In an unusual NY Times op-ed, Palestinian activist Nasser Nawaja describes the ordeal of his West Bank village, Susiya, under threat of Israeli demolition. The homes of some 340 Palestinians are slated to be destroyed on the grounds that they were built without proper permits from the Israeli military authorities. (Catch 22: it is practically impossible for Palestinians living in the West Bank Area C–60% of the total West Bank–to obtain building permits.) Suliya is in no way unique, but for whatever reason, its case has attracted a great deal of international attention, with European and Canadian activists camping out in the area to publicize and protest the Israelis’ plans. Both the European Union and the US State Department have urged Israel to desist.
As Nawaja points out, Suliya has become emblematic of Israel’s presumption of the right to displace West Bank Palestinians wherever their presence interferes with Israel’s relentless, illegal colonization of the Arab lands it has occupied. Another village, Beit Ula, hasn’t gotten much publicity, but just this past Wednesday, Israeli forces destroyed 450 Palestinian-owned olive trees, leveled land, and demolished the village’s Roman-era water well, following the confiscation of hundreds of acres of land over the past year.
I called Nawaja’s op-ed unusual because news media in the US so seldom convey more than a hint of the nature of Israel’s brutal and exploitative rule in the West Bank and its devastating impact on Palestinian life. (For an explanation of our media’s overwhelming pro-Israel bias, see this.) Some 18,000 Palestinian homes have been destroyed since 1967; thousands of acres of farmland and hundreds of thousands of olive trees have been leveled to make way for Israeli settlements. Water, a scarce resource in the desert, is consumed abundantly by Israeli settlers, but parceled out stintingly to Palestinians. None of this can be rationalized in the name of security, which is used to justify limitations on Palestinians’ freedoms of movement, assembly and expression and the routine harassment of Palestinians on the streets and in their homes.
Defenders of Israel sometimes resent the term “occupation” as a description of Israel’s presence on the West Bank. (Some may recall poor Chris Christie’s faux pas when he used the word “occupation” at a gathering of Republican hopefuls convoked by the right-wing billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Adelson will not dispense largesse to anyone who would suggest the slightest lack of rectitude by Israel. The famously pugnacious New Jersey governor groveled in apology to the mogul.) I tend to avoid the term for the opposite reason: it’s inadequate to describe what Israel is actually engaged in on the West Bank: the displacement and dispossession of another people. That process started in 1948 with the ethnic cleansing that made possible a Jewish majority in the new state of Israel behind the so-called “green line.” It resumed after Israel’s 1967 military victory laid the basis for Israel’s conquest of the rest of Palestine. And conquest is clearly the end for the West Bank that is intended by Israel’s ruling right-wing coalition.
So, “occupation,” far from being an unfair pejorative, is actually something of a euphemism. A military occupation under international law is a presumably temporary but legitimate state of affairs following a war that has not ended with a definitive settlement. International law, as understood by the entire world community except Israel, does not permit the occupier to colonize the territories it occupies. You can describe Israel’s activities on the West Bank as colonization, appropriation, or conquest, but let’s understand that “occupation” only begins to describe what has been happening there.