The Israeli Occupation: What It Is, Why It Matters, and What To Do About It

Just a reminder for those in the area: I’ll be giving a talk on “The Israeli Occupation and Settlement Enterprise: What It Is, Why It Matters, and What To Do About It,” this Saturday, May 21, at 11 am at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton, located at 50 Cherry Hill Rd, Princeton, New Jersey, 08540. (I incorrectly described the start time in a previous post as 1 pm, but that’s when it ends.) The talk is sponsored by String of Pearls Reconstructionist Jewish Congregation of Princeton, and is open to the public. Thanks to Hilary Persky, String of Pearls’s Secretary, for the invitation. The talk takes place immediately after the Congregation’s Saturday morning sabbath celebration.

Here’s a precis of what I’ll be discussing at String of Pearls:

My aim in this talk is to give an overview of the Israeli occupation and settlement of the West Bank that addresses eight interlocking questions:

  1. What is “the Israeli occupation/settlement of the West Bank”?
  2. Who is occupying whom, and how?
  3. Where exactly is the occupation/settlement enterprise located?
  4. When and why did the occupation/settlements begin?
  5. What moral verdict should we pass on the occupation/settlement enterprise?
  6. What should we do about the occupation/settlement enterprise?
  7. Why focus on the occupation/settlement enterprise at all, as opposed to other injustices taking place in the world? In other words, what marks the Israeli occupation/settlements out as a special object of concern?

My answer, in a nutshell, is that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is a systematic, ethno-nationalist program of expropriation and displacement of Palestinian Arabs by Israeli Jews, both secular and religious. Despite the cosmetic improvements offered by the Oslo Peace Process, Israel controls the land, airspace, and water supply of the entirety of the West Bank, and uses this control systematically to violate the rights of its Palestinian inhabitants. Even if we grant that the Israeli occupation began with a war of self-defense in 1967, I argue that it (and the settlement enterprise that followed it) currently lacks a justification: justice demands that further settlement stop, and that the occupation be brought to an end. Given the nature of the alliance between Israel and the United States, Americans in particular have a special obligation to help end settlements and the occupation. I’ll end by discussing some particular steps worth taking.

I’ll also have some more personal things to say about my experiences in Israel and Palestine, including my perverse love for the place. If it was logistically feasible to move there, I would.

For an excellent backgrounder on the Israeli occupation that at implicitly answers many of the questions I pose above, read this relatively short piece by Fred Schlomka from Mondoweiss a few months back, “The Occupation Is Over: Isn’t It?” I found Schlomka’s comparisons of Israeli and American history particularly interesting and apt. Schlomka by the way, is the CEO of Green Olive Tours in Israel, a company I can’t praise enough. I took two or three of their tours last summer when I was in Israel/Palestine, and hope to take a bunch more this year.

I often hear people asserting, with hand-waving confidence, that there is no occupation in the West Bank because the Palestinians have “full control” over the West Bank’s Area A. Putting aside the non-sequitur involved–there could still be an occupation if Palestinians lacked control over Areas B and C–this is what “full control” over Area A looks like in practice:

From October 2015, when the latest wave of terror began, until March 2016, the IDF entered Area A almost daily and conducted hundreds of operations per month in major Palestinian cities. But since then, the pace has declined to dozens of operations per month, because the PA security services are doing more of the work.

About three weeks ago, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said the extent of the IDF’s activity in Palestinian cities would depend on how much the PA security services were doing.

“This isn’t something diplomatic – it’s about security,” he said. “If they’ll do the work, why not? What they don’t do, we’ll have to do, but there’s no situation in which we’ll completely refrain from entering Area A. Such incursions will depend on their activity. If they do less, we’ll do more; if they do more, we’ll do less.”

I’ve previously mentioned Israeli operations in Area B, where I’ll be living this summer. It’s almost pointless to discuss Israeli operations “in” Area C, since Area C is nothing more than a locus of armed IDF/settler operations.

Needless to say that you won’t find mention of these raids in the mainstream press here at home. Here’s a link to The New York Times’s coverage of “Israel.”  Feel free to scroll back through the Times’s articles from the present to, say, October 2015. It’ll probably take you half an hour or so, but it’s time well spent.

You would get no sense from the Times’s coverage that the IDF had conducted hundreds of operations per month, or dozens of them, or that the IDF had effectively outsourced it security work to the PA. Nor would you learn that the IDF regularly attacks university campuses like the one I’m going to be teaching at this summer, and that I should myself expect to be on the receiving end of such an attack–involving tear gas and live gunfire–simply by virtue of my presence on campus. You would have no idea that, judging from last year’s experience at Al Quds, I can, on any given day of class, expect at least one of my students to have been arrested on one trumped-up charge or another, whether by the PA or the “Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria“–and can expect another student or two to be caught at some Israeli checkpoint between wherever they live and the university. My idiosyncratic experiences aside, you’d get no sense of what the occupation looks like, feels like, or is like. You might get pro forma allusions to the character of the occupation, but nothing deserving the name “coverage.”

Above all, you would have no way of evaluating the conflict in moral terms. The Israelis and Palestinians are, we’re told, involved in a “spiral” or “cycle” of violence. But are the Israelis reluctantly and dutifully responding to force-initiations by Palestinian thugs in an anarchic environment? Or are they deliberately provoking otherwise innocent Palestinian youth into attacks by gratuitously invading their neighborhoods, threatening to gas everyone there to death, and threatening to shoot anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time? Don’t look to the American news media for even the beginnings of an answer to this obvious question. At best, you’ll see an article or two or three making tepid suggestions to the effect that a “cycle of violence” was at work, that “the roots of violence” go deep, and that maybe every now and then that this or that IDF soldier goes a bit overboard and ought to be disciplined. But as for how to make sense of it, don’t ask.

If you insist on asking, in a direct fashion, who (or even what) is responsible for initiating the “cycle of violence,” you not only will get no explicit answer, but you’ll get no sustained attempt at inquiry. What you’ll encounter instead are pointillistic depictions of violence, interspersed with relatively anodyne and pointless “human interest stories“–of the man bites soccer ball or man bites basketball variety–all of it practically designed to distract attention from the most obvious, and most fundamental question: who is to blame? That said, you would certainly get a very clear implicit answer to the blame question, facilitated by the brazen cherry-picking that counts as coverage at The New York Times: the Palestinians are.

Reading The Times, or really, paying attention to virtually any American news source (the Times being the paradigm of mainstream coverage), the reader gets the unmistakable impression (but not a shred of proof) that the Palestinians had started the “latest” cycle of violence (dated how?) by deciding, out of the blue, to stab Israelis for reasons of sheer blood lust borne of “despair”. It’s this gratuitous Palestinian violence, we’re consistently led to believe, that has forced the IDF to respond with intensively greater force against them, if only to deter an all-out descent into savagery against Israel’s innocent and unsuspecting civilian population. 

So is the Israeli narrative true or false? In the absence of an explicit, evidence-based answer to that question, ignorant tripe of this variety almost becomes understandable. If you’re really desperate to believe that the Palestinians deserve what the Israelis are dishing out to them, but you lack anything that resembles a fact-based and normatively defensible argument that proves it, you’ll be forced to rely on crude stereotypes about relative ethno-civilizational superiority. Defaulting on an inquiry into justice, you’ll be left with the dogma that anything is permissible when it comes to defending Israel, because Israel represents Civilization, and its adversaries are the Enemies of Civilization. If civilization itself is at stake, well then–anything goes.

Granted: Zionism’s obvious debt to socialism may conflict with your pro-capitalist defense of Civilization, and Israel’s unsavory alliances with the Soviet bloc, the apartheid regime in South Africaand both Lebanese and American Christian fundamentalism may produce a twinge of embarrassment. For that matter, plenty of Israelis may themselves be religious fundamentalists–another embarrassment. And the five decades of occupation, settlement, expropriation, discrimination, and conquest will loom before you, problematically inconsistent with Israel’s supposed commitment to Civilization. But viewed from a certain perspective, such transgressions will inevitably seem venal and excusable in a Jewish state. Once we associate “Arab” with “primitive savage,” what will ultimately matter is no more and no less than the fact that whatever the Israelis have done and are, they are not a bunch of “savage,” or “nomadic” Arabs. No matter what is involved in affiliating with Israel, it is by definition superior to the savage stigma associated with being an Arab.

Granted, not all Arabs are nomadic. In fact, few are. But that won’t matter. And granted that it begs the question to call the Arabs “savages” at all, since the ascription to them of savagery presupposes that they’re the aggressors–the very claim at issue. Set that aside, as well. And never mind that the argument in question makes essential reliance on the authority of a woman who confessed, up front, that she had never studied the Arab-Israeli conflict, and therefore had no idea what she was talking about when it came to discussing the rights and wrongs involved. Set that aside, too.

In other words, set straightforwardly factual considerations aside. What matters is just a single nearly random association: if you know nothing else about a conflict, you’ll be apt to empathize with the party in it that mirrors your self-conception. If you think of yourself as a modern, civilized person, you’ll empathize with those you deem modern and civilized, like yourself. In short order, you’ll find yourself anathematizing those you deem primitive and uncivilized–however few of such people you’ve ever met, however little you could say to them in their own language, and however little you know about the circumstances of their lives or about their moral characters. Your dogma will then function as both an epistemic filter for all the facts you ever encounter and as an ethical axiom for any prescription you ever consider on this issue. When all is said and done, you’ll be left with one easily applied lesson: what is primitive is evil and envious, and may be destroyed at will; what is civilized and modern is good and virtuous and is therefore entitled to occupy, expropriate, and destroy its opposite number.

At that point, you’ll have arrived at the distinctively post-Enlightenment, 21st century version of Thrasymachus’s conception of justice from Plato’s Republic: from justice is the advantage of the stronger you’ll have reached its modern corollary, justice is the advantage of the most technologically adept. The underlying betrayal of justice remains the same: From Plato’s Thrasymachus, we inexorably reach Conrad’s Kurtz; from “justice is the advantage of the stronger,” it’s a short leap to “Exterminate the brutes.”

I’d like to think that most American discourse on Israel/Palestine rises to a higher level of moral elevation than that. But I’m no longer sure it does–just one of many thoughts I’d like to leave my audience with this Saturday.

P.S., I substantially edited this post after its initial posting.

Postscript, May 18, 2016: For an extremely thorough, uncompromising debunking of The New York Times’s coverage of Israel and Palestine, I highly recommend Barbara Erickson’s site, “TimesWarp: What The New York Times doesn’t tell you about Israel and Palestine.” I’ve put a link to it on PoT’s blogroll as well.

In case you thought that the The Atlas Society-type views that I linked to above were unrepresentative, read this piece by Philip Weiss at Mondoweiss, describing a run-of-the-mill appearance by Natan Sharansky at Temple Emanu-El, a Reform synagogue in midtown Manhattan. Who knew that American universities were a third battlefront in the struggle to prolong the Israeli occupation, and that Jewish American college students were conscripts in the propaganda division of the IDF? Straight from the horses’ mouths.

9 thoughts on “The Israeli Occupation: What It Is, Why It Matters, and What To Do About It

  1. It almost never helps to answer “is this action bad/immoral?” questions by way of “is this person bad/immoral?” questions.

    Regarding the (collective) action of occupation: I imagine that the Israelis would cite security concerns, the necessity of pre-emptive military-style police action to address these concerns and the sometimes unavoidably-rough means of carrying out such military-style police action. My best guess (based, admittedly, on pretty sketchy information) is that, though some defensive police/military action is reasonable and justified, Israel’s sweeping and often brutal and prima facie unjust way of carrying this out is not. They are clearly putting their thumb on the “it’s self-defense so many specific standard moral strictures don’t apply” end of the justificatory scale – any aspirations toward abiding by strong, universal standards of respect and humanity taking a back seat. Even when this stance is reasonable, it is unfortunate – one should be striving mightily to change the tragic circumstances. But I’m not sure the Israelis are being reasonable, here.

    To the extent that the occupation is simply in support of settlement, I see little in the way of good reason to support it.

    The conflict may be a cycle of ill-will and violence, but this does not mean that there is not an obligation to de-escalate whenever doing so is not too dangerous. As the more powerful party, the Israeli’s have a disproportionate obligation to de-escalate. At times and in some ways, they have satisfied this obligation, but they do not seem to be in the case of the occupation of the West Bank and how it is carried out.


    • Michael,

      You say:

      It almost never helps to answer “is this action bad/immoral?” questions by way of “is this person bad/immoral?” questions.

      Well, the moral verdict one gives on an action depends on the motivation for the action. A negative moral verdict on an action presupposes a negative moral verdict on the motivation for it. Bad motivations, acted on over time, lead to negative verdicts on the people who act on them.

      It’s one thing if one is offering a verdict on a one-off action. In that case, the motivation one cites to explain the action may be a one-off motivation that reflects in a one-off way on the character of the person. But that won’t work if what one wants to explain is a deliberate series of actions stretching out over decades. If the charitable explanations of the action(s) run out, one is left with the uncharitable ones. Bracketing the disanalogies between moral verdicts on persons and moral verdicts on policies, I guess I’d say that the charitable explanations for the Israeli occupation/settlement enterprise have run out. What we have here is five decades of conquest disguised as self-defense, not five decades of defensive measures that blur a bit into aggression or conquest.

      I addressed an earlier comment of yours on this subject a few days ago, but it’s on a post from last year, and I think it got lost in the shuffle of comments on more recent posts.

      Liked by 1 person

      • More reading material: This article suggests that the Democrats, at least, are capable a bit of healthy self-reflection on this subject, but only within the context of a consensus that holds that it’s “disturbing” to call the occupation an occupation, or to consider the possibility that Palestinians have any rights worth respecting. The Republicans, of course, are AWOL on all of this, as is Hillary Clinton.

        Meanwhile, the Israelis have put a defense minister in place who holds the view that the citizenship of Arab citizens of Israel should be revoked while they remain resident within Israel proper. These people would then become “citizens” of a state (the Palestinian Authority) that couldn’t possibly protect their rights where they lived (because it would be within the borders of Israel). Meanwhile, Israel would consolidate its hold over the parts of the West Bank it had unilaterally annexed.

        Apparently, none of this is up for criticism or even discussion in mainstream American political discourse. The only candidate capable of bringing any of it up, even obliquely, is Bernie Sanders. No wonder, then, that the Israeli occupation has lasted, unopposed, for fifty years despite its directly contradicting 50 years of official American policy. We’re the ones who’ve given it a green light. Evidently, our official policy is beside the point.


  2. On conquest versus self-defense. Perhaps it is not five decades of conquest, but something that has, at some point along the way, transformed from something that, however ambiguous, counts as self-defense to something that counts as conquest. Negotiating where this line is to be drawn allows for vigorous condemnation of Israel (at least from a certain point in time) while acknowledging past (perhaps excusing) complexities and even present complexities as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, there are three hypotheses here, and a complex empirical question about how to decide between them.

      (1) One is that the 1967 War was, from Israel’s perspective, a defensive war, so that the occupation of Arab territory was justified, but turned into conquest as “one thing led to another” in terms of settlement.

      (2) A second is that however you characterize the 1967 War, Israel saw the occupation of Arab territory as a fortuitous opportunity for conquest from the outset, i.e., from 1967.

      (3) A third is that the 1967 War was, from the outset, an expression of Israel’s ideological imperative to bring about the “Greater Israel” mentioned in its Declaration of Independence as the guiding ideal of the State.

      I think the evidence indicates that (1) is implausible, (2) is the case, and (3) might be, but is harder to prove. But mainstream American and Israeli discourse has trouble granting even the “conquest” mentioned in (1). The standard line is that the 1967 War was obviously defensive from Israel’s perspective, which justifies carte blanche on Israel’s part in perpetuity. Further, the Oslo settlement implies that Israel no longer “occupies” either Gaza or the West Bank–so what’s the problem? These claims are frankly delusional, but they structure almost all public discourse about Israel/Palestine back home.

      Complexities aside, some things are simple. I can’t help mentioning this: the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem refers American citizens with complaints about mistreatment by Israeli authorities to…the Israeli authorities. It has no independent investigative process for adjudicating or even looking into grievances filed by Americans against the Israeli authorities. Further, the only adjudicable grievances are those against the police. If the army beats the shit out of you and leaves you for dead, you have no recourse whatsoever. (The police did the beating in the Abu Khdeir case, but my point is, the army could have done it, and would have done it if it had taken place in the West Bank rather than Jerusalem.)

      There’s an Israeli army base less than a mile from my apt. If the Israelis came out and put a bullet in my head, there might be PR hell to pay, but the State Dept would just have to express its “disappointment,” and move on. The Consulate claims to represent the interests of Americans resident or visiting here, but at the end of the day, its attitude is, “Don’t piss off the Israelis, because if you do, you’re on your own.” Their entire conception of the political situation here consists in asserting that terrorism is bad, and trade fairs are good. They only mention the occupation when someone else mentions it (e.g., Obama) and reference to it becomes unavoidable. Otherwise, their attitude is, let’s pretend that it doesn’t exist–and their policies reflect that.


  3. Seems most plausible to me that 1967 war was defensive, but that a major motivation for the occupation, from the get-go, was taking over territory for more or less religious purposes. If so, the resistance to the occupation is justified and the terrorism at least understandable in some cases. But the terrorism has served as an understandable excuse to say “Hey, the occupation is necessary for self-defense (just look what happened after we left Gaza).” It occurs to me that rectifying (or just acknowledging and forgiving) historical injustices and making peace in the present are different tasks.


    • That puts us in general agreement over (2).

      Two caveats, though:

      (a) It can’t be that obvious that the 1967 war was defensive on Israel’s part if all parties agree that Israel attacked first. Ironically, it attacked first because it unilaterally declared the closing of the Straits of Tiran (by Egypt) to be an act of war. But it isn’t obvious that the closure of straits entirely internal to the borders of one’s own nation can unilaterally be declared by country X to be an act of war justifying the conquest by X of territory belonging to the nation doing the closing. If Panama closed the Panama Canal to American shipping, we couldn’t legitimately invade Panama, take it over, and settle it–however problematic their action was. The irony: if a naval blockade or closure can unilaterally become an act of war, why can’t Hamas declare Israel’s (and/or Egypt’s) blockade of Gaza an act of war, and strike back in self-defense?

      (b) I wouldn’t say that the Israelis “left” Gaza. They evacuated their settlements and their bases, but they besieged Gaza, cut it off on all sides, control its population registry, and have entered and bombed it at will. Technically, the Israeli action in 2005 was a “disengagement,” not a departure. Israel aside, the standard view in international law is that Gaza remains occupied: Israel controls Gaza’s borders, airspace, coastline, and power supply, which is considered “effective control” sufficient for an occupation. This is a little too legalistic for my tastes, but I agree with the conclusion.

      So one could with equal (or greater) validity say of Gaza that Hamas’s use of rockets against Israel is necessary for self-defense–just look at what the Israelis did after claiming to have left.


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