The Impossible Question of Occupation

Benjamin Kerstein

Benjamin Kerstein

Associate Editor, The Tower Magazine

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~ Also in this issue ~

~ Also by Benjamin Kerstein ~

From the Blog

Will the occupation of the West Bank be the unmaking of the Jewish state—or the key to its survival?

Several years ago, a friend and I were driving on highway 443 north of Jerusalem. Beside us were the large concrete blocks of the security wall that now effectively separates Israel proper from the West Bank and has, for years, proved successful in minimizing Palestinian terrorism.

Together we looked out at the stark gray barrier. “What really scares me,” I suddenly said, “is that we need it.”

This incident has been on my mind lately as Israel marks the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, in which Israel won a miraculous victory against a genocidal coalition of Arab states. It was the Jewish state’s greatest military achievement and put Israel on the map as a major regional power.

But it was also the beginning of the now 50-year occupation of the West Bank and the only-recently-ended occupation of Gaza, placing millions of Palestinian Arabs under military rule.

Opposed by most of the world and despised by the Palestinians, it is this occupation that makes the 50th anniversary of Israel’s victory a double-edged sword, since Israelis, to this day, still do not know what to think about it, or what to do about it.

Israelis have never been comfortable with the occupation. The Left desperately hopes to end it, preferably by a negotiated solution with the Palestinians; if necessary by unilateral action. The secular Right justifies it on security grounds, while the religious Right understands the usually unspoken reality that it is necessary in order to foster the continued construction of settlements. But very few seek to justify the occupation in and of itself. In other words, practically all Israelis understand that, to one degree or another, perpetual rule over another people is more or less a bad thing.

This feeling is deeply rooted in Israel’s Jewish identity and Jewish values. It was perhaps expressed best by then-IDF chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin only weeks after the euphoric victory of 1967. In his speech accepting an honorary degree from the Hebrew University, Rabin said,

We find, increasingly, a strange phenomenon among our fighters. Their joy is not total, and more than a little sorrow and shock permeates their celebration. There are those who do not celebrate at all. … It may be that the Jewish people never learned, never accustomed themselves to experience the thrill of conquest and victory, and so we receive it with mixed feelings.

This ambivalence is one I recognize in myself. The Jews have a long history as an often-conquered and oppressed people. We know and fastidiously memorialize the defeats and atrocities inflicted on us in the past, from the enslavement in Egypt to the destruction of the first and second Temples, the slaughter of the Bar Kochba revolt and the resulting exile, endless expulsions and pogroms, and of course the Holocaust, which eclipsed them all. We reflexively identify with the defeated, the suppressed, and the wounded. To suddenly become what Charles De Gaulle, in praise, called an “elite people, sure of themselves and domineering” is alien to us and profoundly troubling.

Discomfort with the occupation in this case is natural, but there is a counterargument. In effect, right-wing Zionism’s founding father Ze’ev Jabotinsky formulated it in his famous 1923 essay, “The Iron Wall.” In it, Jabotinsky stated his belief that the Arabs would never make peace with Zionism voluntarily, and the survival of the Jewish community in Palestine and any future Jewish state would depend on it being militarily impossible to destroy.

According to Jabotinsky, the Arab determination to destroy Israel will cease “only when there is no longer any hope of getting rid of us, because they can make no breach in the iron wall. Not till then will they drop their extremist leaders whose watchword is ‘Never!’ And the leadership will pass to the moderate groups, who will approach us with a proposal that we should both agree to mutual concessions.”

Even the most optimistic Zionist would likely admit that the past century has largely borne out Jabotinsky’s predictions. Some of the Arab nations have lost their hope of destroying us, largely because they have realized they cannot defeat us militarily, and as a result, more moderate leaders like Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Jordan’s King Hussein forged peace with Israel. Nonetheless, irredentist forces remain who still hold on to that genocidal hope and dream of the slaughter to come.

Given this fact, it is hard to avoid the sense that the Iron Wall remains necessary. This, in turn, gives rise to a terrible thought: What if the occupation is the Iron Wall?

The case for the occupation as the Iron Wall rests on a simple proof: Historical experience.

In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on the Jewish people’s holiest day. They were ultimately defeated, but the cost was enormous, and deeply traumatized an entire generation of Israelis. And part of this trauma was the knowledge that the Arabs had been defeated, in part, because Israel managed to contain their invasion to the occupied territories, and Israeli control of the West Bank had played a part in deterring Jordan from taking part in the war. As a result, the Arab armies never reached Israel proper. Had Israel been confined to its 1967 borders, Israelis realized, the attack could well have been successful. At the very least, the number of casualties would have been horrifyingly larger than the already horrifyingly large figure. It was difficult to reach any other conclusion than that the occupation had, to some degree, saved the Jewish state.

Following the return of the Sinai to the Egyptians in exchange for peace in 1978, Israel did not agree to further withdrawals from the occupied territories until the Oslo Accords in 1993. Under this agreement, Israel ceded partial control of Gaza and the West Bank to the newly created Palestinian Authority under control of the PLO. Israel, in short, took a risk, betting that peace would turn out to be a better guarantor of security than occupation.

Israel, as everyone knows, lost the bet. Instead of making peace, the Palestinian Authority incited hatred in its schools, accumulated weapons, and launched a terrorist war in 2000 that ended up costing over 1,000 Israeli lives and traumatized another generation. It was only when Israel reestablished the occupation in full in Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 and built the defense wall that the terrorist assault was finally ended. Even today, acts of terror are still committed by West Bank Arabs who enter Israel through one means or another, often when Israel loosens the occupation’s restrictions for a time. In short, weakening the occupation did not bring peace but a new era of war, devastating Israeli hopes that the occupation could be ended without endangering Israel’s security.

This conclusion was only confirmed by the 2005 unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, in which Israel gave the PA what it had supposedly always wanted — the complete removal of Israel’s civilian and military presence. Supporters of the withdrawal hoped that this would prove a positive step toward peace.

It proved exactly the opposite. Gaza voters elected the terrorist group Hamas, which does not even make a pretense of accepting Israel’s existence. Hamas then violently drove Fatah out of Gaza, took dictatorial control, and turned the Strip into a single massive terrorist camp ruled by a theocratic, anti-Semitic, genocidal movement.

After Hamas violently took control of the Gaza Strip, it intensified its attacks against Israeli civilians while neglecting the needs of its own. Photo: Emad Nassar/Flash90

The result was a constant trickle of rockets fired at Israeli civilians from the Strip that occasionally became a flood, necessitating a series of increasingly bloody wars. As a result, Gaza has become something close to a failed state, with its civilian infrastructure lying in ruins while Hamas plans yet another war as its people continue to suffer. Ending the occupation, in other words, proved disastrous for both Israel and, ironically, for the Palestinians themselves.

Given all this, Israelis have reached certain conclusions about further weakening the occupation: It will almost certainly result in extensive damage to Israel’s security and thus to Israel itself. During the last war with Gaza in 2014, for example, Hamas missile fire succeeded in shutting down Israel’s only major airport. Put simply, further withdrawals would turn such a thing into a normal occurrence, and Israel’s economy would be severely damaged.

If Israel were to withdraw from the West Bank, there is no reason to think that the Gaza experience would not repeat itself. Even if Hamas did not seize power — as is likely — it was not Hamas but Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party that turned down peace in 2000 and launched the second intifada. And it is Fatah, now under Mahmoud Abbas, that continues its regular incitement to violence in the media and educates children to admire and emulate terrorism and terrorists. Given all this, it is difficult to argue that it would not be, at the very least, a massive risk for Israel to end the occupation of the West Bank.

Israeli leaders seem well aware of this. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state, he refers to it as a “state minus,” that is, a state over which Israel would nonetheless retain ultimate security control. Under the circumstances, this seems both prudent and defensible.

None of this is to say that there are no good arguments against the occupation. First and foremost, there is the unquestionable fact that a military occupation is inherently violent and undemocratic. While many reports are exaggerated or even manufactured, I have no doubt that terrible things happen quite often in the West Bank. Cruelty, domination, and humiliation are inherent in any form of non-democratic rule, and as much as Israel may seek to minimize these things, they are unavoidable in such a situation.

Moreover, checkpoints, restricted movement, and the simple inability to control one’s own life are conditions no one would accept willingly. There is no beautiful occupation.

This leads to one of the most prominent arguments for ending the occupation: That it does not prevent terror but causes it. According to this argument, the conditions of perpetual military rule radicalize the Palestinians and drive them to commit acts of terrorism against Israelis. An end to the occupation would, in effect, put an end to terror and make Israel more, not less secure.

This, however, is an argument that can only be proven by putting it into practice. The problem with it is that it was put into practice in Gaza with less than sanguine results. Repeating it in the West Bank is a risk few Israelis are willing to take.

Moreover, the claim that the occupation has caused Arab terrorism seems historically incorrect. Jews in Israel suffered Arab violence long before the creation of the State of Israel and long before the occupation. Indeed, terrorism has been the preferred tactic of Arab opposition to Zionism almost since its inception.

Jews in Israel suffered Arab violence long before the creation of the State of Israel and long before the occupation.

The reason for this is self-evident and goes well beyond the issue of occupation. Put simply, we believe a Jewish state in the Land of Israel in some form is our birthright. The Arabs believe that we have stolen their birthright. In effect, we are Jacob to their Esau. To them, our simple presence in the land is an act of war. This is why we so often see the genocidal chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” as well as the claim that the “occupation” began in 1948 rather than 1967, and that the very idea of a Jewish state, in and of itself, is evil. Given such hostility, Israel’s reluctance to bow to foreign demands is somewhat understandable. Under such circumstances, an end to the occupation without a sea change in Arab attitudes, which given the current view of Israel in the Arab world seems unlikely to take place anytime soon, would solve nothing. Even if a peace treaty were signed, it would likely prove unsustainable.

Another argument relates to Israel’s status in the world. Much of the international community opposes the occupation and demands an Israeli withdrawal to something like the 1967 borders. While Israel’s opponents pay lip service to doing so as part of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, such demands are rarely directed toward the Palestinians in this regard. They want an end to occupation far more than they want peace, and would happily settle for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal. For a large minority, they would be even happier to see an end to Israel itself.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the occupation badly damages Israel’s standing in the world. While there have been major improvements in the Jewish state’s diplomatic and economic standing in recent years, Israel is still faced with constant attacks from major NGOs, elements in the UN, and both Western and non-Western politicians.

Of course, Israel has long been faced with international opprobrium, including before the Six-Day War itself, in which Israel was forced to defend itself alone against overwhelming odds. As Ben-Gurion once put it, “It doesn’t matter what the goyim say, but what the Jews do.” For much of its history Israel has grudgingly, but very successfully, followed Ben-Gurion’s dictum.

And much of this international hostility is so intense, so violent, so often simply racist, that there often seems little reason to think that simply ending the occupation would change it. Many, very many of those who attack the occupation attack it not pragmatically but fundamentally. That is, they clearly see the occupation as the essence of Israel, the inevitable product of the fundamental evil that is Zionism and the very concept of a Jewish state in any form.

Protestors gather in Melbourne in July 2014 to demonstrate against Israel’s military operation in Gaza. Photo: Corey Oakley/Flickr

The most important argument against the occupation, however, is a simple one: It is immoral. This has been the Israeli Left’s main argument for years, and is often embraced by many who claim to have Israel’s best interests at heart. Apologists have cited innumerable arguments against this, such as pointing out that the Arab states are also undemocratic, that the Palestinians have more rights under the occupation than their countrymen do in their own states, that the Palestinian economy has grown under Israeli rule, that their infrastructure has been vastly improved, and so forth.

As true or false as these claims may be, and many of them are true, none of them carries much moral weight. For someone who believes that national self-determination is an inalienable right, that individuals have the right to determine their own lives, and that freedom is one of the highest aspirations of man, it is undeniable that the domination by force of another people is immoral. And it is immoral according to Israel’s own values as a Jewish, Zionist, and democratic state that embraces all of those beliefs. As Israeli novelist and peace activist Amos Oz once asked an audience of settlers, “What form does this moral autism take? First of all, the attitude toward the Arabs here: the demand that you make of them to agree to live with a status we would never accept for ourselves.”

There is, moreover, the issue of the corrupting force of occupation. A soldier ordered to behave brutally is also the child of parents who may have taught him otherwise; parents who themselves live with the trauma of wars they fought years ago. Much of the internal Israeli opposition to the occupation flows from the sense that it “corrupts,” which in this context means an inability to preserve the moral sense Israelis have worked so hard to give their children.

The argument for immorality would seem, then, to be an easy claim to prove. The truth, however, is more complicated. The morality of the occupation is not a question of morality versus immorality, but of immorality versus immorality. For if the Iron Wall is the only way Israel can continue to exist, then to remove the Iron Wall in the absence of, at the very least, Arab resignation to the fact of Israel’s existence, can only result in one thing: Endless, continued bloodshed.

Given the fact that the Palestinians clearly are not resigned, that their slogan remains “from the river to sea,” that their propensity for terrorism is unabated, and that they continue to teach their children accordingly, a series of terrible questions suggest themselves: What is more immoral, occupation or submission to genocide? Should the Jewish people give up their lives in order to resolve an abstract contradiction? Is morality a cult of human sacrifice?

Lest I be accused, however, of being, as was once said of Albert Camus, a “colonialist of goodwill,” it must be said that there is one aspect of the occupation that is much more difficult to defend: The settlement movement.

While as a Zionist, I believe Jews have a right to live anywhere in the Land of Israel, it remains clear that doing so by fiat has been disastrous in many ways. It is not always wise to exercise one’s rights. In particular, the settlement movement is born out of and has institutionalized a form of extremist political messianism, a cult of unrealism that threatens to upend the moderation that is necessary to the perpetuation of a democratic society. In its extreme expressions, the movement prioritizes the Land of Israel over the State of Israel, which leads them to into violence, lawlessness, and the delegitimization of core national institutions like the IDF, the Supreme Court, and democratically elected governments — something that undermines the essence of Zionism itself.

Moreover, it makes the possibility of an eventual agreement with the Palestinians and the larger Arab world more remote. Should the Arabs finally stop saying “Never!” as Jabotinsky predicted, Israel would have to respond with at least some territorial concessions. The settlements, by definition, reduce the size of this territory and make such concessions far more difficult.

In such a case, Israel could, of course, do what it did in Gaza and forcibly evacuate some of the settlements. But the Jewish population in the West Bank is much larger than in Gaza, and the settlement movement would feel itself under existential threat. Such a unilateral withdrawal would thus be far more dangerous, violent, and controversial than that of Gaza, causing immense upheaval in Israeli society, particularly around the issue of Jerusalem.

While as a Zionist, I believe Jews have a right to live anywhere in the Land of Israel, it remains clear that doing so by fiat has been disastrous in many ways.

The settlements have also damaged and continue to damage Israel itself, causing a violent rift within the Jewish state that has proven impossible to bridge. I myself once heard a settlement supporter proclaim that the center-left Zionist Union, heir to the Labor movement, is “an anti-Zionist party,” a statement that was both absurd and strongly indicative of the bitter rift that the settlement movement has fostered. The issue of settlements, and that of the occupied territories themselves has, sadly, made Israelis hate each other.

The settlements are also, and this is too often ignored, ruinously expensive, consuming military and economic assets that are better placed elsewhere, draining Israel’s already stressed economy. Driven by political messianism and an absolute faith in their cause, the movement’s activists have succeeded in prioritizing the settlements over the very people who pay for them and defend them.

While it is possible to have an occupation without settlements, it is nonetheless clear that the settlements could not exist without the occupation. The occupation fosters them and they foster it, presenting Israelis with a profoundly disturbing dilemma.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this dilemma, however, is that it is not insoluble. The settlements can be contained, but Israel’s security needs cannot. I do not believe that Palestinians will ever stop hating us, but even people who hate each other can live in peace. Palestinians leaders may, like Egypt and Jordan, eventually stop saying “Never!” and agree to hate us peacefully. Among the Palestinians at this moment, however, this does not appear to be the case. Perhaps it will change, perhaps even soon — but until it does, there is no way out of the occupation. It is less dangerous, less destructive, and, yes, less immoral to maintain the status quo, with the caveat that the settlement enterprise remain controlled and restricted.

Long before the occupation began, future defense minister and hero of the Six-Day War Moshe Dayan gave a eulogy for Roi Rotberg, a young kibbutznik murdered by terrorists from Gaza. “Let us not be deterred,” he said, “from seeing the loathing that is inflaming and filling the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who live around us. Let us not avert our eyes lest our arms weaken. This is the fate of our generation. This is our life’s choice — to be prepared and armed, strong and determined, lest the sword be stricken from our fist and our lives cut down.

Today, it still seems that Dayan was sadly correct. Israel must maintain its security by any means necessary in order to retain the most basic of all rights — that of our own lives. And the occupation, equally sadly, seems essential to doing so. And in this sense, there is a terrible morality to its continuation.

Banner Photo: W. Hagens / Wikimedia