In June of 2017, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip reached the half-century mark, and entered its fifty-first year. A third, and even a fourth generation of Palestinians and Israelis have been born into this reality, a reality that is the only one they have ever known. Thirteen million people live in the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, yet only eight million — those who hold Israeli citizenship — can participate in the political process that determines the future of this geographic area. This reality has created two classes of people: those with the full rights granted to citizens of a democracy and those who have less than full rights. To put it simply, the inherent features of this reality make it impossible to call Israel a democracy.
We can judge Israel’s intentions and goals only by examining Israel’s actions over the last half century: strengthening its control over the occupied territories and promoting its national interests while establishing ever more facts on the ground, tightening restrictions over the daily lives of millions of Palestinian subjects bereft of rights, and weakening the resistance, both in Israel and around the world, to the ongoing occupation.
The Israeli government claims to favor a two state solution, but its actions over the past decade and longer — expansion of the settlement project and creation of infrastructure in the West Bank — make the existence of a viable Palestinian state with territorial contiguity nearly impossible.
There is a significant segment of Israelis who oppose this reality and are working to change it.
Here is the mission statement of B’TSELEM: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.
“B’Tselem strives to end the occupation, and that is the only way forward to a future in which human rights, democracy, liberty and equality are ensured to all people, both Palestinian and Israeli, living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.”
I am well aware that Israel faces many challenges to its security: the Iranian-backed terror group Hezbollah in the north; Hamas in Gaza; and several Islamic Jihadist groups in northern Sinai. So I write this knowing that the focus on Israel’s human rights violations in the occupied territories (the West Bank and East Jerusalem) will be criticized by many in the Jewish community.
I write this as someone whose connection to Israel is deep. First, I am an Israeli citizen and lived and worked there with my family for a number of years. I have strong ties to the country, its history, the land, and its people. I understand the meaning of its struggle to survive in a dangerous neighborhood. I am proud to call myself an Israeli and an American. I am proud of all of Israel’s achievements. But I also am not afraid to face its shortcomings.
I cannot ignore or remain silent regarding the violations of human rights that the half-century of military occupation and rule over the lives of two million Palestinians have caused. As a people who have often been subjected to the violation of our human rights, we should not remain silent when the policies of the Jewish state result in serious human rights violations to another people.
One of the major obstacles facing Palestinians in their daily lives is the severe restrictions placed on movement in and between the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and Israel proper. For example;
• In Jerusalem, checkpoints cut Palestinian neighborhoods over the separation barrier from the rest of the city. More than 140,000 Palestinian Jerusalem residents have to negotiate checkpoints to enter their own city. They never know how long it will take them to pass through (or if they will be turned away) as they try to get to work, to a doctor’s appointment, or to visit family members. Palestinians live in constant uncertainty, never knowing if and when they will be allowed to move from place to place.
• Restrictions on movement have institutionalized the separation between Jewish settlers and Palestinian residents. There exists a system of separate roads for Israeli settler/citizens and Palestinians, often built on land expropriated from Palestinians. Palestinians in the occupied territories need special permits to enter Israel or East Jerusalem for any purpose — for work, medical care, or family visits. Similarly, in the seam zone, areas separated from the West Bank by the separation barrier, Palestinian farmers need special permits to gain access to their own land. All in the name of security.
• The permit system is complemented by a system of roadblocks, gates, checkpoints, and the separation barrier, all of which are obstacles to movement by Palestinians. Citizens of Israel, tourists, and Jewish citizens of other countries are exempt from these restrictions to movement. So a tourist or a Jewish citizen of another country has more freedom of movement than a Palestinian in his or her own land.
• Palestinian access to basic resources and services, such as their own land, water, health care, and education are severely limited. A system of segregation and inequality exists. Just drive through one or two Israeli settlements and then to a nearby Arab village to see the vast inequalities in housing, roads, and other infrastructure, schools, playgrounds, and clinics.
In his recently published book, “The Wall and The Gate: Israel, Palestine, and the Legal Battle for Human Rights,” Michael Sfard, one of Israel’s leading human rights lawyers, writes:
“We have become the only democracy in the world that has held another nation under occupation for half a century and has settled in their territory, brutishly taking over their land. Who would have believed it? Millions of people, all created in the image of God, suffering, for the fifth decade, under the yoke of military rule by a nation that knows better than any other the pain of losing freedom, property, and human dignity.”
And on the last page, Sfard concludes with these words: “…Israeli society and the state have deep, authentic liberal foundations. Its system of government includes an elected legislature, separation of powers, and the principle of rule of law… At the same time, the state’s definition of itself as Jewish, the exaltation of nationalism, the dispossession of the people who were here when the state was established … and the de-facto creation of an underclass subjected to systemic, institutionalized discrimination…are (all) part of Israel’s deep, authentic foundations, defining attributes of its society.”
It is human rights lawyers such as Michael Sfard and supporters of Be’Tselem such as David Grossman, Amos Oz, Avishai Margalit, Rabbi David Rosen, Alice Shalvi, A.B. Yehoshua, and many other prominent Israelis and Palestinians who give us hope that Israelis ultimately will realize that they will have to decide between occupation and control over another people and fulfilling what the State of Israel was meant to be by its builders and founders — a Jewish and a democratic state.
As long as the occupation continues, Israel cannot be a true democracy. As long as Palestinians are living under military rule, lacking important human rights, primarily the right to determine their future, Israel cannot be a democracy.
Many American Jews are blind to this reality, or if they recognize it, they say that security trumps human rights. Certainly Israel has security concerns. But the settlement project really is not about security. It is about the Greater Israel project — to eliminate the possibility of a Palestinian state and thus any rights that Palestinians claim to a land they lived in for generations.
This situation cannot stand.
The occupation will end. It must end.
Rabbi Aryeh Meir of Teaneck is on the faculty of the Academy for Jewish Religion and he is the chair of the Teaneck Environmental Commission.