What Can We Do Today to End the Occupation?
Omer Cohen participated in the Geneva Initiative’s Peace and Reconciliation program for young leaders. He is an attorney, content writer, and blogger, currently managing the site “The Left Answers”.
After 54 years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank it seems that the world has pretty much forgotten about the Palestinians. For the foreseeable future, genuine negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians seems less plausible than a new season of The Cosby Show. Nonetheless, the urgency of ending the conflict grows each day. The injustice towards the Palestinians is intolerable: approximately 3 million reside in the West Bank without full civil rights, without political representation, and under military rule that controls almost every aspect of their lives. Unemployment rates stand at around 35%, opportunities are few and the younger generation is incrementally losing hope. In the Gaza Strip, living conditions are even worse: 2 million Palestinians live between a rock (Hamas) and a hard place (IDF military siege), without access to jobs (almost 50% unemployment) or even basic utilities like electricity and water. Moreover, millions of Palestinian refugees are caught in an eternal limbo, not belonging anywhere and waiting endlessly for the conflict to end, so that they will have a place they can call home.
Politics, especially in Israel, is a short-sighted game. Israeli leaders do not make hard choices unless they absolutely have to, and negotiating with the Palestinians is one hell of a hard choice to make. As things stand today, there is no real incentive for the Israeli government to pursue the path towards negotiations. Economically Israel is thriving: hi-tech companies are raising billions of dollars weekly; the tourism industry (before Covid) was on the rise; and unemployment rates are generally low. To add to this, there is not enough external pressure on Israel, with few global players expressing any real intention to interfere in the situation. Moreover, the majority of Israelis are insensitive to the oppression and suffering of the Palestinians. Whether they blame it on the Palestinians themselves, or they think of the occupation as a necessary evil, it seems that Israeli society has become oblivious to the situation beyond the Green Line. To some extent, from the Israeli perspective, this situation can exist forever.
Although it may seem sometimes like this can continue for an eternity, the reality is that it really cannot. More and more young Palestinians are slowing losing faith in the chance for peace and a sovereign Palestine. Instead, public discourse in Palestinian society focuses on the struggle for equal rights. This is bad news for Israelis aspiring for a Jewish and democratic state. Today, Israeli society is in a constant struggle to define itself. If the Palestinians eventually lose hope for an independent state, Israel will have to decide whether it is a Jewish or democratic state, but it cannot be both in this scenario. If Palestinians will be granted equal rights, Israel will lose its status as a Jewish state, since it will no longer have a Jewish majority. However, if Palestinians will continue to be disenfranchised, Israel will cease to be a democracy.
So if Israel is currently reluctant to embark upon a peace process, we must ask ourselves: what can we do today to fight for peace and keep the prospects alive while we still have the chance? Firstly, it is a question of incentives. The apartheid regime in South Africa only collapsed after international pressure. Therefore, we can support the differentiation between companies who manufacture or market their goods in the occupied territories and those inside Israel proper. To clarify, we need to boycott the occupation, not Israel. If we will not separate Israel from the occupation, we will throw the baby out with the bathwater. Rightwing Israelis today use the BDS movement rhetoric as proof that all criticism towards the occupation is really just a modern form of antisemitism. Because of that, boycotting the settlements and the occupation is the only approach that will have genuine legitimacy.
The second thing we can do is to engage, talk and meet with the other side. As things stand currently, peace will not come from our leaders, it will come from the people. Therefore, it is up to us to start making some changes. The average Jew that lives in Israel can spend his entire life without meeting or talking with a single Palestinian (with the exception of military service). This situation is a policy that serves to alienate the two societies and divides us. It allows both Israeli and Palestinian hate, propaganda, and misguided stereotypes of the other side to thrive. What can you do for peace today? Meet someone from the other side, engage with them, listen to their experiences, their daily struggles, their history, their narratives, their concerns, hopes and dreams for the future. You can also support initiatives that organize these joint encounters and create opportunities for dialogue. If enough Palestinians will meet with enough Israelis, both societies will have better understanding, respect, and empathy for the other. This kind of change has the power to boost the peace movement, propelling it from the bottom all the way to the very top. We must not give up.
Omer is an attorney, content writer, and blogger, currently managing the site “The Left Answers”.