by Mitchell Plitnick
For the past year, peace groups all over the world have been working on ways to mark the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But now that the 50-year point has been reached, we are greeted with some big news that few are talking about: There is no occupation.
No one has made such a declaration, of course, but the conclusion is inescapable. In all the relevant international law stemming from the 1907 Hague Conventions and the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, which govern belligerent military occupation, are based on the presumption that the condition is temporary.
A recent paper issued by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) concludes “An unlawfully prolonged occupation arises when an occupying state seeks to permanently transform the international status, government or demographic character of a foreign territory, including through de jure or de facto annexation.” Their legal arguments are well worth reading and quite conclusive. Trying to summarize the details here would do them an injustice.
For many years, some critics of Israel’s policies have argued that the expansion of settlements was clear proof that Israel had no intention of ending its occupation. Defenders of Israeli policy have argued that the settlements themselves are temporary (a difficult proposition to sustain for anyone who has ever been to any settlement, even outside the so-called “major blocs,” that has had time to develop into the small towns many of them are).
That debate has been effectively ended by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. For years, Netanyahu has been fighting to legitimize settlements as de facto part of the sovereign and recognized state of Israel while giving lip service to a two-state solution that he would never clearly define. But now, he has clearly rejected any end of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
Speaking at a ceremony celebrating 50 years since the 1967 war that saw Israel capture the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula, Netanyahu said that “…in any agreement, and even without an agreement, we will maintain security control over the entire territory west of the Jordan River.” There cannot be a clearer statement reflecting Israel’s intention to permanently transform the international status of the West Bank. It can no longer be elided.
In this regard, the right wing in Israel has won. They wanted always to deny the occupation and consider “Judea and Samaria,” as they refer to the West Bank, an inalienable part of Israel. The mission, in the wake of Netanyahu’s statement, is to make the right wing’s victory a pyrrhic one.
Status of the “Occupied Territories”
Israel insists that the areas controlled specifically by the settlements (that is, the land that is under the jurisdiction of the regional councils) are part of Israel, while the rest of the West Bank is not. This state of affairs cannot be legally defended. The territory cannot be cherry-picked in this fashion: it is either occupied by Israel or it is Israeli.
The question becomes whether the international community needs to press for citizenship rights for the Palestinians of the West Bank or for Israeli withdrawal. This isn’t a question Israel wants to face. In fact, a coalition of Israeli peace groups, under the umbrella name Save Israel, Stop the Occupation (SISO) says, “We support a two-state solution. If that is not imminent, Israel must grant full rights to Palestinians for as long as they are under Israeli control.” The group understands the choice Israel should face. Although they don’t say that Israel must extend citizenship to Palestinians, as a practical matter, it is impossible to grant “full rights” without granting citizenship.
SISO’s statement, however, reinforces the reality that, even if we move past the occupation framework and focus on rights instead of territory, a two-state outcome is not negated by Israel’s renunciation of its position as occupier. Palestinian demands can still be addressed either through granting Israeli citizenship or by an independent Palestinian state.
In this vein, we should examine a recent op-ed in Ha’aretz by the far-right wing Knesset Member, Bezalel Smotrich. In this piece, Smotrich argues that Israel should annex all of the West Bank and those who do not take up arms will be welcome to stay. Smotrich, of course, does not say they will be granted citizenship or equal rights, but only that they would “…enjoy a personal life far superior to that of Arabs in neighboring states.”
Presumably, Smotrich would use Syria as his basis of comparison, but in any case, it would be very difficult to differentiate the status of West Bank Palestinians from those in Israel proper under those conditions. As he says, “Those who remain won’t be forced to sing the national anthem. All they need do is not to take up arms.”
It is worth considering calling Smotrich’s bluff.
Could Israel remain a Jewish state if West Bank Palestinians had full civil and political rights? The wealth of the country would still be overwhelmingly be in Jewish hands, as would the political institutions. As we have seen in the United States, technical equality under the law doesn’t quickly change the face of the powerful.
Much of the country would retain its Jewish character simply because it was built by the Jewish collective. And if more of the country began to look like Haifa or Yafo, would that mean that the Jewish character of the country was erased?
Still, it is quite possible, even likely, that Jews would no longer be the majority in Israel in a foreseeable future under those circumstances. Is that reason to hold millions without rights? We must insist that it is not. If Israel wishes to avoid this unpleasant decision, it must move with all speed toward the establishment of a fully viable, fully sovereign Palestinian state, with all that such status implies.
A Rights-Based Discourse
The argument over whether it was always Israel’s intention to keep the West Bank will continue (Minister of Labor Yigal Allon presented a plan to annex a huge chunk of the West Bank and return the rest to Jordan just a month after the war). But it’s more important to focus on the present, and the current implications. And those implications are numerous, as we’ve already seen.
Netanyahu’s declaration that Israel would never end its occupation of the West Bank has not, of course, made people think that the territory is not occupied. To a great extent, this is because the statement changes nothing on the ground.
But it can make a difference, and it can be seized upon to address the single most basic inequity in this conflict. That inequity is the notion that Jews’ right to national self-determination in a state of our own trumps the basic right of Palestinians to freedom.
No one can deny to Jews our national identity and our right to pursue a national, self-determined existence. Nor can it be denied that, despite general conditions for Jews around the world over the past few decades, which are certainly the best in the modern era, history and the continued existence of anti-Semitism argue convincingly for Jews’ need for a place that can be both a safe haven from persecution and a national homeland.
But none of that entitles us to deny rights to others. No matter what the politics, the simple fact of the matter is that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians have never harmed a single Jewish person. Yet every one of them lives without the basic rights most of us never even think twice about.
This is where abandoning the occupation discourse has the deepest impact. True, international law has specific regulations for military occupations. But Israel disregards those in any case. And, more to the point, those regulations, based on the presumption that the occupation is a military necessity and will end as soon as possible, confer an inferior status on those under occupation.
Occupation discourse also focuses on territory. In Israel-Palestine, the debate over borders, settlements, viability, and contiguity often implies human issues, but a rights discourse puts human beings under Israeli rule in sharp relief. And that is what Netanyahu’s statement opens up. We can and should respond to it by saying, “Fine, Israel can defend territory all the way to the Jordan River, but it must then grant all of those under its control full rights.”
The idea that Israel can control Palestinian lives without giving Palestinians rights is too often papered over in arguments about security, settlements, Jerusalem, and other issues. Netanyahu has opened the door to a shift toward a discourse based on equal rights for every Israeli and every Palestinian. Some of us, myself included, will continue to argue that such rights are best achieved in two separate states. But even we two-staters must agree on one point: Israeli and Jewish rights to life, security, peace, the pursuit of happiness and prosperity, and national self-determination are sacrosanct. And so are the Palestinians’ rights to the very same things.
Many of us have said such things, of course. But it is time to base our entire discourse on that idea. It must be stated directly in every argument we make. It must be genuine, reinforcing the unqualified support for rights for both sides. Because fundamentally, that is where advocates for a just peace differ not only with Bezalel Smotrich, but also with Benjamin Netanyahu, and with any Israeli, Palestinian, or other who would deny equal rights for all.
Fifty years of belittling Palestinian rights in favor of Israeli self-determination, security, and aspirations is enough.