The facts of the occupation are indisputable – it is the words we use to describe those facts that are now being delegitimized.
An absurd incident took place in the Knesset Wednesday when members of the Jewish Home party walked out of the plenum during a speech by European Parliament President Martin Schulz of Germany.
During his visit to Israel, President Schulz did just about everything to ingratiate himself with his right-wing hosts, tirelessly reiterating his commitment to the country and promising that a boycott of Israel will never take place. Yet he did make the mistake of mentioning the occupation on the Knesset floor, referring to the fact that Palestinians in the West Bank don’t have the same access to water as Israelis. Schulz was immediately accused of expressing anti-Israeli bias, hate speech, anti-Semitism and just about every imaginable type of crime against the Jewish people. Prime Minister Netanyahu was slightly more nuanced than his coalition partners, stating, “the chairman, like many Europeans suffers from selective hearing.”
The Israeli right was quick to come up with talking points blaming Schulz for his faulty data – it turns out that the gap between Israeli and Palestinian water consumption is smaller than he stated – and the usual political drama followed, with the European official trying in vain to prove that he is pro-Israeli enough. Yet nobody actually denies that Palestinians get less water than Israelis (and less than what the World Health Organization recommends); that Israel is using the West Bank’s main water aquifer for its own needs; that illegal settlements are connected to the Israeli water grid while Palestinians who live nearby need to buy their water in tanks at much higher prices; and that Palestinians get arrested if they try to “illegally” connect to the Israeli grid. These issues are not argued about in the local political discourse; they are facts.
The problem for the Israeli government and its supporters abroad is that reality in the West Bank is biased, so the political war is now aimed at calling things out for what they are. It’s almost impossible to get official Israelis speakers to talk about reality these days. If you do point out some of the most gruesome features of reality, you are accused of leaving out “context” – at best – and at worst, you are a self-hating Jew, traitor or anti-Semite (depending on your ethnicity or nationality). In this debate, reality itself becomes hate-speech.
Can anyone argue that Palestinians and Israelis in the same territory are not subject to separate legal systems? That in the same Hebron neighborhood, one person lives under civilian law while the other is subject to a military regime? Can anyone really argue that Palestinians do not have the right to vote while Israelis do? Can anyone argue that Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza enjoy freedom to travel, domestically and abroad? Can anybody argue that this hasn’t been going on for almost half a century, which is as “permanent” a situation as there is in modern history?
Obviously, nobody can. So just referencing these facts makes one a target. The words one uses to describe the situation become the object of debate instead of the situation itself. Every time I refer to the apartheid regime in the Occupied Territories as apartheid, the foundations that support this website get a report from a well-funded Jerusalem-based organization named NGO Monitor, calling on them to cut ties with +972 Magazine. NGO Monitor and its likes will never debate the facts on the ground – the occupation itself – but only references to it, because there is really nothing to debate here. It is reality that is biased, so references to reality must be punished.
The only reason this strategy is somewhat successful is due to the imbalance of power between Israel, the governments that support it, its lobbying organizations and its advocacy arms, and the Palestinians. In fact, the threshold for debating facts in the American media is so high that every piece referring to the reality on the ground is celebrated like a miracle of biblical scale, circulated on email and shared on social media. (“Would you believe it? NBC showed the Wall! Times are-a-changin’!”) In certain places, and certainly in Jewish forums, just inviting a Palestinian speaker becomes a revolutionary act that needs to be debated, fought over, and finally balanced with some paid government envoy from Jerusalem to provide “context,” i.e., explain that the occupation is somehow the Palestinians’ fault.
This is why my advice to most visitors in Israel/Palestine is to drive to the West Bank and simply trust their own eyes and ears. Don’t talk to Israelis – don’t even talk to Palestinians – just have a look around and try to make sense of what you see. In the end, I must believe that reality will prevail.