48 Years On, A Simple Guide To Understanding The Israeli Occupation


The situation between us today is like the complex relationship between a Bedouin man and a girl he has abducted against her will. But once they have children, the children will recognise the man as their father and the woman as their mother. The original act of abduction will mean nothing to them. You Palestinians, as a nation, do not want us today, but we will change your attitude by forcing our presence on you. – Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan

In June 1967, Israel won a brief war it fought with Jordan, Syria and Egypt. The war started on June 5, and ended on June 10. Until then, Israel had ruled about 78 per cent of historic Palestine, though it briefly controlled more when it invaded the Sinai Peninsula in 1956.

With victory in 1967, Israel now controlled all of historic Palestine. Many Palestinians lived in exile, having been dispossessed by Israel during the Nakba. Most Palestinians who had stayed in the land which became Israel were subject to military law. Those who lived in the West Bank and Gaza had been subject to Jordanian and Egyptian rule, and would now live under the tender mercies of an Israeli military occupation.

We can get a great deal of insight by examining the internal archival records of Israeli government decision-making in the period immediately following the conquests. Though Israel has recently extended the waiting period for declassification to 70 years, Oxford historian Avi Raz was able to mine the available Israeli archives sufficiently to produce his insightful and revealing book, The Bride and the Dowry.

The themes that emerge from the archives of almost 50 years ago should be familiar enough to those observing the occupation today. Israel expanded onto Palestinian land, knowing that this was contrary to international law. Israel sharply repressed all political activism in the occupied territories, whilst looking for Palestinian quislings to offer support for the occupation. The Israeli government expelled Palestinians, schemed of ways to empty the occupied territories of their inhabitants, whilst claiming they had never been there in the first place. And Israel tried to deflect international pressure by engaging in supposed peace talks which were intended to go nowhere, so as to appear conciliatory without ever making any concessions.

On Israeli expansionism, Raz observes:

“On 11 June, less than twenty-four hours after the final ceasefire had taken effect, the cabinet agreed to annexe the Arab part of Jerusalem. The decision was carried out on 27 June by swift passage in the Knesset of three laws which deliberately did not mention Jerusalem or use the term ‘annexation’. But this was annexation in all but name…

What Israel did was against international law. Even Justice Minister Ya’acov Shimshon Shapira, who stated in the Knesset that ‘the eastern part of Jerusalem’ had been ‘liberated’ from foreign rule by the Israeli armed forces, said in the cabinet: ‘We set about Jerusalem with our eyes open and contravened the Geneva Conventions in the most blatant way.’”

Settlements in other areas of the territories now occupied by Israel soon followed. According to Raz, on

“10 September, Justice Minister Ya’acov Shimshon Shapira alerted his colleagues to the international illegality of civilian settlement in occupied territories. Shortly afterward Theodor Meron, the legal counsel to the Foreign Ministry, likewise advised Foreign Minister Eban and Premier Eshkol’s private secretary that civilian settlement in the occupied territories would contravene the Fourth Geneva Convention. Notwithstanding the breach of international law, the cabinet of 10 September approved a number of settlements in the Golan and north Sinai. Two weeks later, on 27 September, the first West Bank settlement was set up in the Etzion Block, between Bethlehem and Hebron.”

Raz notes that Israel pretended some civilian settlements were actually military bases, in order to provide a thin veneer of consistency with international law. Settlers and the Israeli media casually disregarded this ruse, though to this day there are diaspora Zionists who use the official pretext to defend the legitimacy of all settlements. Israel’s Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Haim Bar-Lev expressed doubts about the military value of certain settlements, such as Kalyah. The point, later made clear by Dayan, was that the settlements were supposed to claim land for Israeli sovereignty.

An image form the Six Day War, showing Israeli soldiers holding Jordanian and Palestinian prisoners.

A façade of dubious legitimacy was basically the official policy of the Israeli government. Israel’s Foreign Minister, Abba Eban, boasted in internal government meetings of his policy of takhsisanut: “a Hebrew term frequently used by him apparently to indicate ‘tactics’, though in reality it meant ‘deviousness’”.

Then as now, Israel’s military position was precarious. Its military was plainly superior to those of all surrounding nations by far. However, it was still surrounded by enemies, and its military edge was only made possible by the support of Western powers, in particular the United States. At this time, the US was privately exerting purely verbal pressure on Israel: as they told the Israeli ambassador, “We’ve told you the US position ad nauseam – you have to give the West Bank back, you have to give” Jordan a role in Jerusalem, and resolve other issues. Yet though Israel did none of these things, the US still provided Israel with 50 Phantom fighter jets. Then, as now, the US was Israel’s chief enabler of rejectionism.

There was no question at the time that Israel was blocking peace. The Israeli archives bulge with overtures for peace coming from King Hussein of Jordan – offer after offer lying flatly ignored and unexplored by Israel, even when President Nasser of Egypt was willing to quietly support such negotiations. However, Israel would make a show of engaging in public negotiations, on the condition that they would go nowhere.

Raz writes that “the government was engaged not in a peace process, [Eban] told the Labor Party’s Expanded Political Committee on 3 June, but in a tactical political struggle designed to maintain the status quo and to avoid ‘all kinds of calamities’ such as foreign political intervention”. Thus, when the UN envoy tried to launch discussions, Eban “flooded” him with procedural “suggestions”, such as an agenda for negotiations, so that Eban could claim that Israel had made lots of positive suggestions, whilst the Arabs kept rejecting everything. Israel was determined to avoid serious negotiations, because they would involve concessions, and Israel did not want to give back any of the land it had conquered.

The US was not stupid, and in private President Lyndon Johnson commented acerbically that “You want a country that lives in peace. You want [a]piece of this and [a]piece of that.” When Israel complained about its civilians being killed, “the American dismissive response had been: you do the same, and much more.”

Further to this end of pretending to seek peace, Israel would sometimes express interest in discussions with Jordan, and sometimes express interest in discussions with Palestinian leaders. Whilst Israel announced that it wasn’t trying to create a class of Palestinian quislings – collaborators – this quickly became Israeli policy.

The head of the Israeli Shabak – the Israeli FBI – took charge of this, known as Operation Sadducees. They quickly found collaborators, though radical nationalist intellectuals weren’t willing to sell out other Palestinians.

Then Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin noted the use of “reward and punishment, economic pressure and so on” in order to create the desired class of collaborators and informers, and to “neutralise” those who wouldn’t cooperate.

For a while, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol suggested he would support the creation of a Palestinian state. He quickly abandoned this idea – Raz suggests, “once he felt that it might materialise”.  However, “what the Israeli leader had envisaged was more of a Bantustan than a state”.

Israel had no illusions that the local population would enjoy being denied their rights, and the occupation began with harsh repression. Israeli General Ariel Sharon argued that “The Arabs should be treated with a firm hand. This is elementary.”

“Dayan objected to any Palestinian political activity. ‘What for?’ He snapped when Housing Minister Mordekhai Bentov challenged his position. ‘Do you wish them to convene and decide that they don’t want us? I don’t need such a resolution.’ The ban on political organisation became a strict formal policy. Nonpolitical association, including social clubs such as Rotary or Lions, were not permitted to gather, either.”

A military injunction was released late August 1967, which “interdicted any political activities in the occupied territories. An offender could be jailed for up to 10 years.’

Israel reviewed the Jordanian textbooks used by Palestinian children, and censored 78 of 134. Israel claimed this was to remove anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist incitement. However, “the actual censorship targeted also basic historical, cultural and religious facts and values, including Qur’an verses. It was primarily intended to obliterate any mention of Palestine and Palestinian identity.”

The goal was not just to repress the Palestinians in the occupied territories, but to get rid of them if possible. In the middle of the war, on June 7, Raz notes that Dayan told Rabin “that the aim was to empty the West Bank of its inhabitants”.

Prime Minister Eshkol observed that Israel’s victory had brought it a wonderful dowry – the occupied territories. However, “it came with a bride whom we don’t like”. That was the Palestinians, who still lived on their land.

During the war, about 235,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from the West Bank and Gaza, along with 85,000 to 110,000 from the Syrian Golan Heights.

At the end of the war, Dayan expressed his delight at the exodus: “I hope they all go. If we could achieve the departure of three hundred thousand without pressure, that would be a great blessing. If we could achieve hundreds of thousands from Gaza crossing with UNRWA approval, we would be blessed.”

The problem was that Israel wanted a democratic system of government, and a Jewish state. This required a Jewish majority, which was eroded by the sudden appearance of millions of Palestinians under Israeli rule. Eshkol complained that “I still don’t know how to get rid of” the Arabs of Gaza in October 1968. Yet Israel had done its best to continue the exodus and keep the demographic balance in line with policy goals after the war ended.

For example, after the war ended, Israel continued wiping out Palestinian villages, like Sourif and Badras – some for the purpose of getting revenge for the 1948 war. The 25,000 inhabitants of Tulkarm were rounded up and driven to the Jordan River, and, according to the refugees, forced at gunpoint to cross. Raz notes, “Evidently there was a pattern of expulsion reflecting an overall scheme to clear the Green Line area of its Arab population.”

When Palestinian refugees tried to return to their homes, they were shot dead. It is not clear how many were murdered in this way. Besides the expulsions, Israel “demolished Arab villages… and rendered some 20,000 West Bankers homeless”.

Israel tried other methods to get the Palestinians to leave. One government advisor claimed that “the defence minister told the government several days before: “[The military] is continuing to apply pressure by way of night searches and all sorts of oppressive acts [negisot], ‘so that they [the Arabs]will take the hint.’”

Even as Israel schemed of ways to expel the indigenous population from their homes, the Israeli Prime Minister publicly claimed they had never existed. Though Golda Meir earned notoriety for saying the same thing, Eshkol repeatedly asserted the Zionist terra nullius, announcing there had been no more than 20,000 Palestinians before the Jews came, it was “desert – more than underdeveloped”, “the land stood all but empty”.

This was for public consumption, presumably for the purpose of selling the case for Israeli colonialism. In private, Raz writes, “Disdain for the Arabs was widespread among the Israelis. For example, Maj Gen. Aharon Yariv, chief of the Military Intelligence, talked on one occasion about an inherent ‘fundamental flaw in the Arab person’s character.’ The Arabs, he said, were drek – Yiddish for rubbish or shit – and would remain that way.”

All of the archival records reviewed by Raz date from almost 50 years ago. Yet many of the records discussed above could have been written yesterday.

Israel still steals Palestinian land in contravention of international law, and then lies about it. Israel still tries to conduct phony peace talks to deflect international pressure, whilst repressing Palestinians in the occupied territories and making their life miserable so that they’ll “take the hint” and leave.

Whilst the Israeli government might not publicly announce these policies, in private they are more candid. We might have to wait 70 years to find out what they’re saying among themselves now. In the meantime, understanding what they said at the start of the occupation gives a pretty clear idea of what Israeli leaders have been thinking all along.

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