by Daniel Bar-Tal
One of the main questions that every thinking person has to deal with is how has it happened that Israel has continued to rule over the Palestinian people for 50 years in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (in the West Bank and indirectly in the Gaza Strip). There is no other case in which a state has continued to occupy another nation against its will for such a long time, without giving them equal rights.
The continuing Israeli occupation has a special aspect: in 1968 it began to settle Jews in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). About 750,000 Jews have been settled in these territories by the State of Israel (350,000 of them in East Jerusalem) in about 120 settlements and 100 outposts scattered throughout the territories, though the majority of the settlers (about 320,000) live in a number of blocs on the eastern side of the Green Line. This settlement enterprise contravenes the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, and all of the states of the world consider it a violation of international law.
The Meaning of the Occupation
In an analysis carried out with Isaac Schnell (Bar-Tal and Schnell, 2013), we focused on the influence of the occupation on Jewish society in Israel. Our basic starting assumption was that a continuing occupation as a legal-cultural-political-military system has mutual characteristics which influence both the occupier and the occupied. In general, an occupying society cannot separate itself from the occupation and its influence. This connection becomes even clearer when the occupying nation settles in those territories. After the conquest by the military forces, the borders begin to expand and an ongoing process of relations between the occupier (the Israeli Jews) and the occupied (the Palestinians) began. Despite the fact that the Jewish occupiers believe that they can control the occupied Palestinian society, in reality they are losing their hold over it and processes are gradually developing beyond their control. These processes affect all aspects of Palestinian society, including security, political, economic, cultural and psychological aspects. They also influence the Jewish occupying society, since, from the very beginning of the occupation, the occupied society began to resist the occupation, which, in turn, resulted in an aggressive response from the occupier. The occupation of the Palestinian society against its will produces various efforts to liberate itself from the burden of the occupation while the Jewish occupier does all that it can to repress these efforts. This creates a never-ending cycle of violence. As the occupation continues, these processes grow stronger, particularly since hundreds of thousands of Jews have settled alongside the Palestinian communities.
The occupation has set in motion a number of processes that have dramatically changed the Israeli state and society. First of all, the waves of violence between the occupier and the occupied have penetrated into Israel within the Green Line. The Palestinians have been carrying out a system of violent opposition to the occupation, and although there were also terrorist actions during the 1950s, they never reached the population centers like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. This has increased the threat to Israeli citizens in a significant way. Violent opposition has caused an increase in Israelis’ feeling of insecurity at both the individual and collective levels and deepened the feeling of fear, reducing the concept of security to its broadest sense, a physical existential security. Physical security assumed primacy over social and economic security. The frequent and unpredictable terror activities have created a sense of uncertainty in Israeli life.
The violent Palestinian opposition to occupation and the settlement activities creates a situation in which they are perceived as enemies who are opposed to the return of Jews to their homeland. This situation prevents any possibility of an agreed-upon compromise. This vicious cycle of resistance and repression, along with the demographic threat to the Jewish majority within Greater Israel (the state of Israel and the West Bank), leaves the Israelis with a feeling that they are under a chronic existential threat. This violent and increasing conflict, which cannot be ended with the use of force, increases the hostility and the lack of trust towards the Palestinians. The lack of security and the fears that accompany this situation serve as a barrier to ideas that could bring about an end to the conflict by peaceful means.
The occupation has not been accepted as a normative situation by the world. Occupation contradicts the principles of self-determination, collective rights, political independence and territorial contiguity, which have been accepted as principles of fundamental morality for states and nations. It violates the principles of morality upon which universal human rights rest, such as respect for the life of human beings, equality and the right of the individual and the collective to freedom and independence (Halperin, Sharvit, and Raviv, 2009, Rosler, Bar-Tal). A situation of occupation results in negative actions that frequently reverberate in the public sphere, both in Israel and abroad. Therefore, occupation has a very negative connotation; it is not acceptable as an ongoing situation; it reflects an understandable contradiction of interests between the occupier and the occupied; it necessarily reflects a situation of mistreatment, of injustice and of immorality; it reflects a situation of repression, the negation of freedom, discrimination and exploitation; it entails a great degree of empathy for the occupied and a negative attitude toward the occupier. In order to justify continued occupation, the Jewish-Israeli occupier has to develop resources and efforts to cope with the burden of the occupation. The occupier experiences growing difficulties connected to the morality of its relations with the occupied population, and within Israeli society and the international community. These problems only grow, given that Israel has territorial aspirations toward the occupied land. These aspirations clearly contradict the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prevents an occupying state from transferring citizens from its territory into the occupied territory (Item 49), and it also violates the Hague principles, which prevent an occupying state from carrying out permanent changes in the area which it occupies, unless those changes stem from military needs or are done for the good of the local population.
Thus the situation of occupation has created a tremendous challenge for Israel. At the legal level since June 1967 Israel claims in all international forums (in opposition to the opinion of almost all states and most legal experts) that these territories are not “occupied territories” and that, therefore, the Fourth Geneva Convention does not apply to them, an argument which is based on an assumption that these territories were never under Jordanian (the West Bank) or Egyptian sovereignty (Gaza), and thus the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) should not be seen as a conquering power which has taken something away from its legal owners (Playfair 1989, Roberts 1985). Yet the Israeli High Court of Justice has allowed the residents of the territories to bring cases before it, recognizing its administration as being the result of armed conflict (Kretchmer 2013).
Immediately after the occupation began, part of the Jewish population, particularly the national religious, began to view the occupied territories as “liberated” for religious, historical and cultural reasons. Other parts of the population saw them as “occupied,” while a not insignificant part of the population saw them as “conquered.” Jews in Israel who see the reality of the OPT as liberation release themselves from the harsh psychological implications created by the term “occupation”: a blow to the individual and collective positive image, cognitive dissonance, gaps in the self-image and in collective guilt. They have developed a discourse that presents the OPT as an inherent part of the homeland. Prominent leaders, including from the Labor party, have used a rhetoric that speaks about “a return to the land of our fathers,” or “the promised land,” and a claim that “we have returned to it in order to remain there for eternity.” A number of leaders, on the left and the right, supported settlement activity enthusiastically.
Another aspect of this discourse exists at the security level. These territories were presented as being vital for the defense of the state, and the settlements were compared to the settlements along the borders of the State of Israel established to guarantee its security. At the end of 2016 about 70% of Israeli Jews did not view the situation in the West Bank as an occupation. This figure has grown significantly — in 2004 only 51% thought so. Accordingly, Rosler, Sharvit and Bar-Tal asserted in their research that this approach constitutes one of the main barriers to a possible peace process (Rosler, Sharvit, Bar-Tal, in press). People who think the West Bank was “liberated” tend toward greater opposition to negotiations with the Palestinians.
Yet it is clear that a significant percentage within the society does not suffer psychological difficulties stemming from these challenges, or they experience them only at a very low level, since they activate psychodynamic defense mechanisms. These are mainly unconscious mechanisms like repression, denial, avoidance, rationalization or projection at the individual and collective levels preventing access to the reality — as if there were no occupation or control over another people. These mechanisms help the individual to avoid confronting the contradictions between his behavior (or the collective which he/she belongs to) and norms, the morality and the social beliefs that are acceptable to society today. These mechanisms play a significant role in the ethos of the conflict and enable the construction of social beliefs that justify the circumstances of the occupation, while developing a positive personal social image, a feeling of victimization and a delegitimization of the occupied population. These social beliefs help the individuals within the occupying society and the collective to reduce the psychological difficulties that a situation of occupation may bring about — and may lead them to avoid them entirely — therefore serving as one of the most significant foundations for maintaining control over another nation and a lack of readiness to resolve the conflict (Bar-Tal, Halperin, Sharvit, and Rosler, 2008).
During the decades of the occupation, new generations have grown up in the State of Israel who were born into it and do not know the reality of the Green Line, which served as the border until the 1967 war. Since the government institutions have eliminated the Green Line, it does not appear in the cognitive system of the younger generations. Thus the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is seen by them as one unit of homeland. The majority among these new generations do not recognize the reality of the occupation, at least territorial occupation. The younger generations grew up in a reality dominated by a national religious ideology in the institutions of government, have gone through an educational system which leans toward a national religious line and have been exposed to media which has become more inclined to this type of thinking. They have been exposed to continuous violent events and to their framing by the leadership and also to attempts to resolve the conflict that have failed, which were framed as the responsibility of the Palestinians alone. Thus the members of these new generations in the Jewish society tend toward uncompromising right-wing positions. The younger the people, the greater the support for these approaches (see the Peace Index studies of the most recent years).
Ideology That Supports Occupation
To understand the source of the ideology built on the narrative about “liberation of the land” one must look at the political forces that cultivated it. The Greater Israel ideology was developed at the beginning of the occupation in 1967, but it beat in the hearts of various political movements since long before. This ideology has religious, historic, national and security roots and it says that the nation of Israel has the sole right over the territories west of the Jordan River and that there should be no transfer of them to Arabs. Prominent leaders before the establishment of the state representing various streams — among them Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Yitzhak Tabenkin, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook and his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook — placed the idea of Greater Israel at the center of their outlooks (Naor 2001). After the establishment of the state the idea did not die, but existed as a hope, mainly in religious Zionism, but also among secular movements, such as the Herut Party and Ahdut HaAvoda. When the West Bank was occupied in 1967, the idea became practical.
The Movement for a Greater Israel was established in July 1967, and in September 1967 it published a manifesto signed by dozens of central people in Jewish-Israeli society, including writers and intellectuals, among them Natan Alterman, Shmuel Joseph Agnon, Uri Tzvi Greenberg, Haim Hazaz, Haim Gouri, Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi and Moshe Shamir. This was a broad movement which included circles from the left. In its manifesto was written:
The IDF’s victory in the Six-Day War placed the nation and the state in a new and decisively fateful period. The land of Israel is now in the hands of the Jewish people, and just as we do not have the right to give up on the state of Israel, we are also bound to maintain what we have received from it: the land of Israel. We commit ourselves loyally to the wholeness of our land, to our people’s past as well as to our future, and no Israeli government has the right to give up on this wholeness.
The ideological and practical torch was carried by the members of the national religious movement, who came from the religious Zionist school and founded the Gush Emunim movement in 1974, following the Yom Kippur War. This movement was the executive branch of the Jewish settlement idea in the West Bank and Gaza, the idea that settling the entire land would advance the process of salvation (Rubenstein, 1982). While Jewish settlement in the West Bank began before the establishment of Gush Emunim, the coming to power of the Likud in 1977 instigated a flowering of activity of Gush Emunim (Eldar and Zertal). Prime Minister Menachem Begin supported the idea of Israeli settlement throughout Greater Israel, helped both overtly and covertly. In 1980 the Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea and Samaria and Gaza Strip was established, taking the place of Gush Emunim. Its members included mayors and local and regional council heads in the area of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), and in the past also in Gaza. As an umbrella organization, the council enables the concentration of efforts in areas that are connected to the general settlement enterprise, with a settler arm called Amana, which is responsible for settlement and development.
What has occurred is the ideological takeover of the Greater Israel, its takeover of the general political arena of the state of Israel and the accumulation of tremendous influence over all aspects of life in Israel. It has been possible to find in almost all the Israeli parties people who supported the idea of Greater Israel, from the Labor party to the Tehiya party. Today they are in all of the right-wing parties that have composed the coalition since 2016, and also in the center parties. All of the Israeli governments, including the Yitzhak Rabin government, contributed to the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. The right-wing governments saw the expansion of settlements as an important part of their ideology, policy and actions, even when the states of the world constantly censured Israel because of it.
A systematic and consistent process of settlement expansion existed over the years with the aid of government resources and donors. This large population, part of which settled in the OPT, even in the heart of Arab areas, considered the possibility of dividing the land a blow to the core of its religious beliefs. They made every effort to torpedo attempts to find a solution to the conflict by means of negotiations (Karpin and Friedman 1999). The settlement enterprise also recruited for settlement in the OPT via economic subsidies to a population which saw a home in the area of the West Bank as a rare opportunity to improve their quality of life. These two populations invested in settlement in the West Bank both psychological and economic resources. For them, a return to the area of the State of Israel would be a huge loss. They are a very powerful, well-organized political force, with strong backing from families, friends and political partners, and a broad ideological backing from the right-wing parties that have mostly led the state since 1977. The combination of an ideology that sees Jewish settlement in the West Bank to be a supreme command, together with the creation of a strong force which guides parties, institutions, and organizations with huge resources, has become the main barrier to the possibility of resolving the conflict by peaceful means.
Since the current escalation of the conflict began in the year 2000, the ideology of Greater Israel, whether overt or covert, has dictated to a great degree the policies of the governments of the state of Israel. And as Palestinian violence and rhetoric increased, it influenced the basic needs of the Jews. It is not surprising, therefore, that the ethos of the conflict, together with the Greater Israel ideology, became the epistemological basis that guides the path of the state. There has been a clear increase in the influence of the national right and the national religious in many spheres of life in the state of Israel. On the subject of a possible peace process to end the conflict with the Palestinians, this political bloc (except during Ehud Olmert’s government between 2006 and 2009) opposed the compromises needed for a possible peace agreement, and remained steadfast in its approach that the land should not be divided. They insisted that the Palestinians and their leaders were not partners for a negotiation because their aspiration was to destroy the State of Israel. This bloc insisted on the expansion of the settlements and a reduction in the living space for Palestinians. It also demanded a heavy-handed response to Palestinian violence. This bloc is doing its utmost to force the institutions of the State of Israel to carry out its nationalistic goals in the security, educational and legal systems, and in the media. It is also doing all that it can to vilify those who oppose their views. This sociopolitical institutional extremism is also expressed in the construction of the Jewish identity.
The Place of the Settlers in the Process of Maintaining the Occupation
To understand the depth of the role of the settlers in maintaining the occupation, it is necessary to point to four processes: First, the extreme settlers have penetrated the political systems of the parties and have accumulated significant influence over the selection of members of the Knesset. Second, the procedures involved in appointments enable the settlers of the religious right and their supporters to reach government and establishment positions. These appointments enable the supporters of the settlements to decide on policy, enact laws, transfer resources and budgets, and to carry out a series of activities in service of the movement, frequently violating laws and regulations. After they have established themselves in influential positions that impact the settlement enterprise, they gain the ability not only to distort government policy but even to populate the bureaucracy with people whose ideas are similar to theirs. In such a reality, it becomes impossible for the political elite to act against the right-wing religious movements, for they are dependent on the cooperation of office holders who frequently are more committed to expanding the settlements than they are to proper government and the rule of law. Third, the IDF has undergone a similar process, though the reasons for this are different. Since the IDF is not a professional army, the growth of power and influence there has been based on the demographic and positional changes of the Israeli public. In Israel there are a growing number of young extremists in officer positions committed to the ideology of Greater Israel (Levy 2011). And in most of the West Bank settlements, there are local defense units whose members are armed settlers. These phenomena limit the freedom of action of the state. And finally, the State of Israel has not been able to convince its citizens that there is a significant difference between the activities of a legitimate government and the illegal activities of the settlers. A broad segment of the population supports policies that favor the settlers instead of the principle of the supremacy of the state. These processes reflect a major crisis of legitimacy, one in which the legitimacy of the authority of the state has been put into question.
The authority of the state has been stolen, and it is becoming more and more difficult to change the direction of the policies and activities of the government. The price of such changes has become so high because of the growing strength of the right-wing settlers who have gained the ability to veto activities of the state. Their growing strength has given them the ability to damage the principles of the democratic state and its processes. Even when the interests of the state do not coincide with the ideologically imbued settlers, the power that they have accumulated enables them to force the state to act in opposition to its own strategic interests. Thus an ending to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes that much more difficult.
To conclude, I have tried here to indicate a number of processes and mechanisms that stem from the very continuation of the occupation. They include universal processes that have occurred in every place where there is an unwanted occupation throughout the world. Additional processes are unique to the religious socio-political developments in the State of Israel that enable a minority to gain control of the state. The main obstacle to the ending of the occupation can be found in these processes. Only with the return of political power to the majority of citizens of the state will it be possible to set in motion a process that will lead to the end of the occupation. A continuation and an expansion of the settlement enterprise will bring about a situation that makes it impossible to establish a Palestinian state. In such a situation, the struggle of the Palestinians, of the enlightened world, and of the Jews who understand the meaning of an occupation regime, will be to grant equal rights to the Palestinian residents from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.