The Jeffrey Goldberg Problem

It’s too easy to lose sight of what occupation means for Palestinians. It’s especially easy when we focus on the splashier, violent atrocities, to forget that military occupation is, above all else, a permanent state of being. Even those whose days are “uneventful” for local reporters, are still living under a terrible burden.This is a mistake commonly reinforced by the liberal, so-called “pro-Israel” crowd.

There isn’ a better icon for the “liberal hawk” than Jeffrey Goldberg. In his recent review of Gershom Gorenberg’s latest book, The Unmaking of Israel, for the New York Times, Goldberg amply demonstrates why so many peace activists find him so objectionable.

Goldberg illustrates the shades of grey in the Israel-Palestine debate, because he supports a two-state solution and opposes Israeli settlements, on the one hand, but distorts the realities of occupation and whitewashes many Israeli actions on the other. Goldberg writes: “The majority of Israelis say they support a two-state solution, and the majority of Israelis, if they ever loved the settlements, appear to love them no more (Israelis are not, in my experience, unaware that settlements are the main weapon in the arsenal of Israel’s adversaries). But the majority is powerless in the face of the relentless settler minority.”

This is an awful reduction of the history and reality of the settlement enterprise. That effort has been underway for forty-four years. During that time, it has developed its own infrastructure, seriously challenged and damaged Israel’s legal system, and swallowed up enormous amounts of cash. Not to mention the severe strain it has put on Israel’s military, turning it from one of the world’s most respected armed forces to an occupying army whose only military victories in recent memory have been against poorly armed and untrained guerillas with the overwhelming majority of the damage inflicted (in Gaza as well as several times in Lebanon) upon non-combatants, and civil infrastructure.

Are we to believe that this was all done by a “relentless minority” over the course of more than four decades and under governments of all different political stripes in Israel? Indeed, right-wing governments prior to the current one have seen significantly less settlement expansion than their ostensibly left-wing counterparts.

In their book, Lords of the Land, Akiva Eldar and Idit Zertal uncover the intricate web of governmental and, yes, popular support the settlement enterprise has had in Israel since the very beginning. Seems like Goldberg missed that one.

In 2005, the famed Sasson Report revealed just how deeply the tendrils went. Former State prosecutor Talia Sasson was able to trace millions of shekels that had been diverted by government ministries as well as the quasi-governmental World Zionist Organization to “illegal outposts,” wildcat settlements that are illegal under not only international law (as all settlements in occupied territories are) but even according to Israeli law. These are small areas where as few as one or two families might park mobile homes and by that act start a new settlement. That money is a drop in the ocean next to the enormous amount of funds required by the settlements for infrastructure, subsidies and security.

All of this begins to reveal not just the deleterious effects of the settlements on Israel, but that they are far from the accident of history that Goldberg would lead you to believe. Even Yitzhak Rabin, who was well known to despise the settlers, gave them enormous aid in expanding their control of the West Bank, an area Israel has been, to put it mildly, reluctant to leave since the day it was captured.

And we have not yet touched on the effects on the Palestinian population of the West Bank. In recent months, the situation on the West Bank has been downplayed, buried under controversies about settlements, Gaza, Jerusalem and others as well as by the now-rampant myth of an economic boom centered around Ramallah.

Goldberg illustrates well the effect this has had. Here is how he paints the problem of occupation for Palestinians:

“The settlers, unlike the Palestinians, are full citizens of Israel; they can vote for their leaders, and have open access to the Israeli civilian judicial system. The Palestinians who live side by side with them are not allowed a say in choosing the government that rules over them.”

For Goldberg, the occupation means that Palestinians cannot vote and are not treated equally by the courts. For Palestinians, the day-to-day reality of occupation is vastly greater than these points.

Occupation for Palestinians means contending daily with closures and checkpoints that devastate the economy and make it impossible to know from one day to the next if one can go to work, attend school, get to medical care if needed or even visit one’s family and friends, in some cases even if they live just up the road a kilometer or two.

Occupation for Palestinians means a Separation Barrier that cuts them off from Jerusalem and much of what used to be the central metropolis of Palestinian life, as well as turning trips from Hebron to Nablus from what should be a manageable drive into an all-day affair.

Occupation for Palestinians means living under constant threat that your village might be deemed desirable for a new military base or settlement and squeezed out, farm and grazing land simply cut off and the town walled in until it is starved and deserted.

Occupation means your family lives in a two-bedroom house, despite the fact that there are eight people there, because you fear that the Israeli military will destroy the entire house if you build an extension without a permit which is quite impossible to obtain. You fear this because it happened to your neighbor.

Occupation means being defenseless as settlers, sometimes under the watchful protection of Israel Defense Forces soldiers, attack you.

Occupation means never knowing when a soldier, settler, border patrolman or paid “security guard” will take it into his head to beat or humiliate you when you near a checkpoint or merely cross his path.

Occupation means the so-called economic miracle of Ramallah is an unsustainable illusion based on a huge influx of foreign donations and benefitting only a small sector of the West Bank.

These are the realities of occupation for Palestinians. These are the daily travails which Goldberg blithely glosses over, with his talk of voting rights and equal access to the judiciary system.

With all the intricacies and political intrigues of the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as the dramatic events of flotillas rushing toward a besieged Gaza Strip, it is easy to forget how the daily grind of occupation makes life a misery for so many Palestinians. It’s easy to forget why there is violence, especially when unjustifiable attacks on Israeli civilians cloud the issue.

It’s easy for the Jeffrey Goldbergs of the world to reduce the occupation to a lack of a few liberal ideals that Westerners take for granted.

For Palestinians, the reality, even the banal day-to-day reality, is so much grimmer than that.


Photograph courtesy of Squirmelia. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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