In his March 23 response to my opinion piece of March 2, Rabbi Robert Wolkoff posed some serious challenges to my assertion that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem involves serious human rights violations. What follows are some of his assertions and my responses.
Rabbi Wolkoff’s piece was written in the spirit of “makhloket leshem shamayim,” — the understanding that a controversy for Heaven’s sake has lasting value (Avot, ch. 5) — and I trust that my response will continue a respectful dialogue, one that should be more a part of the Jewish communal agenda.
1. When exactly did it (the occupied territories) become their (the Palestinians’) land?
There is no “exactly” here. Arabs have been living in Eretz Israel/Palestine for hundreds of years. Many migrated to the area from surrounding lands and established hundreds of villages in what it now the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel proper. In 1948 those Arabs represented a demographic majority. Palestinian Arabs constituted the majority in cities: Jaffa, Haifa, Lod and Ramle, Hebron, Nablus and Ramallah, and they inhabited hundreds of smaller towns and villages. By 1945, 1.3 million Arabs and 600,000 Jews lived within the borders of Mandate Palestine.
2. We could question whether the occupation is really an occupation at all.
Even before the resistance to the occupation began, Israel began to construct Jewish settlements and an elaborate infrastructure in territories they conquered in the Six-Day war in 1967. The desire to expand the territory controlled by Israel was a product of two factors: Israel’s need for more defensible borders, and the push from far-right nationalist and messianic groups, such as Gush Emunim, to take possession of “the Greater Land of Israel,” the biblical land of Israel, whose eastern border would be the Jordan River.
For more than half a century, the Israel military has occupied those lands and ruled over the lives of their Palestinian residents. The Israeli government has tried to normalize the occupation and to transform the territories into a region of Israel. The call to annex the territories has grown louder among right-wing politicians.
3. Checkpoints and other limitations on Palestinians’ freedom of movement are essential for reasons of security.
Certainly Israel has security concerns and the separation barrier has been effective in minimizing the incursion of terrorists. However, security should not trump the numerous human rights violations that Israel has committed over the many years of occupation. This has not been (and by definition cannot be) a humane occupation.
4. Because of Israel, Palestinians have more water and better water than they ever had before.
This is another myth. The truth is that Israel has control of all water resources in the land between the sea and the Jordan River. Both the West Bank and Gaza suffer water shortages as a result of Israeli policies. Because of the poor state of the pipelines linking Palestinian communities and also of the water grids within Palestinian cities and villages, about one-third of all water supplied to the Palestinian Authority is lost due to leakage. Israel has refused PA proposals to repair the pipeline infrastructure. As a result, West Bank Palestinians live with a constant water shortage. At least 180 Palestinian communities with a population of 30,000 people have been prevented from connecting to the water grid. They are forced to purchase water from tankers year round. Average water consumption in these communities is 20 liters per day, way below the WHO recommended minimum of 100 liters. This water often is not safe due to poor sanitary conditions in the tankers. In area C, Israel forbids even the digging of cisterns for collecting rainwater. Why are the areas around Israeli settlements bathed in green while the surrounding Arab villages are subject to water rotation? Because Israel’s national water company provides water to Jordan Valley settlements while Palestinian villages must buy water from rusty tank trucks.
5. When Rabbi Meir writes that Palestinians cannot participate in the political process that determines the future of this geographic area he is precisely wrong.
The basic fact is that Palestinians — under occupation, lacking Israeli citizenship — cannot participate in the one government that controls their everyday lives, the government of Israel. Under occupation, Palestinians have no vote and no representation in the Israeli government that oversees the military occupation. The fact that Palestinians can vote in Palestinian elections is irrelevant to this point, since the elected leaders of the PA do not control the lives of Palestinians under occupation. The Israeli military authorities do.
6. The majority of Palestinians would prefer leaders who are more supportive of violence. A majority of Palestinians, according to polls, support violence.
This is extremely complicated. Professor Shikaki’s 2016 poll concluded that “in the absence of negotiations 60% [of Palestinians] support the return to armed intifada. An identical percentage supports peaceful popular resistance. This points to Palestinian frustration and anger with their reality and to their ambivalence regarding a strategy that will improve their prospects for a brighter future. Most “Palestinians also believe that Israel’s long-term aspirations are to extend its borders to include all territories occupied in 1967 and expel the inhabitants or deny them their political rights.” (Shikaki). As frustration with the lack of progress increases, the support for violent resistance increases.
7. The Israeli occupation is a moral occupation.
There is nothing moral about this occupation. There is nothing moral about home demolitions, administrative detention, expulsion of communities, road closures, and denial of the right to compensation caused by security forces. (B’tselem). There is nothing moral about controlling the lives and destinies of millions of people and denying Palestinians basic human rights (freedom of movement, property rights) afforded to Jewish residents of the same occupied territories. Because of the inherent discrimination between those with full rights and those whose rights are limited, occupation of another people cannot by definition be considered moral.
I thank Rabbi Wolkoff for his thoughtful response, and look forward to continuing the dialogue with any and all readers.
Rabbi Aryeh Meir of Teaneck is on the faculty of the Academy for Jewish Religion and is chairperson of the Teaneck Environmental Commission.