The Simple Truth About the Occupation

Yeshayahu Leibowitz got it right even before 1967 when he warned that Israel was heading down a dangerous moral slope.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Occupation: Palestinian woman and children cross a roadblock checkpoint, as Israeli soldiers stand by, at the Qalandiya crossing between East Jerusalem and the West Bank town of Ramallah.
Occupation: Palestinian woman and children cross a roadblock checkpoint, as Israeli soldiers stand by, at the Qalandiya crossing between East Jerusalem and the West Bank town of Ramallah.Credit: AP
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

Nowadays, when the ministers of Israel’s government try to outflank one another primarily by uttering the most belligerent and chauvinist phrases they can find, I think a lot about Yeshayahu Leibowitz and his moral clarity. An ascetic Renaissance man with a truly unbelievable range of knowledge, he wore the public persona of a prophet of wrath. Already after the 1953 Qibya massacre, in which troops led by Ariel Sharon killed at least 69 Palestinians villagers in a reprisal raid, Leibowitz started to warn that the country was headed down a dangerous moral slope.

Immediately after the Six-Day War he warned of the apalling consequences of occupying millions of Palestinians; of constructing a system of informers who would work against their own people; of the impact serving in the territories would have on young soldiers, and the impact that ruling the territories would have on Israeli society as a whole.

Re-watching Dror Moreh’s documentary “The Gatekeepers” you realize how right Leibowitz has been. The six former chiefs of the Shin Bet security service, who were interviewed at length by Moreh in the film, mostly talk about the moral cost of the occupation, and why Israel needs to end it for the country’s own good and interest. They are not naïve pacifists. They did what had to be done to boost security and safeguard Israel, but in the course of doing that they never lost sight of morality.

In fact, Israel’s security services have been warning for years that the current wave of violence was unavoidable if Israel did not provide Palestinians with a political horizon. They know the daily reality of the occupation, and do not think for a minute that the so-called status quo of creeping annexation and constant humiliation is sustainable – and many of them, speaking off the record, admit to being appalled by the moral price of the occupation.

It is precisely this moral dimension that is getting lost in Israeli public discourse, which is reaching Orwellian levels of linguistic distortion. Netanyahu’s bending the truth even regarding the Holocaust just to score political points with his harebrained theory that the Mufti invented the Final Solution is just the latest example.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz. A man of moral clarity. Credit: Alex Levac

I am writing this, even though there are daily attacks on Israeli lives, because Leibowitz never said that Israel had to end the occupation to achieve peace. He was a pessimist about human nature, and would probably not have been surprised about the violent chaos engulfing the Middle East. He said that we needed to end the occupation because it was immoral; because controlling millions of people without granting them political rights is morally untenable, and corrupts the society that perpetuates this state of affairs.

I share Leibowitz’s pessimism about human nature, and am also very pessimistic about the Middle East’s foreseeable future, which is bound to be chaotic and violent regardless of Israel’s actions. I also do not know when a final status agreement with the Palestinians can be reached, because they seem incapable of building coherent and unified leadership.

But the ongoing reality of dispossession and humiliation can and must be ended with intermediary steps. Israel could dismantle the smaller settlements that makes the lives of Palestinians miserable. It could regroup in a way that would enable 98% of Palestinians to live their lives freely without contact with Israel’s defense forces — and this could be done without compromising Israel’s vital security needs. And we could end the daily attempts of right-wing intrusions into East Jerusalem. The details of exactly how to do this have been drawn up by former Chief of Staff and former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz in a 2011 plan that never got a public hearing.

But for this we need politicians who are willing and capable of using the language of morality and telling Israelis that the only way to save the country from internal decay is to take the risks involved in disengaging from the Palestinians, even though we cannot know whether this will bring peace. They just need to speak the simple truth: that even in politics there is moral goodness and moral evil; and that occupying another people is evil.

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