Why 'Occupation-denial' Impedes Israel’s War on Terror

By ignoring the disenfranchisement of the Palestinians, Netanyahu escapes the need to explain why he's done nothing to dilute its poison.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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PM Netanyahu with Defence Minister, Ya'alon IDF chief Eisenkot and Public Security Minister Erdan. October 8, 2015.
PM Netanyahu with Defence Minister, Ya'alon IDF chief Eisenkot and Public Security Minister Erdan. October 8, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

First, let’s take a sample survey. In Prime Minister Netanyahu’s two recent addresses to the Knesset about the latest wave of terror and violence that has engulfed Israel, he uttered the word “incitement” in one way or another 14 times. The word “occupation” or any of its synonyms wasn’t mentioned even once.

The same is true of statements made in recent days by other Israeli politicians, as well as communiqués issued by the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the World Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee. They all condemn Mahmoud Abbas. They all cite Palestinian incitement as a major cause of violence. None of them mention 48 years of direct Israeli control over the Palestinian people, in the West Bank and, yes, in East Jerusalem as well.

But it’s not just the politicians and American Jewish activists, though they are the ones setting the tone. Ordinary Israelis and their supporters abroad have also learned to expunge the occupation, not only from their words but from their thoughts as well. Once you do that, Palestinian teens wantonly hurling themselves at unsuspecting civilians, knowing that they will face certain injury or death, turn into manifestations of unadulterated psychotic evil. Once you eliminate occupation from the equation, the world’s seemingly “balanced” attitude towards the violence, and the international media’s insistence on describing not only Israeli but Palestinian “victims” as well, can indeed seem biased, outrageous and even anti-Semitic.

The prevailing Israeli motto, to paraphrase the immortal “The Germans” episode of Fawlty Towers is “Don’t mention the occupation”. If you utter the explicit word, it seems, you stand accused of justifying the terrorists and if you don’t, you’re not culpable in any way. That’s very convenient, of course, if you happen to be a prime minister who’s been in power for the past six years: ignoring the occupation allows Netanyahu to dodge questions about why you’ve done virtually nothing to get rid of it. As long as the prime minister turns a blind eye to the occupation and convinces others to do the same, he doesn’t have to explain why it keeps blowing up in everyone’s face.

So the stabbings and the shootings are a product of Palestinian “lies” about the Temple Mount; the result of the Palestinian Authority’s outrageous agitation; the consequence of inflammatory textbooks and rabble-rousing religious leaders; the manifestation of a culture of hate and terror that is spreading throughout the Middle East; another chapter in the long saga of Muslim rejection of Jews in Palestine that’s been there since time immemorial. All valid points, perhaps, but all pale in the shadow of occupation.

There are many reasons that compel politicians and ordinary Israelis to ignore the mammoth in the room. Some in the religious right don’t even recognize the existence of occupation because “how can one occupy one’s own homeland”. Others have convinced themselves that Palestinians in the West Bank, and even more so in East Jerusalem, should thank their lucky stars that they are living under a “benign” and “enlightened” Israeli occupation rather than in strife-ravaged Syria, Lebanon or Libya. Then there are those who have bought the line that after the disengagement from Gaza and the withdrawal from major cities in the West Bank, the occupation has effectively ceased to exist. And many have been lulled by the increasingly effective isolation of Gaza and the West Bank “beyond the mountains of darkness” and have simply put the occupation out of their minds.

But even Israelis who are full cognizant that the IDF, Shin Bet and the Civil Administration continue to manage even the minutest details of daily life for the Palestinians, nonetheless resist acknowledging the social, economic and human toll of the occupation and the blind hatred that it foments. The Israeli public frowns upon any display of empathy towards the Palestinians and even left wing politicians are cowed. They are careful to disavow any identification with Palestinian suffering and plight, insisting that their demand for diplomacy is only aimed at strengthening Israel’s security. They may mention the occupation, but only as a burden that Israelis need to shed.

At its extreme, the refusal to countenance a link between the occupation and the violence that it breeds, despite overwhelming empirical and historical evidence to the contrary, in Israel and around the world, is a form of what is sometimes termed “denialism”. According to the Oxford Dictionary, a denialist is “”A person who does not acknowledge the truth of a concept or proposition that is supported by the majority of scientific or historical evidence” while denialism has been defined as “the employment of rhetorical arguments to give the appearance of legitimate debate where there is none”. In the past few decades, the most prominent contemporary examples have been the denial of evolution, of climate change, of the Holocaust, of the link between HIV and AIDS, between smoking and lung cancer.

Recognizing the occupation does not justify terror, but ignoring it completely is to ensure that it will persist for a long time to come. As Pascal Diethelm and Martin McKee wrote in a 2009 article on denialism “The consequences of policies based on views such as these can be fatal.”

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