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June 26, 2006

The Ideology of Occupation Revisited


by Ran HaCohen

The history of occupation is not just that of Palestinian suffering and Israeli aggression; it is also the history of its ideology, the history of the fictions the Israeli society fabricates in order to justify its major colonial project which has just entered its 40th year. These fictions do have a history: one can trace their career from birth to maturity, their shifts from the margin to the center and vice versa, their rise and fall among definite segments of the Israeli society or media, sometimes their (reversible) death.

A few years ago, I dedicated two columns to the ideology of occupation, following a nice synopsis of it given by an Israeli settler. Most of those arguments are still on the market today. You can still hear Israelis explain away the occupation by resorting to the Palestinian rejection of the partition plan, 60 years ago. Also the notion that "they want to throw us all into the sea" can boast a continuous career from the Passover Hagadah ("in every generation they rise against us to destroy us") up to the current political use of the Hamas Charter. But some things have changed. If you nowadays ask an Israeli about the occupation, what answers will you get?

The orthodox and hard-line right wingers (Likud and rightward) would probably come up with more traditional arguments ("it's all our land," etc.); but if you come across a mainstreamer one of those who consider themselves "moderate right-wingers," "centrists," or "leftists" (the terms are near-synonyms in present Israeli discourse), voters of Kadima, Labor, or Meretz I think this is what you are going to hear.

"The Occupation Has Ended"

Almost all the Israelis really believe the occupation of Gaza is over. The Palestinians there are now free to run their lives as they like, and Israel has nothing to do with it. They envisage a similar scenario being realized, or perhaps realized already, for the West Bank behind the Wall.

This fiction has become popular since the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last summer; but its roots go back to the Oslo years, when especially the Zionist Left (Yossi Sarid, et al.) cultivated the myth that a Palestinian state in fact already existed, or was about to emerge within a fortnight (not later than 1998, as the Oslo Accords indeed stated; remember also Bush's broken deadline). In fact, this fiction represents a deep Israeli desire to deny: since the liberal Israeli knows the occupation cannot go together with democracy and justice, the occupation should disappear but in a virtual way, by being denied. On a deeper level, many Israeli liberals believe Arabs cannot go together with culture and modernity, so denying their existence, both virtually and actually, by locking the undesired neighbors behind a big Wall and forgetting all about them, sounds like a pretty good solution.

"We're Here, They're There," Said the Jailer

"We're here, they're there" was Ehud Barak's sophisticated "peace slogan." The actual power relations between "here" and "there" have to be denied; in fact, the only thing that reminds the Israelis of these power relations is the Palestinian violent resistance. Were it not for "terrorism" (a term used indiscriminately for both legitimate and illegitimate Palestinian violence), the Israelis would have happily forgotten all about their locked-up neighbors by now. Accordingly, the persistent homemade Qassam missiles that terrorize the Israeli town of Sderot are conceptualized by Israelis as typical Arab ingratitude, as shameless ungratefulness for the great gift that Israel has presented the Palestinians by withdrawing from Gaza, allegedly restoring their freedom, honor, and well-being.

The reality is different. Having pulled its settlers out of Gaza, Israel is now imposing a total siege on the tiny Strip: the 1.5 million Palestinians locked up there have no access to the sea (Israel never let the Gaza seaport be built), no access to the air (Israel destroyed the Gaza airport), and all the crossings are under Israeli control (i.e., practically closed most of the time). Since the Hamas victory in the elections, Israel and the international community have also been imposing an economic siege on the Strip, severing the financial ties with the Palestinian authority; to pay their Authority's employees, the Palestinians have to smuggle cash through the crossings. Israel's "security system" the Occupation incarnated is the one who decides whether Gazans will have flour, medicines, and any other goods, how much, and when.

While this economic and physical siege is being imposed by air, sea, and land, and while Gaza is daily bombarded by missiles, artillery, and naval fire, "center-left" Israelis can say things like "Israel has left Gaza. The Palestinians could use this fact to finally rebuild Gaza, to build houses for refugees, to encourage investments, and to create jobs. Gazans could finally live like humans" (quoted from a letter to the excellent Hebrew Web site Ha'okets).

The situation in the West Bank is not so very different. The Palestinians there are locked in smaller cages than in Gaza, but the siege is less hermetic. While the Palestinians are locked behind huge walls, with a satanic system of roadblocks and permits, and sliced by roads-for-Jews-only and by settlements, harassed day and night by army incursions into their villages, houses, and bedrooms, many Israelis believe the occupation is now retreating, and its end is just a matter of time, or rather of semantics.

Alas, colonialism does not disappear by being denied; in fact, the Israeli occupation is at its peak, worse than ever before. There is no better evidence for that than the discussion about whether or not there is a humanitarian crisis in Palestine, once a rich Land of Milk and Honey.

A Propos

Ha'aretz reported Tuesday that the Knesset would debate a new bill, harshly criticized by leading jurists, that would make it possible to extend a suspect's remand without him being present in court, and to prevent him from seeing a lawyer for 30 consecutive days. The bill was submitted by the Justice Ministry and is supported by the Shin Bet security service.

If you wonder why such a bill is suddenly needed, or who these "suspects" might be, you'll first have to learn Hebrew; Ha'aretz's version in this language explains: "Till the ending of the military regime in the Gaza Strip, the investigation authorities had wider powers than those granted by the Detention Law. Now that the military regime in Gaza has ended, a special law is needed to give the security services wider enforcement powers." A few days after this debate, as if to make a point, the Israeli army entered the Gaza Strip and, for the first time since the withdrawal, abducted – "arrested" – two Palestinians.The occupation is over, long live the occupation.

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Dr. Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and grew up in Israel. He has a B.A. in Computer Science, an M.A. in Comparative Literature, and his PhD is in Jewish Studies. He is a university teacher in Israel. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English and Dutch), and as a literary critic for the Israeli daily Yedioth Achronoth. Mr. HaCohen's work has been published widely in Israel. "Letter from Israel" appears occasionally at Antiwar.com.

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