And the Land Was Troubled for 40 Years

The hillside below us is a terraced vineyard, or was until the bulldozers came. There's a sharp smell of sage and recent rain, and the steady grind of heavy machinery. It is a cold day; a Palestinian man with a black stocking cap pulled over his headscarf stands in the stiff breeze, his face blank, watching as the two big shovels push aside greenery and the stone walls that support the terraces and leave a wound of red clay.

Behind us stand the white stone-faced houses of suburban Efrat alongside the shopping centers and real-estate signs announcing new developments in the largest Israeli settlement in the area known as the Etzion Bloc, between Bethlehem and Hebron in the West Bank. In front of us, on the other side of a valley, are the minaret and low square houses of Umm Salamuna, a Palestinian village. The red gash in the ancient terraces is the route of the security barrier Israel is cutting through the West Bank. When completed, it will be a highway-wide swath of coiled concertina wire and patrol roads and sensor-rigged fencing.

The barrier will make it far more difficult for Palestinians, including both terrorists and day laborers, to enter Israel and the Etzion settlements. De facto, it will declare the annexation of the Etzion area. It will force Palestinians who live east of the barrier route, outside the Etzion area, to pass through Israeli gates to get to fields on the west -- if on any given day the gates are open. Some 20,000 Palestinians who live in villages within the Etzion area will find themselves inside an enclave, barred from entering Israel proper and only able to reach schools, jobs, or hospitals in Bethlehem, the nearest Palestinian city, through one Israeli-controlled gate. By building the barrier around the Etzion Bloc, rather than putting the fence on the Israel–West Bank border, the government has declared that the settlers' daily safety overrides any possibility of normal life for the area's Palestinians.

"This astonishing landscape that we always saw and thought of as the 'Land of Israel' -- the vineyards and the olive orchards -- will be replaced by the fence," says Dror Etkes, head of Peace Now's Settlement Watch, who brought me here. Etkes' voice is a mix of melancholy and sarcasm. He is mourning for the countryside, and he is mocking those who have settled the West Bank so that the entire biblical Land of Israel stays under Jewish rule even as they dress the land in asphalt and concertina. And I think he is weary from the work of trying to make Israelis notice the occupation -- unless I am only hearing my own weariness in his voice. The occupation has become a malaise, a chronic, degenerative disease. It is not news, but it is destroying us.

Forty years have passed since Israel conquered the West Bank, along with the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula, in the suddenness of the Six Day War, in June 1967. Forty years is itself a biblical period of time. "And the land had peace for 40 years," the Book of Judges repeats after various warrior-chieftains defeat the Israelites' enemies. But this time, the land has not had peace. And after 40 years, the number of people with adult memories of the time before occupation is dwindling. Only about an eighth of today's Israelis have reached the age of 60. The Palestinian population is even younger. This is the way life has always been, except that it gets steadily worse.

On June 11, 1967, the morning after the Six Day War ended, the U.S. consul-general in Jerusalem, Evan Wilson, sent a cable home describing how Israeli workmen were using heavy equipment to remove fortifications that divided the city. It was a time of vanishing boundaries, of expanded space. The "Green Line," the prewar armistice demarcation that had served as Israel's border, no longer constrained movement. Israelis could visit the West Bank. Palestinians were soon allowed to enter Israel. Some came to look at homes they'd lost in 1948. More came to work, taking the lowest-paying manual labor, on farms and construction sites.

Today, space is contracting. Israelis can still visit the West Bank, though the major towns, under Palestinian Authority rule, are off-limits. A park near my house in Jerusalem straddles the old, erased line through the city; but from the park I can see, stretched on distant hills, a high concrete wall -- the form used for the new security barrier in urban areas. The wall encircles Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem. Except for settlers, most Israelis only occassionally catch a glance of the barrier route, or the army checkpoints and roadblocks that make it ever harder for Palestinians to travel. For Palestinians, the occupation is omnipresent; for Israelis, it is distant -- and yet it defines and defiles our politics, our security, our international standing, our economy. It is elsewhere and everywhere, and our future depends on finding a way to end it.


It began with an unexpected conflagration. In March 1967, at a briefing for top Israeli commanders, the head of military intelligence said there would be no war in the Middle East for at least eight years. The Arabs aspired to destroy Israel -- so went evaluations at the time -- but were unready to fight. Israel had no reason to initiate a conflict.

True, there were parties on both the Israeli left and right whose platforms included laying claim to land beyond the border as Jewish patrimony. But the social-democratic ruling party, Mapai, was not among them; its program called for peace based on the "territorial integrity of all states in the region."

Yet in May, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser marched his army into the Sinai Peninsula. Within three weeks, Israel faced a coalition of its neighbors promising its destruction. On June 5, Israel launched its preemptive attack. A week later, the Arab armies were shattered, and Israel had overrun territory three times its own size. The war was an act of self-defense, but the conquests exceeded any prewar planning, and there was no strategy for what was to be done with the newly occupied land.

The largest chunk was the Sinai Peninsula, but the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were most responsible for the postwar political paralysis. They belonged to what Jews regarded as their historical homeland. They were also part of what had been British-ruled Palestine, in which Israel's leaders had come of age before independence. It was the landscape of their revolutionary youth.

An Israeli-born friend of mine, a child in 1967, remembers her mother taking her on day trips to the West Bank that summer, Bible in hand, reading out verses about the places they visited. This was not a religious act; the Bible was national history. My friend's father was a Knesset member representing a party that believed in socialism, secularism, and the Jewish claim to the whole Land of Israel. It regarded the conquered land as liberated.

Yet the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were also home to at least 1.1 million Palestinian Arabs. Israel's founding father, David Ben-Gurion, had rejected conquering the West Bank in 1949 in order to ensure that the new Jewish state would actually have a Jewish majority. In the summer and fall of 1967, then–Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was fond of saying that in the war, "We got a lovely dowry. The trouble is that with the dowry comes the wife." The impossibility of keeping the dowry without the wife -- the Palestinians -- has framed Israeli politics ever since.


Besides history, security was the main reason that top Israeli officials cited for retaining conquered land. Many regarded the West Bank as strategic depth, a new layer of defense. The Jordan River, though neither deep nor wide, would serve well as "an anti-tank canal," in the view of Yigal Allon, a cabinet minister and ex-general. But virtually from the day after the war, there were warnings of the danger of staying put. I have dug through the documents of that time. We are living in a tragedy foretold.

At the first cabinet debate on the future of the occupied territories, shortly after the war, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan proposed giving the West Bank limited autonomy under Israel rule. Justice Minister Yaakov Shimshon Shapira attacked that idea. "In a time of decolonialization in the whole world," he said, "can we consider an area in which mainly Arabs live, and we control defense and foreign policy?" (The following month, two top foreign-ministry officials -- Shlomo Hillel and Mordechai Gazit -- wrote a policy memo urging a rapid diplomatic solution for Gaza and the West Bank, because "internationally, the impression could be created ... that Israel is maintaining a colonial regime.") Shapira also warned against annexing the land outright. That, he said, would turn Israel into a binational state, in which Jews would eventually become the minority. Unless Israel gave up nearly all of the West Bank, Shapira said, "We're done with the Zionist enterprise."

Shapira also may have been the first to warn that settling Israeli civilians in occupied land would violate international law. Apparently unhappy with his justice minister's view, Eshkol asked Theodor Meron, the legal counsel of the foreign ministry. Meron responded, "Civilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention." Nonetheless, Eshkol approved the first settlement in the West Bank, in the Etzion area, on the site of a kibbutz that had fallen in 1948. Sentimental attachment to a place where Jews had lived overcame legal constraints, and the way was opened to further settlement.

Even so, there were doubts and debate about how much land to keep. Eshkol himself, renowned for indecision, told Dayan and Allon, in May 1968, "There have been imperialist countries larger than us, and they taught [the colonial subjects] their languages and created Francophones and Anglophones ... Then the people knew to say, 'Enough, we don't want you here.'" Allon had his own qualms. Originally, he had wanted to keep the unpopulated parts of the West Bank and give autonomy to the populated areas; by 1968, he favored returning the populated parts to Jordanian rule. He realized, as he later explained, that a Palestinian enclave under Israeli rule "would be identified as ... some kind of South African Bantustan."

One of the sharpest critics of the occupation was Pinhas Sapir, who served as finance minister under Eshkol and his successor, Golda Meir. In 1972, the Labor Party -- an expanded version of Mapai -- held a debate on the future of the occupied territories. Sapir railed at the "moral danger" of Israel's dependence on Palestinian labor, which was creating "a class that does the clean work and those who do the dirty work" -- akin "to negroes in the United States." Continuing to rule over Arabs without granting them equal rights, Sapir said, would put Israel in a class with "countries whose names I don't even want to say in the same breath."

The occupation was colonial, and would produce rebellion. Exploitation of Palestinian labor was racist. Settlement would be illegal. Palestinian autonomy would resemble a Bantustan, a creation of grand apartheid. Israel would become an international pariah. These were not the arguments of distant campus radicals enamored of their megaphones; they were the all-too-accurate premonitions of Israeli patriots.


The warnings went unheeded. Israeli-Arab negotiations have repeatedly reached dead ends. Both sides share blame for the stalemate, but stalemate allowed the occupation to turn from accident to institution. Gradually, settlement in the occupied territories became Israel's national project.

Dayan, the defense minister until 1974, aimed at permanent, paternalistic Israeli rule. In one cabinet debate in 1968, Dayan described German colonial rule of Togo, in West Africa, as a model for benevolent occupation. Economically, he promoted "integration" of the occupied territories with Israel. In practice, that meant that Palestinians became Israel's laborers and a captive market for its products. Dayan "wanted Israelis to have such strong interests in the economic ties to the territories that no one would want to give them up," explains political sociologist Lev Grinberg of Ben-Gurion University.

When the right-wing Likud took power in 1977, it accelerated the settlement drive. If Labor had been divided against itself on the future of the territories, the Likud was cocksure: While it gave up the Sinai Peninsula, it intended to keep the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights forever. Settlements would divide the territory and make Palestinian independence impossible. Cheap homes, tax breaks, and a host of other subsidies drew Israelis to new suburbs. Those who believed in the Whole Land of Israel saw themselves as pioneers; those who didn't talked housing prices and bedroom size. Settlers lived under Israeli law, as if the land had been annexed. Palestinians, disenfranchised, lived under military rule.

Politics was transformed. In 1967, "The agenda changed from building a nation to maintaining an empire," says Shlomo Swirski, academic director of the Adva Center, a Tel Aviv social-policy institute. Before the war, Swirski says, government goals included providing jobs and housing for the Jewish refugees who had flooded Israel in its early years. Those projects had not been completed, but they were pushed aside. "Right" and "left" had previously referred to positions on economics; now they stood for views on settlement, Palestinians, and whether to keep all of the land or give up some for peace.

To this day, every other issue has been postponed -- indefinitely, eternally. Schools deteriorate; national health care covers steadily less; tax cuts for the wealthy barely merit debate. In its first years, Israel was a social democracy; now it is ruled by Friedmanism. Yet a party that campaigns on economics declares itself marginal. What matters is territory and security. In the meantime, social gangrene sets in.

Before 1967, nation building also meant turning a movement into a state, establishing the rule of law and civil liberties. The occupation reversed that process. From the start of the settlement effort, the cause has trumped the law. In the summer of 1967, Allon funneled government funds for the unemployed to the first settlers in the Golan Heights. Aid from officials to lawbreakers has continued ever since.

A government-appointed attorney, Talia Sasson, reported two years ago on how state agencies had helped build the "outposts" -- small settlements established over the last decade in defiance of Israeli law. Some, she said, stood on private Palestinian property, in "intolerable injury of Palestinians' right of possession." She called for their immediate evacuation. Nothing has happened. In the meantime, Etkes and another Peace Now staffer have used official land records for all settlements -- not just the outposts -- to show that one-third of their land is owned by Palestinians. This is theft, and a state-sponsored attack on the state's own laws.


Twenty years ago -- at the halfway point between the conquest and the present -- the first Palestinian uprising erupted. The uprising convinced many Israelis that "integration" was a failure, because it allowed people who might kill them to enter their country freely, and also that it would be necessary to treat the Palestinians as a nation, not as scenery or a cheap workforce. In the early 1990s, Israel began requiring permits of Palestinians entering Israel, and the first checkpoints appeared on West Bank roads. In 1993, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the Oslo Accords, which gave Palestinians autonomy in pieces of the West Bank, seemingly on the way to independence.

Instead, the occupation tightened, like a hand convulsing around a wire in response to an electric shock. Autonomy applied only to fragmented areas between the settlements, which kept growing. In 1993, there were 116,000 settlers in Gaza and the West Bank; in 2000 -- when the Oslo peace process collapsed and the second, more brutal uprising erupted -- there were 198,000.

Today the number has risen to about 270,000 in the West Bank -- an official Israeli figure that does not include another 180,000 in annexed East Jerusalem. The estimated Palestinian population of the same area is 2.5 million. "Land Grab," a 2002 study by Yehezkel Lein of the B'Tselem human-rights center, showed that settlements controlled 42 percent of all West Bank land. These numbers understate the story, because of how the settlements divide the territory. The regime of roadblocks imposed since 2000 is designed to keep terrorists from entering Israel, but also to protect settlers; the security barrier is similarly dual-purpose. For Palestinians, traveling from part of the West Bank to another is "difficult or impossible," as Lein told me recently.

Meanwhile, Israeli troops exited the Gaza Strip two summers ago, evacuating settlers as they left. But Israel still controls all access to the area in what could be called "indirect occupation." "Without access to the outside, [Gaza] is essentially a prison," says Menachem Klein of Bar-Ilan University, an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

No one knows the full economic costs of the settlements and the occupation to Israel, though they are immense. Government outlays are scattered throughout the budget, including the defense budget, whose details are classified.

There has been a military price as well. Without a firm peace, holding the West Bank may be the best way to prevent attacks on Israel proper. But holding the land is also a constant drain on the military. Last summer, after the war in Lebanon, veteran military commentator Ze'ev Schiff of the daily Ha'aretz wrote that the Israeli army's "fighting abilities ... have been blunted by years of police action in the territories." Manning roadblocks and arresting terrorism suspects left soldiers unprepared to face a real enemy, he wrote. Schiff is known for his high-ranking sources; those words, it seems, can be read as his sources' unattributable complaint.

Add the diplomatic price. "The only problem we have in our international standing is the occupation and the settlements," says Avi Primor, head of the Center for European Studies at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and a former Israeli ambassador to the European Union. He gives a striking example: After the Oslo Accords, the EU promised to give Israel "privileged status," under which it would receive all the benefits of membership except voting rights. It was an unprecedented offer, and would have had major economic benefits. The move was frozen following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, revived when Ehud Barak seemed poised to make peace, and frozen again after the failure at Camp David. In talks with the Europeans, explains Primor: "They say to you, 'What Israel are we talking about, ... what are its borders, who are its residents, where are its human rights?'"

Those are also Israel's internal questions. After all the other costs are listed, the final price is to the country's own character. The old warnings have proven true: We cannot return to building the nation we once sought while maintaining an empire; we cannot even find the presence of mind to argue about what that nation should be while the occupation continues.

In the United States, as Primor notes, support for Israel remains strong. But real concern for Israel does not mean blessing the status quo. America will be supporting Israel when it reengages in peace efforts, and any politician who claims pro-Israel credentials should be held to that test.

Ending the occupation depends on reaching peace, which depends as much on the Palestinians as on the Israelis. It would be easy to catalog the Palestinian violence and diplomatic bungling that have stood in the way of an accord.

That said, the Palestinians are not the only ones who have stood in the way of an accord. Israelis should see the end of the occupation as a cure, not a concession. Standing on the hillside at Efrat, watching the bulldozers tear the land, I am looking at a symptom of the disease. The land has been troubled for 40 years. That is already far too long.

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