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Occupation blindness

5 reasons most Israelis tread the path of ignorance when it comes to their neighbors in the West Bank and Gaza
The West Bank town of Qalqilya is seen behind Israel's security barrier. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
The West Bank town of Qalqilya is seen behind Israel's security barrier. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

For over 50 years, growing numbers of Israelis have willingly contracted a communicable disease: ignorance of the conditions prevailing in the territories under Israeli control since 1967. This severe myopia has spread even more in recent years, as the distress of the some five million Palestinians residing in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (according to figures published by the IDF earlier this year) has grown exponentially.

Very few Israelis take the trouble to learn the basic facts about conditions on the ground. Even less care. Most are simply not interested — content to continue to subsist in blissful ignorance. For them, the occupation (a discredited term considered to verge on heresy) is, at best, a remote affair which only touches on their lives when those under Israeli rule show signs of resistance. They have succumbed to the official adage that there is no urgency in pursuing any solution to the festering conflict with their neighbors (when there is quiet there is no need for an accord; when there is violence, no talks can take place until there is quiet). This uncharacteristic passivity amongst a population noted for having an opinion on just about everything enables the continuation of a situation which cannot be sustained over time. What accounts for this progressive — and ultimately dangerous — blindness?

The first, most superficial, answer to this question is physical separation. Following the construction of the security barrier in the early years of the present millennium and the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, most Palestinians simply live beyond the vision of the bulk of Israelis. In this, as in similar instances, out of sight means out of mind. Most Israelis, even those residing beyond the Green Line, rarely come into contact with their Palestinian neighbors. They travel along separate roads, work in different places, shop in their own communities and socialize with each other. They have no idea that in 2018, 32.4 percent of Palestinians were unemployed or that a full 43.6% of Gazans were jobless (the rates of those seeking work among youth soared to 60%; among women it is now over 50%). They do not have a clue about the extent of Palestinian poverty: in the Palestinian parts of Jerusalem, 76% live below the poverty line (83.4% of children are poor). In fact, most Israelis have not ventured to the West Bank; most West Jerusalemites dare not enter such neighborhoods of Issawiye, Sur el-Baher or Silwan, where refuse pours freely into the streets and roads are frequently impassable because of huge potholes. What cannot be seen apparently also cannot cause discomfort.

A second explanation for the prevailing indifference is (also) prosaic: preoccupation with mundane matters of daily life. Many Israelis are so busy with work, family, friends that they have little time (or inclination) to look around them and observe. Living reasonably comfortable lives (the nominal per capita income in Israel according to the International Monetary Fund was $40,258 at the close of 2017), they do not know that their Palestinian counterparts, at best, average less than one-tenth of their own average income ($3,700 in the West Bank and a paltry $1,700 in Gaza). While Israelis demand more quality education, in East Jerusalem alone, the state-sponsored school system will open next week with a staggering shortage of 2,000 classrooms. And, as the forecast for the continuation of drought conditions has been extended for another year, only 50% of Palestinians in Jerusalem are connected to the water grid. Immersed in the travails of everyday existence, little time exists to find out anything about parallel conditions so close to home.

A third possible reason for the prevailing disinterest is denial. What takes place across the increasingly imaginary Green Line, many contend, has nothing to do with average Israelis. It is an external matter — intricately intertwined with defense — and hence generally beyond the scope of domestic affairs. The key exception, of course, is the Jewish settlers whose presence in the West Bank has expanded substantially in recent years — buttressed not only by security and demographic considerations, but also by religious and ideological ones. During the first two weeks of the Trump presidency, the Netanyahu government approved over 5,500 housing units. In the past two months alone, 2,275 units were allotted in East Jerusalem alone. The additional 984 housing units approved last week in the West Bank have caused a pushback in the Judea and Samaria Council — which claims that the government is dragging its feet on the expansion of the settlement enterprise in its entirety. At the same time, however, Palestinian home demolitions that continue with expedited regularity are not accorded the same attention.

To ensure that this duality is maintained, legislation sanctioning Jewish settlements retroactively has been approved and the jurisdiction of the High Court of Justice on these matters has been curtailed. The split vision that stems from denial has a major advantage: no responsibility can be borne for what one does not see. And without responsibility, there cannot be any obligation for the well-being of those who suffer from deniable actions.

A fourth, closely related, factor for the aversion to learning more about Palestinian realities is fear. The official Israeli narrative for years has been that the Palestinians (in general, but especially the Hamas) are bent on the destruction of Israel. Their intransigence and resort to force constitute an ongoing existential threat that can only be dealt with through the use of superior force. In other words, if any Israeli concern for humanity regarding the plight of the Palestinians creeps into the conversation, it can be summarily dismissed as inimical to security interests or, with growing regularity, as bordering on treason. It has become much too easy to hound Israeli human rights organizations for being “soft” on the safety of Israel and to accuse them of consorting with “the enemy.” It is now acceptable that knowing too much about what is going on in Hebron or in Gaza is a security threat. Increasingly, revealing knowledge is equated with betrayal (vide the new legislation prohibiting civil society organizations — especially Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem — from appearing in schools, the ongoing assaults on Israeli activists from Ta’ayush or Yesh Din documenting settler hooliganism, or the now persistent interrogation of activists — Jewish or otherwise — seeking entry to Israel). Fear thus gives additional license for supporting ignorance.

The final reason for overlooking the worsening Palestinian condition remains ideological. It is much easier to cast blame for the situation on the ground on the Palestinians themselves than on any Israeli government or policy. By framing the issue in terms of Israeli vs. Palestinians externally and right vs. left internally, there is no need to delve too deeply into specific circumstances or developments. The slashing of US assistance to UNRWA — the main source of Palestinian education and welfare — is greeted with warmth, even if it plunges more people into the hands of extremists and exacerbates despair. The slashing of over $200 million in American humanitarian aid is applauded, although it by no means affects the budget of the Palestinian Authority or the Hamas. Binary thinking thus replaces curiosity; demagoguery becomes a substitute for nuance; slogans are a handy alternative for reasoned discussion. In this context, disinterest is elevated to a mark of loyalty and, much like the Nation-State bill, accorded overriding moral weight. Dehumanization, with all its racist byproducts, becomes the norm.

The problem is that an under-informed population cannot be expected to grapple with issues that — however much they would hope — are just not going to go away. To continue on the path of ignorance and misinformation is the best way of fooling oneself. But this does not ease the task of decision-making, explaining the drop in support for a two-state solution and the absence of viable alternatives.

One cannot continue to live in an informational vacuum laced with distortions all of the time and expect not to suffer the consequences either internationally or domestically. History has taught all too often that those who say they do not know cannot shirk responsibility for what is being done in their name; nor can they expect to make judicious decisions in real time. Regardless of where one stands politically, there has never been, and never will be, any excuse for studied ignorance.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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