What ‘Occupation’ Means Depends on Who Is Speaking”Ž
All our holy places are still under occupation, and so far we have not liberated one inch of Palestinian land. All Palestinian land is occupied – Gaza is occupied, the West Bank is occupied, the 1948 lands (i.e., Israel) are occupied, and Jerusalem is occupied.”“Ž – Official PA TV Live, October 9, 2013“Ž
What does occupation mean? To Israelis? To Palestinians? To the world? With Ariel Sharon’s recent passing, the term “occupation” keeps resurfacing with two viewpoints of his legacy – either that Sharon died a reformed warrior, with plans to end the “occupation” and bring peace to the region, or that he died a monster, responsible for perpetuating Palestinian suffering and “occupation.” When these obituaries reference the “occupation,” what borders do they mean? Are they speaking of Israel’s presence in territories disputed since 1967 or something more sinister?
To most of the world, “occupation” refers to Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza – either civilian or military – after the 1967 war. The word itself implies that Israel aggressively, perhaps premeditatedly, took over the land to rule a foreign people. Yet the territories came under Israeli control during a defensive war in 1967, in which Israel fought for its very survival. As Israel defended itself, it drove back Jordanian, Egyptian, and Syrian armies in a victory so stunning it caught Israel by surprise. Israel never envisioned itself in the role of administrator over territories with a predominately hostile population. As a result, Israel tried repeatedly to offer the land for peace but was categorically rejected each time, leaving Israel as the reluctant overseer of land legally won in war and strategically vital to Israel’s security.“Ž
But it gets more complicated. To Israelis, the “occupied land” is also their ancestral homeland, tugging emotionally at the collective Jewish memory: the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah – are buried in Hebron; the Jewish matriarch Rachel is buried in Bethlehem; Judaism’s holiest of holies, the ancient temple and its surviving Western Wall, stand in East Jerusalem. This is not just legally acquired territory to Israelis; this land is the Jewish birthright itself.“Ž
Consequently, from 1967 to 1993, with the signing of the Oslo Accords, Israel sought to develop the territory and improve the lives of Palestinians living there. Israel helped modernize Palestinian infrastructure (aiding in the creation of more than 2,000 manufacturing plants), established seven universities in the West Bank, expanded schools, taught modern agriculture, set up medical programs, and opened more than 100 health clinics. Israel instituted freedom of the press, association, and religion, and launched the first Palestinian administration the local Arab population had ever known. Unemployment plummeted, life expectancy soared, and the population nearly doubled.“Ž
In 1994, with great hope for peace, Israel turned civil administration of most of the territories over to the newly created Palestinian Authority. Israel’s dream was to end its military presence in the area gradually through a peaceful partnership and by helping create a self-governing Palestinian state in all of Gaza and most of the West Bank, incorporating land where 95 to 98 percent of Palestinians lived. Israel also hoped to annex those areas of the West Bank where majorities of Jews had settled (2 percent of the land), reclaiming their indigenous homeland.
Unfortunately, not everyone shared Israel’s vision of Palestinian and Jewish states side-by-side. After Yasser Arafat rejected the 2000 Camp David proposals and the second intifada began with its horrific violence against Israeli civilians, Israel intermittently redeployed its troops into the disputed territories in emergency counterterrorism operations, necessary because terrorist groups refused to end hostilities against the Jewish state. And in 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, which to this day remains under the governance of Hamas.
To Israelis, the borders of the disputed territories – disputed because Israel has legitimate legal and ancestral claims but has been willing to transfer some of its homeland to others for peace – are a complex, emotional issue. To Westerners, the term “occupation” refers to Israel’s presence in land to the east of an armistice line, marking positions held by Israeli and Arab troops when the final truce was called at the end of the 1948 war. However, recent statements by anti-Israel extremists – and even Israel’s current negotiating partners – makes it clear that the term “occupation” means something quite different to them.
Omar Barghouti, anti-Israel extremist and leader of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against Israel (BDS), makes this most clear. To him, Israel’s occupation is not the problem: Israel’s existence is. According to Barghouti, “If the occupation ends, would that mean an end to my call for BDS? No, it will not.” That is because to Barghouti, “occupied territories” refers to the entire state of Israel: As long as a Jewish nation exists, Palestine is “occupied.” Anti-Israel extremists, purposefully hiding behind Westerners’ misunderstanding of this point, use “occupation” to mean all of Israel.
Palestinian leaders, including Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, seem to agree with Barghouti. Abbas recently stated, “I have never and will never give up the right of return.” This is code for never giving up the plan to dismantle Israel through demography. If all Palestinian refugees today return to Israel, Israel’s Jewish majority would be replaced with a Palestinian majority; the state of Israel would cease to exist.
In addition, Israeli Jews would almost certainly be forced to live as a minority under the rule of racist political parties. Fatah and Hamas are the political forces that dominate Palestinian politics today, and both regularly express or promote hatred of Jews and Israelis. As Muhammad Salah al-Din Bey, former foreign minister of Egypt, summarized, “It is well-known and understood that the Arabs, in demanding the return of the refugees to Palestine, mean their return as masters of the Homeland . . . they mean the liquidation of the State of Israel.” Or, as Barack Obama has stated, the “Palestinians are going to have to recognize that the right of return . . . would extinguish Israel as a Jewish state, and that’s not an option.”
Abbas does not always hide behind the right of return to show his true intent when referring to the “occupation.” On his official Facebook page, Abbas stated outright, “The [UN’s] recognition will not liberate the land the following day, but will prove that we are right that our land is occupied and not disputed [territory], and this applies to all the territories that Israel occupied before June 1967.” To Abbas, the “occupation” does not refer to Israel’s presence in the West Bank but Israel’s presence at all.
Today, Israel again returns to the negotiating table, hoping against hope that this time there might be peace with a partner. Yet this “peace partner” openly calls all of Israel “occupied land.” Where does this leave Israel? From the very beginning, Israelis have torn themselves from within over their alleged role as “occupiers” of land also regarded as the Jewish ancestral homeland. They have sought peace so many times, only to be repeatedly rejected by Palestinian leaders who cared more for Israel’s destruction than the Palestinian people’s future. Israel is willing to make territorial concessions, wants Palestinians to govern themselves, and, most of all, yearns for peace. In response, the Palestinian Authority is loud and clear: all of “Palestine” is “occupied.”
Eric R. Mandel, MD, is co-chair of StandWithUs-New York, and Yael Mazar is a research analyst for StandWithUs.