Debating the Goldstone Report last week, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) laid bare the depravity of Washington’s discourse on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He asserted that there is no Israeli occupation in the West Bank, declared that settlements are only built inside Israel, and put Israel’s eastern border at the Jordan River. These contentions are, respectively, wrong, in blatant contravention of international law, and just to the right of Likud.
But one of his claims deserves more careful attention, because the misconception is more widespread: that the Gaza Strip is not occupied Palestinian territory. “Here’s a statement of fact: Gaza to this moment, and since 2005 has not been occupied by anyone. There’s not a single Israeli soldier in Gaza today,” Weiner said. Later in the debate, he hit on this point again in a heated exchange with former Rep. Brian Baird.
Indeed, there are no permanent Israeli military bases in Gaza. They were removed along with the Strip’s civilian settlements in Israel’s 2005 unilateral withdrawal. Since the withdrawal has resulted in increased rocket attacks from the besieged Strip into Israel, proponents of the status quo have treated the action as a top-shelf piece of hasbara to explain Israel’s intransigence and foot-dragging on a peace deal.
Since withdrawal, however, Israel has claimed a right to make military incursions into Gaza at any time and place of its choosing. One needs only glance at the latest book by Breaking the Silence (BtS), an Israeli NGO, to see this is the case. The 431-page volume, aptly titled “Occupation of the Territories“, covers Israeli soldiers’ accounts of both Gaza and the West Bank throughout the decade.
“The perception of most Israelis is that we left Gaza and that Gaza is not occupied anymore,” Mikhael Manekin, a co-director of BtS, told me in a recent interview. “That’s how the government and military present it even though there’s a very big gap between that and what happens on the ground.”
Manekin said in Israel it’s difficult to find a map that does not include Gaza and the West Bank as part of the Jewish state. “When you look at testimonies, it makes sense to put them on the same map.”
One BtS testimony by a soldier from the Givati Brigade describes the regularity and breadth of Israeli military operations in Gaza between Israel’s withdrawal and and the Gaza War of late 2008 and early 2009:
There was a template. It started with Operation Hot Winter [end of February – beginning of March 2008] because until then it was the largest operation ever, not the longest, but in scope and with the most achievements. Before that there was Operation ‘Fall Clouds’ sometime in 2006, … it was a 48-hour operation, and afterwards for five months it turned out that there was a battalion operation, the battalion plus a little less than a company.
During those five months, Israel made six battalion-scale incursions and executed a host of company-sized missions into the Strip.
In the context of such assaults, the lack of permanent Israeli military bases is a red herring.
Defending his statement that there is no military occupation in the West Bank, Weiner cited the absence of a permanent Israeli military presence in some cities like Ramallah and Nablus. But, as Manekin explained to me: “Since 2008, Israel understands that you don’t need to be in the cities. But as long as you can be in the cities when you need to be, it’s okay.” The same paradigm, of course, applies to a tiny piece of land like Gaza.
Most observers still consider the West Bank to be occupied territory despite the lack of a permanent IDF presence in two of its major cities. That they do so clearly weakens Weiner’s claims about Gaza. Manekin cited the freedom of Israeli forces to strike into cities in the West Bank as clear evidence of continuing occupation. “That’s why the Occupied Territories and Gaza are the same,” he said.
Israel’s legal justification for its actions in both military and civil Palestinian affairs is based on the continuing state of hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians. Indeed, Israel used this justification in its attack on a Turkish flotilla of humanitarian aid bound for Gaza. When nine people aboard one of the ships were killed, including a U.S. citizen, Israel said it was carrying out its blockade — an act of war — against the Strip.
Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, forces engaged in hostilities or a resulting occupation may take reasonable precautions for both the security of their forces, and broader security needs. This is the legal basis on which Israel has defended its action in the flotilla incident.
“Israel has those ‘rights’ to do things in and to Gaza that it would not have in and to, for example, Egypt or Jordan,” said Helena Cobban, an analyst and journalist who has published widely on violations of humanitarian law and war crimes. “But, by the same token, it has certain very well specified responsibilities for the well-being of Gaza’s residents.”
When Israel’s advocates insist that Gaza is not occupied, they are trying to justify its failure to fulfill its legal responsibilities to the people who live there. “(Israel) wants to have the ‘rights’ without the ‘responsibilities’,” said Cobban, a sometime IPS colleague.
But there are more essential qualities of occupation that can still apply to Israel’s actions within (incursions) and around (blockade) Gaza. “Occupation is about control,” said Mitchell Plitnick, the former U.S. director of B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization. “Israel maintains control over all ingress and egress — with Egypt, in the south — as well as the coastline and the airspace. To the extent Israel maintains that control, it is still occupying Gaza.”
At the Goldstone debate, Weiner acknowledged that Israel can enter Gaza any time, “but they’re not in Gaza today. They are not in Gaza today.” Two days after the debate, Israel launched airstrikes against targets in Gaza. The Israeli army claims more than 60 rockets fired from Gaza have landed in Israel this year. Make no mistake: This is a hot war. And it’s the longest-running one in the world today.
But the point may be a moot one anyway: The lack of traditional occupation in Gaza — Israeli bases, settlements, and uninterrupted military presence — becomes irrelevant in the face of these active hostilities. “Israel’s military actions taken against Gaza do not constitute the launching of a new war of aggression,” said Cobban. “They are seen more as merely a continuation of the uninterrupted state of war that has existed for 43 years.”
The Fourth Geneva Convention, pertaining to treatment of civilians, distinguishes between occupation and active hostilities. But the document only does so in order to stipulate that the rules therein apply equally to both. “Occupation” has become such a buzzword in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that the focus lies there, while ignoring the fact that the central issues is actually more than four decades of ongoing military hostilities.
“Occupation” or, as Weiner said again and again, “war”? It’s a distinction without a difference. Israel’s responsibilities remain the same.