Recent events have reminded me that the term “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” is inadequate to describe what really happens in those territories. Of course, there is violent conflict, though lately it’s limited to rockets from Gaza and (often disproportionate) Israeli reprisals. These violent exchanges are deplorable, and they deserve scrutiny from Israelis, Palestinians, and the international community. But few people realize that the death toll from the conflict has plummeted under the Netanyahu government.
The real problem is not conflict but occupation. Just a few days ago, the Jerusalem police detained a seven-year-old boy for throwing stones, interrogating him for hours without allowing his parents to see him. Whatever the legal “rules,” there is nothing anyone can do. Palestinians in the occupied territories simply do not win court cases. When the evidence is so bad that the army cannot rely on the 99.74% conviction rate for Palestinians, it resorts to “administrative measures” (can you imagine a more Orwellian term?). In human language, it forces people to move away from their families, changes their residence status, and uses secret evidence against them. And of course, nonviolent resistance is effectively banned; the army treats any gathering of Palestinians as a threat and disperses it accordingly. B’Tselem’s heartbreaking 2011 summary video captures the vulnerability of life under occupation. If you click on no other link in this article, watch this video.
Netanyahu has not started any wars, but his administration has entrenched the occupation system. It no longer makes sense to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as though we face a war between equals with unfortunate excesses on each side. The real problem today is the Israeli government and its routine violations of Palestinians’ human rights. This may seem obvious for those who follow the issue closely. But, despite the creative and admirable efforts of nonviolent activists, Palestinian rights are simply not discussed in mainstream America.
In the past few years, groups like J Street (who I support) have attempted to make it acceptable in American politics to criticize Israel, or at least the Israeli right. But they have framed their positions as pro-Israel, arguing that the occupation must end for Israel’s sake. They are right of course, but this is far from the whole story. Yet to gain even tenuous acceptance in American politics, voices on the left have had to ignore Palestinian rights. Let’s pause for a moment and recognize how distorted our politics are: we must ignore the Palestinian experience in order to fight against Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
People on the right argue that it’s naïve to press for Palestinian rights without offering a political solution. Ultimately, they say, occupation and conflict are directly connected; if we did not occupy them, they would kill us. But this does not quite ring true. When the PLO wanted to murder people, it found a way, regardless of Israeli security measures. Now its leaders favor nonviolence, and so the violence from the West Bank has largely stopped. Of course, Israeli security is not meaningless, but the Abbas administration, not Israel, has effectively stopped terrorist attacks.
More importantly, when you look at what really happens under occupation, it is hard to see the relevance of security. Does anyone really believe that the indefinite detention of seven-year-olds is the key to preventing terrorist attacks? If it does somehow help at the margin, do we really think it’s worth it? In our own society, we have decided that some things are more important than security. But Palestinians have not had the chance to make this decision. In reality, the occupation is like all unchecked systems of power. It has developed a self-perpetuating logic unrelated to its original purpose. A political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems distant. But we can restore many Palestinian human rights today. First we have to talk about them.