Why does Israel occupy Palestine?

It’s not a question to be taken for granted. If I had to give a short answer, I might say that Israel continues its occupation for land and resources—that it engages in what it knows to be a doomed “peace process” in order to eventually gain control over all of historic Palestine, “from the river to the sea”. At least, based on its actions, this is what Israel appears to be trying to do.

But there are continual and obvious contradictions in this idea. It is widely recognized among people educated in this topic that the longer Israel continues its occupation, the more it continues to build settlements throughout the West Bank along with infrastructure to serve those settlements, the closer it will come to having to deal with the 4 million+ Palestinians that inhabit the same space. Israel exhibits two conflicting desires: that for territory and that for a majority Jewish state. If Israel gains control over the entirety of historic Palestine, it will paradoxically lose its Jewish majority and thus its identity as a Jewish state.

So then how do we explain the current system? I recently read The Political Economy of Israel’s Occupation: Repression Beyond Exploitation, written by Israeli academic Shir Hever. I outline here some of the theories he describes that can be applied to the occupation of Palestinian land.

A great video of Hever speaking at King’s College London. He does not address the theorists discussed below in the video but his talk summarizes the main points of his book.

Hever begins with Karl Marx (1818 – 1883). He describes how the common perception of Marxists when looking at Israel/Palestine is that the occupation allows Israeli capitalists to exploit Palestinian labor, as well as the working class within Israel. It also creates a state of insecurity in such a way that distracts the working class (in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT)) from the fact of their exploitation. In this view, the occupation is a source of profit for the Israeli capitalist class, especially through the use of cheap Palestinian labor. Public figures such as journalist Amira Hass have argued that international aid is part of the mechanism through which Israel extracts profit from the occupation. This is largely because aid to Palestinians frees up funds Israel would otherwise have to be using to ensure the wellbeing of the population it occupies.

However, the Marxist approach is incomplete. First, while Israel still takes advantage of cheap Palestinian labor in pockets such as the agricultural settlements that employ Palestinians, the increasing influx of immigrants to Israel from other countries has meant that Israel no longer depends on Palestinian labor. Second, it is tough to argue what kind of material profit Israel derives from the occupation, since Hever argues throughout his book that the occupation has in fact not aided the Israeli economy. Most importantly, Marxism does not explain the “Israeli anomaly.” If Israeli capitalists are profiting from the occupation, and if the profits are not going to aiding the lower classes but instead going to enforcing the occupation, then it follows that the Israeli working class should support an end to the occupation. But it has been shown repeatedly that the Israeli lower classes tend to support occupation, while those that support withdrawal are found in the upper classes who are more comfortable and who need change less urgently. (This is the “anomaly.”) There is therefore little chance for solidarity between Israeli working classes and Palestinians living under occupation that might be assumed in a traditional Marxist interpretation.

Some Marxists think of “capital” as not just material but as also representing a social relation. This is where French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930 – 2002) comes in handy, as he argued that people attempt to achieve not just material wealth, but also social capital and “distinction.” In the case of Israel/Palestine, Jewish identity is a form of capital because it grants those with that identity certain privileges to which others are denied access. Another great example, applicable to Israel and elsewhere, is the popularity of anti-immigration laws. Immigration laws have a negligible effect on the standard of living of the lower classes, but if that group is immune from anti-immigration laws (in Israel’s case, because they are Jewish-Israeli), this grants them a form of social capital, as they are ensured rights that others are denied (Hever 159). Politicians often exploit this, perhaps knowing they cannot realistically follow through on the promise of material capital and thus promising social capital instead.

Bourdieu’s social capital and “distinction” is similar to Thorstein Veblen’s (1857 – 1929) view of “prestige,” which can also be used to explain the Israeli anomaly. In this analysis, Jewish-Israelis do not really enjoy material benefit from the occupation, “but their prestige increases if they position themselves within the social hierarchy in a place that is based on their nationality (Jewish) rather than on their class (low)” (Hever 179). In looking at the economic system of Israel/Palestine as a whole, working-class Jewish-Israelis are not at the bottom, but have been elevated to somewhere in the middle, above non-Jewish Israelis and Palestinians in the OPT.

Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan are two economists who have long analyzed the occupation. To them, it’s not even a matter of whether Israel or the Palestinians have suffered or benefited from the occupation. It is impossible to look at an entire society as one entity but rather “societies must be disaggregated into specific agents – only through an understanding of the actions of these agents is it possible to say whether they have benefited or suffered” (Hever 183).

In other words, asking why Israel occupies Palestine and then trying to figure out whether Israel as a whole benefits from the occupation is perhaps an incomplete approach. In reality, there are other forces in play, that may transcend borders, such as the major global economic sectors. For example, Bichler and Nitzan conclude from their research that Israeli policy and events in the region often correspond to a shift in relative profits of multinational oil companies and weapons manufacturers. A key passage:

Since many of the largest and most powerful oil companies and weapons manufacturers are situated in the United States and have a strong influence on US governments, Bichler and Nitzan argue that US involvement in the Middle East has not been intended to foster peace, but rather to instigate and perpetuate conflict. This has been accomplished by supporting Israel’s belligerent policies, protecting Israel from the international community over violations of international law, and supplying armaments to the region. The United States has consistently supported Israel’s settlement and occupation policies in order to sustain the potential for creating provocations, which may lead to violent outbreaks. These in turn lead to rises in the prices of oil companies and weapons manufacturers. Although the US economy as a whole is dependent on oil and would benefit from lower oil prices, it is necessary to distinguish between the interests of the population and the interests of key economic players. (Hever 185)

In the end, I think Israel’s occupation of Palestine can only be understood as an aggregation of multiple factors. Perhaps it all began as a desire for material gain—for land, resources, power, bolstered by religious and nationalist rhetoric. Even when the occupation stopped being profitable, the infrastructure of oppression was deeply ingrained and not easily lifted. And there were not many people with the desire to lift it; political impasse within Israel means that no politician is able to even bring up the idea of ending the occupation. The citizenry is too attached to the social capital they are gaining from the current status quo, upon which their identity is dependent. Meanwhile, while Israel in and of itself may not be profiting economically from the occupation, global economic actors are extracting plenty of profit, be it oil companies based in the US or the similarly sinister global arms industry. The global arms trade is fueling conflict across the globe, harming impoverished people the world over for the benefit of an elite few. This is a vast phenomenon that connects what we tend to see as localized conflict zones such as Israel/Palestine, Darfur, Somalia. Even if local politicians and residents in these countries wanted to fight against it, challenging the global arms industry (bolstered by the US government) is no simple feat.

A common statement made by Israel apologists is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “complicated.” This is usually to stifle discussion and mask what is a fairly simply-explained colonial system with an occupying power and an occupied people. But I would admit that the political-economic forces at play are far from simple. Oppression here has layers; from every angle, someone benefits, gaining capital that is either material, symbolic, or both.

Hever closes his book with a powerful statement, touching upon why so many people internationally have taken up the cause of Israel/Palestine:

Never before had it been so clear to me that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is of crucial global importance. It is a laboratory where civil resistance is pitted against the sophisticated machines of control, and where masses of people are pitted against towering concrete walls. The outcome of this conflict will determine not merely the future of the region, but the shape of future conflicts and occupations throughout the world. (Hever 201)

Work Cited:

Hever, Shir. The Political Economy of Israel’s Occupation: Repression Beyond Exploitation. London: Pluto Press, 2010.

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