Land and peace: a new history of the ‘temporary’ occupation of Palestine

A new history of Israel and the Palestinian Territories, drawing on declassified documents, reveals that it has always been considered permanent.

Palestinians walk past an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint in he West Bank town of Hebron, where Israeli security forces stand guard on June 15, 2014, as Israel broadened the search for three teenagers believed kidnapped by militants and imposed a tight closure of the town. AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA
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Israel has been accused of many traits in the course of its hostile relationship with the West Bank and Gaza Strip and being forthcoming about long-term objectives is not one of them. Since the Israeli army took over the Palestinian Territories in 1967, the country’s government has spent millions of dollars on an elaborate public relations campaign designed to achieve one simple goal: persuade the international community that Israel’s occupation was temporary just as the country moved to ensure that the occupation would be permanent.

Over nearly five decades, Israel entrenched its matrix of control over Palestinian land through the creation of far-flung Israeli settlements, the crushing of all resistance and, perhaps most importantly, severing the West Bank from the Gaza Strip to ensure Palestinian disunity. This colonial programme was carried out while Israeli leaders participated in endless peace negotiations that have produced little other than diplomatic cover for Israel’s consolidation of control over Palestinian life.

In the same way that the Israeli new historians explored their country’s archives in the late 1980s in order to demystify the founding myths of Israel’s creation in 1948, a number of Israeli scholars are now trying to make sense of Israel’s occupation and the myth of its temporality. The appearance of these books, both in Hebrew and English, points to the fact that Israeli intellectual society is firmly aware of the permanence of Israel’s occupation. In other words, the occupation is here to stay. This intellectual debate is compounded by the fact that Israel’s current leadership is far from any position that would see a curtailment of settlement activity in the West Bank and honest peacemaking with the Palestinians.

Ahron Bregman's Cursed Victory [;] is the latest addition to this slew of new books about Israeli colonial ambitions in Palestinian lands. Using state archives and personal interviews, Bregman delivers a clear analysis of how Israel never intended to end its occupation of Palestinian land. Eschewing a thematic approach that normally typifies histories of Israel's relationship with the Palestinians, Bregman employs a sequential timeline to Israel's nearly half-century of occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and until 2005, the Gaza Strip. While the volume can sometimes feel bogged down in the small details of the occupation's administrative structure, taken as a whole Cursed Victory is the definitive chronicle of how Israel's control over Palestinian life has transformed from a temporary system to a fully functioning colonial administration.

By the time that Israel embarked on its occupation, Bregman notes early in the book, western colonial adventures didn’t have the same cachet as they once did in the international community. “By the late 1960s, the world’s former colonial empires were marching away from occupation and colonialism, whereas here, it seemed, the Israelis were attempting to march in the opposite direction,” Bregman writes.

With the subdued language typical of an academic tome, Cursed Victory excels in unpacking exactly how Israel's administration of the occupation has adapted over five decades to ensure its continuation. In the late 1960s, for example, the Israeli general Moshe Dayan sent Jerusalem's military governor a note outlining what would be Israeli policy for the first two decades of the occupation. "Don't try to rule the Arabs," Bregman quotes the general from a declassified military cable, "let them rule themselves … I want a policy whereby an Arab can be born, live and die without ever seeing an Israeli official."

As an Israeli scholar living in exile in the United Kingdom, Bregman seems to struggle emotionally with his subject, often glossing over Israel’s record of ethnic cleansing in 1948 that served as the intellectual precedent for the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Despite the heartstrings involved in reviewing his country’s colonial experience in the West Bank, the historical record he presents is undeniable. Israel has never in good faith operated under the assumption that the West Bank would be given back to the Palestinians. At every opportunity, decisions were made by Israel’s leaders to ensure the continued Israeli domination over Palestinian life in the area.

The most profound period where this policy came into action was in the late 1970s. With the rise of Menachem Begin’s right-wing Likud party, Israel’s strategy for administering the occupation coalesced around the idea of granting the Palestinians limited sovereignty but ensuring that they remained under complete Israeli control. “At the heart of this was the idea that, while Israel would grant personal autonomy to the Palestinian people living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, whereby they could run their own lives without any Israeli intervention, the Palestinians, on the other hand, would have no territorial control, as the land itself would remain in Israel’s possession, and there would be no sovereign there other than Israel,” Bregman reports.

Oft-repeated phrases from Israeli leaders that the country is ready to exchange land for peace and that a two-state solution remains the guiding principle for the resolution of the conflict are put to bed with Bregman’s research. His retelling of the takeover of Jerusalem and its subsequent annexation, for example, is particularly revealing in this regard. Through primary sources and the words of Israeli politicians themselves, Bregman conclusively shows that Israel’s undeclared goal for Jerusalem was always to expel its Arab residents while weakening their national connection to other Palestinians in order to entrench total control over the city.

Cursed Victory demonstrates how resilient Israel's administration of Palestinian life and land has been from the perspective of permanent control. For example, the outbreak of organised protest in the first intifada in the late 1980s meant that Israel needed to adopt a second set of guiding principles to ensure the strategy of personal autonomy without sovereignty. Namely, the suppression of Palestinian unity and the slow severing of the Gaza Strip from the West Bank. At every opportunity, Israel made sure to never allow a unified Palestinian resistance to take root. Indeed, Bregman notes that Israel even helped support the creation of Hamas and other Islamist movements in order to curb the power of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

A cynic, therefore, would look at the current crisis in Gaza as just another Israeli manifestation of the colonial principle of divide and rule. In fact, one comes away from Cursed Victory thinking that Israel's occupation and relationship with Palestinians in general is not all that unique in modern history. At its core, the conflict is one of settler colonialism and like other episodes in modern history, whether the British in India, the French in Algeria or the apartheid regime in South Africa, this conflict will see the occupier ultimately implode under the weight of dominating other people. However, Cursed Victory does demonstrate that Israel will employ the use of extreme violence, whether in Gaza or the West Bank, in order to preserve its status quo.

Those looking for confirmation that Israel was never serious about giving up the West Bank will find it in this book. This sad historical reality makes Cursed Victory a painful but necessary read for liberal Israelis and their supporters in the West. While Bregman doesn't treat the current situation in Cursed Victory, one can read between the lines and see how the author's subdued tone is designed to lure tepid Israelis and their supporters into grasping just how permanent Israel's occupation has become. Ultimately, armed with the historical record presented in his volume, it is easy to see how the current status quo is a long-term strategy of control.

One of the great myths about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that the situation is extraordinarily complex. The slew of new research about Israel’s occupation demonstrates that this is not the case. Israel, as a colonial power in the West Bank and Gaza, operates according to the principle that its territories must remain under the power of the colonial regime. Obscuring the true reality of the conflict in non-colonial terms will only help to perpetuate the current status quo and prolong violence between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Joseph Dana is a regular contributor to The Review.