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The processes of Israeli domination

By Yehudit Keshet - posted Wednesday, 1 April 2009


The Israel-Palestine conflict has generated a plethora of literature ranging from personal accounts to precise recordings of abuses and misuses of power, policies and human rights, and from historical surveys to a host of solutions and counter solutions for ending the occupation and/or achieving “peace”. In this library of anguish relatively few works provide a theoretical framework for understanding the overall processes of Israeli domination over Palestinians and their land. The focus tends to be experiential, on what was or is or should be done, on what is endured rather than on the underlying structure, the deeper meanings of oppression.

Neve Gordon’s Israel’s Occupation is therefore a welcome contribution to the field. First of all it is immensely readable, providing a clear, comprehensible theoretical framework as well as tracing the development of the Occupation from its beginnings as an ostensibly temporary “benign and enlightened” military-administrative system whose “arrangements, legal orders and policies were constantly modified to conceal the permanent nature of Israel’s control” (p16) to the current phase which Gordon identifies as a move away from a policy of colonisation to a policy of separation. That is, from the management of the colonised population in order to maximise the exploitation of resources such as land and water, to a policy summed up by the statement “we are here, they are there” (p119): an abdication of responsibility for the well-being of the occupied population while continuing to exploit those same resources of land and water.

Gordon’s cardinal argument is that the underlying logic of the occupation is, and always has been, the separation of the Palestinian people from their land, and not simply by means of land expropriation for colonising purposes. In the immediate aftermath of the Six-day War the then military advocate general, Meir Shamgar, formulated a manipulative legal policy that “rejected the applicability of the 1949 4th Geneva Convention ... to the OT” (p26). Shamgar maintained that since neither the West Bank nor Gaza had been sovereign areas prior to June 1967, they should be considered disputed rather than occupied territories.

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This position not only continues to find its place in Israeli policy, it is frequently voiced in public discourse; it denies the rights of Palestinians to their land and to political self-determination in that land. It cannot be stressed enough that this removal of the people from their land, legally and, increasingly physically, lies at the heart of the occupation. It is a truth that is overlooked, hidden beneath the mass of plans and roads maps for a supposed peace.

Drawing on Foucauldian theory, Gordon goes on to identify three modes of control operative in the Occupation and based on the above logic:

  • biopower - control of the population rather than the individual via institutions that regulate aspects of societal life such as medical care or welfare “while configuring and circumscribing the political sphere and normalising knowledge” (p12);
  • disciplinary control that “aims to engender normalisation through the regulation of daily life” (p16); and
  • sovereign power - “the imposition of a legal system and the employment of the state’s military to either enforce the rule of law or to suspend it” (p13).

These modes of control operate concurrently and frequently overlap, as effected by Israel during the last 42 years. Gordon makes clear that this theory is not an essentialist claim presaging a given outcome, but that the occupation has a dynamic of its own: “Even though the Israeli state appears to be a free actor from which a series of policies originates, a closer investigation reveals that its policies, and more particularly the modification of its policies over the years have been shaped by the different mechanisms of control operating in the OT. The same is true of the policy choices of resistance groups ... and other non-state actors ...” (p3).

Gordon pursues the development of the apparatuses of oppression over five stages of occupation: military government from 1967-1980; civil administration from 1981-87; first intifada from 19888-93; the Oslo period 1994-2000; and the second intifada from 2000 to the present.

Since 1967 Israel has sought ways to manage the population by a variety of modalities of control initially through making the Occupation invisible - for instance, Dayan’s much vaunted Open Bridges policy in the 60s and 70s bringing economic and other benefits that created an illusion of increased prosperity and well-being. Israel also allowed the opening of several universities as part of a normalisation of occupation. But, as Gordon says: “… due to a series of restrictions and constraints imposed on the Palestinian economy, the industry and service sector could not be developed and the employment opportunities open to professionals ... with the OT was very limited” (p16).

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The resulting frustration of unemployed, or underemployed graduates drew them inevitably into political activity. This is but one, obvious, aspect of Gordon’s thesis of excesses and contradictions that generated resistance to the Occupation and the consequent Israeli intensification of modes of control. Excess in this context refers to a result which is not the objective of a given means of control. For instance, Israel employed several practices designed to suppress Palestinian nationalism and encourage other forms of identification such as local rather than national loyalties by retaining in the early stages of Occupation the existing institutions inherited from the Jordanians - civil servants, mayors and village mukhtars. At the same time restrictions were in place regarding political organising; press and other censorship were imposed. The resulting social friction and dissatisfaction led to the emergence of a new, younger leadership, the rise of the PLO among others and increased national identification in the face of the shared hardships and limitations.

The bonding sense of shared predicament led in time to the first intifada (1987-93), the watershed marking a transition from Israel’s bio power and disciplinary modes of control to an emphasis on sovereign power, the imposition or suspension of law expressed in arrests, beatings, torture, curfews - all methods that had existed previously but were now used extensively and more intensively, as they have been ever since. The emphasis in fact shifted from control to suppression, generating in turn intensified resistance with its inevitable consequences.

The book traces the rise, and fall, of the Oslo process, the “outsourcing of the Occupation” (p169) or control by other means, with Arafat and the PA as subcontractors for Israeli security. Oslo was allegedly a hiatus in the conflict, a truce towards a final settlement that would enable Israeli control of the OT by means other than military.

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Israel's Occupation by Neve Gordon, University of California Press, Berkley, 2008.



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About the Author

Yehudit Keshet is the author of CheckpointWatch: Testimonies from Occupied Palestine, (Zed Books, London, 2006). She is the co-founder of MachsomWatch, an organisation of female Israeli peace activist that monitors the effect of Israeli occupation on the Palestinian territories.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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