Israel: State of denial

The Israeli government has fashioned the occupation into a ‘permanently temporary’ state of affairs — and made a policy of denial one of its cornerstones. 

By Gershon Shafir

An Israeli soldier tries to prevent a photograph being taken of construction on the separation wall, Bethlehem, January 7, 2006. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
An Israeli soldier tries to prevent a photograph being taken of construction on the separation wall, Bethlehem, January 7, 2006. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Military occupation is a rare phenomenon in today’s world. A half-century-long occupation, like Israel’s control of Palestinian territories captured in 1967, is even rarer. Grappling seriously with its dynamics and consequences is made even more difficult by the fact that in the past half century, Israel has constructed not only settlements but also a three-story denial palace. Israel is now an official residence of occupation denialism. The most compelling demonstration of the grotesque nature of this denial palace is that each of its floors is located in a different imaginary time zone.

In public, Israeli governments describe the West Bank and East Jerusalem as contested rather than occupied territories. On the palace’s first floor, however, they justify the occupation’s outcomes under the branch of international humanitarian law that regulates belligerent military occupations.

A crucial requirement of this law is that occupation be temporary, and an obliging Israeli Supreme Court explicitly bases many of its decisions on this premise.

But can a 50-year-long occupation be considered temporary? Under the “Shamgar Doctrine” — which I name after the Military Advocate General during the 1967 Six-Day War and the president of the Supreme Court in the 1980s — “pending an alternative political or military solution, this system of government could, from a legal point of view, continue indefinitely.” Within the palace the occupation is permanently temporary.

The second story of the denial palace houses the Israeli fixation with land while concomitantly denying the political expression of Palestinian national identity. Occupations are riven by many smaller and bigger denials, but ultimately they are the story of a people denied. Indefinitely prolonged control over another people, without incorporating them into the polity or according them citizenship rights, was once a standard practice in colonies and protectorates. But that era has passed.

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Denying that reality requires freezing historical time at the moment before the successful post–World War II decolonization movement that led to the tidal wave of independence in Asia and Africa. The project of permanent Israeli occupation is a throwback, colonialism under a new name. It effectively writes the Palestinian people out of the history of Palestine while, conversely, demanding that Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people. It also depicts Palestinian resistance as inexplicable and pathological.

In the third story, extensive settlement has allegedly made the occupation irreversible and a Palestinian state impossible. Many critics of the occupation share this illusion. In fact, as time goes on, Israeli colonization is running out of steam.

The original Likud settlement plan from 1981 projected that by 2010, 1.3 million Jews would live alongside 1.8 million Arabs in the West Bank. In mid-2016, among almost three million West Bank Palestinians, 405,158 Jewish settlers resided in 126 settlements, making up 13.8 percent of the region’s population. Palestinians maintain a crushing demographic dominance.

Even more striking, as calculated by Shaul Arieli, the annual growth rate of the settler population shows a long-term decline from about 10 percent in the 1990s, to 5.3 percent in 2009 and to 3.9 percent in 2016. Most damningly, almost 80 percent of the Jewish population increase in the West Bank comes from natural growth, since Israelis from across the Green Line are staying away, and half of these births occur in just two haredi towns: Beitar Ilit and Modi’in Ilit.

Percentage of settler population growth, 1995-2015.

The geographical and economic impact of Israeli colonization remains equally limited. The built-up area of the colonies takes up 2 percent of the West Bank. Most settlers commute to Israel for their employment. Many are employed in inflated educational, security and service jobs in their settlements. The few hundred who engage in agriculture employ Palestinians to do the actual work.

The exceptions are the ring settlements of East Jerusalem and three settlement blocs. The majority of Israeli settlers live in the Gush Etzion, Givat Ze’ev, and Modi’in Ilit blocs along the Green Line, which were the subject of advanced territorial exchange talks during the Olmert-Abbas negotiations. The removal of 27,000 settler households (including the town of Ariel) would enable a 4 percent exchange, and would allow Israel to retain these blocs as part of a territorial partition which would create the State of Palestine.

The religious-Zionist community is today are less unified than their image suggests. While the religious-Zionist settlers, about a quarter of the overall settler population, can easily mobilize throngs of supporters to oppose the occasional eviction of individual settlements or neighborhoods, their religious cohort, as shown by Israeli sociologist Nissim Leon, did not mobilize en masse to help stop the evacuation from Gush Katif in Gaza. They stayed away both for reasons of commitment to mamlachtiyut (roughly translatable to the idea of national interest) and because such opposition would endanger their hard-earned social status and mobility.

More recently, of the 4,210,884 Israelis who voted in the March 2015 national elections, a mere 1.9 percent live in settlements outside the settlement blocs (including Ariel). In total numbers, they cast 81,381 votes; of these only 48,861 were for the Jewish Home and Likud parties that are fully committed to continued colonization outside the settlement blocs.

In short, the settlement project has not created the conditions for the annexation of the West Bank to Israel nor made it inevitable. Time does not favor Israeli colonization because its demographic footprint is too small. My feasibility analysis leads to the conclusion that the term ‘irreversible’ is best rejected, while fully recognizing that the remaining obstacles to territorial partition, though not insurmountable, are formidable. The obstacles to the evacuation of settlers are political, not geographical.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the occupation, the conspicuous unreality of permanent temporariness and historical anachronism, along with the stalling of colonization, demonstrate that the palace of denial is uninhabitable.

Gershon Shafir is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego, past President of the Israel Studies Association, and author of ‘A Half Century of Occupation: Israel, Palestine, and the World’s Most Intractable Conflict,’ published this month by the University of California Press.

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