The Modern Occupation

[Two years have passed since Israel’s aggression on Gaza, and siege and blockade continues there. Shashwat Sinha recounts the history of Palestine’s occupation and dispossession and reflects on Israel’s strategic place in US interests. The article will be continued and concluded in the forthcoming issue.]

The Middle-East is burning; indeed, peace has been a chimera for the region for decades.  War, violence, impoverishment, lack of any semblance of justice has become routinised in the daily lives of the people in the Middle-East.  The core issue that has cast its shadow over peace in the region is the Israel-Palestine ‘conflict’ which involves Arab population living in Palestine, Israel and neighbouring countries.  The ‘conflict’ is a euphemism for land grab by Israelis that started mainly in 1967 and has continued till date.  Palestinians, having lost virtually all their land to Israel, are forced now to live on segregated isolated dots of land, overwhelmed from all sides by Israeli territories.  The kind of aggression, occupation and mass-murder that Israel has perpetrated in the region is matched and preceded only by land grab and genocide that occurred in the Americas after Columbus landed on its shores. It is déjà vu in human history, where, now in today’s modern world, several centuries later, a similar story of dehumanization and dispossession of an entire indigenous population is being repeated—with the US now as its major sponsor.  It is compounded by the fact that it has elements of apartheid that existed in South Africa, which was for decades, again, not surprisingly, supported by the US. A non-militarized Palestinian population completely dispossessed from most of their lands, surviving as refugees in their own country and completely dependent on foreign aid for their survival are fighting this impossible war for their rights, dignity and sovereignty.  The last four decades has seen more setbacks than advances for the Palestinian cause—while the world either looked the other way or remained a mute spectator. 
At the heart of the current Israel-Palestine conflict is the issue of settlement of Israelis in the occupied Palestinian lands, now underway in the occupied West bank in a major way.  West Bank and Gaza, the principal sites of Palestinian population—the majority having been pushed from their homeland into these cramped habitations—are being further eroded with each passing day.  A freeze on settlements is the only way to a dialogue for any peaceful and meaningful solution but in the long history of the region, these settlements have simply continued to expand. A recent UN human rights report by Richard Falk states that settlement construction has been so unrelenting that it will probably render Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land quite irreversible.  The occupation is tantamount to de-facto annexation of Palestinian land.  Richard Falk also emphasized that this undercuts the assumption behind the UN Security Council that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory in 1967 was temporary and reversible.  An earlier UN report stated that Israel forcibly denies Palestinians access to nearly one-fifth of Gaza Strip land and 85 per cent of its naval territory. 
In 1980, Israel declared occupied Jerusalem as its capital, which has not been recognized by any other country including the US.  The historic city is home to many holy places for Jews as well as Muslims, the latter much larger in number, including the third holiest place for Muslims, the al-Aqsa mosque. Israel has steadfastly resisted division of Jerusalem and continues to occupy East Jerusalem. With the far Right party led by the extremist Benjamin Netanyahu now in power in Israel, hopes of peace and justice for Palestinians have further been dashed with evictions of Palestinians from the occupied East Jerusalem followed by demolition of their homes.    
In mid-October, Netanyahu offered to ‘partially’ freeze settlements if the Palestinian Authority (PA) were to accept Israel (now most part of the region) as a Jewish state.  The Palestinians rejected the offer, pointing that recognition of Israel as a Jewish state was irrelevant and detrimental to the peace process.  They instead reiterated their long-standing demand that the US administration set the 1967 lines as the starting point for negotiations about final borders.  The Palestinians recognized Israel through PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) in 1993 but have adamantly refused to recognize it as a Jewish state for fear that doing so would prejudge the fate of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Remember too that Arabs make up around 20 per cent of Israel's population—which assumes all the more significance in the light of a recent law passed in Israel that requires all non-Jews to take the ‘oath of loyalty’ if they wished to stay in Israel.  This is also consistent with Israel’s constant denial of the ‘right of return’ of the Palestinian refugees of the 1967 war to their former homes.  Their return is viewed as a threat to destroy the state of Israel through sheer demographics. For that reason, Netanyahu is hell-bent on the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, which will serve demographics by ignoring the Israeli-Arab citizens of Israel.  Replying to Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior Palestinian official’s objections, senior Israeli cabinet minister Silvan Shalom commented that "it was unacceptable to return to the lines of June 1967.  There is a very large consensus in Israel on this point."  The ‘consensus’ is now routinely flaunted by the Israeli administration shutting off and suppressing alternative voices of peace like that of Left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz—which calls this a "major diversionary ploy"—and the mass-selling Yediot Aharonot which has accused Netanyahu of trying to "torpedo" the talks.  The peace voices from non-Jews are nearly intolerable for the Israeli administration. In September, Israel deported peace activist and Nobel Laureate Mairead Maguire (she won Nobel Prize in 1976 for her extraordinary actions to end sectarian violence in her native Northern Ireland) for her ride on a humanitarian boat to Gaza.  In her words, “There will be peace in this country, I believe it, but only when Israel ends apartheid and the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people."    
Netanyahu’s belligerence has been on a steady rise since Obama’s speech in Cairo addressed to the entire Arab world soon after his election as the President where he demonstrated a conciliatory gesture.  Israel took great exception to the speech and since then has snubbed the US administration more than once following its own path, and aggressively and openly flouting any recommendations for restraint from its protector (the US).  Netanyahu in 2001 had openly boasted “the US cannot come in the way of Israeli expansionism.” A sore this may be in the Obama administration’s eyes, still when President Obama made the Israel-Palestine conflict the centerpiece of his address to the UN General Assembly, it was only filled with hollow words and rhetoric of “vows to end settlements.” After a ten-month-long moratorium on settlement construction ended in September this year, the settlers in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem immediately resumed building new homes with bulldozers in action in the settlement of Oranit. The Israeli military reportedly also destroyed hundreds of gravestones in a centuries-old Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem.  The settlements have aggressively continued in the occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem in last 17 years since the Oslo Agreement.  During this period there has been a 300 per cent increase in the number of settlers with the settlements nearly doubled.  The settlers in West Bank oppose any freeze in expansion of settlements and resort to violence and terror at the faintest whiff of such a proposal. In early October the Jewish settlers in the West Bank set a Palestinian mosque on fire in the village of Beit Fajjar, south of Bethlehem, opposing a call for freeze on settlements, damaging parts of the mosque and destroying about a dozen copies of the Quran.  The Palestinian Authority condemned the arson but unfortunately, such acts of aggressions are no exception and have become a part of Palestinian lives.  These acts connived by Israeli administration have routinely halted talks between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli administration.  Any efforts by Obama administration to appease Netanyahu and provide incentives for settlement freeze have been completely ineffective. The International Court of Justice and endless United Nations resolutions have ruled that settlements are illegal and should be removed but the settlements have continually expanded.  The settlements are only the facade of a complex and profitable system that includes checkpoints, road segregation, security zones, the ‘apartheid wall’ and ‘natural reserves.’  Palestine remains divided, segregated and deprived of most basic living conditions. The Israeli blockade in Gaza and West Bank has prevented flow of basic necessities like food, medicines and water.  One of the casual activities of Israeli troops is to target practice at water tanks at the top of Palestinian buildings.    
This maze of blockades and checkpoints has for years gobbled the land, water resources and the economic space of the independent Palestinian state supposedly being negotiated in this same period.  Nearly 60 per cent of the West Bank and 80 per cent of water resources have been consumed this way leaving Palestinians cramped and miserable in their own homeland.  All attempts to bring aid to the suffering Palestinians have been uniformly foiled by the Israeli forces.  This year is remarkable in the number of attacks on boats, ships and flotilla carrying aid to Gaza. Despite signs of peace and aid on these vessels, the Israeli forces intercepted such convoys and took people on board as prisoners thereby preventing any aid reaching the Palestinian shores. It is notable that even peaceful ‘Jews’ are not allowed to bring aid to Gaza.  Jews supporting the right of Palestinian people are now condemned as ‘self-hating Jews.’  Palestinian activists are obviously beyond redemption. Israeli military court routinely convicts peace activists—a recent conviction being that of Abdallah Abu Rahma, a prominent Palestinian peace activist who heads a group opposing Israel's separation wall through the West Bank.  In late September, nine passengers on board a Jewish aid boat Irene that was prevented from reaching Gaza were apprehended by Israeli forces miles off the shores of Gaza.  The passengers accused the Israeli military of excessive force in seizing their ship and the Israeli activist and former Israel Air Force pilot Yonatan Shapira reported that he was beaten and shocked with a taser gun.  They were attempting to deliver a symbolic load of humanitarian aid to break the Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip.  The Jewish Boat to Gaza was the latest attempt to break the blockade since Israel’s deadly attack on an aid flotilla in May. The attack on flotilla motivated British activist Patrick Audai to participate in a convoy of some forty-five vehicles carrying aid to Gaza via Turkey.  The convoy, dubbed Viva Palestina, was also stopped and allowed to pass through only in October end. 
President Obama had personally warned Turkey in August that unless it shifts its position on Israel and Iran, it could be cut off from future US arms deals.
The stories of aggression and brutality are endless and the chronicle of the misery and impoverishment of Palestinians would fill volumes. However, just a cursory glance at recent incidents as mentioned above affords us some perspective. Israel’s carpet-bombing of Lebanon in 2006 and massacre of over 1300 Palestinians in December 2008 drew a serious reprimand in the Goldstone Report, Goldstone himself being a staunch Jew. The Obama administration had vehemently discredited the report as being one-sided; the US was the only country protecting Israel.  The so-called “peace negotiations” between Israel and Palestine brokered by the United States have been instruments of extending the complete subjugation of Palestinians. Israel has never refrained from attacking occupied West Bank and Gaza strip even in the midst of ‘peace talks.’ Negotiations between two unequal parties cannot succeed.  On the one side stands the Israeli government that controls the land, roads, airspace, borders, water, electricity, trade and economy of the Palestinian side, while also possessing a powerful military establishment, and on the other side of the divide is the Palestinian Authority, lacking military or any perceivable power, existing merely as a fiefdom within the Israeli matrix of control.  Then there is general public in Israel with a ‘consensus’ that has dramatically shifted towards the Right, and on the other hand there is a divided and scattered Palestinian population with total dependence on foreign aid and declining democracy and human rights.  To top it all, the Palestinian Authority is continuously pressured to provide security for its aggressor while leaving its own people completely vulnerable to any attack.  A stray rocket by Palestinians or Hamas has always been responded to with brute and disproportionate Israeli force costing hundreds of lives. 
A casual observer might be constrained to ask why the US would support a tiny, parasitical country very much dependent on its massive military, technology and economic aid even as the whole world condemns Israeli actions in unison. One might be led to believe in the role of a strong Jewish lobby in US administration, academia and public sphere which exercises this incredible control over the foreign policy of the United States.  This however would be a case of the tail wagging the dog.  It is a careful and well-crafted propaganda that perpetrates the view that the unwavering support of Israel by the US administration is due to the influence of Jews in the US, Jews being in powerful positions and generally a moneyed class in the US.  Contrary to the propagandist perception, the US has used Israel as a ‘wedge’ in the Middle-east to serve its interest of exploiting the region’s resources (read oil).  Imperial powers like the US have no ‘permanent friends’ but only ‘permanent interests’ and the US is only pursuing its interests through Israel. Although highly unlikely today, the policy may shift against Israel at any point of time. The apartheid in South Africa is a good example, which flourished with the US support and aid but ended as soon as the US made a policy shift against it. Israel has served as a watchdog for the US in the Middle-east, as it was for the French and British imperialist powers in the first half of the twentieth century. It has re-paid the benevolence of the US in kind by performing most nasty acts and covert operations for the US in the Middle-east and around the world.  In 70s and 80s, Israel provided critical support to apartheid when it was inconvenient for Washington to do so directly.  With South Africa, Israel built an electric fence along the Namibian-Angolan border; Namibia was a colony of South Africa and Angola had SWAPO guerillas.  During 80s, Israel trained Guatemalan army when it was carrying out genocide against its indigenous population. The Israeli police joined hands with CIA to train Chilean torturers and other Latin American countries. It helped in proxy wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua; gave military aid to Taiwan; undermined Algerian revolution; the list is endless.  In the Middle-east it has been most beneficial to its sponsors by serving to check the Arab nationalist movements. Israeli bombers destroyed an Iraqi nuclear plant when Iran-Iraq war was raging and the US was against Iran as the US-installed Shah had been overthrown in 1979. In a myriad different ways, the existence of Israel in the heart of the Arab world has distorted regional development for the benefit of imperial powers.  Most leaders in the US view the aid to Israel as money well spent.

(To be continued)