Israel’s Occupation Is the Obstacle to Peace

Permanent occupation by Israel and the subjugation of Palestinians in a land that is nearly half Palestinian will never bring stability and security.

Palestinian children walk toward a destroyed home the day after an Israeli airstrike on the Nuseirat refugee camp, in the Gaza Strip on October 30, 2023. (Mohammed Abed / AFP via Getty Images)

As Israel carpet bombs and levels a totally besieged Gaza, killing thousands of civilians, including more than three thousand children, Western media continues to use the “right of self-defense” mantra to shut down discussion of Israel’s ultimate responsibility — as occupier — for the situation in Palestine.

Enter United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres. Last week Guterres stated that Hamas’s heinous October 7 attacks “did not happen in a vacuum” and that “those appalling attacks cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.” He also explained that:

The Palestinian people have been subjected to fifty-six years of suffocating occupation. They have seen their land steadily devoured by settlements and plagued by violence; their economy stifled; their people displaced and their homes demolished. Their hopes for a political solution to their plight have been vanishing.

As expected, Israel responded with outrage, demonizing Guterres. But he was stating a simple fact — describing a historical and political reality that people from Yemen to Yakima can understand, despite much of the mainstream media’s refusal to acknowledge it.

For justice to prevail one day, it is essential to first recognize that truth and tackle the question of responsibility.

This is precisely what the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, in its editorial published immediately after the attacks, has begun. Entitled “Netanyahu Bears Responsibility for This Israel-Gaza War,” the article’s opening lines cut through the media noise:

The disaster that befell Israel on the holiday of Simchat Torah is the clear responsibility of one person: Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime minister, who has prided himself on his vast political experience and irreplaceable wisdom in security matters, completely failed to identify the dangers he was consciously leading Israel into when establishing a government of annexation and dispossession, when appointing Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir to key positions, while embracing a foreign policy that openly ignored the existence and rights of Palestinians.

There is no justification here of Hamas’s unconscionable killing of civilians, which Haaretz continues to investigate and report on in gruesome detail. Nor is there an attempt to deflect blame on Palestinians as a whole or to displace the political focus by reducing Israel’s failure to a mere intelligence disaster.

The paper’s focus on Netanyahu is key. But the failure is greater than him. It’s a failure of not only the ultranationalist policy that Netanyahu represents but of the Israeli state managers and bureaucrats who implement that policy. A whole state doctrine has collapsed, and it now requires a paradigm shift. Permanent occupation and a politics defined by Jewish supremacy in a land that is nearly half Palestinian will never lead to stability and security.

Transformation in Israel and Palestine must begin by acknowledging the legal form that Israel’s colonial fantasy of security has taken. The Jewish Nation-State Law introduced by Netanhayu’s government and passed by the Knesset in 2018 denies and ignores Palestinian realities. The roots of recent violence clearly lie here — Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are merely its symptoms.

Legislatively enshrining and boosting Jewish supremacy in Israel, the 2018 law is a constitutional injunction to upgrade the Jewish-only nature of the state. Simultaneously, it downgrades the political and cultural status of Palestinians — both within and across Israel’s 1948 borders, creating an inferior class. Critics of the law have stressed that it “has distinct apartheid characteristics and requires racist action as a constitutional value.”

Most importantly, the Jewish Nation-State Law legally excludes Palestinians from any collective political rights. It explicitly denies them the right of self-determination upheld by UN resolutions and international law. But it also goes further, refashioning not only the political aims of the nation, but its moral fabric as well, asserting “the development of Jewish settlement as a national value” in the Land of Israel.

If you wanted to put your finger on one reason for the current catastrophe in Israel and Palestine, this law is it.

Israel legally barred itself from resolving the question of Palestine as a national question. It codified what Netanyahu has been doing on the ground by dividing and parcellating Palestinian land and splitting the Palestinians into antagonistic camps. It legislatively blocked the conditions for Palestinian statehood, in violation of international law.

It isn’t just Israel’s critics who make this claim. Netanyahu himself admitted as much in March 2019, saying: “Whoever opposes a Palestinian state must support delivery of funds to Gaza because maintaining separation between the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza will prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.” As Akiva Eldar put it then: “Netanyahu aims at preventing the West Bank and Gaza from being considered as one Palestinian entity, and advances splits between the different Palestinian factions in order to weaken Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ rule.”

With this political shift underway, Israel explicitly shunned offers from Hamas to resolve the conflict politically. In 2018, Hamas’s political leader, Yahya Sinwar, gave an extensive interview to Italian journalist Francesca Borri that mapped out a potential road to peace. Sinwar saw “a real opportunity for change” and stated that “war achieves nothing” and that “a new war is in no one’s interest.”

In the interview, Sinwar asked:

Why do you never speak of what happened later [after Oslo]? Like the National Unity Document, for instance, which was based on the well-known 2006 Prisoners’ Document. And that outlines our current strategy, I mean, Hamas, Fatah, all of us, all together — a state within 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital. And with the right of return for refugees, of course. 12 years have come and gone, and you keep on asking: Why don’t you accept the 1967 borders? I’ve got the feeling that the problem is not on our side.

None of this justifies Hamas’s horrifying attacks on civilians. None of this guarantees that peace would have been achieved by now.

But Israel’s intransigence and commitment to Jewish supremacy is the fundamental obstacle. Israeli policy does not allow for peace. It prioritizes Jewish supremacy over equality and coexistence. And meting out cruel punishment on Gaza’s children will not bring Israeli citizens the security they rightly yearn for.