Israel keeps millions of people under a system of rules so intricate and outlandish that often the military itself fails to make sense of it.
By Itamar Sha’altiel (translated from Hebrew by Noam Rabinovich)
Naftali Bennett posted a photo to Facebook on Wednesday of a vase found in an archeological dig in Beit Shemesh, bearing the words “Ishba’al son of Beda.” Bennett’s point, and his conclusion, was that “a nation cannot occupy its own land.” The phrase, “a nation cannot occupy its own land,” is a right-wing slogan that is repeated ad nauseam – by Bennett and others – and it has countless other forms, such as: “the Arabs have 21 other countries,” and, “we actually occupied the West Bank from Jordan.”
Noam Sheizaf contextualized Bennett’s manipulation well, writing: “the right wing’s consistent refusal to understand that it is first and foremost an occupation of people, and not of land, is astounding.” Maybe it’s worth repeating so the message can sink in: nobody cares from whom you occupied the land. What matters is that for 48 years we have been controlling a territory in which millions of people live with different rights than their Jewish counterparts.
It is not that they have no rights at all, but in order to begin describing the rights that we do grant them we would need to get into the type of expositions commonly found in sci-fi novels, only far more boring. A Palestinian’s life is controlled by things like the population registry which hasn’t been updated in years, the area they live in (a resident of east Jerusalem as opposed to a resident of Area C), who is the current military commander, which military brigade is currently in charge of their area, who is the current head of Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories Unit (COGAT). It’s so long, bureaucratic and convoluted that it becomes nearly impossible to describe to Israelis what the life of a Palestinian looks like; they would to understand too many details that are completely absent from their own lives.
Israelis can catch a glimpse into this kind of life through the regular news articles about easements for Palestinians. The current head of COGAT, Major General Yoav Mordechai (who is turning out to be an improvement from his predecessor Maj.-Gen. Eitan Dangot), announced a series of measures for Ramadan meant to make Palestinians’ lives easier. For example, as reported by Ynet: “The list [of measures] includes permitting men over the age of 40 and women of all ages to enter the Aqsa Mosque, increasing the number of people permitted to leave Gaza for Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa to several hundred, compared to 200 today. That relief will apply only to people over the age of 60.”
These relief measures are indeed important and long overdue, but they also aptly describe some of the regulations that govern the lives of Palestinians: before these measures were announced, for example, men over 40 and women of all ages were not allowed entrance to the mosque; and to be able to leave Gaza to pray there, you not only had to go through security screenings, but also to be over 60. Go ahead and make sense of that.
Another example: before operation Protective Edge, Gisha, for which I work, released a short video by Itamar Rose, that explored how Israelis respond to one of the criteria for permits to exit from Gaza. According to the criteria, it is possible to apply for a permit for a family visit in the case of grave illness, but only if one is a first-degree relative of the sick person. So, for example, if your mother is dying in the West Bank you can go see her, but not if it’s your grandmother. In the video an actress pretended to be a Palestinian girl whose grandmother is sick and asked Israelis to let her pass. We received tons of responses trying to explain the “complicated security situation,” of course. Except that after Protective Edge Israel modified the criteria slightly: now granddaughters are allowed to visit their grandparents.
This is what the occupation is about. Not some theoretical debate about who owns the land. We keep millions of people under a system of rules so intricate and outlandish that often the military itself fails to make sense of it. (Why, for example, are Palestinians forbidden from entering Eilat?) People can’t even dream of seeing their family members, let alone something so far-fetched as one day seeing the Sistine Chapel. They can’t protest. They can be arrested without trial, as can their relatives. They don’t know many of the rules, they just know the arbitrariness, the “no use in trying.”
I understand why Israelis are worried about relaxing their hold on the Palestinians, but they have to at least recognize that the stranglehold exists. They should, at the very least, think and discuss more about what can be eased and how. And the tendency of people like Bennett to deflect the debate toward questions about whether there is such a thing as a Palestinian people, demonstrates what a heartless person looks like, but it is also dangerous and will blow up in our faces. Distractions, too, have a short shelf lives.
Itamar Sha’altiel is the new media director at Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement. This article represents his own views.