A Half Century of Occupation: Israel, Palestine, and the World's Most Intractable Conflict

  • Published

A Half Century of Occupation: Israel, Palestine, and the World’s Most Intractable Conflict by Gershon Shafir. University of California Press, 2017, 283 pp.

The year 2017 marked the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and the 50th of the Six-Day War. Although the formation of Israel was initiated with the Balfour Declaration, the Six-Day War shifted the balance of power in favor of Israel and made the existence of Israel an irreversible reality. The year 1967 also was the beginning of the “colonization,” as Gershon Shafir calls it, in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). Shafir, an excellent academic in literature on citizenship, nationalism, Israel, and Palestine, brilliantly narrates the history of this half century occupation and its effect on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution. Shafir tries to answer three significant questions through three well-written essays: What is the occupation? Why has the occupation lasted this long? How has the occupation transformed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

He portrays Palestinians as victims who live either in the occupied territories, within Israel, or in different parts of the world as refugees. Even though Israel wants to control the OPT, it does not want to annex the territory or offer citizenship to the Arab Palestinians. At the same time, Israel provides legal and financial support and security to the occupying settlers. It spends 2 percent of its GDP for the welfare of settlers. Palestinians in the OPT are denied citizenship rights, human rights, and even humanitarian rights. The West Bank is directly occupied and controlled by Israel while Gaza is controlled by monitoring and controlling supplies into it.

Shafir claims that even though it was nonviolent, the First Intifada made the settlement policy of Israel expensive. However, the Second Intifada witnessed the series of attacks including suicide bombings. According to the author, the violent nature of the second Intifada was due to the weakening of the civil society in Palestine. The division of the West Bank made it difficult for civil society to mobilize people through nonviolent methods. After calling the suicide bombing the peak of resistance, Shafir identifies three motivations behind such attacks: religion, nationalism, and vengeance.

In the second essay, Shafir answers the question “why has the occupation lasted this long?” He identifies several domestic and international factors for answering this question. The growing influence religious fundamentalist groups, such as Gush Emunim, is one of the major impediments to the withdrawal of settlers. Religious Zionists could upsurge their influence in main three areas: military service, the media, and national politics. For them, the occupation is not an end, but it is meant to expand the territory and to establish the greater Israel. On the Palestinian side, the popularity of Hamas has been increased in the last three decades. Its violent method of struggle and suicide bombings among civilian areas of Israeli territory have negative effects on support from Israeli peace movements against the occupation. Along with these domestic factors, the author identifies two significant international factors that have led to the occupation being long-lasting: the United States and international humanitarian laws (IHL). The diplomatic support of the US, due to it “special relationship” with Israel, made the occupation unchallenged in the United Nations Security Council. It seems to be a paradox that IHL was a key enabler, rather than a constraint, of the occupation. The provision in the IHL for “temporary occupation” permits Israel to colonize the territory without citizenship rights to its people, though now this occupation has become a “permanent temporariness.”

The last essay asks “how has the occupation transformed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?” The author offers some feasibility analyses for a nonviolent solution: establishment of two states or a one state solution. The second option can be either a binational state or civic polity of one person, one vote. Three meetings between Israel and Palestine, the Oslo negotiations, Camp David talks of 2000, and Annapolis talks of 2007–2008 have already made a potential architecture for a future agreement. Usually, these diplomatic attempts get reversed due to some tragic violence. Shafir argues that the territorial partition is still possible if Israel has the political will for doing so. After analyzing the Israeli budget expense for OPT territory (2 percent) and expected amounts for resettlement, the author says that resettlement of 27,000 households of settlers in the occupied territory to Israeli territory will not be an economic, social, or geographical problem. The author fortifies his argument by pointing to the historical fact that Israel accommodated millions of migrants to its territory between 1989 and 2006. He rejects the argument that occupation has become irreversible. According to him, the main obstacle is political, not geographical. The author adopts both qualitative and quantitative analysis for validating his argument. But the option of binationalism became a credo of the minority who are politically weaker. This option is rejected by Israel, though the idea of binationalism was first developed by Jews before the formation of Israel. The author also puts forward many challenges for the third option of a civic polity, with one person one vote. In the end, he seems to be a supporter of two-state option.

In the last part of the book, Shafir analyzes the activities of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement against Israel. He compares it with African apartheid movements and analyzes similarities and differences. In South Africa, the movement was led by the African National Congress. It promoted civic nationalism without discrimination between black and white so as to gain the support of whites and normalize relationships among them for future state building. At the same time, the antinormalization policy of BDS widens the gap between Israelis and Palestinians. The BDS one-state vision and its activities are contradicting each other. However, a reformed BDS can help all three types of Palestinians—refugees, those in OPT, and citizens of Israel. According to Shafir, a reformed BDS with Jewish allies is the best option for reversing the colonization and for improving the condition of Palestinian refugees and Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens.

The book is an eye-opener for the international community including both academicians and policy makers. The author shows how the support of the US and interpretation of IHL enable Israel to continue its colonization and human rights violations. Nevertheless, Shafir shares his optimism with readers while suggesting the way of action through a reformed Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. Overall, the book is an excellent work to understand the situation of the world’s most intractable conflict of the last half-century.

Shameer Modongal

Jawaharlal Nehru University


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."