In war, truth is the first casualty.
Israel's Occupation / Neve Gordon
It took me a moment before I understood why my story about a few
relatively inconsequential incidents, which occurred years ago at my high school, had such an effect on the undergraduates taking my course in the fall semester of 2006. One of the anecdotes was about my classmates who lived in the Jewish settlements located in the northern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. It was 1981, and the following year they would be forced to leave their homes as part of Israel’s peace agreement with Egypt, but at the time, I told my students, the evacuation did not seem imminent, at least not in the minds of many teenagers for whom each year stretches without end. A particular issue that did occupy us, I continued, was learning to drive. I described to my students how my friends from the farming communities located in the Sinai and the small town of Yamit took their lessons in the Palestinian town of Rafah and were among the first to pass their driving tests.
My students found this story incomprehensible. They simply could not imagine Israeli teenagers taking driving lessons in the middle of Rafah, which, in their minds, is no more than a terrorist nest riddled with tunnels used to smuggle weapons from Egypt—weapons that are subsequently used against Israeli targets. The average age difference between me and my students is only 15 years, but our perspectives are radically different. Most of my students have never talked with Palestinians from the Occupied Territories (OT), except perhaps as soldiers during their military service. Their acquaintance with Palestinians is consequently limited to three-minute news bites that almost always report on Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets or Israeli military assaults on Palestinian towns.
When I was a high school student, by contrast, I frequently hitched a ride back from school with Palestinian taxis on their way from Gaza to
Beer-Sheva. Within the current context of the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict, this act is unfathomable. No taxis from the OT are allowed to enter Israel, and even if they had somehow managed to obtain an entry permit, Israeli Jews would be afraid to use them. Palestinians, who not so long ago were an integral part of the Israeli landscape, primarily as low-wage laborers who built houses, cleaned streets, and worked in agriculture, have literally disappeared. If in 1981 most Israelis and Palestinians could travel freely between the OT and Israel proper (the pre-1967 borders) and, in many respects, felt safe doing so, currently Palestinians are locked up in the Gaza Strip, and Israelis are not permitted to enter the region. Palestinians from the West Bank are also confined to their villages and towns; however, within this region, Jews, and particularly Jewish settlers, are allowed to come and go as they please.
The students’ reaction to my teenage experiences brought to the fore a crucial issue that is often overlooked: namely, that Israel’s occupation has dramatically changed over the past four decades. Yet, the obviousness of this observation does not, in any way, suggest that one can easily explain the causes leading to the transformation. What, one might ask, distinguishes the occupation of the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s from the current occupation?
Repertoires of Violence
While the changes in the OT have manifested themselves in all areas of life, they are particularly conspicuous when counting bodies (see table 1). During the six-year period between 2001 and 2007, Israel has, on average, killed more Palestinians per year than it killed during the first twenty years of occupation. Moreover, since the eruption of the second intifada, Israelis have killed almost twice as many Palestinians as they killed in the preceding thirty-four years. How can one make sense of the increasing violence Israel has used to uphold the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and why did the Israeli military government radically alter the forms of control it deployed to manage the Palestinian residents of the OT?
Number of Palestinians Killed
Years Palestinians Killed Annual Average
June 1967 - Dec. 1987 650 32
Dec. 1987 - Sep. 2000 1,491 106
June 1967 - Dec. 1987 4,046 647
The numbers in this table are taken from several sources. B’tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories has documented the number of Palestinians who were killed since the eruption of the first Intifada in December 1987. The number of
Palestinians killed during the first two decades of the occupation was gathered from several sources. According to the Palestinian Organization of Families of the Deceased, an estimated 400 Gazans were killed during the first 20 years of occupation Ha’aretz, August 23, 2005. David Ronen claims that 87 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank from the end of the war until December 1967; David Ronen , The Year of the Shabak, (Tel-Aviv: Ministry of Defence Publishing House, 1989) 57. Meron Bevenisti notes that between 1968 and 1983, 92 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank.;Meron Benvenisti, The West Bank Data Project, 1986 Report,
Demographic, Economic, Legal, Social, and Political Developments in the West Bank (Washington D.C.: The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1986), 63. In 1986 and 1987 another 30 were killed. See Meron Benvenisti, The West Bank Data Project, 1987 Report, Demographic, Economic, Legal, Social, and Political Developments in the West Bank (Washington D.C.: The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1987), 42. Al Haq notes that in 1984 11 Palestinians were killed. See Al Haq’s Response to the Chapter on Israel and the Occupied Territories in the U.S.’s State Department, Al Haq, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1984,” (Ramallah: Al Haq, 1985), 5. Thus, the total amount is 620 Palestinians, while there is missing data for the year 1985 in the West Bank.
Those who help manufacture public opinion within Israel claim that the dramatic increase in Palestinian deaths is due to the fact that the Palestinians have changed the methods of violence they employ against Israel, and that Israel, in turn, has had to begin using more violent means to defend itself. And indeed, the number of Israelis killed has dramatically increased over the years. During the thirteen-year period between December 1987 and September 2000, 422 Israeli were killed by Palestinians, but during the six-year period from the eruption of the second intifada until the end of 2006, 1,019 Israelis were killed.1 Palestinians, however, might invert this argument, claiming that they have altered their methods of resistance in response to Israel’s use of more lethal violence. Even though the steady increase in deaths is striking and no doubt an important factor that must be reflected upon, such
explanations are symptomatic and do little to reveal the root causes underlying the processes leading to the substantial increase in
fatalities. They are not very helpful for those interested in making sense of what has been going on in the West Bank and Gaza Strip because they are merely an effect of other significant changes that have taken place over the years.
Also worth noting is that the number of Palestinians who have been killed is relatively small in comparison with those killed during other military occupations. During the military occupation of Iraq by the United States, for example, on average more civilians have been killed per day than were killed during a whole year in the West Bank and Gaza Strip between the years 1967 and 1987. Moreover, the United Nations reports that during the four-month period of May through August 2006, 12,417 Iraqi civilians were killed, many more than the number of Palestinians killed during four decades of Israeli military rule.2 The civilian death tolls in Chechnya, East Timor, and other areas that have been under military occupation tend to resemble the death toll in Iraq and, in certain instances, are much higher.3
What is common to these places is that they are part of what Derek Gregory has called the “colonial present,” which is characterized, among other things, by two cartographic performances.4 The first is a performance of sovereignty through which the ruptured spaces of Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Occupied Territories (after Oslo) are simulated as coherent states. Even though none of these entities is in fact a real state, sovereignty has to be conjured to render the categories of political action
meaningful. The second is a performance of territory through which fluid networks like al-Qaeda are fixed into a bounded space that can then be legitimately bombed and occupied. Indeed, the artificial ascription of a fixed and well-delineated space to al-Qaeda and other similar networks justifies the subsequent bombing and military seizing of space. Thus, while Gregory tries to outline the features common to the colonial present, my objective is to focus on the differences between contemporary colonial regimes and the changes they undergo over time. In this book, I concentrate on the changes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
It is, I believe, important to try to understand why, in comparison with other military occupations, a relatively small number of Palestinians have been killed, particularly during the first thirty-four years of
occupation. The basic assumption in this book is that there is an inverse correlation between sheer violence, which is used primarily to suppress resistance and to create endemic uncertainty and insecurity, and forms of control that aim to normalize military occupations by harnessing and directing the energies of the inhabitants toward activities that coincide with the occupier’s interests. Thus, the increase in the number of Palestinians killed is a sign that Israel’s efforts to normalize the occupation have failed.
Showing that there was indeed a change in the way Israel has controlled the OT does not, however, explain what propelled this shift. Hence, over and above the historical portrayal of Israel’s occupation, the aim of this book is to uncover the causes leading to the transformations that have taken place in West Bank and Gaza Strip. The book’s central thesis is that certain elements in the occupation’s structure, rather than the decisions made by a particular politician or military officer, altered the forms of control. For many years, I maintain, the occupation operated according to the colonization principle, by which I mean the attempt to administer the lives of the people and normalize the colonization, while exploiting the territory’s resources (in this case land, water, and labor). Over time, a series of structural contradictions undermined this principle and gave way in the mid-1990s to another guiding principle, namely, the separation principle. By separation I mean the abandonment of efforts to administer the lives of the colonized population (except for the people living in the seam zones or going through checkpoints), while insisting on the continued exploitation of nonhuman resources (land and water). The lack of interest in or indifference to the lives of the colonized population that is characteristic of the separation principle accounts for the recent surge in lethal violence. Thus, by underscoring the structural dimension of Israel’s military rule, I hope to explain why for many years Israel’s occupation was much less violent than other military occupations and why it has radically changed. However, before I turn to the introduction, which outlines the book’s major arguments, two crucial points about the book’s historical and spatial framework need to be stressed.
As is well known, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians commenced much before 1967 and has, to a large extent, been shaped by the struggles that began toward the end of the nineteenth century. These struggles reached their peak in the 1948 war, which Jewish Israelis refer to as the War of Independence and which Palestinians call the Nakbah, or
“catastrophe.” I firmly believe that one cannot understand the current disputes informing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without taking into account the ethnic cleansing that took place during and after the 1948 war.5 So long as decision makers continue to relate to the conflict as if it can be resolved by addressing the wrongs committed in 1967 while ignoring 1948 and the Palestinian refugee problem, there will be no lasting political solution in the region. I accentuate this point to underscore that my decision to concentrate on 1967 and its aftermath does not intend—in any way—to suggest that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be reduced to the military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. Many of my liberal allies in Israel, including some who are prominent members of the peace camp, are still unwilling to face up to this long history. I decided, nonetheless, to concentrate on the post-1967 period because I am interested in interrogating how the Israeli military occupation has operated rather than examining the root causes of and possible solutions to the conflict.
By concentrating on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel’s Occupation also makes a spatial distinction that is analytically very useful for the purposes of this book, but at the same time helps obscure the de facto connection that has been established between the West Bank and Israel.6 Israel has been ambivalent about emphasizing either the de jure
distinction or the de facto bond between the regions, because in each case an acute contradiction emerges. Imagine, for example, the minister of housing or the secretary of state living permanently outside the United States. This might sound absurd, but if one takes the de jure distinction between Israel and the OT seriously and ignores the de facto connection between the regions, this is exactly the situation in Israel. Several Israeli legislators and government ministers live in the OT and therefore do not reside within the internationally recognized borders of the country that they were elected to lead and represent. Along similar lines, the Jewish settlers who comprise about 7 percent of the Israeli citizenry live permanently “abroad”; they vote and pay taxes and for all practical purposes are extraterritorial citizens who, like diplomats, carry the Israeli law on their backs. In order to resolve these paradoxes one might stress the de facto connection between the regions, but then the
inaccuracy of describing Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East would be exposed. The de jure distinction helps eclipse the fact that for the past four decades about 30 percent of the people living within the territory controlled by the Israeli government are not citizens, cannot vote, and are denied the most basic rights.
While an analysis based on the de facto situation provides, in many respects, a more accurate depiction of reality, my decision to treat the territories that Israel occupied in 1967 as a separate unit, even though such an interrogation helps mask certain historical and spatial truths, was determined by the book’s primary objective. I am interested in trying to understand how Israel’s military occupation ticks. The goal is to uncover the daily practices through which the Palestinian inhabitants within the OT have been managed, and to explain why Israel’s mechanisms of control were altered over the years. In this way, I not only wish to unravel some of the major processes leading to the terminal shifts in Israel’s occupation, but also to underscore the structural causes leading to the escalation of violence as well the dangerous implications of Israel’s insistence on continuing to control Palestinian land. Readers who are uninterested in my theoretical argument can skip the introduction and go directly to the first chapter, where I begin the historical portrayal by outlining the infrastructure of control.
1. The numbers are taken from B’Tselem’s website: www.btselem.org.
2. Associated Press, “U.N.: Iraq Civilian Deaths Hit a Record,” CBS News, September 21, 2006. In addition to the 6,187 Palestinians who were killed by Israelis, fewer than 1,500 Palestinians were killed by other
Palestinians. Consult www.btselem.org and www.iraqbodycount.org for up-to-date information.
3. In East Timor, for example, an estimated two hundred thousand people were killed out of a population of seven hundred thousand. See Mathew Jardine, East Timor: Genocide in Paradise (Tucson, AZ: Odonian Press, 1995).
4. Derek Gregory, The Colonial Present: Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004).
5. Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oxford: Oneworld, 2006).
6. Oren Yiftachel, Ethnocracy: Land and Identity Politics in
Israel/Palestine (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).
Neve Gordon teaches in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University, Israel. He has been a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and the Watson Institute at Brown University. During the first intifada, he was the director of Physicians for Human Rights – Israel. Gordon is the co-editor of Torture: Human Rights, Medical Ethics and the Case of Israel, the editor of From the Margins of Globalization: Critical Perspectives on Human Rights, and his writings have appeared in numerous scholarly journals as well as in publications like The Guardian, The Nation, Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, Chronicle of Higher Education and The National Catholic Reporter.