By Yousef Munayyer
Levy is right, this isn’t occupation.
Well, not just occupation.
When an Israeli panel appointed by Benjamin Netanyahu to investigate the question of outposts issued its findings (that there was no occupation and the settlements were legal), most sensible people responded with contempt. This is warranted, of course, since anyone even vaguely familiar with the situation who denies the existence of occupation cannot be taken seriously. Coupled with the sheer inaccuracy, the fact that pro-settlement committee members returned a pro-settlement outcome for the self-declared most pro-settlement Israeli government in history drew cynicism and sneers.
But the Levy Committee report should not be so immediately dismissed; it should be taken instead as an opportunity to reevaluate our understanding of the situation in Israel/Palestine and the language we use to describe it.
To be clear, Israel’s belligerent occupation of Palestinian territory continues today. International law, particularly the 4th Geneva Convention, applies. The question about the status of the territories is not whether there is or isn’t occupation, as the Levy Committee addressed it, but whether the lexicon of occupation and the legal framework that comes with it sufficiently and accurately describes the totality of the situation. For decades, peace advocates have held fast to this terminology and logic. Since it is occupation, they assert, international law applies and therefore countless Israeli policies are illegal. (Never mind that the mechanisms for enforcing international law has been persistently blocked by Washington)
While this is invariably true, its descriptive ability is lacking.
“Occupation” carries with it at least two problematic connotations within the context of Israel/Palestine:
The temporal connotation: Military occupation as we have come to understand it in the modern world is supposed to be a short-lived and temporary endeavor. When it comes to the West Bank in particular, nothing could be more permanent. Israel’s presence there began in 1967 and has not ended since. These 45 plus years of occupation make up 70 percent of Israel’s existence as a modern state. Every step the Israeli state has taken in the West Bank since 1967 has been toward entrenching its presence for the long term.
The detached connotation: Military occupation also conveys a degree of detachment. While there may be a military presence in an occupied territory, as the US had in Iraq for example, it is solely a military presence. This too does not square with the reality of Palestine. Israel has relentlessly colonized the West Bank by transferring hundreds of thousands of its civilians into the territory and monopolized Palestinian natural resources above and below ground. It has built billions of dollars worth of civilian infrastructure into, through and out of the territory and has integrated the territory into the state economy. Like maps which simply portray Israel and the Occupied Territories in different shades, the connotations of ‘occupation’ creates an illusion of geopolitical separation where none exists. The reality, however, is conveyed through some great infographics that show the degree of this penetration into – and integration of – the territory.
Occupation is the effective military control of non-sovereign territory. The boundaries that distinguish occupation from colonization and annexation have already been crossed in Israel/Palestine.
So while Israel militarily occupies the West Bank, the lexicon of occupation alone is both insufficient and dangerous, because it creates a parallel and fanciful distinction that underpins flawed policy.
Israel is routinely flaunting international law and has done so for decades. The truth about the Levy Committee report is that even if it is adopted by the government, it changes very little about Israel’s behavior. The situation will remain the same: Israel will continue to illegally colonize just as it has for decades. But the guise created by the insufficient terminology to which we’ve become so accustomed would give way to a different terminology with the descriptive power to match the reality of Israel’s de facto annexation of the West Bank.
Perhaps this is why those who have a near dogmatic attachment to the notion of a two-state solution, and others who pay it lip service without ever advocating for serious sanctions to change Israel’s colonial behavior, have been the most disturbed by the possibility that the Levy report could be adopted. They argue that if Israel no longer labels its military presence an occupation, it suddenly becomes a de facto annexation. But if Israel does not adopt the report, the situation remains the same. Such approaches errantly and inexcusably afford Israel a monopoly on defining reality.
The New York Times editorial on this issue said that if the Levy report is adopted it would “ draw attention to a dispiriting anomaly: that a state founded as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people is determined to continue ruling 2.5 million Palestinians under an unequal system of laws and rights.” But drawing attention to this anomaly is not something we should be afraid of, it is something we should be exposing vigorously. Doing otherwise is tantamount to yearning to reside in Plato’s cave after learning what’s causing the shadows.
Whether this report is adopted or not, the guise of occupation remains a significant problem and must be brought down anyway. To achieve this end we need to advance new terminology that adequately describes the situation as it is, not as we might like it to be, or as might be politically acceptable—not as it was 30 or 40 years ago.
The most apt description for this situation is Zionist Apartheid. The ‘Zionist’ modifier is crucial because it differentiates between the situation in Israel/Palestine and Afrikaaner Apartheid. In both cases, systems of human rights abuses and an unequal distribution of rights were used to ensure a particular group remained politically empowered throughout the territory controlled by the state. Yet both cases also have unique characteristics. For example, South Africa’s Apartheid regime did not back an active settlement program to implant white colonists in the black ‘homelands’.
Apartheid corrects the misleading connotations of occupation because it appropriately conveys the entrenched reality of the Israeli presence in Palestinian territory and the effective control the Israeli government consistently exercises over the totality of the territory from the river to the sea. This is ultimately one integrated and interconnected regime and must be seen as such.
Occupation is an integral part of Zionist Apartheid, but the lexicon of occupation alone does not capture the entire picture. The first step to adequately addressing any problem is understanding it, and the current terminology limits our understanding at best and at worst, confuses it.
This article originally appeared on Newsweek/The Daily Beast.
Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of the Palestine Center. This policy brief may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the Center.
The views in this brief are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.