Interview: Neve Gordon’s New Book

Israel’s Occupation by Neve Gordon, [Year: 2008; ISBN: 978-0-520-25531-9; Publisher: University of California Press.]

Interviewed by Chris Spannos

Chris Spannos: Where did your book Israel’s Occupation come from?

Neve Gordon: The book has two distinct sources. First and foremost, it is a product of many years of activism in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. My understanding of the forms of control deployed in the Gaza Strip and West Bank began during the first Intifada, initially as a member of the Gaza Team for Human Rights and later as the director of Physicians for Human Rights, Israel. During the second Intifada, I became an active member of Ta’ayush (Arab-Jewish Partnership) and spent much time in the Occupied Territories resisting, together with Palestinians, Israel’s abusive policies. This kind of first-hand experience is invaluable and cannot be replaced by books and reports. The book is also the outcome of discussions and research carried out by a group of Israeli and Palestinian students and scholars that I was fortunate to join a few years ago. The aim of this group was to try and theorize Israel’s particular form of colonization. 

What would you say makes your book different than other books on the occupation?

There is, to be sure, a whole slew of books about Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, (one might even call it an industry) but surprisingly there is not a single book that provides an overview of four decades of Israeli military rule.

One can find excellent books about the history of Israel’s settlement project, Palestinian resistance, primarily during the first and second Intifada, the history of the military courts, the Palestinian women’s movement, the labor movements, the diplomatic initiatives, and human rights abuses. I am familiar with five different books that deal with the separation barrier, also known as the wall. While these studies are crucial for understanding certain features of the occupation, Geoffrey Aronson’s 1987 Facts on the Ground was the last book that attempted to provide an overview of the occupation, but his superb book appeared before the eruption of the first intifada.  On the one hand, then, this is the only book that offers an extensive history of the occupation.

On the other hand, most of the books that exist are descriptive. My book, by contrast, aims to theorize the occupation and Israel’s control of the Palestinian population. It aims to offer an explanation for the changes that have taken place in the Occupied Territories over the years. If in 1968 Israel helped Palestinians in the Gaza Strip plant some 618,000 trees and provided farmers with improved varieties of seeds for vegetables and field crops, during the first three years of the second Intifada Israel destroyed more than ten percent of Gaza’s agricultural land and uprooted over 226,000 trees. How can one explain this shift?

The book focuses on the four decades since 1967. What about the decades before, and particularly the war of 1948? 

The objective of my book is to show and analyze how Israel has controlled the population it occupied in 1967. I am not writing the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the history of the mechanisms of control employed to control the Palestinian people in the most general sense. I think, for instance, that the modes of control deployed to control Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have diverged from the ones deployed inside Israel after the 1948 war in large part because Israel never wanted to integrate the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories into its citizenry. Israel, as I point out, wanted the "dowry" (the land it occupied in 1967) without the "bride" (the Palestinian inhabitants of this land) and therefore it had to introduce different forms of control.

This is not to say, however, that one can understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without looking back at 1948. 1948 is crucial both for understanding the conflict and for any just peace agreement. Indeed, I do not think there will be peace without first addressing the ethnic cleansing carried out during that war. However, discussing these issues is not the objective of my book; moreover, many excellent books have already been written on 1948.

Your book provides a "Genealogy of Control." What is this and why is it important?

By genealogy of control I mean a history that describes the forms of control used to manage the population through the regulation of their daily practices. It refers to a certain kind of history from below.  In the Occupied Territories the controlling apparatuses have manifested themselves in legal regulations and permits, military procedures and practices, spatial divisions and architectural edifices, as well as bureaucratic edicts and normative fiats dictating forms of correct conduct in homes, schools, medical centers, workshops, agricultural fields, and so forth. A single book does not suffice to create an inventory of these apparatuses, considering that the military orders issued over the years in the West Bank and Gaza Strip alone fill thousands of pages and deal with anything and everything, from business transactions involving land or property and the installation of water pumps to the planting of citrus trees and the structure of the governing body. Each one of these orders can be analyzed in depth so as to uncover both the processes that led to its creation as well as the effects that it generated. Why, for example, did Israel prevent Palestinians from installing water pumps? Which practices did the military introduce to enforce this regulation, and how did the lack of water pumps affect the inhabitants’ daily lives? Instead of offering a meticulous interrogation of a single controlling apparatus, as some commentators have done, my book provides a bird’s-eye view of the means of control so as to explain the changes that have taken place over the past four decades in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Your preface mentions changes you experienced growing up. What were some of these changes and what do you attribute them to?

When I was a teenager my friends in high school took driving lessons in the middle of Rafah, a city located at the southern tip of the Strip which today is considered by almost all Israeli Jews to be a terrorist nest riddled with tunnels used to smuggle weapons from Egypt — weapons that are subsequently used against Israeli targets. I mention that until the early 1990s Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza were part of the Israeli landscape, primarily as cheap laborers who built houses, cleaned streets, and worked in agriculture, but that today they have literately disappeared.

Israel’s inability to quell the Palestinian emancipatory drive has led it to transform the Occupied Territories into a kind of open air prison. In the early years of the occupation Israel spent a lot of energy trying to manage the occupied population and to normalize the occupation. It monitored every aspect of Palestinian life. The number of televisions, refrigerators, and gas stoves were counted, as were the livestock, orchards and tractors. Letters sent to and from the different regions were checked, registered and examined. School textbooks, novels, movies, newspapers and political leaflets were inspected and frequently censored. There were detailed inventories of Palestinian workshops for furniture, soap, textiles, olive products and sweets. Even eating habits were scrutinized as was the nutritional value of the Palestinian food basket. Today, Israel is no longer interested in the Palestinian inhabitants as subjects that need to be managed (except perhaps in the seam zones near the borders and at the checkpoints) and this, as I show, has led to a very precarious situation, one which is much more violent.

How has violence and death among Palestinians and Israelis changed over the years of occupation and how does this inform our analysis or vice versa?

While the changes in the OT have manifested themselves in all areas of life, they are particularly conspicuous when counting bodies. Between the six-year period of 2001- 2007, Israel, on average, killed 674 Palestinians per year, which is more than it killed throughout the first 20 years of occupation. Moreover, since the eruption of the second Intifada, Israel has killed almost twice as many Palestinians as in the preceding 34 years. The number of Israelis killed has also dramatically increased over the years. During the thirteen-year period between December 1987 and September 2000, 422 Israeli were killed by Palestinians, but during the six-year period from the eruption of the second intifada until the end of 2006, 1,019 Israelis were killed. One of the questions I address in the book is how to make sense of the increasing violence. I want to look beyond the straightforward, and, in my mind, simplistic answer that assumes each side has altered its methods of violence, deploying, as it were, much more lethal force. This, no doubt, is true, but the question still stands: why are more lethal repertoires of violence deployed?

You write that the Occupation operated according to the "colonization principle" but over time gave way to the "separation principle." What do you mean?

By the colonization principle I mean a form of government whereby the colonizer attempts to manage the lives of the colonized inhabitants while exploiting the captured territory’s resources (in our case, this would mean land, water, and cheap labor). Colonial powers do not conquer for the sake of imposing administrative rule on the indigenous population, but they end up managing the conquered inhabitants in order to facilitate the extraction of resources. The military perceived its role very differently when the colonization principle was dominant than it does today. For instance, for several years, the Israeli Military Government published annual reports entitled "Accountability," suggesting that Israel felt a need to provide an account of the social and economic developments taking place in the regions that it had captured. The thrust of the claims made in the reports can be summed up in the following way: Due to our interventions, the Palestinian economy, industry, education, health-care and civilian infrastructure have significantly developed. The point I would like to stress here is not that the development of these sectors was frequently actually obstructed, but rather that Israel considered itself responsible for these sectors, for the administration of the population. The Israeli objective was to normalize the occupation. 

At a certain point during the first Intifada, Israel realized that the colonization principle wasn’t working, and began looking for a new principle that would allow it to uphold the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The desire to normalize the occupation and successfully annihilate Palestinian nationalism proved to be unrealistic. It took a few years before a clear policy was shaped, but eventually the separation principle was adopted. As opposed to the colonization principle which was rarely discussed, the separation principle has been talked about incessantly. The paradigmatic sentence describing this principle is "We are here, they are there." The "we" refers to Israelis, and the "they" to Palestinians.

The second principle does not, however, aim to end the occupation, but rather to alter its logic. In other words, "We are here, they are there," does not signify a withdrawal of Israeli power from the Occupied Territories (even though that is how it is understood among the Israeli public), but is used to blur the fact that Israel has been reorganizing its power in the territories in order to continue its control over their resources. Thus, the Oslo Accords, which were the direct result of the first Intifada as well as the changing political and economic circumstances in the international realm, signified the reorganization of power rather than its withdrawal, and should be understood as the continuation of the occupation by other means. As Meron Benvenisti observed early on, Oslo was a form of "occupation by remote control."

The major difference then between the colonization and the separation principles is that under the first principle there is an effort to manage the population and its resources, even though the two are separated. With the adoption of the separation principle Israel looses all interest in the lives of the Palestinian inhabitants and focuses solely on the occupied resources. Highlighting this reorganization of power helps explain the change in the repertoires of violence and the dramatic increase in the number of Palestinian deaths.

How much have the forms of Israel’s control over Gaza and the West Bank changed over the years and what does it tell us about Israel’s control over the region?

The separation principle produces a totally different controlling logic from the logic produced by the colonial principle. If during the first decade of the occupation Israel tried to decrease Palestinian unemployment in order to manage the population, following the new millennium Israel intentionally produced unemployment in the Occupied Territories.  Whereas in 1992 some 30 percent of the Palestinian workforce was employed in Israel, in 1996 that figure had fallen to seven percent and the average rate of unemployment in the territories reached 32.6 percent, rising twelve fold from the 3 percent unemployment in 1992. Thus, during one period employment is used to manage the population, while in a later period unemployment is used as a form of control.

Along similar lines, if during the first years of the occupation Israel provided immunization for cattle and poultry, in 2006 it created conditions that prevented people from receiving immunization. The World Bank reports that acute malnutrition currently affects more than 9 percent of Palestinian children in the territories, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that in 2003 almost 40 percent of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories suffer from food insecurity. Almost half of the children between 6 and 9 months and women of child-bearing age are anemic. There has been a 58 percent increase in the number of stillbirths due to poor prenatal care and child mortality increased substantially in 2002 to become the leading cause of death for children under 5, and the second leading cause of death overall. It is not only that the Palestinian inhabitants are no longer considered to be important objects of management and that Israel has abandoned its objective of exploiting the population for economic purposes, but that it has adopted a series of policies which in effect weaken and destroy the Palestinian residents.

Indeed, under the separation principle the Palestinian is no longer conceived to be an object that needs to be meddled with and shaped. The military’s policy during the second Intifada, whereby soldiers shot more than one million bullets within the first month, is poles apart  from the policies of the first years of the occupation and even from Defense Minister Yitzchak Rabin’s directive "to break their bones," given to soldiers during the first Intifada. The difference between beating the body and killing the body reflects the difference between the colonial principle and the separation principle, between shaping the body and crushing it.

What is the difference between understanding the Occupation through the lens of policy vs. the lens of structure? Where might each lead the person who holds that perspective? And how is one better than another?

The question we need to always ask ourselves is where policy originates from. We tend to think of policy as the creation of a person or a small group of people. People commonly talk about the Eisenhower doctrine, the Bush doctrine, Ariel Sharon’s doctrine, etc. as if certain doctrines originated from political leaders. I, by contrast, think that politics work differently. I think, for example, that politicians, military commanders, judges, and the like are constrained and in many respects shaped by the existing social, economic and political structures.

Let me give an example that is closer to home. The US is now undergoing an economic crisis and, as a result, Bush just passed a 700 billion dollar bailout bill. Michael Moore characterized the bill as the biggest robbery in the history of the United States. I tend to agree with this characterization, but the question I ask myself is whether this bill simply originated from President Bush and his advisors or whether it is a product of the crisis and certain political, economic and social structures in the US. I do not think one can fully make sense of the bill without taking into account certain credit structures in the US, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the intricate relationship between big business and the US electoral system, to name a few of the political processes and structures that helped shape the policies that aim to address the crisis. Moreover, it is the excesses and contradictions that are, in fact, integral to the credit structures, the wars and the influence of business on the electoral systems that led to the crisis to begin with, which then led to the policy change.

The same is true about Israel’s occupation. The mechanisms of control produced their own contradictions and excesses, which led, in turn, to policy changes.   

You write that the changes taking place in the Occupied Territories are not the effects of policy decisions or Palestinian Resistance. What guides your thinking here?

This is not precise. The changes are, no doubt, the effect of Israel’s policy choices and Palestinian resistance, but what, I ask, are the underlying causes leading to the shifts in Israel’s policy choices and to the augmentation or changes in Palestinian resistance. My claim is that the policy choices and indeed the resistance were shaped by the contradictions and excesses of the mechanisms of control that Israel deployed. A curfew restricts and confines the population, but also produces antagonism; the establishment of a Jewish settlement on a hilltop is used to confiscate land, partition space, and monitor the Palestinian villages below but also underscores that the occupation is not temporary. There are scores of examples like these in the book.  The crux of the matter is that the contradictions facilitated the awakening of a Palestinian national consciousness, altered the population’s social stratification and played a crucial role in weakening the influence of the traditional elites, undermined the claim that the occupation was temporary and would end in the near future, revealed the logic behind Israel’s so-called arbitrary processes and decrees, and helped bind together an otherwise fragmented society. Palestinian resistance, in turn, led Israel to alter its policies.

The book pays particular focus to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Why are these areas important to Israel?

This book concentrates on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the areas where most of the Palestinians who were occupied in 1967 reside.  Israel was, from the beginning, unwilling to withdraw from these two regions and hoped to integrate the land or at least parts of it into its own territory at some future date. My objective was to try and understand how a particular kind of colonialism works and how and why it changes over time. Israel’s colonial enterprise in East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights works slightly differently and since I could not address all the differences in one book I decided to concentrate on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This does not mean that they are more important to Israel; indeed I think that Gaza Strip is less important and considered by many Israeli policy makers more of a liability than an asset. The West Bank is considered, on the one hand, a military asset. It is perceived as necessary for defending Israel’s borders against external attacks, while the water reservoirs in the West Bank are considered a vital security resource due to Israel’s scant water supplies. On the other hand, the West Bank fulfills a messianic aspiration. From a messianic perspective, this region is seen as part of the biblical land of Israel and therefore it belongs to the Jews and should never be returned to the Palestinians. These strains of thought often converge to create a united front.

How do Palestinians and Israelis as conscious agents of change fit into your analysis? 

They don’t. It is, however, important to emphasize that even though my focus is on the different structures and mechanisms of control, I do not want to suggest that one should ignore or dismiss the agency of political actors. Indeed, any attempt to portray both Israelis and Palestinians as objects rather than subjects of history would be misleading. Israelis are responsible for creating and maintaining the occupation as well as its consequences, while Palestinians are responsible for their resistance and its effects.  And yet the decisions of Israelis and Palestinians, as well as their comportment, are produced, at least in part, by a multiplicity of forms of control.

Since almost all the books that I am familiar with emphasize the human agency of Israelis and Palestinians, I decided to focus on the structures and forms of control. I think the two genres complement each other; indeed one cannot understand the occupation without taking into account both the agency and the structure – since most authors until now focused on the agency I decided to tell another story.

What are your hopes for the book?

Like every person who writes a book I hope that it is widely read, that at the end of the day the people who read it feel that they have learnt something, that it is taught in classes, and that it will help activists make better sense of Israel’s occupation.

While the book, and particularly the introduction, employs theory in order to make sense of the occupation, I think that non-academic readers will find the book accessible and benefit from such a theorization, since it will not only improve their ability to detect the lies and transcend the political smokescreen that characterize most discussions about Israel’s occupation, but also provide some tools for understanding how power ticks.  I hope that people from all political stripes read it, and not only those on the left or those interested in Israel/Palestine, but also people who want to improve their understanding of how modern forms of colonization operate and how our lives are managed.

-Neve Gordon teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University and is the author of Israel’s Occupation. Visit his website at; Chris Spannos is staff with Z –

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
Our Vision For Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders & Intellectuals Speak Out