Israel's 40 Years of Occupation:
From Democratic State to Violent Oppressor
by Chris Hedges, Truthdig
www.alternet.org/, June 5, 2007
Israel captured and occupied the Gaza
Strip and the West Bank 40 years ago this week. The victory was
celebrated as a great triumph, at once tripling the size of the
land under Israeli control, including East Jerusalem. It was,
however, a Pyrrhic victory.
As the occupation stretched over the decades,
it transformed and deformed Israeli society. It led Israel to
abandon the norms and practices of a democratic society until,
in the name of national security, it began to routinely accept
the brutal violence of occupation and open discrimination and
abuse of Palestinians, including the torture of prisoners and
collective reprisals for Palestinians attacks. Palestinian neighborhoods,
olive groves and villages were, in the name of national security,
bulldozed into the ground.
Israel's image has shifted from that of
a heroic, open society set amid a sea of despotic regimes to that
of an international pariah. Israel's West Bank separation barrier,
built ostensibly to keep out Palestinian bombers, has also been
used to swallow huge tracts of the West Bank into Israel. Palestinian
towns are ringed by Israeli checkpoints. Major roads in the West
Bank are reserved for Israeli settlers.
The U.N. estimates that about half the
West Bank is now off-limits to Palestinians. And every week there
are new reports of Palestinian produce that is held up until it
rots, pregnant women giving birth in cars because they cannot
get to hospitals, and even senseless and avoidable deaths, such
as one young woman who died recently when she couldn't get through
a checkpoint to her kidney dialysis treatment.
"We are raising commanders who are
policemen," former Israeli General Amiram Levine told the
newspaper Maariv. "We ask them to excel at the checkpoint.
What does it means to excel at the checkpoint? It means being
enough of a bastard to delay a pregnant woman from getting to
The occupation was benign at the beginning.
Israelis crossed into Palestinian territory to buy cheap vegetables,
eat at local restaurants, spend the weekend in the desert oasis
of Jericho and get their cars fixed. The Palestinians were a pool
of cheap labor and by the mid-1980s, 40 percent of the Palestinian
workforce was employed in Israel.
The Palestinians flowed over the border
to the shops and beaches of Tel Aviv. But the second-class status
of Palestinians, growing repression by Israeli authorities in
the West Bank and Gaza and festering poverty saw Palestinians,
most of them too young to remember the moment of occupation, rise
up in December 1987 to launch six years of street protests. The
uprising eventually led to a peace accord between Israel and the
Palestine Liberation Organization led by Yasir Arafat. Arafat,
who had spent most of his life in exile, returned in triumph to
The Oslo Accords that followed momentarily
heralded a new era, a moment of hope. I was in Gaza when they
were signed. The Gaza Strip was awash in a giddy optimism. Palestinian
businessmen who had made their fortunes abroad returned to help
build the new Palestinian state. The radical Islamists seemed
to shrink away. Palestinian women threw off their head scarves
and beauty salons sprouted on city streets. There was a brief
and shining sense that life could be normal, free from strife
and violence, that finally Palestinians had a future.
But it all swiftly turned sour. The 1995
assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, coupled
with mounting draconian restrictions on Palestinians to prevent
them from entering Israel and keep them in submission, led to
another uprising in 2000. This one, which I also covered for The
New York Times, was far more violent.
This latest uprising has led to the deaths
of more than 4,300 Palestinians and 1,100 Israelis. It ushered
in an Israeli policy that saw Jewish settlers relocated from Gaza.
Gaza was then sealed off like a vast prison. Israel also began
to build a security barrier -- at a cost of about $ 1 million
per mile -- in the West Bank. When it is done, the barrier is
expected to incorporate 40 percent of Palestinian land into the
Israeli air strikes have, over the past
year, decimated the infrastructure in Gaza, destroying bridges,
power stations and civilian administration buildings. The breakdown
in law and order, coupled with the growing desperation in Gaza,
has triggered an internecine conflict between Hamas and Fatah.
There are some 200 Palestinians who have died in clashes and street
fighting between the two factions during the past year -- more
than one-third of those killed by Israel during the same period.
The Israeli abuses have been well documented,
not only by international human rights organizations, but Israeli
human rights groups such as B'Tselem. On June 4, 2007, Amnesty
International released a new 45-page report called "Enduring
Occupation: Palestinians Under Siege in the West Bank," which
again illustrates the devastating impact of four decades of Israeli
The report documents the relentless expansion
of unlawful settlements on occupied land. It details the ways
Israel has seized or denied crucial resources, such as water,
to Palestinians under occupation. It documents a plethora of measures
that confine Palestinians to fragmented enclaves and hinder their
access to work, health and education facilities. These measures
include the 700-kilometer barrier or wall, more than 500 checkpoints
and blockades, and a complicated system of permits to heavily
"Palestinians living in the West
Bank are blocked at every turn. This is not simply an inconvenience
-- it can be a matter of life or death. It is unacceptable that
women in labor, sick children, or victims of accidents on their
way to hospital should be forced to take long detours and face
delays which can cost them their lives," said Malcolm Smart,
director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa
"International action is urgently
needed to address the widespread human rights abuses being committed
under the occupation, and which are fueling resentment and despair
among a predominantly young and increasingly radicalized Palestinian
population," said Smart. "For 40 years, the international
community has failed to adequately address the Israeli-Palestinian
problem; it cannot, must not, wait another 40 years to do so."
Of Gaza's 1.4 million residents, a staggering
1.1 million now depend on outside food assistance. The World Food
Program has identified Gaza as one of the world's hunger global
hot spots. The WFP is a principal food aid provider to Palestinians,
providing assistance to 640,000 Palestinians, more than a third
of them in Gaza.
The desperation -- with young men unable
to find work, travel outside the Gaza Strip or West Bank and forced
to sleep 10 to a room in concrete hovels without running water
-- has empowered the Islamic radicals. The desperation has led
the Palestinian population, once one of the most secular in the
Middle East, to turn to radical fundamentalism. The more pressure
and violence Israel employs, the more these radicals are empowered.
The Israeli lobby in the United States
is captive to the far right of Israeli politics. It exerts influence
not on behalf of the Jewish state but an ideological strain within
Israel that believes it can crush Palestinian aspirations through
The self-defeating policies of the Bush
administration are mirrored in the self-defeating policies championed
by the hard-right administration of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
in Jerusalem. Israel flouts international law and dismisses Security
Council resolutions to respect the integrity of Palestinian territory.
It has instead trapped Palestinians in squalid, barricaded ghettos
where they barely survive.
It is not in Israel's interest -- or our
own -- to continue to fuel increased Palestinian strife and rising
militancy. Economic sanctions against Israel are our last hope.
These were the tools that toppled the apartheid regime in South
Africa. And it was, after all, the sanctions imposed by the first
President Bush -- he suspended $10 billion of loan guarantees
for resettling Russian immigrants in Israel -- that prodded right-wing
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to attend peace talks in
A trade embargo -- even if imposed only
by European states -- would be a start. It is outside pressure
that can alone halt the inexorable slide into a conflict that
could become regional. And a new regional conflict with Israel
could spell the end of the Zionist experiment in the Middle East.
It may be quixotic, perhaps even impossible, but it is the last
measure left to save Israel from itself.