Occu-Partheid. By Any Name, It's Ruining Israel. Can It Be Reversed?

We've yet to meet the Israeli leader who can dismantle Occupartheid. But we will. Nothing in the Mideast is permanent. Not even lack of leadership.

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Palestinian protesters in front of Israeli soldiers during a weekly demonstration against Jewish settlements, in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, August 2012.
Palestinian protesters in front of Israeli soldiers during a weekly demonstration against Jewish settlements, in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, August 2012. Credit: Reuters
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

Let me introduce myself. I know next to nothing about apartheid. I don't know how it felt to be its victim, how the system worked in practice, the extent to which boycotts brought it down. I can bring little of value to the intense current debate over apartheid, whether or not the word applies to Israel's relationship to the Palestinians, or may apply soon, or never will.

I do, however, know something about occupation.

And not only because I spent so much of my life in an IDF uniform, occupying. Southern Lebanon, northern Sinai, Hebron to Abu Dis, Gaza to the Golan - if Israel's captured it, I've occupied it.

I understand why it is so important for some people to prove that Israel is an apartheid state, and why others recoil from the word. Apartheid is an obscenity. An ugly, malignant lesion of a word. A time bomb. Apartheid is an internationally recognized synonym for politically rooted crimes against humanity, for maliciously oppressive segregation of such magnitude that the nation which practices it, begs to be shunned as a pariah, a leper state, a moral menace, unworthy to exist.

By contrast, just as we have learned to, for lack of a better term, live with occupation, we have learned over time to live with the word. The very fact that "occupation" tends to connote something temporary, helps ease the processes through which it is fast becoming not only permanent, but seemingly irreversible.

We've learned to live with the idea that occupation exists solely for the sake of the settlement enterprise – and with the fact that both occupation and settlement blacken Israel's name as nothing else. Settlement and occupation are the essential reasons that Israel stands accused of apartheid. They are the fuel of boycott. They are our curse.

Without minimizing the importance of the discussion of whether what Israel is doing is apartheid or occupation, I believe that the Netanyahu government - which is doing everything that it can to shore up the occupation and render it irreversible – actually benefits from the fact that the debate over the designation apartheid often focuses on – and dead-ends in - terminology, and not on concrete steps to fight it.

So here's the opinion of one veteran occupier who doesn't want any Israelis to spend any more of their lives occupying another people: It doesn't matter what you call it. Call it Occu-Partheid, if that will in any way shift the discussion from what to call it, to how to end it.

Why do I say this? Because I believe with everything I have seen, that the curse of settlement, the curse of Occupartheid, is no more permanent than any other. This is what we've all seen, pulling into Sinai and south Lebanon and Gaza, and later pulling out:

Nothing in the Mideast is irreversible. Nothing in the Mideast is eternal. Nothing in the Mideast is indivisible.

It may be that Israelis have grown inured to, or literally walled-off from, the devastating effects of Occupartheid on millions of Palestinians. But they can feel the costs of Occupartheid to Israel's security – the drains on military training, morale, the diversion of tens of thousands of artillery, armor, infantry, even air force soldiers, to Occupartheid duty for which they are undertrained, underequipped and emotionally unprepared. They know, better by the year, the social welfare costs of diverting affordable housing and allotments for health care, education, and transportation to the settlements.

Every day, separation wall or no, Israelis still manage to see how Occupartheid is ruining this place that we love. The ways it drains our resources, saps our hopes, undermines democracy, and fosters violence, corruption, racism, and inequality.

For the last two elections, politicians of the center and center-left, leading from behind and thus falling behind, chose to bypass and ignore Occupartheid as a central issue of our time. This, despite polls showing consistent majority support in Israel for an eventual two-state solution. This has only emboldened the right to press for ever more racist and anti-democratic legislation, and ceaseless, heedless new settlement construction.

If past experience is any measure, though, the right may be about to blow it. The crowing victory-lap certainty of Naftali Bennett's recent pronouncements that the peace process was "suicide" suggests that he believes that permanent Occupartheid is both sustainable, and the course that most Israelis want to follow.

It is neither. Benjamin Netanyahu knows this better than anyone. That's why he's done everything he can to divert attention from Occupartheid – paying lip service to two-states while undermining any chance of progress toward it, all the while desperately pursuing his The-Sky-Is-Falling policy toward Iran.

What really terrifies the prime minister is the possibility that the right Israeli – a leader with courage and charisma and the belief that the oligarchy of Occupartheid can be dismantled – will come to the fore.

We haven't met that leader yet. But we will. Nothing in the Mideast is permanent. Not even lack of leadership.

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