This week marks the 45th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. A decade ago, I joined a small group of Americans in identifying the occupation as the Achilles heel in Israel’s decades-old violations of Palestinian human rights. We believed that hard work and our diverse ethnicities, faiths, and ideologies, grounded in a common commitment to international law, would soon get the “end occupation, uphold human rights” message out to the political establishment and fellow Americans. After all, there was international consensus concerning the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war,” a basic principle of international law enshrined in U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967, which called for Israel’s withdrawal from the territories it seized in the 6-day war it launched on June 5.
Even though the organization we co-founded has since grown to represent hundreds of thousands of Americans, the Israeli occupation appears more entrenched than ever. Israel has cemented its control of Palestinian land and water, settling over 500,000 of its people in the territories and herding the Palestinians into ever-smaller enclaves, all the while flagrantly violating international law. Yet it has continued to enjoy the support of the United States, including diplomatic cover at the U.N. and massive military aid.
Israel has also benefited from the acquiescence of the Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation Organization in the moribund “peace process” launched by the Oslo Accords nearly 20 years ago. Although this so-called leadership now refuses to participate in negotiations so long as Israel continues to colonize, they have not definitively pulled out of them, even though the only tangible result has been the inexorable loss of Palestinian land and rights.
Worse, they have no clear counter-strategy and have not been willing to invest in the sources of power necessary to achieve Palestinian human rights, even though there are many avenues available — diplomatic, economic, mobilization of Arab and international civil society — that could effectively challenge Israel.
Palestinian leaders have tinkered with the edges of the Oslo framework, such as the effort to seek U.N. membership for the disconnected fragments of land now called “Palestine.” But they are fearful of completely breaking away and losing even the minimal privileges Israel grants them as well as the U.S. and European aid necessary for their survival. Their lack of strategy and inability to muster the necessary counter-power contributes, wittingly or unwittingly, to Israel’s violation of Palestinian human rights.
By contrast, Israel has been following a clear strategy for over six decades: more Palestinian land, fewer Palestinian people. Having effectively made 60 percent of the West Bank off limits to the Palestinians through barricades and the Separation Wall, it is now focused on squeezing them out of East Jerusalem, which it has illegally annexed — a move not recognized by any world government. To do so, Israel uses a mixture of bureaucratic measures, including: denying permission to build; imposing very high taxes; home demolitions and evictions; and annulling the Jerusalem residency of Palestinians who are caught studying and working outside the city, even if they do so in neighboring Ramallah.
Every so often, Israeli leaders launch a trial balloon to define the shape of their hoped-for final outcome. Last week, for example, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak suggested that Israel should take “unilateral action” regarding the territories. Recent attacks against UNRWA are part of a continuing Israeli campaign to question the right of the Palestinian refugees and exiles to return to their homes and lands, and even their existence.
Yet, even as Israel wins the battles in this century-old conflict over the land of Palestine, it looks increasingly likely to lose the war. The present-day settlement and ethnic cleansing have drawn attention to the original injustice behind the creation of Israel, when the same methods were used, and have brought into the foreground the underlying racial discrimination of what is in effect a colonial enterprise.
Indeed, when referring to African immigrants, a high-ranking Israeli official — Interior Minister Eli Yishai — recently said: “Most of those people arriving here are Muslims who think the country doesn’t belong to us, the white man.” He also declared: “The infiltrators along with the Palestinians will quickly bring us to the end of the Zionist dream.”
The nature of the Israeli regime as it affects the occupied territories is described in books and reports, novels, films, maps and infographics that depict the population barriers and segregated roads. In recent years, this has led to a sea change in public attitudes towards Israel.
The change in discourse has brought a growing response to the campaign led by Palestinian civil society for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Individuals and groups are boycotting Israeli settlement goods and artists are refusing to perform in Israel. In Europe, financial groups and states have been divesting pension funds from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation. The general conference of the world United Methodist Church in Florida, which recently concluded, called for a “boycott of products made by companies in Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.”
Although no country has yet taken steps towards sanctions against Israel, South Africa and Denmark recently decided that Israeli goods produced in the occupied territories be labeled as such; Britain had in 2009 officially recommended such a measure to business owners, adding that labeling a settlement product as having been manufactured in Israel would be a criminal offense because it misleads consumers. Although the cumulative impact of the boycotts, divestment, and consumer actions cannot yet be measured, certain companies like Veolia reportedly lost billions of dollars. Certainly Israel and its allies are taking the BDS campaign seriously, analyzing the repercussions. They seek to re-brand Israel as an innovative, welcoming state, organize lawsuits against boycott efforts, and challenge pro-Palestinian groups on U.S. and European campuses.
Nevertheless, the brutality of the occupation is increasingly impossible to ignore, and draws attention to the denial of the refugees’ right of return and the discrimination against the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Israel now risks becoming an international pariah, as former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert foresaw in 2007, even as he was unwilling or unable to stop the settlement project. And a growing number of Palestinians are giving up on the two-state solution in favor of a future state of Israel/Palestine where all citizens enjoy freedom, justice, and equality regardless of race or religion. Israel’s occupation is indeed proving its Achilles heel, but in ways one could not have imagined 45 years ago.
Nadia Hijab is Director of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network. She serves on the advisory board of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.