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50 Years of Occupation

When will the Israel-Palestine conflict end?

It is now over 50 years since Israel seized Gaza and the West Bank during the war of June 1967, with no end in sight for the military occupation and colonization enforced upon the Palestinians since then. At the same time, it has been some four years since Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, submitted an application to the UN Assembly for “observer state” status, a request that was eventually approved by the majority of UN members. And in December 2016, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2334, a document in which the ‘inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force’ was reaffirmed and the international consensus on the conflict reiterated – a consensus that calls for a two-state solution, the end of the occupation, and the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT).

These are significant, historic events, yet the Israel-Palestine conflict endures. Once the world’s prominent cause, recent events in the wider Arab world have diverted attention from it. Whatever happened to the peace process? We can’t blame the recent actions of the Trump administration, though the conflict is unlikely to ever be resolved unless Israel is forced to abide by the international consensus and, as I shall argue here, the US seems to be the only actor capable of making this happen.

Despite the institutional inaction, many activists and volunteers have felt compelled to assist the Palestinians, the weaker party in the conflict. This is not unprecedented: the plight of black South Africans under Apartheid is often compared to that of the Palestinians, and scores of citizens from all over the world campaigned long and hard against the Apartheid regime. So, it might now be as good a time as any to discuss what sort of citizen actions can help bring about the international consensus on the conflict. The analogy between Apartheid and the Palestinians is certainly instructive in this sense, as it points to a first possible course of action.

It has been suggested that the tactics employed to undermine Apartheid can also undermine Israeli occupation, possibly the first step towards resolving the conflict. This is the stance adopted by the BDS movement – BDS stands for boycott, divestment, and sanctions. Launched in 2005, it calls for a general boycott, trade divestment and international sanctions regime against Israel with the aim to achieve three objectives: the end of the occupation and colonization of all Arab lands under Israeli control; the granting of full rights to Israeli Arab citizens within Israel; and the promotion of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestral homes.

These are clearly laudable aims, but the BDS campaign is problematic in some respects. Some commentators have criticized the indiscriminate use of BDS tactics, for instance. More worryingly is the BDS position regarding two central issues in the conflict: the future of Palestinian refugees and the conflict’s final settlement.

Consider the demographics. Presently, Israel has a population of 1.5 million Arabs, while the descendants of those displaced by the 1948-49 wars number more than 5 million. A return of most if not all refugees to Israel, as defended by the BDS, would displace Israeli Jews, who now number 6 million, as the most numerous group within the state, and that would make Israel a very different country indeed.

Tellingly, the BDS movement would actually welcome such a dramatic change in the internal constitution of Israel, as they envision a one-state solution as the final settlement to the conflict. According to this vision, the whole of Israel together with the occupied Palestinian territories would become a binational country – Arabs and Jews as equal citizens within the same state. It is not clear whether this position is held by both the Palestinians that take part in the BDS movement and their supporters overseas, but the BDS movement finds itself in a bit of pickle here. [1]

After all, there is really no reason to believe that Palestinians and Israelis actually want to live within one state. Moreover, a one-state solution presents clear dangers to the Palestinians. The current situation is already a kind of one-state settlement, albeit one in which Palestinians live under military occupation and have very limited rights within the confines of their own semi-independence, whilst Israeli Arabs are effectively second-class citizens. It is hard to see how a sanctioned binational state would be an improvement at all given the current power dynamics.[2]

This is not to deny Palestinians the ‘right of return’, a right that is in any case enshrined in UN legislation. But a compromise will have to be reached on this question, one possibly involving reparations of some kind and the return of most refugees to a future Palestinian state.

In any case, it is unlikely the BDS campaign will bring an end to the occupation. In fact, such a campaign may not benefit the Palestinians as much as it is supposed to do, an eventuality that will be more obvious to volunteers actually working in the territories.

There are many possibilities open to someone willing to assist the Palestinians in the region. As an example, in the summer of 2009, I had the opportunity to spend some time at a permaculture farm set up by four British ex-pats in Beit Sahour, a middle-class town east of Bethlehem. Permaculture is a global movement based on a number of self-reliance principles, such as minimal consumption, recycling and reinvesting of waste products, and the redistribution of any surplus. As such, it is especially useful in areas with limited access to materials and resources.

The main challenge for any farm in the OPT is access to water, which is very limited. Only 69 percent of Palestinian communities in the West Bank are connected to water supply lines, and many of these form part of a bigger network that also serves Israeli settlements. As a result, supply is constantly cut off when there is not enough pressure to meet the requirements of the settlements.

The farm I visited is organized to function despite the limited availability of this most important of resources. Sitting on 1.2 hectares of land, the farm boasts a large tree nursery and various water tanks distributed throughout the property. The most important water tanks are the two rain-collectors placed on the roof, which directly serve the kitchen and bathroom. Connected to a “grey water system”, compost toilet included, the water the farm uses for cooking and washing is then filtered and reused for irrigation. The result is a “reduce and reuse” network that, the project managers hoped, will allow the farm to eventually leave the grid of the Israeli-controlled water supply lines.

This is not the only potential benefit the farm hopes to bring to the region. They organize workshops on permaculture as well as help others with their farming needs, especially at properties in particularly sensitive areas, such as near the separation wall. All this undoubtedly improves people’s lives. Unfortunately military might will impose itself eventually. Like everyone else in the West Bank, the farm is in occupied territory.

This brings up a relevant point regarding BDS tactics. Israel controls what goes in and out of the West Bank and Gaza, and as such, the Israeli and Palestinian economies are more intertwined than is usually appreciated. Many of the products on sale in the OPT come from Israel, for instance, producing huge tax receipts for Israeli coffers. A more poignant case is the dramatic loss of jobs experienced by Palestinians when the separation wall came up – jobs that were in Israel. It would certainly make little sense for Palestinians to follow BDS tactics to the letter – boycotting Israeli products and businesses would be damaging to their own households.

The overall situation is rather intricate. In an interesting study, Neve Gordon shows that after the 1967 war Israel purposely invested money and resources in the OPT in order to “normalize” the occupation by offering a high quality of life to its inhabitants. The idea was to control the territories without going so far as to annex them, thus keeping them outside the purview of most Israeli legislation. This was accompanied by an ever-increasing military presence as well as Israeli settlements, the latter then framed as a prerequisite for territorial safety against the surrounding Arab states, probably mistakenly so.

The normalization of the occupation and the colonization of the West Bank alongside the shutting-off of Gaza undoubtedly constitute the biggest stumbling blocks in the resolution of the conflict. What can permaculture farming offer the Palestinians as a counter to such dangers? It is unlikely the farm in Beit Sahour will be able to disconnect from the Israeli water supply, but it could be argued that a permaculture-organized region is a means of setting up a way of life that defies and circumvents the occupation. And perhaps becoming as independent from the occupier as possible puts you in a stronger position in future peace negotiations.

But how is this any different from what the Palestinians have done since 1967? To live as autonomous a life as possible given the current conditions is in many ways a compromise, no more than life’s daily grind for the Palestinians. In such a situation, the Palestinians can hardly be in control of their own destiny, let alone maintain the infrastructure and institutions needed to function as a state.

This is perhaps clearest in a rather dramatic case: the dire state of the health system in the OPT. The Lancet magazine commissioned a study about this issue in 2009, and the main findings are rather revealing. After identifying the main factors contributing to the deterioration of the Palestinian health system – the on-going colonization, the constant insecurity, the violations of human rights, unsustainable dependence on foreign aid, etc. – the study concludes that whilst ‘substantial aid can alleviate some of the short-term effects…of a crisis, it does not tackle the root causes of ill health’. This crisis in healthcare is the result of there not being ‘an autonomous state to safeguard [Palestinians]’. This means that ‘no comprehensive agenda for improving health and services…can be outlined with any confidence’. Without an international agreement on ‘a just political and economic solution’, the report concludes, ‘all other measures are likely to prove temporary and superficial’.

There really is no hope under an occupation; everything can be co-opted for the occupier’s own benefit. Permaculture farming and some of the BDS tactics can certainly provide some relief for Palestinians, but these solutions can only be regarded as temporary. Something else is needed. This may be found in the third and final course of action I would like to discuss here. Namely, lobbying the international community, especially the US, in support of the consensus on the Israel-Palestine conflict. (The BDS movement has also employed such tactics, but not in favor of the consensus, which they in fact reject).

It is worth emphasizing that there is an international consensus on how to solve the conflict. It has been in effect for over forty years and was just reaffirmed in 2016 with UN resolution 2334. The consensus, as briefly described earlier, calls for an end to the occupation and the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the OPT (including the release of thousands of political prisoners), the establishment of a Palestinian state within the so-called “green line” (the pre-1967 borders) along a safe border for Israel, and a fair settlement for Palestinian refugees. Actively campaigning for the consensus should ultimately offer a better prospect for Palestinians than what can at present be provided in the form of international boycotting campaigns, foreign aid, and volunteering in the territories.

If the consensus is so well-established, however, why has the occupation endured for so long? Here the analogy with South African Apartheid is apt. The international movement against Apartheid was extensive and long-lasting, and while many factors no doubt contributed to its demise, the most important was undoubtedly South Africa’s loss of US support.

We now know that the South African government was all too happy to resist international pressure and remain an international pariah as long as they could count on American support. In a telegram sent by the US ambassador in South Africa to the Department of State in 1958, the South African foreign minister informed the ambassador that ‘[a] specific and strong resolution against South Africa voted for by a majority of nations in [the] UN did not matter so much as this was to be expected. What mattered perhaps more than all other votes put together was that of [the] US in view [of] its predominant position of leadership in [the] Western world’.

Israel can certainly relate to this sentiment, considering the number of times the US has vetoed, or voted against, UN resolutions critical of Israel and the gigantic funds Israel receives every year from the US. Interestingly, the American stance towards the Israel-Palestine conflict, at least judged from the perspective of American public opinion, has changed in the last few decades. As Norman Finkelstein and John Mearsheimer have discussed in The American Conservative recently, US public opinion on Israel is not what it used to be. In particular, recent polls suggest that Americans by and large believe that the US should not favor either Israel or the Palestinians, but act as a neutral arbiter, in clear contrast to what has historically been the case. Public opinion seldom turns into official policy, but its influence should not be underestimated, even in Trump’s era.

Much as it occurred with Apartheid, the Israel-Palestine conflict will only be settled once Israel loses American support. Israel has never accepted the consensus on the conflict, especially in relation to the establishment of an independent and viable Palestinian state, and it will never do so unless the US brings real pressure to bear. There have been many cases in the past where the US has pressured Israel, from the threat of sanctions during the Suez Canal crisis to the withholding of loan guarantees to force Israel to attend the Madrid peace talks of 1991. These have all but disappeared now, but it is noteworthy that in every case Israel followed US mandates.

As a matter of fact, Israel quite simply cannot sustain either the occupation or its settlement program in the OPT without US funds and support – remove these, and Israel would be forced to accept the consensus. Pressure from the US needs to return if we are to see a just resolution to the conflict. This is no radical proposal; it is certainly in accord with international law and no different from what most mainstream media outside the US call for.[3]

David J. Lobina is a London-based philosopher at the University of Barcelona. He has written about the Chilcot Report on the role of the UK in the Iraq War of 2003 and is currently preparing an article on the use of language in the construction of national identities.

 


[1] The BDS are not alone in this. The New Left Review goes against the consensus by arguing in favour of a 50-50 partition of the land, literally drawing a line down the middle of the whole area (see some of the papers and maps in Issue 10, 2001).

[2] There might be potential for collaboration between Israelis and Palestinians at the level of the community, as Bernard Avishai has discussed recently (New York Review of Books Daily, February 2, 2018), but the prospects for the one-state confederacy he envisions are far from obvious at the moment.

[3] I wish to thank Paloma Atencia, Noam Chomsky, Robin Muller, and Leah Sullivan for comments on an earlier version of this article.

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David J. Lobina

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