clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The end of 'both sides'

Israel's occupation of the West Bank is indefensible

JERUSALEM — There is a pleasant fiction in the United States and parts of Israel that the Israel-Palestine conflict exists in a sort of suspended animation, on pause and simply awaiting diplomatic resolution. But the truth is that the conflict, which over the decades has included several wars, countless terrorist attacks, and two Palestinian uprisings, never really goes away for most of the 12 million people in Israel and the Palestinian territories. And periodically it will escalate so rapidly, with such relatively slight provocation, and to such a level of severity, that the rest of us can't ignore what every Palestinian and many Israelis already know: the conflict may be quieter today than in the past, but it is still active, still destroying lives and communities, still scarring these two societies, every day.

One of these escalations is happening right now. On Friday, Israel discovered that three of its citizens, teenagers studying at a yeshiva in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian West Bank, had been kidnapped overnight. By whom is yet unknown; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists it was the Palestinian group Hamas, Israeli intelligence officials say it was likely a few local Palestinians acting on their own. Hamas has denied responsibility.

In a sense, it matters a great deal who did this; Hamas is both an anti-Israel terrorist group and a political party that participates in official governance, so if it ordered this kidnapping it could set back peace talks badly. But in another sense it hardly matters at all, because this uncertainty has not prevented Israel from escalating the conflict aggressively.

This is an issue that looks less gray all the time: the occupation is wrong, it is the problem, and Israel is responsible

In the three days since, the Israeli military has descended on the southern part of the West Bank where the yeshiva students disappeared, and especially on the major Palestinian city of Hebron. I happened to visit Hebron the day before the kidnapping and found it already suffocated by occupation. Dozens of Palestinians have been arrested; some estimates say 120, some nearer to 80, but all agree that it includes the entire population of middle-aged and older men who work for Hamas's political branch (remember that they are also a political party). The military has severely restricted Palestinian movement in Hebron, forbidden residents under age 50 from leaving the country, and completely shut down all movement in or out of Gaza and the southern West Bank save for "humanitarian and medical assistance."

Israel has presented this as necessary for its search for the kidnapped Israeli teenagers, and certainly it is true that finding kidnapped kids in a not-so-friendly city requires checkpoints and security forces. But to many Palestinians the scale of the reaction, and its severe impact on thousands of civilians, looks an awful lot like collective punishment, the practice of punishing an entire population for the crimes a few individuals, which is barred by the Geneva Conventions that regulate international conflict. Many of the 100,000 Palestinians who commute to jobs in Israel have been prevented from crossing the border to get to work, much less see family on the other side of the line, and in Gaza most gas stations have had to shut down for lack of fuel imports. The flavor of collective punishment has been reinforced by Netanyahu himself, who has repeatedly insisted that all of Hamas, and even the more moderate Palestinian government led by Mahmoud Abbas, are responsible for the three kidnapping victims.

The three days of escalation are a response to the kidnappings but, in many ways, are just the long, ongoing extension of the conflict and its inexorable eye-for-an-eye logic. When the Palestinians responsible for mass violence during the Second Intifada (uprising) of the early-2000s did not succeed in achieving their aim of independence through violence, their answer was more violence. When the Israelis did not succeed in winning security and de facto security through occupation, their answer was more occupation.


You see the Israeli-Palestinian insistence on perpetuation in this week's crisis. Hamas's leaders may have told the truth when they said the group did not commit the kidnapping. But when they nonetheless celebrated the attack as a blow against the Israeli occupation, how could they not understand that such rhetoric does far more to enable the occupation than a kidnapping will do to end it?

And while it would be wrong to blame the Israeli victims for their own kidnappings, one would still think that Israelis might want to question the role of Israel's occupation of the West Bank. As children, the kidnap victims surely cannot and should not be held personally culpable, but they could be considered an extension of the occupation, which has been far from a peaceful endeavor. And what of the national Israeli policies that created the occupation — this most damaging aspect of the conflict — and then inserted three teenagers onto its front lines?

There has always been, and there remains, plenty of culpability to go around in this conflict, plenty of individuals and groups that squandered peace and perpetuated suffering many times over. Everyone is complicit and no one is pure. The crisis over the kidnapped students shows all this. But it is also highlights what has become perhaps the most essential truth of the Israel-Palestine conflict: for all the complexity of how it came to be and why it's continued, for all the shared responsibility for this week's crisis and everything that led up to it, the conflict predominantly matters for the human suffering it causes. And today the vast majority of that suffering comes from Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Today, the suffering has become so disproportionately administered by the occupation and so disproportionately felt by Palestinians that, in a conflict famous for its complexity and its gray areas, this is an issue that looks less gray all the time: the occupation is wrong, it is the problem, and Israel is responsible.

Israel's occupation has become so all-consuming that every incident seems to entrench the conflict and the occupation and accomplish nothing else. Also on Thursday, in the hours before the Israeli teenagers were kidnapped, another conflict-in-miniature broke out. But while this one at first seemed like it might accomplish something and do it peacefully — both rare feats here — it dissolved quickly into the same old cycle.

What happened is that Arab shopkeepers in Jerusalem, including the tourist-heavy Old City and its famous markets, shut down completely on Thursday in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners who have been hunger-striking for weeks. Both strikes are meant to call attention to Israel's practice of administrative detention, by which it holds about 200 Palestinians without charge, Guantanamo-style, sometimes for years. The commercial strike was meant to nonviolently hurt Israel, which controls all of Jerusalem, and alert Israelis to what was being done in their name. The strike was widely noticed by Jewish Israelis, but no matter how many I spoke to, none had the slightest idea why it was happening; some guessed it was a Muslim holiday, others shrugged. Nothing. On Friday, worshippers at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City, no doubt frustrated by Israeli apathy, organized a protest, which nearby Israeli security forces immediately and perhaps overzealously put down, injuring 28 and arresting eight.

Israelis have largely given up trying to convince Palestinians to understand their point of view, that they crave security from their history of persecution. This is largely because the overwhelming force of the occupation means they don't have to convince Palestinians of anything, but Palestinians have few other options. What both Friday's non-violent strike and Thursday's kidnapping have in common is a mission of breaking through Israeli apathy, of getting them to notice the occupation and care enough to want to end it.

Ha'aretz columnist Gideon Levy generated anticipatable controversy when he wrote that "if, in the West Bank, yeshiva students aren't abducted, then the West Bank disappears from Israel's consciousness." To many, this sounded as if the column were encouraging Palestinians to abduct school-age Israelis; to others, presumably including the columnist himself, it may have rung true as a description of many Israelis' apathy to the suffering of West Bank Palestinians.

I'd have made a slightly different point: that the violence of terrorism by Palestinians against Israelis is wrong and counterproductive, and that the violence of occupation by Israeli security forces against Palestinians is wrong and counterproductive, but that the conflict is engineered in such a way that violence is often the most or only viable way for either side to impress its will on the other. This neither forgives nor softens the wrongness of violence and those who do it, of course, but if you want to understand why the conflict persists in this way, it's not enough to condemn those who do wrong, but to understand the conflict that produces them.

I have been to many strange places, but few have felt as unsettlingly creepy as the Israeli-occupied stretch of Hebron. This stretch of mostly empty buildings and dead-silent streets, all motionless save the Israeli troops who shuffle between checkpoints to maintain total security in this miniature wasteland, is known as "H2" in the parlance of the US-brokered peace agreement that divided the city in 1997.

This area, meant for Israelis and forbidden to non-resident Palestinians, is home to all of Hebron's Jews. The 1997 agreement grants them 20 percent of the city's land. They are 0.3 percent of its population. This is why the streets are empty; these people exist here only to occupy the land and to perpetuate Israeli control.

The 500 or so Israelis who live here are considered settlers by everyone but themselves. If you speak to them, they will tell you this: Jews consider Hebron a holy city (so do Muslims) and began moving here during the Zionist movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1929, a mob of Hebron's native Arabs attacked the newcomers and killed about 65; most fled, and were barred from returning when Jordan conquered the West Bank in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. After Israel occupied the West Bank in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, some Jews moved to Hebron, either to reclaim property they believed was rightfully theirs by family inheritance or because they want to control the city as Jewish holy land. The Israeli military put the city under occupation, and in 1997 the Hebron Agreement divided it, which the Israelis here believe was to keep them safe from Arab terrorists.


A Palestinian boy next to his family’s water tank, which he says was destroyed by the settlers who built a home next door (Max Fisher)

If you walk through the city's many Israeli military checkpoints — you will have no problem doing this as long as you are not Palestinian, although Israeli civilians are legally meant to be barred from crossing as well — you will arrive at "H1," the 80 percent of the city that is Palestinian. This feels like a real city, with noise and traffic and families crowding the markets. If you speak to people there, they won't tell you about 1929 or 1948 or even 1997, they'll tell you about today: Hebron is under Israeli military occupation, they'll say, and both the military and settlers bring daily torments and humiliations.

Ask about today, and Palestinians in Hebron will tell you they can't cross over the Israeli-controlled section of their city, and can't move freely in even the section that's supposed to be their own, but is divided by Israeli checkpoints. They'll show you metal cages they installed over Hebron's long open-air market; the cages are covered in trash, and overlooking them are prim new buildings occupied by settlers, whom the locals say throw down their trash on the Palestinian market. They will look up warily at the Israeli soldiers watching from rooftops over their part of the city.

They will tell you the names Nadeem Nawara and Mohammad Salameh, two local students ages 17 and 16, who were shot in the chest and killed by Israeli soldiers as they walked home from school one month ago. The soldiers were presumably on edge from a Palestinian protest earlier in the day, but security camera footage shows the killed students harmlessly walking down the street. Whether or not it was an accident, the deaths were a direct result of the occupation.


Pro-settler, anti-Arab signs put up by settlers in Israeli-occupied Hebron, with watchtower in background (Max Fisher)

If you walk to the edge of H1, you'll meet a Palestinian family that is unlucky enough to live not just under Israeli occupation, and not just in a city that bears notoriously deep scars from recent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, but immediately adjacent to one of the settlers' homes. The two buildings are touching. Of the many differences between them, one is security; the settler home enjoys protection from the Israeli troops in the area, while the Palestinian home is defenseless. Another is water. The settler home, like most Israeli homes, has no water tank on its roof, likely because it is granted direct access to Israel's prolific water infrastructure. The Palestinian home gets it water from a tank on the roof, or it would, had the tank not been punctured four times by what the family there says was an attack by the neighboring settlers.

Israeli settlers here harass Palestinians because they want to take their land, because they are enabled by an Israeli occupation that gives them effective carte blanche to do as they please, and in some cases out of a hateful belief that all Arabs are terrorists. In 2003, during the Second Intifada, a report by the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem found that settler harassment in Hebron had driven at least 400 Palestinians from their homes, forced 2,000 Palestinian merchants out of work, and shut down three schools. Violence by Palestinians during the intifada killed 11 settlers, including an infant. Things have improved since then, but a 2009 Red Cross report stated that settlers still regularly harass and intimidate Palestinians, particularly women, and will sometimes throw stones at children.

The Israeli-controlled stretch of Hebron seeps with paranoid rage. The main street is lined with permanent hardboard signs urging anyone who stops by to remember, and remain enraged by, every incident of "Arab violence" of the last 100 years. Over a worn-down husk of a building that sits atop a former Roman slave market are two plastic signs, either of which appear more valuable than the building itself, declaring that "This land was stolen by Arabs" after Hebron's Jews fled in 1929.

A settler woman ushers passers-by into her home to recount the 1996 stabbing of her father, Rabbi Nissim Gudai. While she does not mention that settlers responded by storming the Palestinian market, attacking merchants, and chanting "Death to the Arabs," her repeated insistence that "Arabs are terrorists" makes it clear that she does not see peace as viable or worth pursuing.

One of H1's principal monuments is the grave of Baruch Goldstein, an American-born Israeli who shot and killed 29 Palestinians in Hebron in 1994, making him a hero of the far-right Israeli extremists who are well represented here. Most Israelis loathe Goldstein as a terrorist, and the Israeli government bulldozed the shrine next to his grave in 1999. But most Israelis don't live out in Hebron; they live a world away in Tel Aviv or Haifa, sunny coastal cities with booming tech sectors and liberal values, far from the daily wounds and humiliations of the occupation carried out in their names. Palestinians in Hebron only know, of Israel, the military occupation and the settlers who are its vanguard.

On Saturday, when the Israeli military sent hundreds of troops into Hebron to shut down checkpoints and to search house-to-house for the kidnapped yeshiva students, for most Israelis this was national news so important many followed it hour by hour. For Palestinians in Hebron, and indeed in much of the West Bank and Gaza, it was just a larger dosage of the occupation they're force-fed every day.

Of the many tragedies of the Israel-Palestine conflict, one of the greatest may be that it does not just disproportionately harm civilians — many conflicts are this way — but that it seeks at every turn to pull regular people across the invisible line from civilian to active combatant.

The kidnapped yeshiva students were treated not as harmless students, nor even quite as settlers — which as unarmed vanguards of the occupation exist in their own gray area between civilians and soldiers — but as analogous to enemy combatants, fair game in the fight. And the Israeli government has responded by arresting dozens of Hamas political leaders, deciding that it would be better to push them into the category of terrorist, of criminals responsible for an act they may have had nothing to do with, than allow them to continue existing in a gray area. It's a conflict that feeds on endless escalation, on upgrading every civilian to a passive combatant — Israeli families are accused of abetting the occupation, Palestinian families of abetting terrorism — and every passive combatant to a front-line fighter. It's a dynamic that serves nothing and nobody but the conflict itself.

But while it's accurate to say that "both sides" participate in this awful cycle, that "both sides" indulge their worst habits in ways that perpetuate the conflict, there is an essential truth that is not about "both sides": it is utterly disproportionate. Only the Palestinians are under military occupation. While the conflict hurts everyone here, any one Palestinian is far more likely to be hurt than any one Israeli, and is apt to be hurt more deeply.

The Israelis want to enforce the status quo, because they see the status quo as succeeding for them, while Palestinians want to blow it up

This leads to other kinds of asymmetry in the conflict: while there are certainly exceptions to this, individual incidents of violence are often touched off by a Palestinian attack. Israelis may tell you this is because Palestinian extremist groups such as Hamas have embraced terrorism as a strategy, and this is true, but there's a structural cause as well.

The Israelis want to enforce the status quo, because they see the status quo as succeeding for them, while Palestinians want to blow it up. This makes the Palestinians the frequent instigator, as with Thursday's kidnapping, but Israelis' disproportionately greater power and their willingness to use it makes them the cause of on-net greater suffering and more numerous abuses. This is not a point about who is more or less morally righteous, but an observation on the structure of the conflict and how it shapes Israeli and Palestinian political behavior in such a way that hurts both and serves neither, but it hurts Palestinians much more and serves them even less.

Of course, as American columnists and American diplomats frequently say, the occupation is a potentially mortal threat to Israel as well. If it continues long enough then as the Palestinian population grows to outnumber Jews, Israel will lose its claim to democracy, to a Jewish national identity, or both. But that's not the argument that should matter. The argument that should matter is that the occupation is now the primary driver of the Israel-Palestine conflict, it is illegal under international law, and it is a cause of tremendous human suffering. And for what?


Biden has been bad for Palestinians. Trump would be worse.


Why leap years exist, explained in one simple animation


The South Carolina primary was a joke. It tells us something deadly serious.

View all stories in The Latest

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.