Recently I was quoted in several places regarding a public discourse I want to have with some members of our community. Respected members of the JCRC community told me that – even as they appreciated the public effort I was making to engage - they wished I hadn’t used a certain word in making my point.
That word? “Occupation.”
It’s not a term I’m particularly comfortable with and so, I use it sparingly. It is also not one I used lightly in that moment. And in that balance between discomfort and acceptance, I find myself thinking about the importance of words and the context in which we use them.
To adequately explore the legal and diplomatic use of the term ‘Occupation’ would require more space that I want to take here. The international community uses this term to define Israel’s presence in areas that came under Israel’s control during the defensive war of 1967. That usage is rooted in, amongst other sources, interpretation of the Fourth Geneva Convention covering humanitarian protection of civilians in war zones.
Many of us reject this interpretation. In 2007 Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “although Israel has voluntarily taken upon itself the obligation to uphold the humanitarian provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel maintains that the Convention (which deals with occupied territories) was not applicable to the disputed territory. As there had been no internationally recognized legal sovereign in either the West Bank or Gaza prior to the 1967 Six Day War, they cannot be considered to have become ‘occupied territory’ when control passed into the hands of Israel.”
There’s far more to understanding this disagreement. But beyond any discussion about definitions of international law there is an emotional and historical meaning. When I hear the term “occupation” applied to the area known both as “the West Bank” and as “Judea and Samaria,” I also hear an interpretation that asserts that the Jewish people are outsiders in this land.
This is the historic homeland of the Jewish people – for which we yearned for two millennia. It is the walled city of Jerusalem where David established the capitol of the first Jewish state, Solomon built his temple, and from which we were barred from 1948 to 1967. It is the highlands of the Judean hills, in places like the village of Tekoa where Amos, the prophet of social justice, was born. It is Hebron, where a Jewish community lived - almost continuously - during the long diaspora, prior to their massacre in 1929.
When “occupation” asserts that there is no place for Jews in this land, that doesn’t reconcile with my national identity, my history, my connection to this place. When 71% of Israeli Jews – in a recent poll – say they are “sure” or “think” that Israel’s presence in this space isn’t “occupation,” it is this history and connection that they are evoking.
But I also understand the term “occupation” as Ariel Sharon applied it. In 2003, Israel’s then Prime Minister endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state and a U.S. backed peace initiative. Using the Hebrew word kibush repeatedly, he told members of the Knesset:
“You may not like the word, but what's happening is occupation. Holding 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation is a bad thing for Israel, for the Palestinians and for the Israeli economy.''
I share Sharon’s fear for Israel’s future and yet I understand that despite my discomfort, acknowledging as he does the reality of “occupation” in proper context – is essential in honoring my commitment to and support for a secure, Jewish and democratic Israel.
I want an end to the state of control that Israel exercises over aspects of Palestinian society. I want Palestinians to have the option of living in a state of their own, side by side with Israel. I want this to happen as soon as is possible, understanding that this possibility is contingent on the ability of the Jewish people to live in security in a state of its own. I understand that the conditions necessary to end this state of occupation – as Prime Minister Sharon understood the term – are complex and not easily resolved, and that all parties need to work together to get there.
But I cannot abide a context and formulation that calls for an end to occupation absent affirmation of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. A call to “end the occupation” without such a commitment, to use the term without an endorsement of a two-state resolution, comes uncomfortably close to the usage that is popular amongst Palestinian extremists. When they say “occupation,” they mean “from the river to the sea” – with no recognition of the Jewish people’s connection to place, no future for Israel, no peace.
The path to peace is challenging. The seeds of hope for the possibility of peace are being laid in places like Tekoa.
Tekoa is a “settlement” (and look for a future post on the meanings of the “S Word”). It is in Judea. In the West Bank. In the historic Jewish homeland. In the place where Palestinians experience “occupation.” It is a place that has known great pain, including the vicious terrorist murder in 2001 of Koby Mandell and Yosef Ishran.
Tekoa is the place where, long ago, the prophet Amos asked: “Can two walk together without having met?”
Shaul Judelman lives in Tekoa. Ali Abu Awwad lives nearby in Beit Umar. Together they founded Roots, which has – for the past two years – been fostering a grassroots movement of understanding, nonviolence and transformation among Israelis and Palestinians. They were inspired by the teachings of the late Rabbi Menachem Froman of Tekoa, who challenged the narrative of exclusive ownership of the Land with a religious-based sense of deep belonging to the Land.
Shaul and Ali are of two peoples - Jewish and Palestinian – who both have a deep belonging in this land. Neither can be free by rejecting the other. Neither can fully thrive by controlling the other. Each is being defined by their relationship with the other. Each is learning to walk together in this land, neither as occupier nor as occupied, but rather both belonging, and in peace.
Can we learn to talk of “Occupation” in this context?
Note: This post also appears on Times of Israel.