It’s not just the occupation

7 June 2007

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An Israeli peace activist holds a sign during a peaceful protest in the Old City of the West Bank city of Hebron, commemorating 40 years since the 1967 War and the subsequent Israeli occupation of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Gaza Strip, Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights, 5 June 2007. (Mamoun Wazwaz/MaanImages)


“Forty years ago today was the last day the citizens of Israel were a free people in their own land,” wrote Ha’aretz columnist Akiva Eldar on June 4. “It was the last day we lived here without living other peoples’ lives.”

This sums up the cherished mythology of what is still called the Israeli left and much of the international peace process industry — that prior to the 1967 war, Israel was pure and on the right path. Had it not “become an occupier” the region would have had a happier history and Israel would be an accepted member of the international community rather than a pariah wearing the “apartheid” label.

The exclusive focus on the occupation serves increasingly to obscure that the conflict in Palestine is at its core a colonial struggle whose boundaries do not conveniently coincide with the lines of June 4, 1967.

I do not often agree with leaders of the settler movement, but they speak a truth Israeli and American liberals prefer to ignore when they point out that the settlements in Gaza and the West Bank built after 1967 are not morally different from towns and kibbutzim inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders. The Israel that was created in 1948 was established on land violently expropriated from ethnically-cleansed Palestinians. Israel has been maintained as a “Jewish state” only by the imposition of numerous laws that maintain the inferior status of its Palestinian citizens and forcibly exclude Palestinian refugees.

Even Israelis who condemn the occupation support these racist laws. There is an Israeli consensus that it is legitimate to defend the Jewish state against the so-called “demographic threat” from Palestinians who will be again, as they were prior to 1948, the majority population group in Palestine-Israel despite six decades of Israeli efforts to reduce their numbers with expulsions, massacres and administrative ethnic cleansing. It is the imperative to gerrymander an enclave with a Jewish majority rather than any recognition of Palestinian equality that underpins whatever limited rhetorical Israeli support exists for a Palestinian state.

The slogan “end the occupation” has come to mean all things to all people. For Israel’s ruling elites, the quisling leaders of Fateh and the Quartet it can even include Israel’s permanent annexation of most settlements. Demanding an end to the occupation only so Israel can continue to function as a racist ethnocracy within “recognized borders” is not a progressive position any more than supporting apartheid South Africa’s bantustans would have been.

Because Israel’s colonialism harms all Palestinians, not just those living in the 1967 occupied territories, we cannot limit ourselves to demanding that the 40-year old infrastructure of military dictatorship be dismantled in the West Bank and Gaza. We must simultaneously demand the abolition of all racist laws throughout the country, including those allowing foreign Jews to immigrate while Palestinians are kept out, as well as discrimination in land allocation, housing, education and the economy.

We must recast the struggle as one for democracy and equal rights for all the people who live in the country. This involves two kinds of work: solidarity in the form of boycott, divestment and sanctions against the Israeli apartheid system in all its disguises, and the articulation of a vision of a shared future inspired by the values of the peace settlements in Northern Ireland and South Africa. Leaders of Israel’s one million Palestinian citizens have put forward imaginative and concrete proposals for democratization and equality. They are already paying the price: Israel’s Shin Bet secret police has received official blessing to subvert even legal activities that challenge the superior rights reserved for Jews. Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and Gaza have failed to offer a compelling vision, even though many recognize that the two-state solution is a mirage.

Of course Israelis will not easily give up their privileges any more than whites in Alabama, Georgia or Mississippi did in the face of the American civil rights movement. But racism is not a lifestyle choice the rest of the world is obligated to respect. Determined movements can bring about transformations that seem scarcely imaginable from the depths of the gloom. We have seen enough shining examples to maintain our hope and inspire us to action.

Ali Abunimah is cofounder of The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse

This article was originally published by bitterlemons-international, Edition 22 volume 5 - June 07, 2007.

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