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.