On June 10, 1967, the Israeli army completed its occupation of the former British Mandate of Palestine (the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean) as well as the Egyptian Sinai and the Syrian Golan Heights, and imposed martial law. This was the start of a new era in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which had begun more than a century earlier. The historical import attributed to the date indicates the critical change it is perceived to have signified, seen by many as a fault line separating tiny, pre-1967 Israel from its current position as occupier of Palestinian territories and oppressor of nearly 4 million people. Those who emphasize the decisive importance of the day are essentially seeking to divide the annals of the conflict into two markedly different periods: before and after the Six-Day War. In this view, conditions before the war changed dramatically on the seventh day.
A widely held opinion among the left wing is that the period between 1948 and 1967 was a “golden age” for “little Israel,” the homogenous Jewish nation-state in which, for nineteen years, the Palestinian problem that had existed was replaced by “the Israeli-Arab conflict,” while the Palestinians became “refugees” and “infiltrators” (fedayeen). In this view, the root of evil began in the “occupation of the territories,” a new circumstance that caused the moral corruption of Zionism, which was transformed from a national liberation movement into an oppressive colonial force.
Among the right wing, conversely, the occupation was perceived as the final victory of Zionism–the “liberation of the homeland.” Outside “Greater Israel” circles, those unwilling to accept the obligations imposed by international law on an occupying force referred to the territories as “administered,” a nonobligating term. “Occupation” gradually morphed from a legal idiom describing the forcible seizure of enemy territories by a foreign army into a concept with political significance. The term “occupation,” like others in the conflict vocabulary, became a shibboleth–a code word whose use obviates any need for argumentation or inquiry: Those who say “occupation” are enlightened, while those who avoid it are on the dark side. Similar terms include West Bank (as opposed to Judea and Samaria), settling (as opposed to building communities), liberated Jerusalem, Arab terror, Palestinian state, partition of the country, separation, disengagement, security fence (as opposed to wall). These code words have taken over public discourse, and they enable an avoidance of the complex predicament.
Defining the condition in the territories beyond the Green Line as “occupation” is seemingly unequivocal. Those who subscribe to this definition regard the occupied territories as foreign land, fundamentally different from the areas inside the Green Line, which are perceived as “sovereign Israel.” But this distinction is not without its complications: Where exactly is the border between the occupied territory and the mother-state? Has Israel ever clearly defined the confines of the mother-state? What happens when the mother-state’s capital, the seat of power–Jerusalem–is partly in occupied territory (East Jerusalem) and partly in the mother-state? And how do those who use the term occupation define the “settlement blocs” of Ma’ale Adumim, Gush Etzion and Ariel, whose residents are considered, by public consensus, to be as much a part of Israel as those of Tel Aviv or Haifa and live as Israeli citizens in every way: Are they in occupied territory or in the mother-state?
The decades since the war have proved that 1967 was not a disjunction but quite the opposite, a union, and that the preceding period was merely a reprieve. The Six-Day War was the final battle in 1948’s War of Independence, and the partition dictated by the armistice agreements–which lasted for almost nineteen years–was eradicated by the Israeli occupation. The time between 1948 and 1967, during which Israel/Palestine was divided into two discrete geopolitical units, was not sufficient for an emotional separation to emerge between the two communities and the territories “beyond the border.” The dynamics that define political and administrative borders as “homeland,” artificial and absurd as they may be, are familiar from Third World countries. There, colonial borders drawn in the service of imperialist considerations determined the national identity of the communities that lived in them, not the other way around. This dynamic was also realized in the Middle East. Although the Palestinians of the West Bank began to develop a “Jordanian” identity in the years between 1949 and 1967, when the West Bank fell under Jordanian rule, they continued to nurture their affinity with the regions from which many of them had been deported in 1948. The Jews, the vast majority of whom accepted their severance from the West Bank, returned almost immediately after the 1967 occupation to nurture their own national and religious kinship with the regions that were the “cradle of the nation.” The political and physical conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians did not change but rather adapted to its new circumstances.
The occupation of the territories in 1967 resulted from military action, but the military element quickly became secondary, while the “civilian” component–settlements–became the dominant factor, subjugating the military to its needs and turning the security forces into a militia in service to the Jewish ethnic group. By the late 1980s, after two decades of occupation, Israeli control of the territories beyond the Green Line had become semi-permanent, differentiated from sovereign rule only vis-à-vis the Palestinian residents: As far as Israeli citizens and their range of interests were concerned, the annexation of the territories was a fait accompli. Defining the territories as occupied is, in fact, an anachronism that hides behind the portrayal of a temporary condition that will end “when peace comes,” and is designed to avoid resolving immediate dilemmas “in the meantime.” The term is a crutch for those who seek optimistic precedents, allowing them to believe that just as all occupations end, this one will too. This linguistic choice thereby contributes to the blurring and obfuscation of the reality in the territories, aiding the continuation of the status quo.
One must therefore seek a different paradigm to describe the state of affairs forty years after Israel/Palestine became one geopolitical unit again, after nineteen years of partition. The term “de facto binational state” is preferable to the occupier/occupied paradigm, because it describes the mutual dependence of both societies, as well as the physical, economic, symbolic and cultural ties that cannot be severed except at an intolerable cost. Describing the situation as de facto binational is not prescriptive but descriptive, and it does not indicate parity between Israelis and Palestinians–on the contrary, it stresses the total dominance of the Jewish-Israeli nation, which controls a Palestinian nation that is fragmented both territorially and socially. No paradigm of military occupation can reflect the bantustans created in the occupied territories, which separate a free and flourishing population that enjoys a gross domestic product of $26,000 per capita from a dominated population that is unable to shape its own future and whose GDP is $1,500 per capita. No paradigm of military occupation can explain how half the occupied areas have essentially been annexed, leaving the occupied population with disconnected lands and no viable existence. Only a strategy of annexation and permanent rule can explain the vast settlement enterprise and the enormous investment in infrastructure, estimated at more than $10 billion.
The 1967 war brought more than a million Palestinians under Israeli rule and gave new meaning to the Israeli mode of intimate disregard. The right wing stressed contempt for the Palestinian masses and believed they could be controlled through trickery and violence; the left wing dwelled futilely on theoretical peace plans and for the most part recoiled from any involvement in the unbearably harsh daily lives of the Palestinian population. Everyone amused themselves with “separation” proposals meant to externalize the “others,” and united around the slogan “Us here and them there,” whose physical manifest is the wall known as “the security fence,” built to conceal the Palestinians and erase them from awareness.
Only the integration of the post-1967 period within the conflict’s larger history will illuminate the immigrant-versus-native syndrome that has characterized the Jewish-Arab encounter since its inception. The syndrome is well-known: Jewish immigrants settled on the lands of Arab natives, met with violent resistance and responded as if they were the victims and the natives the aggressors. This was the start of the endless cycle of violence. The immigrant-native model explains many aspects of the conflict that are unique to the clash between immigrant and native societies–above all, the centrality of physical space as the primary battlefield. Phenomena such as land-grabbing, settling in the heart of local populations and an increasingly brutal cycle of bloody retaliations make the occupation paradigm an insufficiently nuanced means of explaining this reality.
The decades-long institutionalization of military and civilian control over the occupied territories increased friction between the communities in such a way that the perception of the conflict retreated into its most basic, atavistic and emotional strata, rendering it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to ascribe any rational solution, like “two states for two peoples.” The deterioration brought the Jewish-Israeli public to a crossroads in relation to their neighbor-enemies, the Arabs and Palestinians. For the first time since the tragic encounter began more than a century ago, the Jews are giving the Arabs a divorce–and turning their backs, erasing them from their consciousness, imprisoning them behind impenetrable walls, willingly congregating in a ghetto and praying that the Mediterranean might dry up or a bridge be built to connect them with Europe. Ostensibly this is nothing new: The Jewish public has always alienated and disregarded the Arabs. But it was an intimate disregard, similar to a person’s approach to his own shadow; one can ignore it but never be rid of it.
This intimate approach encompassed many emotions: fear and anxiety, affection and attraction, superiority and European ethnocentricity, humanism and hostility, anthropological curiosity and romanticism. There was contempt for the primitivism but also a strong attraction to the rootedness of the native in his land, embedded in its landscapes and experienced in its tribulations. The intimate disregard took form when, during the War of Independence, hundreds of thousands of Arabs were uprooted, turning neighbors into refugees or infiltrators who were swallowed up within the hostile “Arab world.” The Arab minority that remained under Israeli rule lived on the margins of Jewish consciousness–at best not belonging, at worst a fifth column.
The process of mental disengagement is a continual one, but there is no doubt that the emergence of suicide bombers has hastened it. There could not be any intimate regard for a culture that nurtures such a monstrous phenomenon, and the Palestinians were thereby complicit in bringing about the divorce imposed upon them. Racist right-wing circles exploit the situation and turn diffuse emotions into a practical plan for “transfer” (i.e., expulsion) and denial of civil rights; human rights activists beg for resistance to the injustices and meet with indifference; political movements thrive on erasing the Arabs from Israeli awareness; and those who caution that it is all an illusion, that millions of human beings cannot be erased, are treated with hostility. Other conflicts have shown that after the erasure comes reconciliation, then appeals for forgiveness. But a preliminary stage in dealing with this problem that will not disappear is to expunge outmoded code words from the dictionary and deal bravely with the reality created by forty years of Israeli control over the entirety of Israel/Palestine. This land has witnessed the emergence of a geography, an economy and demographic, and social processes that no longer enable a division into two separate sovereignties. The alternatives are simple and cruel: Either one people controls the other, dooming them both to eternal violence, or else a way must be found to live in a partnership based on shared sovereignty.