Israel's Occupation

Israeli methods of controlling Palestinians have changed but not lessened their grip, says Lori Allen

January 29, 2009

June 2007 marked the 40th anniversary of the beginning of Israel's occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. For more than four decades, Palestinians living within the occupied territories have been denied citizenship and most basic political and human rights. Arguably, a solution to their plight and a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is no closer now than it was when the occupation began in 1967.

The ways in which the Israeli occupation has been managed and sustained, however, have been transformed throughout that time. In this history of the occupation, Israeli political theorist Neve Gordon explains the approaches Israel has used to keep this regime of social, political, economic and physical control in place. The system has changed from one based on a "colonisation principle", whereby the Israeli Government attempted to normalise the occupation, to one based on the "separation principle", which is marked by a disregard for the lives of the colonised people, and a focus on exploitation of the land and water of the colonised territory. In this overview of the occupation, Gordon seeks to "expose how Israel's means of control have actually helped to mold the Israeli-Palestinian conflict".

Making much of Foucault's theories of disciplinary power and biopower, Gordon characterises the first years of the occupation as being a period in which Israel tried to "normalise the occupation by boosting the economy and producing prosperity in the West Bank and Gaza, and a great deal of energy was invested in reshaping the collective identity of the population and suppressing Palestinian nationalism". Through the permit regime that regulated how and where Palestinians could move, reside, publish, learn, build and work, and the surveillance system that monitored it all, the occupation infiltrated every aspect of Palestinian daily life. It continues to do so today.

What is most interesting in Gordon's analysis is the way in which the renovation of occupation practices are identified as an immanent outcome of the "excesses and contradictions" within the system itself. For example, Israel allowed Palestinians to open universities as part of the Govern-ment's efforts to normalise the occupation, and produce colonised subjects conforming to norms of "correct" behaviour (namely, submission to the occupiers and unwillingness or inability to resist).

However, unemployment was a "structural effect of the occupation" and the large number of college graduates entered an economically restricted world that could not absorb them. Along with Palestinians' growing discontent at their heavy taxation without representation - and the exploitation and discrimination of Palestinians working in Israel - the frustrated ambitions of the educated unemployed were converted into energies fuelling the first intifada, the popular uprising against the occupation that began in 1987.

The intifada helped reveal the brutalities of occupation to the outside world, and the entrenched and intricate system of domination that was anything but "normal". Gordon describes the huge increase in beatings, torture and mass incarceration of Palestinians that Israel used to quell the uprising as a sign that the Government was moving from a "disciplinary" to a "sovereign" mode of power.

Whether these Foucauldian terms explain anything not already obvious is open to question. What this history does reveal, however, is the extent to which the Oslo peace accords that brought in the Palestinian Authority ended up doing nothing to bring peace, did much to further entrench the occupation with the doubling of settlements in the West Bank, and merely changed the methods of Israel's control to indirect means that continue to perpetuate the occupation indefinitely. The Israeli airstrikes against Gaza that began on December 2008, destroying military and civil installations (including civilian police premises, the education ministry, the cultural ministry, homes, hospitals, mosques and much of the infrastructure including the systems that provide water, electricity and sanitation) in the Gaza Strip were a very direct means. They have undoubtedly set prospects for peace and an end to the occupation even further back.

Israel's Occupation

By Neve Gordon

University of California Press

344pp, £39.95 and £15.95

ISBN 9780520255302 and 5319

Published 19 September 2008

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