by Jessica Montell
The 50th year of Israeli military rule over the Palestinians should serve as a neon warning sign for all those who care about Israel and its future. This is not to say that the occupation is not devastating for Palestinians. The violation of Palestinians’ human rights inherent in prolonged military occupation and the Israeli settlements are well documented. While some Israelis willfully ignore this documentation, there is no shortage of information about how the occupation harms Palestinians.
What is striking is the absence of Israeli public awareness and discussion regarding the effects of the occupation on Israeli society. This is the rationale behind SISO, a new movement whose name stands for Save Israel, Stop the Occupation. SISO is a partnership of Israelis and Diaspora Jews, founded to leverage this 50th year to serve as a catalyst for real change.
Objections to the SISO Name
Many people object to this name. Some protest the word “occupation,” which has evolved from a factual legal term to a controversial political one. Ariel Sharon, Israel’s prime minister from 2001 until 2006, stated in 2003: “It is impossible to hold 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation…the occupation cannot last indefinitely” (Aronoff, 2014; Magal et al., 2013). The current government, however, has reframed Israeli control over the West Bank: “In Judea and Samaria, the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told a joint session of the U.S. Congress in 2011. “We are not the British in India. We are not the Belgians in the Congo. This is the land of our forefathers” (Aronoff, 2014; Rosler, Bar-Tal, & Hagag, 2016).
Both the Israeli military and the Israeli High Court maintain their position that the legal framework governing the West Bank is belligerent occupation. However, the government rhetoric has been effective: Over 70% of Israeli Jews said in a recent survey that it is not accurate to define Israel's presence in the West Bank as occupation (the Peace Pulse survey in April 2016, conducted jointly by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research, Tel Aviv University and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah). Some SISO supporters argue that in order to effectively communicate with the Israeli mainstream, “occupation” should be removed from the name. It is indeed a difficult question whether those working to end occupation should devote energy to insisting on the accuracy of this word — or work to end Israel’s military rule over the Palestinians, however people want to define it.
There are others who object to the second half of the name: “Save Israel.” The occupation is an injustice first and foremost to Palestinians, they argue. Why does it have to be about saving Israel? On this point, the answer is more straightforward: There are many anti-occupation initiatives focused on Palestinian rights and on universal principles of justice; SISO aims to speak to a very different audience.
So the name SISO inherently excludes both those who reject the word “occupation” and those who do not particularly care about Israel. I would argue that this constitutes a strength rather than a weakness, in that it enables mobilization of a pr evious ly underrepresented group. There are very few anti-occupation initiatives that reach out to people who care first and foremost about Israel. This includes many Jews around the world, and it also obviously includes Israelis themselves.
Framing the End of the Occupation as Being in Israel’s Self-Interest
Part of SISO’s activity is to frame ending the occupation as being in Israel’s self-interest. While moral and legal arguments are important, these are never going to be the central consideration for most Israelis when it comes to making political decisions. We need to understand and make visible the negative implications of the occupation for Israelis. First, the security implications: Is there any connection between the occupation and the 2015 “stabbing intifada” in Jerusalem and elsewhere? Is there any connection between occupation and the repeated wars every two or three years with the Gaza Strip? These are rhetorical questions — of course, the occupation fuels the conflict with the Palestinians. Yet, it is absent from Israeli popular discourse about our security threats.
The macro-analysis must be translated to the level of our personal well-being. What does occupation mean for us as parents of children inducted into the Israeli military? What would military service look like without occupation? What are the economic implications of the occupation? Would the national budget look different — more money for schools and hospitals – were it not for military control over the Palestinians? And how has occupation affected our education system, our law enforcement systems, the relationship between religion and state? All aspects of our lives have been affected by the myriad implications of occupation. Yet none of this has been made visible to the Israeli public.
The Occupation Is a Threat to Israel’s Future
The occupation is not only a burden in the present — it poses an even greater threat to Israel’s future. Tamir Pardo, former head of the Mossad, recently said that the occupation is the only existential threat facing Israel. It should be obvious that Israel cannot remain a Jewish and democratic state while ruling over 2 million Palestinians who are not part of the Israeli democracy. To date, Israel has resolved this contradiction by arguing that the occupation is temporary, but can a situation which has continued for 50 years still be defined as temporary? The 50th anniversary, along with the annexationist rhetoric of this government, exacerbates the tensions between Israel’s democratic character and the occupation. Without a diplomatic process that guarantees the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, growing internal as well as external pressures will force Israel to abandon either its Jewish or its democratic character.
All of these factors are absent from the Israeli public conversation about the West Bank and Gaza. As a result, most Israelis feel no sense of urgency to resolve the situation.
SISO has built a partnership to address this vacuum. Each half of the SISO partnership is strengthened by the other. Jews around the world feel reluctant to speak out on Israel’s diplomatic and security policies when they do not live there; they are more likely to do so at the invitation of high-profile Israelis who say that they MUST help us end the occupation. And we anti-occupation Israelis feel ourselves to be a beleaguered minority in the current Israeli political reality. In fact, our views and our values are shared by the majority of Jews around the world. We are all more effective when we join together.
SISO in Action
SISO brought its network together for the first time in February 2017. In a day-long workshop, SISO partner organizations and activists from Israel, North and South America and Europe analyzed how the occupation affects them and the messages and activities most likely to mobilize their communities. The workshop was held in Washington, DC, a day before the J Street national conference, where SISO also led a panel devoted to the need to prioritize anti-occupation organizing in this fiftieth year.
SISO’s activities for this spring are structured around simultaneous global events. For Passover we produced a “Jubilee Haggadah” in which leading Israeli and Diaspora Jewish figures offer commentary linking the traditional Passover texts to the need to liberate Palestinians and Israelis from the occupation. This Haggadah was used in Passover seders around the world and in 80 different communities inside Israel. On April 30, SISO partnered with the Bereaved Families Forum–Parents Circle and Combatants for Peace to amplify their Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Ceremony. Communities on all five continents held events to view a live-stream of the Tel Aviv event, a powerful event where Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones in this conflict highlight the need to end the occupation and prevent future violence. Spring events culminate in June, the 50th anniversary of the occupation, when Jewish communities will symbolically stand in solidarity with Israelis working to end the occupation.
We know the occupation will not end in June 2017. This spring is just the beginning of SISO’s activities to build a global partnership where Israelis strengthen progressive voices in Diaspora Jewish communities — and also ensure that these voices are part of the Israeli conversation about Israel’s future.
One day the occupation will end. This is a fact. Our job is to ensure that day comes as quickly and as painlessly as possible.