What a lot of people seem to know about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict boils down to one word: “occupation”. Palestinians are living under occupation, this is seen as the root of the conflict, and ending this situation is seen as synonymous with ending the conflict (never mind that the conflict predates any “occupation”). More than that “occupation” is often described as, at the very least, “unsustainable” – or morally indefensible or illegal or even as justifying Palestinian terrorism (many Palestinians and their more extreme supporters argue that “occupation” creates a “right to resistance” in the form of terrorism.)
Now occupation is of course undesirable, and should be ended with a sustainable two-state resolution as soon as possible. But occupation as such is not the terrible “crime” that Palestinian supporters like to paint it as – it is simply an international law term for control of territory which is not the sovereign territory of the controlling state.
So how much does the Palestinian population of the West Bank (Gaza is simply not occupied according to the relevant international treaties that define the term) suffer living under Israeli occupation?
Well, obviously Palestinians do not have the full self-determination that Israelis do – though it is worth recalling that Israel has offered that full self-determination to them at least three times, and the Palestinian leadership has refused.
But what about the direct effect of the “occupation” on the daily lives of Palestinians? Here the issue is often obscured by propaganda which exaggerates the day-to-day effects on most Palestinians. What’s more, most of these effects are not the direct result of “occupation” per se but of Palestinian violence and Israeli responses to it.
Important evidence for this comes from a short video made by Canadian-Israel film-maker Corey Gil-Shuster, in which he went to the cities in area A of the West Bank, where 95% of West Bank Palestinians live. He asked Palestinians he met there two simple questions, “How much do you suffer under occupation?” and “In what ways?”
You can see the result at tiny.cc/occupationvid.
However, to sum up the film, what happens is that the several ordinary Palestinians he talks to from Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem all agree they suffer a great deal under occupation – on a scale of 1 to 10, all answer their suffering is between 8 and 11. However, all but one emphasise a single reason they are suffering – restrictions on freedom of movement, both between Palestinian cities, and in terms of difficulty travelling abroad (which usually has to be done via Jordan.)
Now, as Gil-Shuster makes clear, some of their claims about movement restriction seem exaggerated – for instance, at least two of the interviewees insisted there are Israeli checkpoints on the road between Ramallah and Bethlehem that avoids Jerusalem (Palestinians do require a permit to enter Jerusalem), when in fact there has not been any permanent checkpoint on that road since 2011. Nonetheless, this is a legitimate complaint. It doubtless is inconvenient, annoying and even humiliating that it takes longer to travel between Palestinian cities, or to get to an airport to go abroad – than it otherwise would, due to Israeli-imposed travel restrictions, checkpoints and road blocks (even though, in 2010-2011, Israel removed most checkpoints between Palestinian cities).
However, those restrictions are not the result of “occupation” but of Palestinian violence. Before the outbreak of the officially-encouraged mass terrorism of the second intifada in 2000, there were few such roadblocks and travel restrictions, even though the area was under “occupation”. Israelis entered West Bank towns fairly freely, and Palestinians were largely able to travel freely between Palestinian towns and into Jerusalem, except when there were outbreaks of violence. And even then, any restrictions and road-blocks were usually short-lived.
Of course there are doubtless other matters the large majority of Palestinians who live in Area A towns – where the Palestinian Authority is in charge of governance and Israelis are generally not even allowed to enter – could complain about. For instance, the raids Israeli forces sometimes make, generally at night, into those towns to arrest those allegedly responsible for planning terrorism. But that again is a reaction to Palestinian violence, not a result of “occupation” as such. This applies also to many of the things Palestinians complain about – such as clashes with Israeli forces, the restriction on Palestinians entering one street in Hebron where Jewish settlers live, the security fence, etc.
There are exceptions, of course – such as settler violence and vandalism, a concern Israel should be doing more about, but which rarely affects Area A.
Now, to be clear, I am not saying the Israeli “occupation” of Palestinians is benign or unproblematic, nor am I detracting from the need to end it through a viable, negotiated two-state resolution as soon as possible. And it is important not to underestimate the psychological and symbolic importance to Palestinians of the fact that they do not have full self-determination, and Israel retains a degree of control over their lives.
However, I do think it makes sense to question the belief often articulated that the status quo cannot continue, even in the short term and is “unsustainable”. Of course, it absolutely should not continue if it is possible to achieve something better – especially a genuine two-state resolution. However, if that is not achievable – and there is very good reason to believe it is not at the moment as both the government and opposition in Israel agree – the status quo may be the least bad option, and need not be as terrible as is sometimes made out.
This is especially true if levels of Palestinian violence can be reduced so that the most unpleasant effects generally attributed to the “occupation” can end – including movement restrictions. Of course, if the levels of violence and incitement could be dramatically reduced on the Palestinian side, we would be much close to achieving a two-state resolution in any case.
This article is featured in this month’s Australia/Israel Review, which can be downloaded as a free App: see here for more details.