After 47 Years, U.S. Jews Must Get Over Their Fear of Talking About the Occupation

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Palestinians holding a flag and an olive tree, walk through rows of greenhouses on 'Land Day' in Gaza, March 29, 2014.Credit: AFP

The sigh of relief emitted by many in Israel, as well as among American and world Jewry over the crisis in talks with the Palestinians, could be heard even in the U.S. capital.

The right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party, headed by Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, outdid itself and went a step further. Bennett proposed, in response, to immediately annex the settlement blocs. “Eighty percent agree that we will retain the blocs, so the time has come to annex them,” he said in an interview with the Walla! website even before the Passover holiday.

The right wing knows that now they will no longer have to debate whether to leave the government or stay. The threat of an arrangement with the Palestinians has been struck from the agenda and they can now go back to the settlement enterprise without the background noise made by diplomatic maneuvers. Issuing tenders for the construction of thousands of planned housing units will no longer generate any protests around the world and headlines in Israel.

But triumph and relief notwithstanding, the office of Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel and the U.S. administration would do well to face reality and not delude themselves.

On June 6, Israel will mark the 47th anniversary of the Six-Day War. On the same day Israel will also mark 47 years of the longest occupation in modern times. And it is thus worthwhile remembering: The talks have failed, but the occupation is still here.

The relief felt by many over the fact that, as far as they’re concerned, the Palestinians are the ones responsible for the failure and halting of the talks, cannot dim the fact that in 2014, Israel is still an occupying state. It doesn’t matter what the Israelis tell themselves regarding the failure of the talks. Israel – and Israel alone – is responsible for the occupation. It doesn’t matter how Israel wants to sell the failure of the talks to the world. In the eyes of most it is perceived first and foremost as an occupying power ruling the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

No matter how much pressure is exerted on John Kerry to apologize for what he said about apartheid knocking at the door, in the occupied territories there are two unequal populations. The rebukes meted out to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie at Sheldon Adelson’s Republican convention for daring to use the taboo words “occupied territories,” do not change the facts, and we would do well to look them in the eye.

Casting blame on the Palestinian leadership and twisting the arms of Kerry and Christie will not change the fact that the two populations living side by side in the occupied territories are subject to two different sets of laws. The Jewish population, more than 350,000 people, is under the legal jurisdiction of a democratic state, which conducts due process and thus protects the rights of its citizens.

Whereas the Palestinian population, 2.5 million people, is subject to the military legal system, which does not necessarily conduct fair legal proceedings. This is a population which has been deprived of basic civil rights for 47 years. It does not have the power to influence the regime that runs its life, it has no voting rights, it lives under a legal system decreed by a military commander based on “defense considerations,” a term used too often as a cover for promoting the settlement enterprise and Israel’s economic interests, in violation of human rights norms and international humanitarian law.

These two populations live under totally different and manifestly unequal circumstances. They move along two separate sets of roads, and their water allocation clearly favors the Jewish population and discriminates against the Palestinian one.

Relieving Israel of responsibility will in no way change the fact that in order to maintain the thriving settlement enterprise, Israel continues to control thousands of dunams of public Palestinian lands which, according to international laws, are supposed to be designated solely for Palestinian development. Israel does everything to deprive Palestinians from developing these lands.

Casting blame on Abu Mazen will in no way dim the increasingly clear picture showing that Israel invests much of its financial and mostly diplomatic resources in order to try and whitewash the crime of the settlements. No such effort will blur the fact that the West Bank is occupied territory in accordance with international law, even in the opinion of Israel’s Supreme Court, and millions of people living there are subject to complete Israeli control over most spheres of their lives. Israel usually has complete say over who comes and who goes, who can study and where, who they can marry, who will develop a career and who will not, who will travel abroad or visit relatives elsewhere, and who will not.

No, this occupation, which will soon mark 47 years of existence, did not disappear when the talks broke down. And the fact that the United States is now investing its efforts elsewhere will not make the injustice of the occupation go away and will not erase this reality. This occupation is here, and as long as it’s here, everyone – Israelis, Jews around the world and the U.S. administration – would be well advised to look it in the eye and recognize its existence.

Mainstream American Jewry has been hesitant to speak about the occupation, not least because they are reluctant to 'unmake' the unified paradigm of being 'pro-Israel' for the sake of a partisan identification, falling into the right-left divide within Israeli society.

But if this has been the narrative of the last 47 years, surely the time has now come to speak about the occupation, to question and investigate it, to demand answers – to face the facts full-on and not to evade or launder them by misplaced relief in the failure of talks thus far.

As long as the peace talks continued, so did the illusion that things were being taken care of; U.S. Jews could stand on the sidelines and observe the goings on; there was no crucial moment of truth forcing them to take a stand. Now that the talks have ended, American Jews – and Israelis – have been left with an even starker reality and a choice that must be made: Will you now stand up to oppose the occupation, its attendant injustices, and the human rights violations for which it’s answerable?

Anat Saragusti is a journalist and one of the founders of Israel’s Channel 2. She is the director of B’Tselem USA and lives in Washington DC. Follow her on Twitter: @Saragusti