The Australian Jewish News published my op-ed marking fifty years of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Fifty years ago, Israel braced itself for war. Egypt, Jordan and Syria surrounded the country and proclaimed Israel’s imminent destruction. But Israel struck first, delivering a fatal blow to Egypt’s air force within hours of the war beginning.
The Arab armies, already humiliated by their defeat in the war for Israel’s independence in 1948, tasted the same again in the 1967 Six-Day War. At that time Israel’s borders were thought of by many as “Auschwitz borders” – that they were indefensible and would lead to another slaughter of Jews. They were wrong.
In Israel, the joy that followed the victory was universal. Jewish communities around the world were ecstatic and proud of Israel’s astonishing military success. It meant breathing room. For the first time – perhaps literally – Israel was truly on the map.
With victory came reunion with sites of significance that Jews had longed for over 2000 years in exile. The Western Wall in Jerusalem. Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. For religious and secular Jews alike, these sites meant everything.
Of course, there was another side to the story. It soon sank in that with the renewal of Jewish bonds with these ancient sites came some one million Palestinian residents.
There were Palestinians who had lived there for generations or joined them during the 1948 war; there were others who were pushed out or fled Jewish advances, or were manipulated into leaving by Arab leaders abroad.
It’s not that Israel’s leaders didn’t understand this. They knew the choices – absorb the territories and grant citizenship to a million non-Jews, or withdraw in exchange for peace. As Israeli historian Gershom Gorenberg wrote: the Israeli government “decided not to decide”. Instead it began what has now become a messianically driven 50-year national project of settlement in the conquered lands.
Over the years, Israeli governments of the left and right incentivised half a million Jews to settle on land it never claimed as their own. Israel remains only a temporary custodian of the land. But nothing temporary should last half a century.
Many Israelis understand – including the father of the settlements, the late prime minister Ariel Sharon, and Israel’s High Court of Justice – that Israel governs the West Bank in an increasingly belligerent military occupation.
Since 1967 Israel has placed Palestinians under harsh rule that doesn’t befit a thriving, albeit imperfect, democracy.
Palestinians in the Occupied Territories lack the same human rights afforded citizens of Israel, including freedom of association, speech and movement. Their lives are ultimately controlled by Israel, and yet they have no say in that government. Settlers, who live often just across the road, have full rights.
Terror and violence against Israelis have, understandably, hardened their hearts. Yet the reality recognised by the country’s most venerated former military, security and intelligence officials is different.
Virtually all of them say that Israel will be more secure behind internationally recognised borders. Earlier this year, a former Mossad chief labelled the occupation Israel’s only existential threat. The West Bank isn’t a security asset, it’s a liability.
Peace efforts over the decades have been squandered by both sides. Meetings in Oslo, Camp David and Annapolis ended with the Palestinian leadership walking away. The Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 has never been formally responded to by Israel, and plans for a regional deal advanced by Egypt and Jordan last year were rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Peace processes have alternately inspired and depressed both Israelis and Palestinians and their supporters around the world. But nothing has changed: Israel doesn’t have security; Palestinians don’t have a state.
The time has now come – 50 years since the Six-Day War and 70 years since the UN’s plan to create Jewish and Palestinian states – to realise the dream of a secure and independent Israel next to a secure and independent Palestine.
The alternative – endless violence and conflict – is unacceptable for everyone. Palestinians will not give up until they have their own state. Israelis will not rest until theirs is secure.
The only way forward, as Amos Oz writes, is a fair divorce. After the unhappy reality of 50 years of occupation, it is too much to dream of a happy marriage; only of an amicable separation.
Conflicts no less contentious – Ireland, the Balkans, even Europe after two of the bloodiest wars in human history – have managed an amicable separation. Why not Israel and Palestine?
In the absence of leaders with the courage needed to make tough decisions, we owe it to Israelis and Palestinians not to turn our backs but, instead, to say, after 50 years of occupation, we will not let it continue.