By Jim Miles
14 February, 2009
Book Review: Israel’s Occupation - Neve Gordon. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2008.
There are many sources of information from websites through newspapers to books that carry significant referenced information about the history and context of the Israel/Palestine problem that, with the support of the U.S. government and the ambitions of the Israelis, has become a global problem. There is much material that accounts for the misery and suffering and imposition of a military regime on an occupied territory, and it all supports the general idea of an occupied people suffering under the power of an invading military.
Now added to this relatively strong list of materials is Israel’s Occupation, a book that is so well written and presented that it provides a captivating and amazingly powerful read. It is one that I would describe as a ‘must read’ for anyone – from those already knowledgeable about the situation, to those who are relative newcomers. Neve Gordon’s description, analysis, and examples are clear, concise, and authoritative (most from Israeli sources). His arguments and perspectives are fully supported and well sequenced. While I hesitate to describe any purely academic work as captivating, this work fits.
It develops several themes about the occupation that keep recurring, with alterations, as it develops the history of the occupation from 1967 to the present. First is the theme that the occupation is both temporary and arbitrary. Not that the occupation is temporary, but the means employed to control the population are fully temporary and arbitrary. Control of the population is another ongoing theme, as the Israelis desired a “land without people for a people without land” and therefore perpetuated this idea through these arbitrary controls on the population, while at the same time using that control to confiscate and annex Palestinian land, piece by piece, through quasi legal means. The third theme is of excesses and contradictions that ties into the arbitrary and temporary theme. For all that Israel tried to do to control the population, to “normalize” the situation, the built in contradictions of their actions and the excesses they went to in order to create this similitude of normalcy, all created more and more problems that in turn created further actions with contradictions and excesses.
Ultimately, Israel simply does not care about the Palestinian people. At first normalizing meant trying to keep the population relatively pacified, divided, and comfortable while extracting the most utility from them as a labour resource and market for Israeli goods, while investing as little as possible into Palestinian infrastructure. As explored by Gordon, this changes to the point where at the end – the ‘now’ of Gaza – the people have become fully disposable to the violence that the Israeli military is ready, willing, and able to use against the Palestinians – and the Lebanese, and others in the perhaps not so distant future - in order to secure the land and resources of Eretz Israel and its near frontier hinterland consisting of compliant and complacent Arab states.
What has recently happened in Gaza is the culmination of Israel’s forty year history of occupation, the end result of many “excesses and contradictions”, the end result of all its failed attempts to control the population at the same time that it acquires more and more land. The violent attacks “are…an effect of other significant changes that have taken place of the years,” and signal “Israel’s efforts to normalize the occupation have failed.” The Palestinians have become homo sacer, people outside the law, without recourse to law, who may be killed at any time.
At first, the population was controlled by “sustaining some form of security, while currently it controls the occupied inhabitants by producing endemic security.” That in itself places a frightening prospect on what the future will look like for the Palestinians of both the West Bank and Gaza.
In the “Introduction” Gordon claims that the above changes “were and continue to be an outcome of the daily practices characterizing life under occupation.” He defines control as
not only the coercive mechanisms used to prohibit, exclude, and repress people, but rather the entire array of institutions, legal devices, bureaucratic apparatuses, social practices, and physical edifices that operate both on the individual and the population in order to produce new modes of behavior, habits, interests, tastes, and aspirations.
As the reader works further and further into the work it becomes obvious that there is not a single element of physical space or intellectual/emotional/social space that is not under some form of control mechanism. Gordon develops the idea that “most of the coercive measures used in the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the first years of the occupation were still in use four decades later.”
This control is maintained by various “modes of power”. Originally Israel emphasized disciplinary power and biopower, controls on the individual and on the population as a whole, while also using sovereign power. The latter is the "imposition of a legal system and the employment of the state’s police and military to either enforce the rule of law or to suspend it.”
Rule of law
The idea of rule of law and the legal expropriation of land is used throughout the work. However that is not the ‘rule of law’ that protects the citizen but serves to control the citizen. Israel has consistently violated all international agreements on occupation, prisoner’s rights, and human rights, although they do on occasion pick out a single item that they can argue demonstrates their ability to abide by the law. A significant aspect of the occupation law that they do use is that an occupier should follow previous regimes of law in an occupied area and not introduce new laws.
For Israel that proved fruitful as the laws they used and continue to use were developed by other occupiers also seeking some form of population control to some degree - the Ottoman Empire and the British Empire, neither of which designed laws for the benefit of the indigenous population’s benefit if it contradicted their own needs for control and resources. Later, with Gaza under the non-democratic Egyptian government, and the West Bank under the non-democratic Jordanian government, both serving as compliant neighbours supported with U.S. funds, some of their laws were used for Israeli purposes as well. In short, when Gordon indicates that Israel acquires land through application of the law, it is not the law of human rights and citizen’s entitlement to their private property, it is rule of law created to control an occupied population.
Just as the occupying controls were densely applied, Gordon’s work is densely written. That density is well structured and makes it accessible to readers, lay and academics alike. To quote extensively from the work would be redundant (other than what I have presented above to provide the overall themes of the work). The material covers the original physical infrastructure and develops through the various ways and means that structure was used to control the population and separate it from the land.
The two most significant chapters – among a series of chapters in which all is significant – were the last two chapters on “Outsourcing the Occupation” and “The Separation Principle”.
Briefly, “Outsourcing the Occupation” discusses the Oslo Agreements and how they arose from the First Intifada and then created the conditions necessary for the Second Intifada. In brief, Oslo signified the failure of “normalization” and became the new means to gain control of the land, outsourcing the control of the population to the newly created Palestinian Authority. While seemingly successful at first, the “excesses and contradictions” built into the structure and modes of occupation created new conditions that developed a stronger armed resistance to occupation. The PA was eventually disempowered, while the control of land continued, mainly through the settlements and the variety of infrastructures supporting them (military zones, bypass roads, the wall).
“The Separation Principle” discusses the end result of the change from a colonialist occupation seeking to normalize the population while owning the resources to that of a separation principle that ignores the population constrained within its greatly reduced cantons while extracting and possessing maximum benefit from the greater part of the occupied land.
The primary contradiction to all Israeli actions and policies is that of denying the unity of the people and the land, “the attempt to separate the people and their land.” Separation is not a withdrawal of power from the OT, “but is used to blur the fact that Israel has been reorganizing its power in the territories to continue its control over their resources…and should be understood as the continuation of the occupation by other means.” With that is Israel’s turn to overpowering violence and destruction on both the people and what little infrastructure they have left – “Israel has lost all interest in the Palestinian population as an object of control.” While both “normalcy and full blown catastrophe would signify the end of the occupation,” holding the OT on the “verge of catastrophe” would “uphold and preserve the occupation.”
If Israel maintains the distinction between the people and their land, numerous contradictions will continue to emerge; the Palestinians will accordingly resist Israeli control….without reuniting the Palestinian people and their land and offering them full sovereignty over the land…the cycle of violence will surely resume.
That primary contradiction has implications of course that extend beyond the borders of Israel into the political/corporate/military headquarters of the U.S. and into the physical boundaries and other occupied territories of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the threatened territories of Iran and Pakistan. Thus the Palestinian problem remains at the centre of Middle East policy in the U.S., as the U.S. fights for land and resources rationalized within the war on terror.
Gordon does not get into this extension of the topic and rightly so. He remains within his primary focus, within the primary contradiction, and leads the reader through an amazing array of physical, psychological and social controls within every detail of Palestinian society. Israel’s Occupation becomes a must read on my list; and my first question of anyone that wants to argue with any perspectives on Israel would be “Have you read this book yet?”
Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.