Israel’s Endless Occupation | The strategist

In the 55 years of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, there have been two intifadas, four wars in Gaza and a long series of failed efforts to broker a two-state solution adhering roughly to Israel’s borders d ‘before 1967. The situation really can be as desperate as it seems.

The intransigence on both sides – which no American president has been able to overcome, although virtually all have tried since the Six Day War – has brought us to this point. While the Palestinians have at times embraced international diplomacy, they have also engaged in periods of stubborn resistance. It was the Palestinians who thwarted two promising peace initiatives led by the forward-looking Israeli governments of Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert.

Given the sentiment in Israel today, they might not get another chance. With each failure of the peace process, the promise of peace has lost its power as a mobilizing cause in Israel. Meanwhile, Israel has gradually tightened its control over the occupied territories, with virtually no international pushback. Even Arab states – six of which have normalized relations with Israel – seem to have become indifferent to the agony of the Palestinians.

All of this has pushed Israeli voters radically to the right, leaving the Israeli peace camp demoralized and weak. The nationalist-religious bloc led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now represents the majority of Israelis. And as far-right as Netanyahu may be, he is practically left-wing compared to the tens of thousands of radical Jewish nationalists who parade through Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter on Jerusalem Day last month waving Israeli flags, repeating violent and Islamophobic chants like “death to Arabs” and attacking Palestinians.

When Algerians rebelled against their French occupiers in one of the most brutal anti-colonial wars of the post-1945 era, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “It is not their violence, but ours, which turns back on itself. In fact, the French found the violence perpetrated in their name so heinous that 75% of them voted to grant independence to Algeria in the 1961 referendum.

A similar sentiment is hard to discern in Israel. On the contrary, popular support for the army’s fight against “Palestinian terrorism” is overwhelming.

To be sure, Israel has seen its share of mass protests in support of a peace deal, with protest movements like Women in Black still going strong. Israeli non-governmental organizations such as B’Tselem, Peace Now and Breaking the Silence are working hard to alert Israeli society to the sins of the occupation. Joint Israeli-Palestinian organizations, such as those that bring together family members of those lost in the ongoing conflict, are doing equally admirable work.

But none of these efforts had a transformative impact on the peace process. This contrasts sharply with the experience in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, when checkpoints, house searches, abusive language, blackmail, beatings and arbitrary arrests were once common practice, just as they are today in the occupied Palestinian territories.

In Northern Ireland, pressure from civil society groups and NGOs eventually pushed security forces to curb abusive practices, improve their recruitment processes and introduce training to deal with inter-communal tensions. The path to peace in Northern Ireland has largely been charted by a mobilized civil society.

In Israel, however, only the Supreme Court stands between the military and the worst behavior. The reason seems to lie in the nature of the conflict. The Algerian War of Independence was an anti-colonial struggle that took place far from the French coasts. And the Troubles boiled down to an intercommunal divide, which could be resolved through disarmament and power-sharing.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on the other hand, is existential. The question of where to draw the boundaries is not merely practical; it has deep religious and cultural significance. For the Palestinians, Israel is the occupying power, infringing on their right to self-determination, but it is also their homeland. And for the now dominant Israeli right, the occupied territories are the cradle of biblical Jewish civilization.

By fighting for the same lands, both sides are actually calling for the unconditional exclusion, even destruction, of the other. This largely explains their eagerness to alter the demographic balance – Israel through Jewish immigration and settlement expansion, and the Palestinians by demanding the “right of return” for all refugees. Yasser Arafat, the late founder of the Palestine Liberation Organization, once called the belly of the Palestinian woman his “most powerful weapon‘ against Israel because it would give the Palestinians a demographic advantage in the occupied territories.

Even if Israel accepted the creation of a Palestinian state, its survival could continue to be threatened. After all, Palestine would not be located far from its borders, as Algeria was from France.

What if a radical Islamist group took power in Palestine and challenged the peace agreement? What if state building falters or fails, generating growing instability on Israel’s doorstep? Or if Palestine became a frontline outpost of a hostile foreign power? Already, Hamas and Hezbollah – with strong help from Iran – have turned Gaza and southern Lebanon, respectively, into launching pads for missiles aimed at Israeli territory.

Fifty-five years after Israel began to occupy Palestinian lands, it is harder than ever to imagine a way out. The seeds of the two-state solution that were sown by visionary leaders on both sides failed to take root. All that remains is a fatalistic acceptance of the insolubility of the conflict. For the occupied as for the occupiers, the future is bleak.

Michael A. Bynum