At what point does an occupation transform into something entirely different? Is fifty years enough? Half a century after Israel’s 1967 lightning takeover of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, is it still accurate to characterize its control of these territories as a “military occupation,” which by definition has always meant a temporary phenomenon?
Occupations are at the core military systems established to regulate the temporary presence and behavior of a foreign army over a conquered territory and its indigenous population. The underlying assumption informing the law of occupation is that a pronounced de facto and de jure difference exists between the occupying country and the territory it has occupied.
Yet, over the past fifty years the Green Line separating pre-1967 Israel from the areas it captured has been geographically and politically erased. In addition to connecting the two regions with roads, electricity grids, and a customs union, Israel has moved hundreds of thousands of settlers to East Jerusalem and the West Bank, including today two Supreme Court Justices, several Cabinet and Knesset Members and numerous other public servants.
Far from ameliorating this situation, the Oslo process—which is today almost half as old as the Occupation itself—enabled its intensification. Effectively, then, for well over a generation there has been one state between the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean Sea, and the Israeli government is its sovereign.
The UN Security Council, the International Court of Justice, most every country one earth and even Israel’s own High Court consider the territories occupied in 1967 to be legally separate from Israel, in which the laws of occupation apply. Decades of reports by Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organizations unequivocally demonstrate Israel’s systematic violations of these laws.
Israel’s responses to these accusations have been twofold. First, like other human rights abusers, the government does whatever it can to deny, rebut, or muddy the claims. Second, the Israeli government denies even the applicability of the laws of occupation, arguing that because the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem were not legally part of Egypt and Jordan before the war they are merely “disputed,” meaning Israel has a free hand to expropriate and settle the land while denying Palestinians rights otherwise guaranteed by international law.
Ironically, today both the most virulent supporters and harshest critics of Israel’s ongoing control of the conquered territories believe the debate over whether they are occupied is no longer relevant.
On the one hand, many if not most members of the present ruling coalition in Israel would like to end the debate about the legal status of the Palestinian territories by simply annexing much if not all of the West Bank (Israel annexed East Jerusalem already in 1967), transforming the de facto annexation into a de jure one while leaving Gaza’s fate to the international community.
On the other hand, a growing number of Palestinian and even Israeli human rights advocates believe that after fifty years of unrelenting repression and settlement the occupation itself rather than its specific manifestations has become illegal. Indeed, the correct term to describe such a situation is no longer occupation. It is Apartheid.
Critics of the use of the Apartheid label argue that it is a false analogy, claiming that the historical and political experiences in both countries are too different to justify using such a highly charged and historically specific term vis-a-vis Israel. But the fact that Israel’s system of ethnic domination and exclusion is different from South Africa’s no more delegitimizes its categorization as an Apartheid system than the unique experiences of Italy and France would challenge their similar characterization as democracies.
Apartheid—not only in its South African experience, but in its clear definition under international law (particularly through the 1973 International Covenant on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid)–possesses a fundamental characteristic that defines its practice wherever it exists: “two populations, one of them endowed with all the civil rights and the other denied all rights.”
These words come not from the 1973 Covenant but from the mouth of Israel’s greatest diplomat, Abba Eban, who uttered them less than a week after the conclusion of the Six Day War in warning his colleagues such a situation would be very hard to defend. But they anticipate the Covenant’s description of Apartheid as “systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime” (in international law, “race” has a far broader meaning than in standard English, encompassing any socially constructed identity in a particular setting).
Understanding Israel as an Apartheid system reveals the urgent need for a paradigm shift in how we understand and attempt to transform the political reality in Israel and Palestine. Instead of asking how to end the occupation and create two states, decision-makers need to consider how to democratize the one state reality existing between the River and the Sea. Instead of continuing to use the law of occupation to criticize Israel’s policies, new tools need to be developed to secure the Palestinian right to self determination within a context where territorially grounded statehood is no longer (and likely never was) a possibility.
In this context, far from singling out Israel, the Apartheid label would normalize it, allowing the same broad range of strategies that have worked elsewhere to be deployed here, giving Israelis and Palestinians alike new tools to fight for a peaceful, just and democratic future for all the country’s inhabitants. After fifty years of violence, oppression and war both peoples deserve a better future. Admitting the reality of Apartheid is the first step in that direction.
Neve Gordon is Leverhulme visiting fellow in the department of political science and international studies at SOAS.
Mark LeVine is professor of history at UC Irvine and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University. Together with a group of Palestinian and Israeli scholars they are collaborating on a forthcoming book on the Occupation at fifty for the University of California Press.
First published in Al Jazeera.