Sandy Tolan: Four Decades of Occupation

By Sandy Tolan

Who could have known that a six-day war would last 40 years?

Israel’s lightning victory in June 1967 — preordained by overwhelming air power in the first six hours of fighting — seemed complete.

The air forces of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria lay in smoking ruins. President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, hero to the Arab masses and scourge to Israel, was disgraced. The ragged remainder of King Hussein’s ground forces had beat a humiliating retreat to the east bank of the River Jordan. And by June 10, Israel occupied vast chunks of land: the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, Gaza, and the West Bank, including Arab East Jerusalem.

But Israel’s legacy from 1967 is not victory but occupation, of the Palestinians and of themselves. Within weeks, the Jewish state’s initial euphoria, born of the immense relief of Holocaust survivors who had feared annihilation, would give way to moral quandary as the realities of occupation sank in.

"It’s an absolutely lousy feeling being in a conquering army," one kibbutznik told the young writer Amos Oz, unknowingly prophesying four decades of Jewish soldiers to come.

As Israel solidified its gains — annexing East Jerusalem, securing coveted water resources in the West Bank and the Golan Heights, and, later, allowing waves of "pioneers" to settle in the West Bank — generations of 18- and 20-year-olds would begin enforcing Israel’s new colonial reach.

They found themselves brandishing automatic weapons at tense, alien checkpoints; firing live ammunition at stone-throwing Arab teens or breaking their bones under military orders; hauling suspected militants from their homes in refugee camps; bulldozing entire blocks in Jenin; squeezing the triggers from American-made helicopter gunships.

The leaders who sent these young people into the occupied territories were themselves soldiers or former soldiers whose sense of survival was distilled into two words: Never again. Yet this strategy, rooted in the horrors of Europe, would instead help ensure the opposite.

In Gaza, the West Bank, and later southern Lebanon, Israel would describe its military action as preventative security, or retaliation. But just as the average Israeli’s deep psychic need to feel secure could be traced to the Holocaust, so the government’s response — massive retribution on a scale far greater than the provocation — turned "never again" to "again and again."

In each assault on the occupied enemy, the bitter aftermath bred a new generation of Arab hatred. In 1968, Israeli forces tried to root out Palestinian insurgents in the West Bank town of Karama, succeeding instead in strengthening their leader, Yasser Arafat.

Twenty years later, in the dawn of the first intifada, Israel tried to weaken Arafat by supporting a rival Islamist faction in Gaza. Instead, they encouraged the growth of Hamas. Last year, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon strengthened the target, Hezbollah. One in every four Lebanese was driven from his home, and the people blamed Israel far more than the Islamists.

Forty years on, the occupation of the West Bank and Golan Heights continues, not only in the name of security, but for natural resources and economic benefits. Israel’s presence in the West Bank allows it to control the vast mountain aquifer, 80 percent of which lies under Palestinian land, but which Palestinian farmers and villagers are restricted from using. Occupation of the Golan Heights gives Israel control of the circumference of the Sea of Galilee, and prevents Syria from diverting its headwaters.

Then there is lifestyle. Some Israelis contemplating a possible handover of the Golan Heights to Syria (a remote prospect) lament the loss of the upper Jordan as a place where they can float on kayaks and inner tubes. Grapes from the Golan Heights also produce much of Israel’s wine. Many Israelis on the West Bank now live nearly suburban lives, their movements protected by soldiers and facilitated by smooth, Israeli-only roads that zip them to Jerusalem.

Occupation denial has set in. The occupied population has become nearly invisible, a distraction to drive past with the windows rolled up and the air conditioners on.

Meanwhile, 2.4 million Palestinians live on the West Bank. For them, whose movements are controlled by checkpoints, who are denied permission to pray at the Jerusalem holy sites, whose homes and workplaces, in many cases, are subject to random search by the occupying military authorities, and whose teenaged children blankly speak of having no future, the occupation is as intolerable in 2007 as it was on the day, 40 years ago, when it began.

-Sandy Tolan is the author of "The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East."  (This article was first published by the Boston Globe – on June 7, 2007; it’s published here with permission from the author)

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