Abraham argued with God himself. So did Moses. It’s in the very nature of the Jewish tradition to ask questions. Indeed, on Passover, the four questions serve to encourage the habits of curiosity and dialogue – habits that are crucial not just to the Jewish faith, but to an engaged political life in a democracy.
But among Israeli and Diaspora Jews, a new habit has emerged, one of not asking questions concerning one very specific issue: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As an Israeli who has dedicated his life to the promotion of a better future for Israelis and Palestinians, I’ve learned that questions are among humanity’s most important tools. The more information we have, the better we are able to make choices and take action.
In the spirit of our holiday, then, here are four questions I wish my fellow Jews would ask more often:
Why call Israel’s presence in the West Bank an ‘occupation’?
There is an international consensus that the territories that were captured by Israel in the Six-Day War in 1967, including the West Bank and East Jerusalem, are occupied territories. Even according to Israeli domestic law, the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, remains under the sole control of the Israeli military. There are those who claim that the West Bank is a disputed territory; however, there is no dispute that the legal framework, as well as the daily reality governing the West Bank, is one of military occupation.
What’s the problem with Israelis settling in the West Bank?
International law states that an occupying country may not transfer parts of its population into the land it occupies; yet there are over half a million Israelis living beyond Israel’s internationally recognized sovereign boundary. Many who moved there did so as a result of massive government investment and financial incentives. The presence of the settlements has resulted in two separate and highly discriminatory legal systems in the same territory. While Palestinians are governed by military law, military orders incorporate Israeli law when it comes to the settlers.
The settlements create immense hardships for Palestinians, including extensive exploitation of land and water at the expense of Palestinians, a massive military presence to protect settlers, a network of segregated roads, and the separation barrier, ostensibly built to separate Israelis from Palestinians, the route for which was largely dictated not by security, but by the desire to connect settlements and large areas for their expansion to Israel.
Don’t the Palestinians have their own government and control their own lives now?
The Palestinian Authority (PA) was established in 1994 as a five-year interim administrative body – it has never been a sovereign government. As a result of the failure to achieve a peace agreement, however, the interim arrangement continues today. The PA controls civil affairs in the 40% of the West Bank that was defined as areas A and B. Israel retains complete control over the remaining 60% of the West Bank, and security control of the entire territory.
Because areas A and B are islands within Area C, Israel controls all movement throughout the West Bank, as well as urban development of the whole territory, the taxation system, the ability to travel abroad, to exploit water resources, and many, many other spheres of life.
Although Israel no longer controls the Gaza Strip, it still largely controls the borders, airspace, and sea access around Gaza, and tightly limits exports and imports and the movement of people between Gaza and the West Bank.
How can Israel keep its citizens safe without violating the human rights of Palestinians?
No one can deny Israel’s security challenges. The first obligation of a state is to protect its citizens, and Israelis have been subjected to horrific attacks over the years. Within this difficult reality it is crucial to understand what are necessary and legitimate security measures and where security concerns are exploited to advance other agendas. This is the crucial role of government watchdogs, which have documented violations of Palestinians’ basic rights. In fact, there is no real contradiction between respect for human rights and ensuring security – and both are in the best interest of Israel’s citizens.
Asking questions is never easy, but the reality revealed by B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization whose work and findings I am representing in the US, shows just how important that process is. The violations B’Tselem recorded and recently published in its annual report should disturb everyone who cares about the future of Israel.
The right of all humans to lives of dignity and safety is far too urgent for us to take the easier route of silence. Asking uncomfortable questions isn’t just Jewish – it’s a vital part of being human.