How Israel’s Occupation Shifted From a Politics of Life to a Politics of Death

How Israel’s Occupation Shifted From a Politics of Life to a Politics of Death

How Israel’s Occupation Shifted From a Politics of Life to a Politics of Death

Palestinian life has become increasingly expendable in Israel’s eyes.


During a Labor Party meeting that took place not long after the June 1967 war, Golda Meir turned to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, asking, “What are we going to do with a million Arabs?” Eshkol paused for a moment and then responded, “I get it. You want the dowry, but you don’t like the bride!”

This anecdote shows that, from the very beginning, Israel made a clear distinction between the land it had occupied—the dowry—and the Palestinians who inhabited it—the bride. The distinction between the people and their land swiftly became the overarching logic informing Israel’s colonial project. Ironically, perhaps, that logic has only been slightly modified over the past 50 years, even as the controlling practices Israel has deployed to entrench its colonization have, by contrast, changed dramatically. 

Odd as it might seem to many people today, in the years immediately following the Six-Day War, Israel’s chief goal was to normalize the occupation. Of course, it harshly repressed any signs of overt resistance, but it was preoccupied just as much with improving certain aspects of Palestinian life. It trained farmers in new agricultural methods and offered courses to doctors and nurses. It’s not surprising that this previous chapter in the long history of Israel’s occupation has been all but forgotten, given the macabre politics of death and destruction used to control Palestinians in more recent years.

Indeed, I first internalized how momentous these transformations had been after sharing a story with undergraduates in my introduction to political theory course during the fall semester of 2006. I described to my students how, in 1981, my high-school friends from the farming communities in the Sinai took driving lessons in Rafah, a city on the Gaza Strip’s southern border with Egypt. My students found this story incomprehensible. They simply could not imagine Jewish Israeli teenagers taking driving lessons in the middle of Rafah, which in their minds is little more than a terrorist nest.

The average age difference between me and my students was just over 15 years, and yet our perspectives were already radically different. When I was growing up, in the 1970s and early ’80s, most Israelis and Palestinians could travel freely between the occupied territories and pre-1967 Israel, and they felt safe doing so. Tens of thousands of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians routinely commuted without any hindrance to jobs in Israel and were part of the country’s quotidian landscape. Israeli Jews and Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza formed different kinds of relationships, whereas in recent years encounters outside that of armed conflict are extremely rare.

Today, Palestinians in Gaza are living in the world’s largest open-air prison under a harsh military siege, while Israelis are prohibited from entering the region. West Bank Palestinians are largely confined to their villages and towns, while Jews, particularly Jewish settlers, come and go as they please. My students in 2006 had only experienced the occupation in its latter phase, in which the use of lethal force has become the norm.

The shift from a politics of life to a politics of death manifests itself clearly in Israel’s changing relationship to the Palestinian food supply. If in the early 1970s Israel boasted that the daily per capita caloric intake of a Palestinian had risen within just a few years from 2,430 to 2,719, in the wake of the new millennium it imposed severe restrictions on the amount of food that can even enter the Gaza Strip. Until recently, Israeli authorities carefully calculated Palestinian caloric intake according to age and gender, allowing only enough food to enter the region to satisfy what military experts consider the most basic needs. Not surprisingly, many Palestinians in the Strip currently suffer from malnutrition.

Another crucial example of this change involves trees, a symbol of life in this dry region. In 1968, Israel helped Palestinians in the Gaza Strip plant some 618,000 trees and provided farmers with improved varieties of seeds for vegetables and field crops. After the outbreak of the second intifada in the fall of 2000, by stark contrast, Israel destroyed more than 10 percent of Gaza’s agricultural land and uprooted over 226,000 trees. In Israel’s three subsequent major assaults on Gaza (Operation Cast Lead, in 2008-09; Operation Pillar of Defense, in 2012; and Operation Protective Edge, in 2014), the razing of trees became almost trivial compared to the profound overall destruction wrought by the IDF.  

What becomes eminently clear from these historical comparisons is that Palestinian life has become increasingly expendable in Israel’s eyes. Indeed, during the 33-year period between 1967 and September 2000, Israeli security forces killed about 2,140 Palestinians in the occupied territories, or an average of 65 inhabitants per year; in the past 16 years, an estimated 9,300 Palestinians were killed, or 581 per year—an average annual increase of almost 900 percent.

Most explanations of Israel’s increasing deployment of violence focus on the politicians and parties in power and the changing modes of Palestinian resistance. Hamas’s decision to deploy suicide bombers on public buses in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the mid-1990s, which helped Benjamin Netanyahu win the 1996 elections following Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, is often proffered as an example. In a similar vein, Ariel Sharon’s heavily armed, highly publicized visit to Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif compound in September 2000—an act deemed by many to be intentionally provocative—triggered the second intifada.

Undoubtedly, there is some truth in such accounts. Yet if one wants to better understand Israel’s colonial project, it is crucial to look beyond individual acts and political proclamations and examine the mechanisms of colonial control, as well as their contradictions and unintended consequences.

For instance, a curfew restricts and confines the Palestinian population, but it also arouses antagonism and increased resistance. The establishment of Jewish settlements on hilltops is intended to confiscate land, partition space, and monitor the Palestinian villages below, but it also underscores that the occupation is not temporary, provoking additional resistance.

Similarly, the interactions among different forms of control produced a series of contradictions over the years. During the 1970s, for example, in its early attempt to normalize the occupation, Israel allowed the Palestinians to open several universities. Within a relatively short period, these universities produced a fairly large professional class. Yet because of the various restrictions and constraints Israel imposed on the colonized economy, Palestinians could not develop their industrial and service sectors, thus limiting employment opportunities suitable to the skills of university graduates. The lack of jobs engendered a fair amount of bitterness among them, and these graduates became a major oppositional force during the first intifada of the late 1980s.

One of the main strategies of Palestinian resistance was to drive Israel to replace its administrative maneuvers and its controlling bureaucracies with soldiers and, in this way, to undercut all attempts to present the occupation as normal. Israel’s effort to quell the first intifada by introducing an “iron fist” policy was—paradoxically—a sign of weakness. Gradually it became apparent to the Israeli government that it would have to continue deploying substantial numbers of troops in Palestinian cities, towns, and villages, since attempts to normalize the colonial project using previous, less heavy-handed forms of control had become impossible. Given this new reality resulting from the first intifada, the ingenious idea was to outsource responsibility for the population, and this is where the Palestinian Authority enters the picture.

A product of the 1993 Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority is often depicted as an autonomous body that transcended or replaced Israel’s colonial project, but it makes more sense—especially in hindsight—to regard it as a product of the occupation, or, more precisely, of the controlling apparatus that had failed to normalize colonial rule. Thus, the Oslo Accords, which were the direct result of the first intifada, signified the reorganization of Israel’s power rather than its withdrawal, and should be understood as the continuation of the colonial project by other means. As commentators from Edward Said to Meron Benvenisti observed early on, the Oslo “peace process” established an occupation by remote control.

This became apparent very quickly. Less than a year after Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat signed the Accords on the White House lawn (September 1993), all of the civil institutions, including education, health, and welfare, were passed from Israel to the hands of the fledgling Palestinian Authority. Without renouncing sovereign authority over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel had effectively and radically reduced the occupation’s political and economic cost. From that point onward, the PA, not Israel, would be responsible for the life of the indigenous inhabitants. This shift in the mechanism of control is crucial, because it helps explain Israel’s increased use of lethal violence in the following years.

Not unlike the first Palestinian uprising, the second intifada can also be understood as the result of the contradictions arising from the mechanisms of control introduced during the Oslo years. The severe restrictions on Palestinian life—the policy of closure, first imposed in 1993, that limited and sometimes banned movement of both labor and goods between the occupied territories and Israel—caused a drastic deterioration of the Palestinian economy, directly affecting the colonized population’s standard of living and impoverishing a significant percentage of society. The unemployment rate increased from 3 percent in 1992 to 28 percent in 1996, and real per capita GNP declined by 37 percent during this period. Simultaneously, Israel continued to move thousands of Jewish citizens into the territories to prevent any future withdrawal. The colonized Palestinians realized that Oslo was a political hoax long before Western leaders did, and their protests were directed as much against their own leaders as against Israel.

At the height of the second intifada, as IDF tanks and armored vehicles rolled down the streets of West Bank cities in operation Defensive Shield (April 2002), soldiers also ransacked the Palestinian Authority and its institutions. Once again, a comparative historical perspective highlights profound differences in the strategies adopted over time and can help make sense of these changes. During the first intifada, Israel never considered bombing schools, hospitals, or electric power plants, because the daily operations of these institutions were its responsibility. Yet after it had outsourced civil affairs to the PA, Israel had no qualms about destroying crucial infrastructure. Indeed, in the last three Gaza wars—culminating in Operation Protective Edge in 2014—Israel targeted vital Palestinian social infrastructure while reducing colonized civilians to what Giorgio Agamben has called homo sacer, people who can be killed without its being considered a crime.

The effect of these transformations has been devastating for the Palestinian inhabitants of Gaza, a sizable percentage of whom are now dependent on aid offered by international organizations and Islamic charities. Without this aid, the ongoing crisis would undoubtedly have long since developed into a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe.

Some pundits have claimed that Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 demonstrated its willingness to concede Palestinian land in exchange for peace, and indicated that Israel was finally ready to negotiate a solution to the conflict. Yet, as events have confirmed, this unilateral move was carried out by Ariel Sharon, then prime minister, as part of a realpolitik strategy aimed at solidifying Israel’s control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In Sharon’s calculations, the small and arid swath of land on Israel’s southwestern border was not worth holding on to, particularly given that there were 1.5 million Palestinians living in the Strip at the time and only 8,000 Jewish settlers. Thus, similar to Oslo, which was about the reorganization, rather than withdrawal, of power, Sharon’s redeployment from Gaza has proven ultimately to be about Israel’s entrenchment of colonial control rather than its abandonment.

This entrenchment occurred in three major ways: First, the withdrawal of settlers and troops enabled Israel to transform the Gaza Strip into an open-air prison, whereby control is now sustained from the outside—another form of occupation by remote control.

Second, it helped separate the West Bank from the Gaza Strip in both the local and international imagination, suggesting that a solution for one region would not be dependent on, and indeed could have nothing to do with, a solution for the other. The common refrain heard in Israel following the withdrawal—“We gave them Gaza; why are they launching rockets at us?”— underscored the success of this strategy: Jewish Israelis, as well as many in the international community, not only conveniently assumed that Sharon’s unilateral move was some kind of solution but also that the occupation of Gaza had really ended, and that Palestinians there now enjoyed self-determination.

Finally, this was the same Sharon who, as housing minister in the early 1990s, had built thousands of apartments for over a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union within just a few years, and yet he failed—I would say intentionally—to find a housing solution for a mere 8,000 settlers, many of whom lived in makeshift trailers for years after Israel’s retreat from the Strip. The tacit objective was to provoke trauma in the settler community—precisely in order to ensure that the settlers would violently resist another withdrawal.

Currently, about 600,000 Jews reside on Palestinian land captured in 1967, some of them second- and even third-generation settlers. Notwithstanding the ongoing land grab needed for settling these Jews, Israel’s efforts to completely separate the dowry from the bride have proven unsuccessful, primarily due to the steadfast efforts of Palestinians to hold on to their land. Israel’s insatiable appetite for more and more of that land, its continuing attempts to confine Palestinians to disconnected enclaves, and its policy of transferring thousands of Jews to the occupied territories have, however, rendered the two-state solution increasingly untenable. Consequently, continued invocations of the two-state solution by practically all Western leaders, including the Israeli government, as well as the PA and even Hamas, should be understood as a chimera that only bolsters the status quo. Wittingly or not, the figment of a two-state solution has itself paradoxically become an effective and cynical tool of domination.

For liberal Israeli Jews, however, the only viable alternative, namely, the one-state solution, is anathema, because it undermines the Zionist dream of a Jewish state. And while a minute group of left-wing Jews are willing to contemplate the one-state solution as a potential possibility in the distant future, the fact is that a one-state entity has been the geographical and political reality for the past 50 years.

Considering that between the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean Sea there is only one real sovereign, and that within this territory two legal systems operate simultaneously—one for Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the other for the Palestinian inhabitants of the occupied territories—this entity should legally be characterized as an apartheid regime. It is undoubtedly different from South Africa’s apartheid, but then Italy and the United States are also different from each other, even though both are considered liberal democracies. Apartheid clearly operates differently in diverse historical, demographic, and geographical settings, yet it still retains its fundamental characteristic: a legal system of racial segregation, oppression, and dispossession.

The abandonment of the two-state paradigm, which over the past five decades has informed United Nations resolutions and years of political negotiations (from the Madrid conference in 1991, through the various Oslo agreements from 1993 to 1999, Camp David in 2000 and Taba in 2001, and Annapolis in 2007), has the potential to bring about a new and long-overdue debate, one in which the old parameters for discussion will also have to change.

As is well known, within the two-state framework the major points of contention involve Israel’s withdrawal to the 1967 border, with possible one-for-one land swaps. Jerusalem would also have to be divided according to the pre-1967 partition lines, again with certain land swaps. Finally, there would have to be a just resolution of the refugee issue, as stipulated by UN General Assembly Resolution 194. By contrast, discussions revolving around the one-state framework would have to focus on the move from apartheid to democratization, a topic that in most circles is still taboo.

A democratic one-state solution could follow several models. One model entails a power-sharing federal government led by Palestinians and Israeli Jews and a liberal form of separation of powers. This model would likely have to incorporate the notion of “parity of esteem,” one of the core concepts of the Northern Ireland peace process—namely, the idea that each side respects the other side’s identity and ethos, including language, culture, and religion—and perhaps some form of internal territorial partition with porous borders. Just as importantly, however, the one-state paradigm would have to allow for the avowal of history, namely the idea that the conflict did not begin in 1967 but rather at the turn of the 20th century, well before the 1948 Palestinian Nakba and Israel’s Independence. Only when history is acknowledged and confronted can the injustices of the past be genuinely addressed and a viable solution forged.

Understanding Israel as an apartheid system reveals the urgent need for a paradigm shift also in how we attempt to transform the political reality in Israel and Palestine. Instead of asking how to end the occupation and create two states, decision-makers need to consider how to democratize the one-state reality existing between the River and the Sea. Instead of continuing to use international humanitarian law regarding occupation to criticize Israel’s rights-abusive policies, new tools need to be developed to secure the Palestinian right to self-determination within a context where an ethnically pure, territorially grounded statehood is no longer (and likely never was) a possibility.

In this context, far from singling out Israel, the apartheid label would normalize it, allowing the same broad range of strategies that have worked elsewhere to be deployed here, giving Israelis and Palestinians alike new tools to fight for a peaceful, just, and democratic future for all the country’s inhabitants. After 50 years of violence, oppression, and war, both peoples deserve a better future. Admitting the reality of apartheid is the first step in that direction.

Unfortunately, a paradigm shift of this kind does not seem to be in the cards, at least not in the foreseeable future. As the spate of draconian new laws, policies, and regulations introduced by the Likud government, alongside the incitement campaigns against the Palestinian citizens of Israel (and, increasingly, against Jewish liberals), suggests, the coming years are likely to be extremely precarious, not only for the colonized Palestinians but also for Israeli citizens. Thus if, in the past, one could say that Israel was colonizing the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights while its citizens—particularly the Jews—enjoyed aspects of liberal democracy, the governing strategies developed and deployed by Israel in these occupied areas are now currently colonizing the pre-1967 Jewish state, rapidly eviscerating its democratic elements.

It is rare for a day to pass without some incendiary remark by politicians and commentators against Israel’s Palestinian citizenry, which constitutes 20 percent of the demos. Members of the Joint (Arab) List, the third-largest party in the Knesset, are routinely characterized as terrorists, a fifth column, or traitors. The racism is so overt and without shame that many Palestinian friends have stopped watching television.

Indeed, the Knesset recently gave preliminary approval of the “Suspension Law,” which bestows upon Knesset Members the authority to judge whether the ideology of their colleagues is kosher. Expressing any kind of support for Palestinian resistance in the West Bank and Gaza will serve as sufficient grounds for expulsion from the Knesset. The goal, as a Haaretz editorial claimed, is “a Knesset without Arabs.”

The assault against liberal democracy is also being directed against Jews. Growing harassment of and incitement campaigns against civil society NGOs such as the human-rights organization B’Tselem and the combat veterans’ group Breaking the Silence have become routine events in the political landscape. Foreign citizens who have signed petitions supporting the boycott of settlement products—among them thousands of liberal Jews, many of whom identify as Zionists—can no longer enter Israel.

The fact that the colonial leviathan is finally turning inward is perhaps most obvious in the Israeli Negev, where the state has intensified its campaign against the indigenous Bedouin population. Um al-Hiran, a village of Bedouin citizens destined to be destroyed and replaced by a Jewish settlement called Hiran, exemplifies this most clearly.

Just a few kilometers away from this Bedouin village about 30 Jewish religious families have been living in a makeshift gated community, waiting patiently for the government to expel the Bedouin families from their homes. During a recent visit to this Jewish community, I saw houses scattered around a playground and a nice kindergarten with joyful paintings on the exterior wall. Needless to say, this bucolic setting was both unnerving and surrealistic, considering its violent undertow. Ironically, the people who are destined to dispossess the residents of Um Al-Hiran are West Bank settlers who have returned to Israel to colonize Bedouin land.

The chickens are coming home to roost. Or, to return to Levi Eshkol’s metaphor, as the settlers continue to separate the dowry from the bride, they are helping the government to entrench an apartheid regime, sowing dragon’s teeth for the future.

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