are at least analogous to, if not equal to, those of Jews; while on the Occupation side of the line, Arabs must be denied citizenship and basic rights, so that Israel can grab more and more land water and other resources without risking an Arab victory at the ballot box that would end Jewish hegemony in Israel. Occupation requires, oppression, plain and simple; but if you don’t regard Arabs as people, that’s not a problem.

      Reply to Comment
      • Gustav

        @Ben Zakai

        you left that other thread without answering two of my questions…

        1. Where did I get your views about the occupation wrong?

        2. What did you mean by bringing up Bar Kochba?

        I also asked the OTHER BEN, the following question:
        BEN:“On the other hand, why not just end the occupation?”

        GUSTAV:”Simple isn’t it?

        End it how? Unilaterally? Without a signed peace deal? Remember our unilateral withdrawal from Gaza? How did that work out?

        Or by signing a suicidal peace deal? No thanks Benny, we won’t let up to 4 million Arabs settle in Israel proper.

        Oh, and sign a peace deal with Hamas? They won’t sign one with us. At best, they are willing to sign a 10 year Hudna (cease fire). And what will they do during those 10 years? They will prepare for war against us.

        Next, Benny, let’s hear your next bright idea…”
        He refuses to answer, point blank. Do you think you have it in you to give me some answers?

        I mean, Ben Zakai, it’s all well and good to criticize Netanyahu and the occupation. The criticising bit is easy. What about offering solutions? That’s the hard bit it seems. And you guys seem to want to studiously stay away from trying to answer hard questions.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Mark

      Sitting in the comfort of London it’s difficult to comment on what’s happening in a country I have not visited for 40 years.

      It does look that IL is not taking any comprehensive and coordinated steps towards peaceful coexistence. It’s all bits and bobs combined with outrageous actions designed to infuriate even the most phlegmatic personality.

      On the whole I agree with your comments. PS emphasises the unjust treatment its people endure, but does not give any signal it actually wants a state. Rather that it all about the end of IL.

      What goes on in the middle east suggests the culture and way of doing things in the middle east is very different from what happens in Britain. The downside is that disputes between ethnic and sectarian groups rumble on century after century. Things can go quiet for decades but then bubble up again as soon as the society comes under threat and everyone retreats to their own group.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Karl

      Yesterday – the Arabic colonialists were in their stolen “Al Andalus” for hundreds of years – but they had to leave.

      Today, they are being forced to leave Rakhine state.

      Tomorrow, they will have to leave Eretz Yisrael.

      Reply to Comment