In its editorial on Sunday, Haaretz railed against the annual population report issued by the Central Bureau of Statistics in honor of Independence Day. The editorial states that the CBS counts Jews who live in the West Bank as though they “reside in Israel,” even though they don’t, technically. By listing Israeli citizens who live in the West Bank but omitting the 2 to 3 million Palestinian non-citizens who reside there, the chief statistician is “erasing the Palestinians” and misleading the country about the size of the Jewish majority, the editorial says.
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I can imagine Israeli readers of the article scratching their heads and trying to make heads or tails of it. What are these people at Haaretz on about? Israelis have been counting Jews and discounting Palestinians in the West Bank since time immemorial. We don’t need the chief statistician to “erase” Palestinians for us, because we erased them from our minds a long time ago, along with the military occupation under which they live. In Israel 2017, on the eve of the 69th Independence Day, a full five decades after the territories were captured, it’s become second nature.
And while older Israelis still have to make an effort to believe the occupation doesn’t exist, the illusion comes altogether naturally for younger Israelis. The Forward reported this week on a poll published in Fathom, the research journal of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, which showed that younger Israelis are increasingly unaware that the West Bank and the Jewish settlements aren’t actually part of Israel proper. Only 40 percent of those aged 18 to 29 knew that Israel had not declared sovereignty in the West Bank. Only 32 percent knew that the city of Ariel was not situated inside sovereign Israeli territory. One has to be over 50, it seems, and preferably over 60, to know even the most basic facts about the geography of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After that, one can start to deny them.
But it’s not enough to be ignorant about the status of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. That’s one part of the equation. The other is to not hear anything about the Palestinians either. The only news reports Israelis are likely to be exposed to concerning the millions of Palestinians living under their army’s military control are those linked to terrorist activities, real or suspected. Scour as many Israeli newspapers as you want – besides Haaretz – and monitor television newscasts 24/7, you won’t pick up a word about economic hardships, nightly military raids, the absolute dependence on the Civil Administration, the need for a permit for everything under the sun, the roadblocks, the humiliation, the frustration, the feeling of impotence or any of the other thousand and one indignities that go along with living under occupation. It’s going on right under their noses, but none of these things are ever brought to the attention of most Israelis. And if they are, they go in one ear and come out the other.
Even the word occupation – in Hebrew “kibush,” which also means conquest – is rarely mentioned outside of Haaretz and unabashedly left wing circles. It is politically toxic, because it implies that Israel’s presence in the territories is alien, foreign, even temporary. Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once endorsed the establishment of two states, his coalition partners view the territories of Judea and Samaria, otherwise known as the West Bank, as a divine birthright and an integral part of Israel, other than in the most tactically expedient terms. Anyone who utters the word “occupation” is automatically branded as suspect. NGOs such as B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence that try to point out the injustices that are the inevitable byproduct of any military occupation are marked and targeted as traitors.
This willful blindness is convenient for everyone – and by everyone, I mean most Jewish Israelis. It absolves us of the need to reckon with 50 years of disenfranchisement. It allows those of us who might otherwise be bothered to sleep well at night. And it allows us to celebrate Independence Day as if we were as innocent and just as the righteous few against the malevolent many – just like we were in 1948, 1967 and 1973, and at Entebbe, in Lebanon and in Gaza. Even if we weren’t.
Denial of the occupation is a godsend for the right wing. It allows firebrands and rabble-rousers to whip up hostility toward Israelis who, if there is no occupation, are making a big deal about nothing, blaming Israel for crimes it could not have committed and spreading blood libels about innocent Jews, like the worst anti-Semites. It allows Netanyahu to constantly stir resentment against a hostile if not anti-Semitic world, which singles out Israel unfairly, it is alleged.
All this, despite the fact that the 50-year occupation of the West Bank and control over the Palestinians are, in the real world, quite unique. No other Western democracy holds millions of foreigners under military rule, no other enlightened nation keeps another people permanently disenfranchised, no other country seems to think that this situation can go on forever, because the Palestinians can’t be trusted or must be punished or are incapable of being independent.
Because if there is no occupation, then what in God’s name does the world want from us? If there is no occupation, then the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement is definitely anti-Semitic. If there is no occupation, The New York Times is peddling fake news and Haaretz is an agent of Hamas. If there is no occupation, Europe has learned nothing since the Holocaust. If there is no occupation, any Palestinian resistance – from terror attacks, stabbings and throwing stones to peaceful demonstrations, calls for boycotts and op-eds in Western newspapers – are all unjustified and worthy of punishment. If there is no occupation, there is no reason for German foreign ministers to meet with Breaking the Silence, nor for the United Nations to obsessively deal with Israel. This is exactly the way the Israeli government and most of the public regard these phenomena. They have repressed awareness of the occupation for so long, they cant remember its existence anymore.
There are many other benefits to erasing the occupation. If there is no occupation, one doesn’t have to deal with its lingering effects on Israeli psychology or behavior. If there is no occupation, one can’t claim that it is eroding democracy, promoting brutishness, fueling intolerance or nurturing racism. If there is no occupation, then all of the illnesses that are plaguing Israeli society are not the outcome of 50 years of imposing military rule over another people, but forces of nature, which the government – of course – can do nothing to stop.
There are many people, groups and organizations that contribute to the erasure of the occupation. We have many willing accomplices in maintaining the no-occupation facade. Besides the politicians, the settlers, the religious establishment, the media and the civil service, even the leaders of the opposition – who are afraid to say “kibush” lest they be castigated as wishy-washy leftists – much of the U.S. and most of the American Jewish establishment are in on the act. At AIPAC conferences, 99 percent of the deliberations are about Israel’s enemies, including the Palestinians-as-terrorists, and only 1 percent are about the occupation and Palestinians-as-occupied – and that’s only on good years. The Republican Party never mentions the occupation, nor does our new superhero, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who may not be aware that there are millions of people who have been deprived of their rights for decades. At least, she never seems to mention them.
When you think about it, it’s nothing less than a miracle, even if it is a malignant one. We are the perfect Occupation Nation precisely because we don’t even notice it exists. It’s an occupation without all the nasty side effects, a medical marvel that ranks right up there with making the desert bloom, beating five Arab armies in the Six Day War, ingathering exiles from Russia and Ethiopia and, the most recent of our marvels, Start Up Nation. Even though Jerusalem is less than 10 miles from Ramallah and Tel Aviv is only 30 miles from Nablus, the Palestinian cities might as well be on the North Pole. Israelis have no choice but to notice the wall that separates them from the other side, but they have no idea and show no interest in finding out what’s going on there. The Palestinians are like the residents of the science fictional town of Chester Hill, who are living under the dome. Unlike the TV program, however, no one is trying to break in from the other side to set them free.
This miracle of Occupation Nation is made possible, of course, by virtue of some of the other miracles that Israel is associated with. Its stellar army, which devotes so much time and energy to keeping Israelis safe and Palestinians subdued; its unparalleled security services, which manage the population from inside and out in order to prevent it from getting too restive; and of course, our technological whiz kids, who provide the surveillance and intelligence abilities to locate dangerous elements and neutralize them before they do harm. The Israeli army’s requirements seed Start Up Nation, and Start Up Nation returns the favor by enabling the See-No-Occupation Nation.
The relative quiet in the West Bank, which is occasionally marred by violence that is quickly contained, theoretically gives a rational Israeli government an opportunity to try and achieve peace. It’s easier to make concessions and reach an agreement when you can convince your own people that the other side is also seeking a diplomatic solution, and it is much harder to do so when violence makes nationalist feelings run wild. But it’s a vicious circle, because when there is no violence, there is no impetus for the government to do anything, especially when said government, like the current one, prefers to keep things just as they are.
No one wants to encourage violence, of course, but it is a historical fact that the first intifada paved the way to the Oslo Accords and the second intifada led to the disengagement from Gaza. Years of relative quiet, in which Israelis were happy to erase the occupation from their consciousness, have never led to anything except, eventually and inevitably, heartache and bloodshed.