‘Before our own eyes’

Following the June 18 bomb attack in the Israeli West Bank colony of Gilo which killed 19 people, the Israeli government announced that it “will respond to acts of terror by capturing [Palestinian National Authority] territory”. The statement continued: “These areas will be held by Israel as long as terror continues. Additional acts of terror will lead to the taking of additional areas.”

American media were quick to report this “new” policy as if Israel had not constantly been invading and reinvading areas ostensibly under PNA control and is if Palestinians had something to lose from it.

Hirsh Goodman of the Israeli magazine Jerusalem Report was asked by America’s National Public Radio what the purpose of “reoccupying the West Bank” would be. Goodman explained that the policy was designed to send a “message to the Palestinians that your country will be disappearing before your eyes unless you stop the terror”. It is hard to know if Goodman actually believed his own answer or was being deliberately obtuse. It certainly cannot have escaped many people’s notice that what has caused and perpetuates the conflict is the fact that for 54 years Palestinians have been watching their country disappear before their eyes.

Most of Palestine — 78 per cent of the country between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea — disappeared when Israel was established on the ruins of Palestinian society in 1947-48, something which entailed the expulsion or flight of most of the population and the destruction of over four hundred towns and villages. And since Israel occupied the remaining 22 per cent of Palestine — the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem — in 1967, it has been busy gobbling up land as fast as it can.

Michael Tarazi put it succinctly in the Washington Post on June 19 when he explained that Israel’s settlement enterprise, “which requires confiscating Palestinian land not only for colonies but also for related roads and infrastructure, has resulted in Israeli colonies’ controlling nearly 42 per cent of the West Bank. Since the 1993 Oslo accords, the number of settlers living in the occupied territories has nearly doubled. While the world has been distracted by violence in the region, the very causes of that violence have continued unabated. Sharon has constructed 34 new illegal colonies since taking power”.

Amidst all the endless prattle in the US media about Israel’s “reoccupation” of the West Bank, and “incursions” into this or that city, there is never any mention of one crucial number: 17 per cent. This percentage is the actual amount of land in the occupied West Bank that Israel handed over to direct PNA control since the Oslo accords were signed — so-called “Area A”. If you look at Area A superimposed on a map of the West Bank, you see a few isolated spots of black ink on a vast white surface. This starkly and immediately exposes the fallacy of Palestinian “control”. It is perhaps for this reason that American newspapers almost never print this map, preferring instead vague depictions which leave the impression that all or most of the West Bank is or was under the PNA rule.

So, nominally, Israel has never had direct military control over less than four fifths of the West Bank at any time since the “peace process” began. In reality, Israel’s control is total since the tiny enclaves under Palestinian rule have for years been under permanent siege, and in recent months the Israeli army has repeatedly rampaged through them, killing hundreds of people, injuring and detaining thousands more, and causing extensive damage and vandalism to entire cities.

After Jenin, precisely what in this fiction of Palestinian “control” does Israel think that any Palestinian has an interest to preserve? What does it imagine that ordinary Palestinians find so precious and valuable in the status quo that more of the same invasions and destruction would wear down their will to fight the occupation (by legitimate or illegitimate means)?

The falsehood that Israel ever made significant withdrawals from the occupied territories or that the three and a half million Palestinians subject to its military rule ever enjoyed more freedom than any people corralled into tiny ghettos by an oppressor serves the same purpose as the thoroughly debunked myth that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made “far-reaching compromises” at Camp David. The goal is to convey the impression that Israel has made every possible concession and accommodation but has been met only with Palestinian rejection and violence. Thus, Israel hopes to be absolved of all responsibility, and whatever brutalities it deals out in furtherance of its colonisation programme are offered merely as the desperate and measured last resort of a beleaguered and peace-loving state.

Hence, it must be clear that only those who wish to avoid a peaceful and viable political solution and who yearn for a “greater Israel” will continue to maintain that Israel ever really withdrew from the occupied territories or that its repeated “reoccupations” are anything more than a temporary reallocation of the tens of thousands of heavily armed occupation troops permanently stationed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1967 from one hot spot to another.

Ali Abunimah is vice-president of the Arab-American Action Network and a well-known media analyst, Abunimah regularly writes public letters to the media, coordinates campaigns, and appears on a variety of national and international news programs as a commentator on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is one of the founders of The Electronic Intifada. Ali Abunimah contributed to “The New Intifada: Resisting Israel’s Apartheid” (Verso Books, 2001). This article first appeared in the Jordan Times on 21 June 2002.