by Izhak Schnell
and Daniel Bar-Tal
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a dispute between two national movements claiming the same territory. It has been ongoing for over a hundred years, passing through different phases. In this respect, the 1967 Six-Day War signified the beginning of a new stage in the conflict in which relations between the occupied and the occupier have come to play a formative role in Israeli reality and be a primary factor in the construction of Israeli society. Since 1967 Israel has occupied Palestinian territories, and the Palestinian population has been living under occupation for almost five decades. In the summer of 2005, Israel withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and from four settlements on the West Bank, nevertheless continuing to control many aspects of life in Gaza (via border controls, blockades and other restrictions).
The fundamental assumption guiding our thinking is that a prolonged occupation as a military-political-social-economic-cultural-legal system has interactive features that influence both the occupier and the occupied. We believe that an occupation cannot operate separately from the occupying society, which cannot seal itself off from the occupation and its effects. This connection becomes particularly pronounced when the occupier not only penetrates the spaces of the occupied territories but also settles in these spaces. Following the occupation by the military forces, the boundaries expand (albeit mainly for the occupiers), and a continuous process of interaction between occupier and occupied begins. Although the occupying force believes that it can control the occupied society and its territory, in reality it begins to lose its grip, and processes gradually evolve beyond the control of the occupying force. These processes touch upon every aspect of the collective life of the occupied society, including political, economic, cultural and security aspects. Moreover, they also affect the occupying society because, once the occupation begins, a multifaceted and continuous interaction between the occupier and the occupied occurs, usually starting with resistance against the occupation.
In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is obvious that for the last 50 years, Palestinian society is paying tremendous tangible costs due to the continuing occupation. These costs are directly related to the serious violations of the Palestinians’ human rights due to Israeli control over almost every aspect of Palestinian life, including the expropriation of Palestinian lands by Jewish settlers, restriction of movement, etc.
The Costs of Occupation for the Israeli Society
The Impacts of Lasting Occupation: Lessons from Israeli Society (Oxford University Press), a recently published book edited by the authors, highlights three main effects of the occupation on Israeli society: First, the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) have become a cradle for the reconstruction of Israeli social identity and regime. Second, the reality of vicious cycles of violence between the occupier and the occupied has trickled into the Green Line territory, which has led to the deterioration in the quality of democratic practices in Israel, the narrowing of the concept of public security into one of physical security, the undermining of aspects of social security, and a growing economic burden leading to the corrosion of public services. Third, the prolonged occupation has institutionalized stabilizing mechanisms that underlie the resistance against effective peace policies.
Reconstruction of Israeli Social Identity
Territories are widely considered as major sources of national identity. The occupation of Biblical lands, the cradle of Jewish identity in the homeland, evoked among Israelis deep emotions that ripened later into a transformation in their social identity. Until the 1967 War, the Labor movement hegemony advocated a secular Jewish identity rooted in the universal heritage of the prophets and was open to the values of the Judeo- Christian legacy of the Western world, while negating the particularistic, separatist Diaspora Judaism crystallized in response to the Enlightenment.
The return to the Biblical lands in 1967 stimulated youth from the National Religious Party to leave their marginal role in the Labor-led hegemony and to view themselves as new pioneers of a neo-Zionist elite. This class emerged around the settlers’ Messianic group of Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), combining a religious separatist worldview with a nationalistic one. The settling of the OPT became the most emergent commandment to be implemented as part of their religious nationalism. They became magnets to several other groups like the Ultra-Orthodox, who adopted a nationalist ideology in addition to the religious traditions from their Diaspora Judaism that had focused on strict observance of the religious commandments. Some secular groups joined the neo-Zionist coalition, including the right-wing Herut party, which originally emphasized a traditional “Jewish” identity rather than a new secular “Hebrew” culture that was developing in the new/old homeland. The Liberals who joined Herut in order to establish the Likud party adopted the particularistic Jewish identity as well; even a group of activists from the Labor party, the core of the traditional hegemony, joined the neo-Zionist political block after 1967, creating a strong new coalition. This coalition has led the country since the late 1970s, even though there have been short breaks in which the Labor party has returned to power with a certain dependence on some parties from the neo-Zionist block.
Despite the fact that the OPT was never annexed by Israel, the new coalition introduced to the political arena a set of practices that transformed the territories into the core of the national identity. This process included practical steps to control the territories by expropriating more than 50% of the lands and settling about half a million settlers. In addition, a wide array of means has been used in order to recruit public support for the new neo-Zionist ideology. For example, cartography was used to abolish the Green Line from official Israeli maps and to Hebraize the maps of the OPT. Archaeology, education and other sectors presented the territories as the cradle of Jewish roots in land and identity. Additionally, the leaders of the new political elite used propaganda and provocations to touch on the deepest fears of the Israeli public in order to consolidate their hegemony, specifically in the defamation campaign leading to the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the 2015 propaganda film comparing leftists to ISIS.
The occupation and the settlements present the Palestinians as enemies who oppose the Jewish return to the homeland and prevent any possibility of peaceful compromise. The vicious cycle of uprisings and suppressions, as well as the demographic threat to the Jewish majority in Greater Israel (the state of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza), leaves Israelis with a sense of being under existential threat. The ever-growing violent conflict, which cannot be settled by force, leads on the one hand to the delegitimization of the rival and on the other to self-glorification and self-victimization enabling the society to maintain its positive self-image. In this situation, an ethnocentric identity that is insensitive to the “other” in the conflict arises and strengthens Jewish particularistic identity, rather than enhancing a foundation based on universal values.
Concerning the structure of the regime, the control of more than 2 million non-citizens under Israeli authority challenges the democratic character of the state. While many democratic countries include large number of non-citizen residents, most notably the 12 million undocumented workers in the United States and 10% of the population in Switzerland, these factors alone do not transform countries into non-democratic ones. The situation in Israel is more severe; the Palestinian population did not choose integration into Israel but were conquered by force. Their national aspirations are suppressed by the occupation, and together with the Palestinians citizens of Israel they constitute close to half of the population of the land between the Jordan River and the sea.
Deterioration of Democracy in Israel
Concerning the second conclusion, the most severe impact of the occupation on Israeli society is the deterioration of the democratic system. The occupation stimulates fragmenting forces, mainly among national religious settlers’ groups and Arab Israelis, who increasingly question the legitimacy of democratically elected authorities. Settlers’ rabbis, including some senior ones, announced that the government has no authority to evacuate settlements from the OPT because it is against their interpretation of the Biblical commandments. Such statements stimulated the murder of Rabin in 1995 and motivated hundreds of national religious soldiers to declare they would refuse any order to evacuate settlements.
Furthermore, senior Knesset members from the coalition attempted to pass several laws undermining the quality of the democratic system in Israel. The best example is the attempt to subordinate the Supreme Court to the Knesset, and the law that gives Knesset members the right to expel members of the Knesset they opposed. In the same way, Israeli Palestinian intellectuals and leaders concluded that their deprivation of human rights in the Israeli regime is mediated by their belonging to a national minority. They concluded that the only way to secure their rights is to struggle for change in the political character, forcing the evolution from a Jewish democratic state to an inclusive state for all its citizens. Three main documents of a group of Israeli Palestinian intellectuals and leaders articulate this aspiration to transform the state of Israel into a different state.
The occupation dragged the military into the political sphere in several ways. Officers were called to testify in court that the expropriation of Palestinian lands was made for security purposes, making these actions legitimate according to the international law, while in reality, the land was expropriated for the expansion of the settlement project. In later years, officers have learned that in order to receive a promotion, they required recommendations from the settlements leaders in the OPT. As a consequence, the military backed the illegal activities of the settlers, guarded unauthorized settlements, and ignored law-breaking behavior in the OPT. These are only a few examples of the misuse of the military for settlers’ sectarian interests.
The cost of occupation, coupled with the introduction of a neo-liberal policy, poses another threat to the democratic system. Until the 1980s, the occupation put little burden on the Israeli economy. However, with the Palestinian uprisings and the increasing number of subsidized settlers, the cost of occupation is reaching an estimated NIS 20-30 billion annually. The need to provide protection for small settlements located close to Palestinian populations puts a heavy burden on the military. Subsidies to settlers continue to increase and the infrastructures provided to settlements located in hilly topographies are particularly expensive. It is hard to estimate how much economic growth is prevented due to the cost of occupation, but there is no doubt that it has had a significant impact.
The implications are also social. In order to finance the occupation the government reduces spending and salaries for public services, which leads to the deterioration in basic services including education, health care and social and physical security. The lack of such services increases the economic gap between rich and poor, limiting life expectancy among the lower classes and undermining social cohesion.
Institutionalization of the Occupation
The final issue relates to mechanisms stabilizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and avoiding the adoption of peace policies. The first mechanism is the success in establishing addresses a dominant discourse presenting the OPT as a core part of the homeland. Emboldened by the victory in the 1967 War, major leaders, including those from the Labor party, used rhetoric that spoke of “the return to our fathers’ lands,” claiming, “we reached them in order to remain in them forever.” Overwhelmed by the great victory and the return to the Biblical lands, leaders from left and right were enthusiastic to support the settlements, even if they doubted the rationale of the rhetoric. A second aspect of the discourse was the securitization of the OPT. They were continuously presented as an essential aspect of defending the country. The Arab states’ initial refusal to negotiate, and the growing circles of violence with both Palestinians and the Arab countries, stimulated the new discourse of Greater Israel.
The second mechanism relates to the political structure of Israel. In addition to the religious and the national cleavages that separated Israeli political powers into small parties, the ideological split over the occupation further fragmented the political system. The settlers and the parties that advocated the increase of settlements remained a small minority in the spectrum of political parties presented in the Knesset. However, rightist parties that supported indirectly the settlements based either on the ideology of the “Promised Land” or for security reasons, created a majority within the Knesset. The public believed that these parties would maintain better security for Israel than parties declaring their willingness to compromise with the Palestinians based on the principle of returning land in exchange for peace. As a consequence, supporters of the settlements have been able to control the government during most of the years since the mid-1970s.
The third mechanism relates to the institutionalization of a bureaucratic inertia that maintains and feeds the occupation regardless of declared policies. This mechanism acts at a governmental level when, for example, a senior clerk in the Ministry of Justice announces a regulation that the government does not have to prove ownership of lands in cases of land disputes. Instead, the Palestinians who claim ownership have to prove their ownership of the land in question, and, as a result, this regulation means that many Palestinians lost their lands due to the settlement process. Another example is the decision of right-wing ministers to allocate disproportional development budgets to the OPT, depriving other areas of financial support. The military was also forced to serve the settlers’ interests by guarding unauthorized settlements that were ordered to evacuate based on the law and Supreme Court decisions. Finally, the settlers’ council represents a population of an estimated 500,000 settlers who have relatives and ideological support among the religious sections, allowing the movement to become a powerful lobby in Israeli politics. The fact that they are more motivated and better organized than other political lobbies in Israel makes them even more powerful.
This discussion leads to the conclusion that the occupation became a fundamental catalyst of far-reaching impacts on Israeli society. The state of Israel becomes more Jewish and less democratic in the delicate balance between these two aspects. Jewishness is defined in a combination of religious and nationalist terms, promoting a particularistic identity that turns its back on the Hebrew identity that emphasized universal and humanistic values. By defining the OPT as the core of the Jewish state and identity, the new Israel antagonizes the Palestinians, the Arab world and, indirectly, Western societies, which in turn, strengthen particularistic aspects of Israel’s identity bringing new life to slogans such as “People who live unto themselves.”
Call for Action
In view of these detrimental developments that are the consequence of lasting occupation, we feel strongly the occupation must be terminated. The approaching 50-year anniversary signals that the occupation has lasted 50 years too long. The time has come to embark on the road of peace and allow for a two-state solution — Israeli and Palestinian states side by side. Otherwise, by 2017 “equal-rights-for-all” must be granted to both Jewish and Palestinian residents between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, as a non-democratic regime is not acceptable in any form.
The ongoing occupation of the West Bank, with the continued expansion of Jewish settlements, and the siege of the Gaza Strip violate the basic human and collective rights of the Palestinians, and weaken the democratic and moral fabric of Israeli society. The government has forged ahead with its expansionist policies, not only violating international law but also breaking Israeli laws, seriously undermining the very foundation of Israeli democracy. Most importantly, the continuing occupation leads to more bloodshed and cycles of violence, weakening the needed security and prosperity for the country. If not halted soon, this situation will render a desirable two-state solution impossible, requiring Israel to grant equal rights for all.
This voice must be heard loud and clear, so it will be known that a humanistic Judaism exists and has the courage not only to criticize injustice and immorality elsewhere, but also to denounce it in when they take place in Israel. This is an ultimate expression of the concern and love for Israel, as well as a denunciation and rejection of the occupation. It is our shared responsibility toward future generations, who will pay a heavy price for our silence and passivity. The cost of silence far exceeds the cost of involvement. If we remain paralyzed, we will eventually lose the foundation of our common Jewish identity, as well as Israel’s major contribution to its nature. As members of the Jewish people, we must speak out and act, precisely because of our love for Israel. It is our responsibility to deal with situations that significantly depart from moral codes and norms of both the Jewish and the international community. As Jews who care about their Jewishness and are attached to Israel, we all need to be part of the struggle to save Israel from the nationalist, anti-democratic, racist, and xenophobic currents growing from within.
In the same way that Jews in various states around the world have often rallied for the causes of the “other” in the name of equality, justice and freedom, so we call upon people around the world, regardless of their heritage and affiliation to oppose the Israeli occupation, which negates these values. Struggling to end the occupation in the name of these values is not a reflection of anti-Semitism, but on the contrary, it is an attempt to build a better world for all.
We need to follow in the footsteps of Theodor Herzl and Martin Luther King Jr., who knew how to turn their dreams into the realization via collective action. Like these giants, we also want to dream beyond the horizon. We no longer believe that by cleansing our conscience with small steps we can reach the goal. Our goal is to ensure security, freedom, equality and peace for the Jewish generations to come and for all other citizens, to live in the state of Israel as promised in the “Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel” by the founding fathers in 1948, which says that the state of Israel “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” Accordingly, we demand: two states for two nations — or grant equal rights for all. Israeli leaders and the society members must hear this unequivocal and powerful demand coming from many voices, and hopefully they will understand that the path of continuing occupation is disastrous for the state of Israel.
As concerned Israelis and Jews, we appeal to you to join the movement “Save Israel-Stop the Occupation” (SISO) that calls for ending the Israeli occupation. The climactic events are planned around the world for June 5, 2017. The movement, based on the principle “let's plant thousands of trees,” calls for every community, sector, NGO, institution or organization to organize itself with the goal of holding events of different kinds before 2017, culminating on June 5, 2017 and continuing until the goal is achieved.