Where Is the Occupation?

The occupied territories and the Palestinians living there are slowly becoming virtual realities, distant from the eye and the heart.

The occupied territories and the Palestinians living there are slowly becoming virtual realities, distant from the eye and the heart. Palestinian workers have disappeared from our streets. Israelis no longer enter Palestinian towns for shopping. There is a new generation on each side that does not know the other. Even the settlers no longer meet Palestinians because of the different road systems that distinguish between the two populations; one is free and mobile, the other stuck at the roadblocks.

While the politicians argue over dividing the land between two peoples, the public is apathetic. The people feel that the division has already taken place. The disengagement from the Gaza Strip, the evacuation of Gush Katif, the construction of a separation barrier - the problem is solved to our satisfaction. The settlers are conducting a settlement policy of their own, taking over new areas, expanding settlements, anything to prevent a permanent solution. They are also satisfied with the status quo that relies on the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Defense Forces.

The de facto separation is today more similar to political apartheid than an occupation regime because of its constancy. One side - determined by national, not geographic association - includes people who have the right to choose and the freedom to move, and a growing economy. On the other side are people closed behind the walls surrounding their community, who have no right to vote, lack freedom of movement, and have no chance to plan their future. The economic gap is only getting wider and the Palestinians are wistfully watching as Israel imports laborers from China and Romania. Fear of terrorist attacks has transformed the Palestinian laborer into an undesirable.

There have recently been reports of a further "upgrading" of the occupation. Sixteen crossing points between the West Bank and Israel are now being controlled by civilians instead of soldiers. On the face of it, this is an act of normalization, similar to the situation at international border crossings. But in this case a country exists only on one side. In the absence of an agreed border, there is only a security border that Israel has unilaterally established. The frustrated and frightened soldiers checking every Palestinian have now been replaced by contractors hired by the Defense Ministry.

Their job is to check people holding permits; in other words, people the civil administration, under the Shin Bet's guidance, has allowed to enter Israel. The checks are being carried out by sophisticated means, almost without human contact, in reinforced, blast-proof structures. The new method has removed a burden from IDF soldiers but has created a distancing. The contact between the soldiers and the Palestinians at the crossings, precisely because it is so traumatic, has driven the Israelis and Palestinians to seek a political solution. The stories the soldiers brought home fueled public debate. Now the soldiers are stationed only at roadblocks in the West Bank, and there is less friction. So the discourse is also minimized.

Can this situation continue indefinitely? The more Israelis see less of the occupation, the easier it becomes to ignore. In September, 33 Palestinians and one soldier were killed in operations against terror and Qassam rockets. Only in the next intifada, or after missiles are fired at Israel from the West Bank, will we once again be reminded of the occupation.