In June 2017, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip reached the half-century mark, and entered its fifty-first year. A third, even fourth, generation of Palestinians and Israelis have been born into this reality, and it is the only one they have ever known. It is a reality in which Israel holds sway over 13 million people living in the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, yet only eight million of them – those who are Israeli citizens, regardless of whether or not they live within the boundaries of the Green Line – participate in the political process that determines the future of this geographic area. The inherent features of this reality make it impossible to call Israel a democracy.
Israel captured the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in June 1967. It has maintained control – in one form or another – over these territories and their people ever since. For more than half a century, Israel has kept up a reality of dispossession, oppression and human rights abuse in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank:
In the Gaza Strip, which it controls from without, Israel applies a callous policy and assumes no responsibility for the devastating effects it has on the lives of the local residents. Israel denies Gaza residents any possibility of independent subsistence, yet is willing to meet only their barest needs, even on essentials such as water and electricity. This policy prevents the physical reconstruction in Gaza necessary following the devastation Israel wreaked there over the course of several rounds of combat, and also thwarts Gaza’s economic recovery after years of being under the Israeli-imposed blockade. Despite the dire situation in the Gaza Strip, and the projections that it will become unlivable in several years, Israel refuses to change its policies. No elaborate legal argument can obscure the reality of what is happening in Gaza: It is like living in a third-world country on the brink of collapse. This reality is not the result of a natural calamity but purely man-made.
In the West Bank, Israel is implementing policies whose long-term objectives are plain to see. It is doing so both through its own direct control as well as via the Palestinian Authority. Israel’s conduct and the official positions expressed by increasing numbers of Israeli leaders confirm that it does not view the occupation as temporary. Instead, it treats the West Bank as if it were part of its sovereign territory: grabbing land, exploiting natural resources for its own needs and building permanent settlements designated for Israelis only. At the same time, for the past fifty years, Palestinian West Bank residents have been living under rigid military rule that primarily serves the interests of the State of Israel and Israeli settlers.
East Jerusalem, which is part of the occupied West Bank, was annexed by Israel in breach of international law. The annexation notwithstanding, Israel treats the Palestinian living in the city as unwanted immigrants and systematically applies policies designed to dispossess them of their homes and drive them from their city. Israeli officials deny state responsibility for this situation, and similarly deny responsibility for the violation of Palestinians’ human rights attendant on this reality. Instead, they pin these policies on the need to maintain Israel’s security interests. It is an attempt to put the onus for Israel’s continued control over the Palestinians – directly in the West Bank or indirectly in Gaza – largely on the Palestinians themselves. Security concerns, however, have very little to do with the policies Israel has been implementing in the territories under its control since 1967, and despite Israel’s persistent “public diplomacy”, or “hasbara” efforts, the facts are clear: Israel is the one who controls the lives of millions of Palestinians, dictating their daily lives and futures.
Israel could choose to end the occupation, lift the blockade on Gaza, and set millions of Palestinians free of its control. Israel could also choose to prolong the current state of affairs, relentlessly furthering the dispossession and oppression. It has chosen to do the latter. After more than fifty years, it is impossible to view this reality as temporary or to continue to believe that Israel has any intention of changing it. The political dynamics in Israel with respect to the Palestinian territories range from taking no notice of it – especially where the situation in Gaza and Areas A and B of the West Bank is concerned – to attempts to further the dispossession of Palestinians, mostly in East Jerusalem and in Area C.
Nor does the legal sphere offer much hope for a solution. While many Israeli authorities combine to facilitate control over Palestinians, it is the legal system’s readiness to give a legal stamp of approval to the overwhelming denial of Palestinian rights that makes it possible. Home demolitions, administrative detention, expulsion of communities, torture, road closures and denial of the right to compensation for harm caused by security forces are only some of the measures sanctioned by Israel’s High Court of Justice and consistently defended by the State Attorney’s Office. Israel’s legal system declared its doors open to Palestinians for the express purpose of safeguarding their rights. But lofty sentiments expressed in grand phrases are one thing. Reality is quite another. In practice, Israel’s legal system has become a key player in facilitating and approving control over the Palestinians.
On an international level, contrary to Israel’s claims and despite states’ international responsibilities for human rights, Israel receives wide international support and very little has been done to challenge its policies. Round after round of negotiations has failed to advance the realization of Palestinians’ rights. The Oslo Accords ultimately even made matters worse in terms of the denial of rights, merely serving to give Israel more time – two decades of it – to promote its own interests.
The current situation is difficult, but a realistic assessment must take into account what the future holds. Israel’s goals have been clearly spelled out: Further entrenching its control and promoting its interests while establishing ever more facts on the ground; continuing to control millions of Palestinian subjects bereft of rights; and weakening the resistance, both in Israel and around the world, to the ongoing occupation. And all the while seeking to minimize the diplomatic price that ought to be exacted for such violent, illegal and immoral policies. Faced with this bleak future, B’Tselem is fighting for a better future, one predicated on human rights, democracy, freedom and equality. All the people living on the bit of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River have both individual and collective rights, including the right to self-determination. There are several political scenarios that could bring about a future that is based on the realization of these rights. It is not for B’Tselem to say which is scenario is best. One thing is clear though, carrying on with the occupation is not one an option. The occupation must end. Israel’s continued control over millions of people, whose lives are subject to its wants and needs – is entirely unjustifiable, inexcusable and unacceptable. A continuation of the situation wrongly called the “status quo” ensures one thing, and one thing only, for whoever lives on this piece of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean: a continued downward spiral into an inherently violent, unjust and hopeless reality. Unless a nonviolent way out of the current reality is found, the violence of the past half century – both organized and spontaneous – might be just a preview of much more to come. The effort to create a different future for this piece of land is not just an urgent moral imperative; it is a matter of life and death.