- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 10, 2006

More than at any other time in Israel’s history a courageous and visionary leadership is needed to free its people from the shackles of occupation and lead Israel to its intended destiny. Occupying Palestinian territory for so long has been a colossal mistake. The mistake was compounded by the misleading policy of settlements and the largely baseless link created between national security and the settlements. The occupation must end not only because occupation is unsustainable for demographic reasons but also because of moral, humanitarian, and, national security concerns.

A brief historical perspective: For the last 500 years, the Palestinians have been ruled, respectively, by the Turks, British, Jordanian-Egyptians, and Israelis. Having witnessed and experienced more than their share of misery, pain and despair, nothing will compel Palestinians to accept more of the same: There is no dignity in occupation, no honor in submission, and no hope for a better tomorrow. In the best of circumstances, occupation is intolerable and Palestinians as occupied people, they are duty-bound to resist, deny, and defy their occupiers by every means they can.

Unforgiving, young Palestinians seethe with resentment. They do not understand why they must continue to suffer the indignities of occupation. Is it any wonder, then, that hatred has replaced amity, mistrust has eroded cooperation, revenge displaced sanity, and blind fanaticism eclipsed realism?

Israel was not created to rule other peoples against their will. Israel was created to offer a refuge to a shattered Jewry in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The new state was established so the Jews, after millennia of dispersions, pogroms, expulsions and genocide could have a home of their own and be able to offer hospitality and become a light in the darkness to struggling nations. The reality is that the occupation is distorting the Israeli character — making it distrustful, cynical, suspicious and self-absorbed.

Israeli soldiers, trained to defend their homeland from outside enemies, have been sent in the name of national security to fight Palestinian children in the streets and destroy the homes of defenseless parents in front of their offspring. Whole communities have been subjected to humiliating search-and-seizure operations and debilitating restrictions on the movement of people and goods.

There is no doubt Israel has legitimate security concerns, especially in the wake of the rise of a Palestinian militancy that does not accept Israel’s right to exist. But after nearly 40 years of occupation, Israel’s security situation has not improved with the building of settlements; rather it has become more perilous. Tens of thousands of soldiers have been assigned to regular duty to protect, at enormous cost, the settlers and operate military installations. The settlements, built to entrench the Israelis in the West Bank and enhance their security, have become an albatross — more a security liability than an asset. The majority of the settlements represent not just a physical occupation of territory; they signify a psychological occupation, a mental closing off, that prevents open discourse on any other matter. The public’s eyes must now be opened to the folly of the settlements so peace can eventually be within their grasp.

Though for security reasons the fence has already proven its utility in reducing the number of violent incidents, its existence is actually an admission of failure. The fence must be seen only as a stop-gap measure, and it must be built as closely as possible to the 1967 lines to be truly beneficial rather than a source for new frictions. The fence must not encroach on Palestinian territory in the name of security, when in reality security concerns are not a factor. The fence has caused undue hardship to Palestinian communities. Policies based on assuming the Palestinians will never settle for simply the West Bank and Gaza or anything short of wiping out Israel have turned out to be self-defeating. They have nurtured a mentality of national siege and played into the hands of right-wing extremists who have led the new Jewish commonwealth into a terrible conflict, with the inevitable dehumanizing consequences. The occupation has degraded Israelis’ sensibilities, eroded their sense of proportion, corroded their moral judgment, and undermined their sense of a higher mission.

Israel, in the final analysis, is the political expression of the ancient right of all Jews to return to their homeland. That Palestinians occupied much of the same land did not abrogate the right of either people to it. Both Palestinians and Jews can reside in their homeland, but history and reality have determined neither can have it all.

Those Israelis who still dream of a greater Israel have been burying their dead and their dreams in the sands of a no-man’s-land. They have failed to grasp that the Palestinian claim to the same land, is, like the claims of Israelis, imbedded in a religion, culture, and history that resides in the bones and sinews of every man, woman and child. As long as Israel is an occupying power, it cannot invoke the high moral ground in defending itself and deterring future threats with or without the fence. It is not more territory but moral ground Israel must first capture to provide its citizens the ultimate security.

What if the “silent” stones at the holy Jewish and Muslim shrines in Jerusalem could speak? They would question why their peoples should continue suffering when a chance still exists to mitigate and even end that suffering.

The occupation must end, because only then will Israel live up to its biblical promise, becoming truly free and shine its light on other nations.

ALON BEN-MEIR

Professor of international relations at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and Middle East Project director at the World Policy Institute in New York City.

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