The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil,
but because of the people who don't do anything about it
Occupation magazine - Commentary
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By Gadi Algazi
Hebrew original was written for MiTzad Sheni (Jerusalem), June 2007
Translated to English by
Gadi Algazi is a political activist, member of Tarabut--Hitchabrut
and teaches history at Tel Aviv University.
In June 1967, Israel broke through its temporary borders and, under the auspices of a military conquest, embarked upon an extensive colonial project in the newly conquered territories. The historical timing is intriguing: by the late 1960s it seemed that the crises of de-colonization were coming to an end. During the 1950s and the 1960s, anti-colonial movements in Asia and Africa stripped the old colonial powers of the vestiges of the empires they had established at the end of the nineteenth century, and in some cases, since the early modern period. Disillusionment with de-colonization was still lying ahead of the liberated nations: the replacement of direct political rule by indirect domination, the failure of the new elites to fulfill the promises associated with political liberation, and the disenchantment from illusions of “modernization” and unrestrained “development” (in this respect one could have learned much from the longer, bitterer experience of Latin America). In 1967, two years after France’s final exit from Algiers, while the USA just began to flounder in the mess of Vietnam, Israel opened a new chapter in the history of the conflict: it imposed its military rule over a million and a half Palestinians deprived of political rights, but refrained from annexing most of the territories – except for Jerusalem (1967) and the Golan Heights (1981). The military occupation had begun.
Israel became a regional power. It erased the “shame of 1956” – Israel’s forced withdrawal from the Sinai just a few weeks after David Ben Gurion’s triumphant declaration of the founding of Israel’s Third Kingdom. Now his followers could show that the future belonged to them. The military victory blinded the eyes of many – not just those of Israel’s leaders who were drunk with power. It also concealed essential aspects of the new phase from most of the critics of the occupation. The military conquest and the following repression rule, with its horrors and brutal practices, draw attention concealed the renewed colonial project.
In hindsight, it is easy to recognize that the Israeli occupation is essentially a colonial project enacted under the auspices of a military occupation. The occupation provides ideal conditions for the process of dispossession and settlement: it is implemented against residents with no rights of citizenship, under the protective shield of a military occupation which employs emergency regulations and unrestrained power. A large jumble of military regulations, remnants of Jordanian and Ottoman laws, Israeli law and military adjudication enables the colonial process to progress effectively and rapidly, to take seize natural resources, land and water and to establish facts on the ground. The settlements are no added bonus to the occupation, no accident that occurred under pressure from the Messianic and nationalistic right; they are its heart and soul and its raison d’être.
Israel’s colonial project in the occupied territories has three main branches: a string of settlements, a network of roads, and a system of roadblocks and barriers. The settlements control essential resources, cut up the occupied area and create a colonial frontier that is constantly on the move, pushing further the dispossession process. The roads separate the colonial masters from their subjects; they allow the army and the settlers spatial control and rapid movement, and serve as a network of additional barriers separating Palestinian villages and towns. The system of roadblocks and barriers, travel permits and terminals, concrete walls and fenced enclaves keep the indigenous population locked up under constant supervision, free to manage their hardship.
However, in 1967 the settlement project in the occupied territories seemed a fantasy, invoked by few prophets of the extreme right and a handful of zealots. In contrast, the military oppression appeared tangible and dramatic. Even among the left, few took the Movement for Greater Israel seriously, despite the fact that its composition anticipated the future: an intriguing coalition of veteran labor party personalities, advocates of the old Zionist maxim “another acre, another dunum” and the nationalist, messianic right, and firm believers in God’s promise of the entire land to Abraham. Despite the limited range of the movement, it anticipated the political coalition that largely determined Israeli politics in the following years. In the criticisms of the occupation by the left, the project of settlement and dispossession remained marginal. It was difficult to envision the huge settlement movement that would emerge out of the handful of settlers at the Park Hotel in Hebron (Passover 1968). The annexation of Jerusalem appeared to be a symbolic and legal act, perceived as an infringement of international laws of war – not the beginning of a major transformation of the landscape of the heart of the West Bank (the destruction of Palestinian homes to create the Wailing Wall plaza was, to be sure, an ominous signal). And many, too many, quickly forgot all about the ethnic cleansing in the Golan Heights, which was carried out in the immediate aftermath of the war. The settlements in the Jordan valley, under the leadership of the labor movement’s knights of settlement, Israel Gallili and Yigal Alon, were justified by security arguments.
Ten years later matters became quite clear. In 1977 Matityahu Drubles, head of the department of settlement of the Zionist Federation and the Jewish Agency, and Ariel Sharon, Minister of Agriculture and head of the ministerial committee for settlements, presented their plans for colonizing the West Bank. In the beginning of 1983, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Zionist Federation published a “master plan” for settlements in the West Bank effective until 2010, the one hundred thousand plan. It is easy to identify the clear imprint of these plans in the system of barriers, enclaves and Jews-only roads in the West Bank of the early 21st century.
There was no lack of conflict over matters tactical and local among the partners of the settlement project, disagreements over pace and priorities, but on the whole the settlement project was conducted from its inception in close cooperation between political Zionist movements (Gush Emunim and the Zionist Federation) and Government institutions (the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Housing, Israel’s Land Administration). What the state could not permit itself to do, the pioneering settlers took upon themselves to carry out. The settlers broke the law, the state twisted it. As in other frontier areas, the resistance of the native population was often used by the colonial masters to push further the borders of their domains. To guarantee the safety of the existing settlement, buffer zones and no-go areas around them had to be erected, new colonies to strengthen those already in existence. It is also significant that both the massive momentum of settlement at the end of the 1970s and that of the mid 1990s were conducted under the auspices of partial peace agreements that among many critics of the occupation gave rise to the illusion that high-flown words and formal speeches, symbols and ceremonies shape reality. But the reality of the conflict is a colonial – one that is determined, first and foremost, by the facts on the ground, by bulldozers and fences. Colonialism does not exhaust itself in diplomatic maneuvers or spectacular acts of violence. It is a social and economic process that changes nature itself, the fabric of social life, reallocates resources and leaves people dispossessed. Its results are always in a sense irreversible: social reality cannot be simply restored to its pristine state; one can – and should – confront its evils, but this is a long and painful struggle against a new social and economic reality.
The greatest failure of the left in Israel and of all the objectors to the occupation is in confronting the settlement project. Massive political protest accompanied only the very early stages of the accelerated settlement process, mainly at the end of the 1970s, and the few conspicuous settlement projects that received special attention (Hebron, Abu Ghneim/“Har Homa” south of Jerusalem). But by the 1980, the “bad settlers”, members of the terrorist Jewish underground, appeared on the scene and made their counterparts, the “good settlers” look harmless in comparison, even respectable and responsible. The weakness of political protest against Israeli colonialism is reminiscent of the European anti-nuclear protest movements of the 1970s and 1980s: the smaller the number of nuclear power stations already in operation, the stronger the protest; in countries where the nuclear option had already been firmly established, protest was significantly weaker. This is the typical of that kind of politics focused on establishing facts on the ground, causing rapid change in the fabric of social life: traditional forms of political protest lag behind and often have to cope with the latent frustration of facing established facts. When Sharon promised one hundred thousand settlers in the occupied territories, he was derided. The establishment of a regime of checkpoints and roadblocks during the 1990s did not receive proper attention. Amira Hass’s articles depicting the developing reality in the area were perceived as dealing with the minutiae of human rights abuses rather than as a timely warning against a comprehensive political strategy that was reshaping reality. The roads built throughout the territories during the years of the “peace process” were considered bitter pills that must be swallowed for the sake of “the process”. Most importantly, the perception of the occupation as a “political” issue, not a social one, a matter of borders and political arrangements, while ignoring the depth of the social and economic transformations lying at the hart of every colonial process, prevented the left from dealing with them. The left failed to notice how economic deprivation and social misery within Israeli society were used to advance the colonial process, and hence has not sought ways to put a spoke in the wheels of this process, from undermining the social alliances upon which it depends. “Money for poor neighborhoods, not for settlements” was a slogan that expressed a modest and superficial beginning of such awareness in the 1980s.
In the 1990s, along with the waves of immigration, it was the turn of new immigrants and many who sought to improve their quality of life to be integrated into the settlement project. Accelerated privatization – the state’s growing tendency to shed off its social obligations – went hand in hand with a colonial project subsidized by that same state which shrank from public investment in social services within the pre-1967 borders. The establishment of an almost permanent closure of the West Bank and Gaza after 1993, preventing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from entering Israel, was also a step combining economics and security. Israeli capitalism made Palestinian workers superfluous, sentencing them to horrific poverty and hardship while seeking to modernize itself rapidly and renegotiate its place in global markets. On the one hand, enclosure became a permanent fact and the occupied territories were henceforce subjected to a regime of checkpoints and roadblocks anticipating their total fragmentation after October 2000. On the other hand, the import of cheap foreign labor – new immigrants and migrant workers without rights – granted Israeli capitalism a new momentum. At the other end of the rapid process of privatization and social polarization in Israel, the 1980s and the 1990s gave shape to a new upper middle class thirsty for a quality of life and social distinction. Quality-of-life settlements – and here, again, Ariel Sharon played a crucial role – became a respectable option which ultimately brought the settlement project closer to the upper middle class: gated communities in the occupied territories, just beyond the Green Line, conveniently connected to the center, cleansed of Arabs and poor people, planted in the colonial landscape. Israeli colonialism is not a fossilized historical relic but a central aspect of local capitalism. They changed in tandem; both enjoyed state support – and were able to shake off the state when necessary, only to find shelter under its wings when conditions required this. Israeli capitalism is colonial capitalism.
While the victory celebrations were going on and thousands of Israelis were rushing to occupied Hebron and Nablus, far from the public eye, one small unnamed unit was involved in a project started in the spring of 1965 or even earlier. Its establishment was secret; the government decision to create it was never publicized. Its mission was “cleansing” the country – erasing systematically the remnants of the Palestinian villages, lying abandoned since 1948, from the landscape (the affair was revealed by Aharon Shai in an article published in the periodical “Cathedra”, vol. 105, 2002). The Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that village ruins along the roads “gave rise to unnecessary questions” from tourists. “The association for landscape improvement” explained that only beautiful architectural structures should remain, such as those in Achziv (Al-Zeeb), for example, and Israel’s Land Administration claimed that “leveling” the villages would spare Israel’s Arab citizens anguish – the frustration of longing to return to their birth villages but of not being able to.
The unit, which was headed by a former paratroop officer, Hanan Davidson, erased over one hundred villages. Archaeologists were required to conduct comprehensive surveys before the bulldozers entered the area. The Israel Archaeological Survey Society, established in 1964, received the funding for this from Israel’s Land Administration. Surveying and demolishing, documenting and erasing went hand in hand. The archaeologists complained occasionally that the bulldozers did not wait for them and it was difficult to control the “wild rampages”. MK Tawfik Toubi (CPI) protested in the Knesset. The weekly magazine Ha’Olam Hazeh published letters to the editor on the subject, but as a whole, the project was almost completely forgotten.
The operation of “leveling” Palestinian villages was not confine to the Green Line, Israel’s pre-1967 border. With military victory, the surveyors and the destroyers were given a broad field of operation. Four days after the end of the battles (!) the Israel Archaeological Survey Society decided to conduct a comprehensive archeological survey of the occupied territories. The destruction operation, financed by Israel’s Land Administration Bureau, was accelerated. The surveyors rushed to Yalou, Beit Nouba and Amwas, the three Palestinian villages in the Latrun area whose residents were driven out and their villages destroyed. The destruction of more than 100 villages in the Golan Heights was also carried out by Davidson’s people in cooperation with the IDF.
This operation is not merely a telling example of a power/knowledge alliance, and calls attention to the ironies involved in this intertwined process of thorough effacement and meticulous documentation. It also demonstrates the institutional and personal continuity between the internal colonialism within Israel and the colonial project across the Green Line. It seems that Israel’s stabilization within the 1949 borders was merely temporary: The Military Administration imposed over the Arab citizens of Israel was abolished in 1966, before colonial expansion was resumed in 1967. The secret operation of effacing the remaining traces of the Palestinian villages should be understood in the context of the abolishment of the military administration and the fears it gave rise to – that Palestinian citizens would reclaim their land – and at the same time, the attempts to continue the settlement and the dispossession within Israel by new, civilian, means.
It is easy to point out further continuities. The Emergency Regulations, a set of repressive measures “for cases of emergency” bequeathed by the British Empire to the State of Israel – served as an ideal protective shield for internal colonialism, for the continuing battle led by the State of Israel against its Arab citizens. They enabled not only the suppression of political activity, but also confiscating property and declaring whole areas closed military zones. The regulations were not abolished with the end of the military administration in 1966; after 1967, they found ample use in the occupied territories. Furthermore, the military administration itself was not really dissolved prior to the June 1967 war; soldiers were first replaced by tight police control, which made matters worse for the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Control was intensified during the actual war, and removed only in October 1972. And if that were not enough, the official abolishment of military administration within Israel was simultaneously accompanied by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s introduction of operation “at last” for the “Judaization of the Galilee”. This would be followed by further such campaigns.
One can continue in this vein and consider, for instance, the link between the mechanisms for taking control of Arab lands perfected in the course of “Judaization of the Galilee” during the 1960s – and the massive application of these same legal mechanisms after 1978 for seizing “state land” in the West Bank for the creation of settlements. One can see the connection between the establishment, by Ariel Sharon, the Minister of Agriculture, of the “Green Patrol” to protect the Negev from its Bedouin residents in 1978 and the plans he developed that very same year to settle the West Bank. But the relationship between internal and external colonialism is equally evident if we think about political protest: think of the link between the first massive dispossession act which gave rise to a significant protest in Israel – the protest against the dispossession of the Bedouins from Pithat Rafiah in 1972 and the eviction of around 1500 families for the sake of erecting settlements – and the important public campaign that same year to return the residents of Ikrit and Bir‘am to the villages from which they had been expelled in 1948. The field officers of 1948 are the generals of the 1960s and 1970s, among them Sharon, the architect of the settlement project. In short: Any attempt to point out the colonial dimension of the occupation requires us to think about the relationship between colonialism inside Israel and the colonial project carried out in the occupied territories under the shelter provided by military occupation. They are intimately related.
This does not mean that the two are identical. Internal colonialism operates in political and social conditions that differ significantly from those allowed in a military occupation. First and foremost, within a civic framework, it must face the stubborn resistance of the Palestinian citizens of Israel and their political allies. This is not merely a struggle for equal rights; its goal is changing the character of Israeli society, comprehensive democratization and de-colonization. This struggle has seen many defeats, but it has also marked some significant gains. To a large extent, the partial democratization of Israeli society is the long-term outcome of this struggle. Many of Israel’s citizens today are unaware of the enormous debt they owe to the Palestinian national minority within Israel, whose battle for its rights challenged the control mechanisms of Israeli society and broadened the democratic rights of all citizens. The struggle against the colonial project in the occupied territories takes place under much harsher conditions.
To think of the relationship between the occupation and Israeli society within the 1967 borders requires more than a static comparison of the processes taking place on the two sides of the Green Line. One must think of 1967 in a dynamic framework, as a central intersection of processes, building upon previous colonial phases and bringing about deep structural changes. 1967 is indeed a historical turning point in the socio-political history of Israel, as Shlomo Svirski has showed in an important and comprehensive article (“Iyunim bi-Tkumat Israel”, vol. 16, 2006). With the conversion of Israel to a regional power in 1967, the state sponsored huge corporations and industrial-military conglomerates to an extent previously unimagined. This new bourgeoisie, claims Svirski, gained strength and self-confidence and ultimately considered itself an alternative to the long-time political leadership of the Labor Party. It played an important role in the 1977 elections, when it joined and transferred power to the Likud (think of the senior officers, the economists, the CEO’s, the academics and the media people who joined to establish the short-lived Dash Party). Over time, its members would come to prefer indirect control, through pressure and coercion, experts and advisors, economists and senior civil servants – rather than entering directly into party politics.
This industrial-military conglomerate became the great incubator of Israel’s new technologies: in contrast, the development town became historical relics, based on “traditional industries”, although many of them were established in the not so distant 1960s. The move from little Israel to greater Israel heralded a shift from an inclusive development policy based on an ethnic division of labor – to an exclusivist development policy of a local superpower based on enormous investments in security and settlements, and the methodical cultivation of the local bourgeoisie. Israel’s bourgeoisie was sponsored by the state and heavily financed by public investments; it enjoyed the fruits of the massive dispossession of the Palestinians and the labor power of weak immigrants. By the middle of the 1980, it became powerful enough to demand privatization and limiting the state’s supervision of its activities. The widening class divisions in Israel were also significantly related its new acquired regional imperial status and the renewed colonial momentum: heavily subsidized new settlements pushed to the margins the development towns that had been established in the 1950s to secure Israel’s territorial gains of 1948. Inhabited to a large extent by Jews of Mideastern origin, they suffered hardship and discrimination. The new frontier, in contrast, made safe for the settlers by the heavy army presence and relying on massive government investment, was not means a periphery. It was well connected to the centers of economic and political life and fitted in perfectly into the project of cultivating Israel’s bourgeoisie.
To consider Israel a colonial society does no imply to treat it as a homogeneous one. It has nothing to do with a discourse portraying it as an undifferentiated “colonial entity”. On the contrary: it is a first step towards understanding the peculiarities and contradictions of Israel’s capitalism. The colonial process is built upon the exploitation social hardships. It gives its particular tinge to class contradictions, it brands the oppressed as “Orientals”, as Arabs – if they themselves would be led to deny this. It also casts the elite in “Western” colors, it bolsters its cultural arrogance – even its actual roots lie in Eastern Europe. One cannot understand the ethnic divisions and discrimination in Jewish society, or the status of Arab culture in Israel without taking into account that in all colonial societies the culture of the subordinated community is denied and derided.
In colonial societies, settlers are often granted important privileges at the price of putting themselves at the service of the colonial project; these are not recognized social rights but conditional privileges, fragile and temporary. These privileges gradually crumble fade and disappear as the colonial frontier advances, making them superfluous. To understand the strategic weakness of social struggles in Israel against the combined forces of capital and state, one should consider the fragility of settler communities living under the protection of the “settlement institutions”. And one can only understand the tremendous power of the Israeli state and the “settlement institutions” if one regards them as the heirs of the British High Commissioner and the Zionist Movement, transforming “human dust” (in Ben-Gurion’s phrase) into “an outpost” (in Theodor Herzl’s words) against the East. An entire system of privileges and dependencies on powerful patrons is created in colonial societies; Jews against Arabs, Army veterans against those who did not serve, the front against the rear, Palestinian citizens of Israel against Palestinians strangled by the occupation: this system of privileges leads the oppressed of Israeli society into the arms of their patrons and threatens their future. An anti-colonial struggle in Israel is a struggle against the occupation – but it is also one for social equality. The separation of the two is artificial; we are paying its price daily.
The far-reaching political project of the settlement movement after 1967 was not confined to dispossessing the Palestinians and taking their land; it was no less an attempt to bring about change in Israeli society – to bring it back to its roots, to make all of it, if not directly than by proxy, a militant settler society, in perpetual war with the Arab East. The wild frontier was to radiate on the settled society; the Israelis were all supposed to become from former settlers, who had often arrived in Palestine not out of deep conviction or Zionist ideology but (as many other immigrants) as a result of the disasters and catastrophes of the 20th century – into potential settlers. They were supposed to identify with the militant settlers who, it was hoped, would turn from an isolated group of fanatic nationalists into the vanguard Israeli society as a whole. Stopping the settlement project is hence the most important political task of all the opponents of the occupation. Not only because this is a fight against the attempt to complete the dispossession of the Palestinians. It is also a struggle against the constant recolonialization of Israeli society. Israel needs a movement committed not only to uncompromising struggle against the occupation but also fight colonialism in all its aspects – both the “external”, military one and the “internal” one conducted by civil, economic and cultural means.
Does this mean that the Green Line is not relevant, that one can give up the battle against the occupation? Not by any means! The Green Line is admittedly arbitrary; more precisely, it is the result of a historical process. It is not sacred. But if we are to stop the colonial process, every point we would insist on is arbitrary. The question, then, is political and pragmatic: Where can opponents of the occupation and the settlements build a united front, a focus that would allow to bring together as much local and international support as possible in order to upset the existing balance of power and stop the progress of the dispossession process? The Green Line is still the most promising focus for such an effort. It does not guarantee historical justice. Insisting on it by no means implies sacrificing the struggle for a thorough de-colonization of Israeli society in its pre-1967 borders. But to give up on the Green Line, accepting the “settlement blocks”, the colonies and the Bantustans – would mean acquiescing, now already, with a colonial project against which battle is still being waged. We may not accept defeats prematurely. Such acceptance is the luxury of those who do not pay the price of defeat – and helps bring it about. Down with the occupation – yes, even now.
We must be honest with ourselves: there is no guarantee that we will succeed. But we have no right to neglect today’s battle in order to think abut the day after tomorrow, when the colonial process threatens our modest, immediate tomorrow, threatens the chance of a future for the peoples of this country. Some parts of the Israeli left accepted the settlements step by step: Beginning with Peace Now’s abandonment of its battle against the largest settlements, through the Beilin-Abu Mazen plan, to the voices heard today advising us to abandon the fight against the military occupation and dismantling the settlements for the sake of a single state based on “one man – one vote” principle. Such a state, constructed on the legacy of hundred years of colonialism, in which the Zionist Movement continues – directly or indirectly – to hold sway over key resources, in which the Jewish collective enjoys the privileges and accumulated fruits of the dispossession of the Palestinians, while the majority of the Palestinians live under the poverty line – would be a liberal Apartheid. It legitimates the results of the colonial process and grants it a proper liberal outfit.
The Green Line does not guarantee justice. It is a line of defense in the attempt to halt the colonial project, to allow the Palestinian people self-determination in an independent state – as a collective project of construction and empowerment in the face of Israel’s strategic superiority. It also gives Israelis the chance to live without privileges, as former settlers renouncing expansion and ready to make real peace, a chance to find a place as equals in a free and democratic Middle East.
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