Parallels for the Occupation? Colonialism, More or Less

Gershom Gorenberg

My friend John showed up in South Jerusalem. Long ago and far away, John and I slouched in the back of high school classes together in Los Angeles, mumbling snidely about what was being left out of American history (women, blacks, slaughter of Indians, lynch mobs, poor folk…). Eventually I went into mumbling snidely as a profession. John, by contrast, is gainfully employed in high-tech, working for an Israeli firm that kindly brought him for a visit to the home office.

In late afternoon we walked out to the promenade. Some Palestinian kids were playing soccer on a stretch of lawn despite the ferocious heat. In front of us was the Old City and the Dome of the Rock. On the east, I pointed out to John, was the high concrete wall dividing the Palestinian side of Jerusalem from the Palestinian towns of the West Bank.

“So,” John asked me, “is there anything parallel to Israel’s control of the West Bank? What do you think of Jimmy Carter calling it apartheid? Is it like Jim Crow?” (I don’t claim this is a precise quote; it was Shabbat afternoon, when I don’t write.) But that’s the gist.

I don’t know if there’s any precise parallel to a military occupation that’s lasted 41 years, I told him. Everyone looks for parallels in history and politics, trying to judge an unfamiliar situation on the basis of a familiar one, or a morally ambiguous condition on the basis of a morally clear one. But history isn’t like medicine, in which 100 million cases can be classified as one disease. In history, there are two few cases, each one too idiosyncratic. Every unhappy nation is unhappy in its own way, to misquote Tolstoy.

If, nonetheless, one looks for a category, what is happening in the West Bank resembles colonialism more than apartheid. It is closer to Algeria than South Africa, though there are flaws in the Algerian parallel as well. Apartheid applied to the entire territory under the rule of the old South African regime; it was explicitly based on the construct of “race” and had no other purpose but to divide the races.

Even if the Green Line, the pre-1967 boundary, does not appear on official Israel maps, it exists as a legal and administrative boundary. Inside sovereign Israel, pre-1967 Israel for practical purposes, there’s a democracy, even if flawed. Palestinian citizens of Israel face discrimination, but they are voting citizens. The multiparty system insures that their votes can’t be gerrymandered away. They have more reasons than I’d like to list here for being dissatisfied – and are sometimes able to use an imperfect political and legal system to press for change.

The West Bank, on the other hand, isn’t legally part of Israel. Legally, for 41 years, it has been under military rule, temporary in apparent perpetuity. It was originally acquired in Israel in 1967 in something close to a fit of absence of mind – a defensive war, planned at the last minute, in which the goals shifted from hour to hour and the troops advanced further than anyone expected in advance. Palestinians live under military rule, and in some areas with the limited home rule of the Palestinian Authority.

But Israeli citizens who have settled there, with government support, as if Israel will control the territory forever, have the rights of Israeli citizens and then some. The two-tier legal system has been there virtually from the start. In a secret memo written in 1968, urging expanded settlement, then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan acknowledged that “settlement in administered territory, as we know, contravenes international agreements,” dismissed that as a problem, and went on to worry about the legal status of settlers. He didn’t want them subject to local law. He got his way. (Much more on this in my book, The Accidental Empire.)

He did want economic “integration” of the West Bank and Israel, which meant Palestinians would work for Israelis. He expected Palestinians to be appreciative. In a cabinet debate, he proposed German rule of Togo as a positive model. Dayan’s opponents explicitly warned from the summer of 1967 onward that permanent Israeli rule of the West Bank would be colonialism and would be denounced as such internationally. They lost the political argument. Shlomo Gazit, who in the late 1960s and early 1970s was the military officer working directly under Dayan in administering the West Bank, wrote three decades later:

At the end of the sixties, the world was already watching the end of the era of colonialism, and precisely then Israel found itself marching in the opposite direction.

But colonialism is also imprecise. On one hand, France could leave Algeria without fearing that Algerians would claim France as their own and keep up the war. Domestic support for leaving the West Bank would be much higher in Israel if we could abandon our Algeria as easily. Israelis on the moderate left would be much more comfortable at labeling the occupation as “colonialism” if Palestinians and their supporters did not apply the same term to pre-1967 Israel, as if Jews were just Frenchman who’d come here to build plantations, with no historical tie to the land.

On the other hand, as I once explained in the American Prospect, Ariel Sharon’s plans for Palestinian “autonomy” in fragmented enclaves, and later for “statehood” in those same enclaves, was influenced by South Africa’s grand apartheid, with its fictitiously independent bantustans.

In general, I don’t like the use of “apartheid” as a term, because it delegitimizes Israel as such, and not just the occupation. It also ignores the original cause of the occupation, a war of defense. But as long as the occupation continues, and settlement grows, and the possibility of withdrawal and a two-state agreement grows dimmer, the use of the word will grow. The insult exaggerates but is not utterly imaginary.

I’m not trying to reproduce word for word what I told John as we looked out over the wall-divided landscape of Jerusalem. This is more or less the idea. At the end I suggested one more weak parallel. He’d brought me a book about the Lincoln-Douglas debates. In those awful days of American history, many Americans were willing to allow the moral blight of slavery to continue lest civil war erupt. Today many Israelis would rather accept the occupation than face armed conflict with the settlers. Their fear is justified, yet the blight cannot continue. One of our deepest challenges is to find a way to leave without fratricide. It will take more than one quiet Shabbat afternoon with a friend to figure out a solution to that problem.

See also:

Is All Criticism Anti-Israel? A Question for NGO Monitor

The First Settlement, the Lasting Danger

Israeli Right Supports Right of Return

24 thoughts on “Parallels for the Occupation? Colonialism, More or Less”

  1. I recently posted an admittedly belated review of Carter’s “Palestine Peace Not Apartheid” on my blog, so I was immediately drawn to your topic and its reference to Carter. Regarding your statement that the term “apartheid” delegitimizes Israel, Carter makes it clear that his criticism is not with Israel per se, but with its policies in the occupied territories. If these policies aren’t full-blown apartheid, many aspects bear an uncomfortable resemblance to it. References to how this situation started are irrelevant to the reality on the ground. Your reference to a “two-tier” legal system certainly reminds one of apartheid. In addition, The New York Times, in an article “West Bank Sites on Private Land” (3/14/07) , stated that, according to Peace Now, “32.4 percent of property held by Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank is private,” that is, private Palestinian land, and “the data shows a pattern of illegal seizure of private land..” What does one call the illegal expropriation of private land based on the power of one ethnic or national group over another? I agree with your perspective on the occupation as a “blight,” but I think you’re reluctant to use the term “apartheid” or at least to state that the situation resembles apartheid in certain aspects. Yossi Sarid said, “…what acts like apartheid, is run like apartheid, and harrasses like apartheid is not a duck–it is apartheid.” I think you come closer to describing the situation in the West Bank and its resemblance to apartheid in your article in The Forward (7/25/08), “The Value of Settlement Is Obsolete.” In the article you state, “De facto, a bi-national entity with an ethnic regime was created, instead of a democratic, Jewish state.”

  2. Just in terms of parallels, the occupation reminds me of the history of the US westward expansion. Through fits and starts, treaties, ‘solutions’, whatever, the original inhabitants were inexorably destroyed.

    So, it might be called Israel’s “Manifest Destiny”, with all that implies.

  3. George-
    What about the Arab/Muslim’s “Manifest Destiny”? The Arabs were once tribes that inhabited the area of what is now called “Saudi Arabia”, although they did wander in an out of neighboring areas, as we see in the Bible. In the 7th century, under Muhammed’s leadership, they conquered a large part of the known world and then coerced (either at sword-point or through discriminatory laws and taxation) the people to give up their own cultures, and to conform to the new master religion. The remaining minorities TO THIS DAY are under pressure either to leave (as is happening to the Christians in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, for example) or to convert. Jews, as a minority people in this area are under this pressure constantly. The Arabs call this big swath of land from Morocco to Pakistan the “Dar al-Islam” (Realm of Islam) and it is forbidden for any other groups (like Jews, for instance) to have any sovereign state within this realm. Sounds like the real “manifest destiny” mentality is on the side of the Arab/Muslims.

  4. B-D,

    I think you may be taking my characterization as an attack. In times past, I might have meant it that way, but not now. It’s just offering a parallel, and my speculation on how it will play out.

    If it matters, I find your argument unconvincing. But, the older I get, the less point I find to arguing about things that I have no power to change.

    Thanks for sharing.

  5. Manifest Destiny was a notion of not only the 19th Century Americans but the British Empire that it was the burden of the Anglo-Saxons ,because of their superiority, were to impress upon their lessers civilization as they saw it. In the main it was a disaster and we can see that today in Iraq and the Near East As Admiral Mahan put it when justifying the US not giving the Philippinos their country after the Spanish-American War that it” was our burden to bring Western Civilization to our little yellow and brown brothers first”.Sounds like Dubyah don’t it.

    Israel has the rare opportunity to break the mold and chuck the past and surprise the world by getting beyond this dispute and nail down a lasting peace with a people not their equal in resources and I am sorry to say intellectually.

  6. Y,

    And the ancient Israelites believed that God had promised them the land and endorsed slaughter of the indigenes in their sacred books. And I’m sure we could find someone else before that. “Arabs are bad too!” isn’t a valid or useful response to every criticism of Israel.

  7. Mr Burns,

    Yes, the Bible does give the people of Israel the right to settle Eretz Israel. The Muslimsalso believe they have the right to conquer the whole world and Islamize it. Now, since most Israeli are willing to make a compromise with the Arabs over that territory, and in fact have already done so (peace treaties with Egypt, Jordan [which sits on Biblical Eastern Eretz Israel] and the Oslo Agreement) and don’t view things in the Biblical way you mention, we see that the perputation of the Arab/Israeli conflict is due to the Arab/Muslim view of their “Manifest Destiny” which mandates that the dhimmi Jewish state be eradicated, and not to any comparable Jewish beliefs. HAMAS, HIZBULLAH and Ahmedinejad say this every day explicitly, and Egypt, the FATAH Palestinian Authorities and others say it in code every day.

  8. Egypt and Jordan have diplomatically recognized Israel. The Saudi peace plan specifically allowed for the existence of Israel. There are some maximalist Arabs just like there are some maximalist Jews, but they’re not the ones running things in most Arab countries. The PA is a collaborationist regime that not 0nly accepts Israel, but takes its side against Hamas. Olmert (yes, I know he’s a sleaze, but he is the Israeli head of government) has specifically denied that Palestinians have any right to the West Bank. There’s plenty of blame on both sides.

    And to say “the Muslims”‘ believe they have the right to conquer the whole world and Islamize it is just silly. Have you ever actually talked to a Muslim?

  9. My comment that Muslims believe they have the right to “conquer” the world was perhaps not exactly the correct phrase…what I meant was that they believe they have the right to Islamize the world. This shouldn’t surprise you, Islam is a missionary religion. Christianity is also a missionary religion, and at one time they also believed they had the right to Christianize the world, although now all the mainstream churches believe it should be done by persuasion. I wouldn’t imagine that this means they believe they have to use armed force, although that was done in the time of Muhammed and after. Christianity today doesn’t believe it is necessary for the church to run states in a political sense, but you may know that Islam does not recognize any such division…i.e. a state must be run on Islamic lines in a political sense and not just “religiously”. These extremist Islamic groups that talk about reestablishing the Caliphate certainly believe that the world has to be run Islamically and they preach jihad, so at least these extremists literally believe that Islam has the right to “conquer” the world.

    Jonathan Speyer in the Jerusalem Post has an article about how super-extremist Islamic groups in the Palestinian territories believe that HAMAS has “sold out” because they are now restricting themselves to ruling the Palestinians when they should, according to these extremists, be spreading Islam by force to the outside world.

  10. I am an American currently visiting Israel. I took a tour of the Golan and on the way saw many huge and beautifull Arab houses. I wish I had my Camera to show people how well many Arabs live. Ok, lets see if Israel left the west bank, how fast it turns into a terrorist infested entity. Any normal size county would put have put GAza out of its misery along time ago

  11. So it’s only a small minority of Muslims, apparently even excluding Hamas, that actually believe that Islam should conquer the world? So it seems like a ludicrous exaggeration to say that “Islam” believes this.

  12. You know what I don’t get about Jews?

    I would destroy a whole city, heck I would destroy whole nations to protect my family, my friends, and the fellow citizens of my country and while I would have some regret most of that would quickly dissipate.

    Yet there is so much hand-wringing among you Jews about what to do about an enemy dedicated to your extermination.

    In one way I guess one could see that as noble. It could be seen as the height of ethical behavior for a people to say they wouldn’t stoop so low as to adopt the behavior of their enemy or even come close to doing so even if it means the destruction of themselves as a people.

    But what kind of example is that? There were these people called the Jews, they were extremely ethical and they no longer exist because of that.

    Don’t a people to be a moral light to the world have to well, first exist?

    Survival is the first requirement of any people, any nation. All else is secondary. When threatened, a people, a nation needs to do whatever it takes to ensure their survival. Whatever it takes. It needs to embark on for a lack of a better term a time of “necessary cruelty”. A time where it puts away its ideals for the sake of its survival. After all if it doesn’t survive then neither does its ideals.

    Someday, Israel will be in a place where it can afford to take “the high moral ground”. Someday Israel will be able to treat all people equally and justly with the dignity they deserve. But not now. You haven’t “earned” that yet. You haven’t gone through your period of “necessary cruelty”.

    You know the people in the West, those who criticize you? Canada, the United States, England, they all went through a period of “necessary cruelty” some even more times than one. When their survival as a people was at stake they did the cruelest of things. They had to. If they hadn’t they wouldn’t exist as they do now. So now they can afford to be all morally superior as they have eliminated the threats that necessitates the actions that the Jews must do now to survive. But at one time they all did such actions and worse. Each and every one of them.

    The choice any people have is this: will you allow yourself to be as a people subjugated to others, led into concentration camps, perhaps destroyed as a people, wiped out as a whole people or will you take your destiny in your own hands and fight back doing whatever it takes to survive?

    In the end, no matter how it might seem, there is no nobility in a group of people just laying down and dying no matter the reason. It’s just national suicide not to do whatever it takes even if it goes against the higher principles of the society; even if you must be crueler than the enemy to win. For only after the threats to your existence are removed can you really build that idealistic society you want for your children and their children.

    Besides if you just lie down and die against and evil force that just increases the evil in the world. That is kind of what it means that it is better to do evil than be evil. You must do evil to ensure that those who actually are evil don’t prevail.

    Two thousand years ago a Roman citizen could walk across the face of the known world free of the fear of molestation. He could walk across the earth unharmed, cloaked only in the words Civis Romanis I am a Roman citizen. So great was the retribution of Rome, universally understood as certain, should any harm befall even one of its citizens.

    Where was Ehud Goldwasser’s protection, or Eldad Regev’s? Where is the retribution for the families and where is the warning to the rest of the world that Israelis shall walk this earth unharmed, lest the clenched fist of the most mighty military force in the history of the Middle East comes crashing down on your house!? In other words, what the hell is the Israeli government doing here?

    Israel needs to do whatever it takes to ensure that for its citizens. It needs to stand up for the worth of each and every Jew and that will only happen when people fear what happens when they don’t respect the worth of Jews and their right to exist.


  13. Steve,

    Why can’t anyone just take your post and substitute the word “Palestinian” for “Jew”? Does survival, and Israel poses objectively much more of a threat to Palestinian survival than the other way around, justify any action of Jews, but none of Palestinians?

  14. Wow what a “hot button” topic .Y I question your analysis of Christianity as a little naive in the area of church-state relations .There a whole lot of “wackos” here in the States who make “no bones” about how Christianity should be spread and it’s not through persuasion but through any means possible.

    There never was a short if ever a period of time in which a Roman citizen could walk the highways and byways of the Empire and feel entirely safe. Comparing historical accounts to make them fit present situations can be seen in the context of “all generalities are inherently wrong”.

    The so-called Golden Age of the expansion of Islam saved much of the civilized culture, and science for Western Europe.The barbarism of the Roman Empire eventually led to the awakening of the ethnicity of the conquered provinces and the beginning of their indentification as distinct and separate entities

    Israel knows that military superiority can in and of itself never secure lasting peace and a negotiated peace even an uneasy peace is accomplished through the sharing of common problems and the establishing of an economic zone where Palestinians and Israelis can both benefit. The Palestinians are a semetic people and are clever and resourceful .Let peace have a chance but underwrite it with jobs creation programs in the occupied territories. This is where the US may help . We could help our selves if we ever understood that Mexicans would’nt come here and even would go home if the economy at home improved

  15. Steve,

    As Jews, we are influenced by an obscure group of writing known as “Nevi’im Acharonim.” The thrust of that poetry collection is that God will punish the Jews for behaving immorally, by taking away the land again. Hence the quaint concern, in the question of the territories, about issues of right and wrong.

  16. “…as long as the occupation continues, and settlement grows, and the possibility of withdrawal and a two-state agreement grows dimmer…”

    This almost sounds like you think these are causally linked. On the contrary I believe that the continued settlement of the occupied territory provides a positive incentive for the Palestinians to conclude a peace agreement — if that is in fact their intention — sooner rather than later. They can end the creeping annexation of their territory by coming to terms. But if they’d prefer to keep their options open indefinitely in the hopes that they’ll have more leverage in the future — and to me it looks very much like that’s been their inclination throughout this whole process — well, tough.

  17. Mr. Birnbaum,

    The one major reversal of Israel’s “creeping annexation,” the withdrawal from Gaza, was accomplished not by Palestinians coming to terms, but by Hamas violence. Fatah’s collaboration on the West Bank, which has reduced violence to nearly zero, has merely resulted in more settlements. What are Palestinians supposed to conclude?

  18. William,

    Israeli settlement in Gaza, as compared with the West Bank, was always rather limited and tenuous. And I believe the PA was in control there at the time of the Israeli withdrawal.

    Finally I’m not at all convinced that it is “Fatah’s collaboration” as you put it that has reduced violence originating from there to nearly zero. The fence/wall, not to mention the continued presence of the IDF, certainly has something to do with it.

    That said, I see your point. It may be that Israel made a mistake in withdrawing from Gaza.

  19. The wall may have something to do with it, but there are a lot of Jews and Palestinians on the “wrong” sides of the wall. And the IDF was present throughout the worst of the violence. Fatah collaboration isn’t the whole story, but it’s a big part of it.

  20. Larry,

    “…the continued settlement of the occupied territory provides a positive incentive for the Palestinians to conclude a peace agreement…”

    Occupation and settlement and the diminishing possibility of withdrawal and a two-state agreement are directly linked. Continued settlement activity, whether it involves expansion of existing settlements, establishing a new settlement such as Maskiot in the Jordan Valley, or delaying action on illegal settlements, can only discourage Palestinians from engaging in the peace process. The creeping annexation never stopped during any negotiations, whether through Likud or Labor. It involves private Palestinian land being expropriated, proportionally more water sources going to settlements, the wall jutting out past the Green Line, more checkpoints, limited access roads and breaking up the contiguity of Palestinian land. How are these activities–which took place before, during and after negotiations–”positive incentives”?

  21. This article is written as if all Israel has to do is withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank in order for Peace to come. But ‘Hamas’ in Gaza and a very good share of the Palestinian leadership of Fatah believe the conflict is not about 67′ but about 48′. Israel’s withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza have shown that when it comes to Land the Arabs cannot concede one single inch to the Jews.
    The problem again is not the so- called ‘occupation’. It is first and above all the other side’s refusal to accept a Jewish sovereignty anywhere in the Holy Land.

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