Israel captured and occupied the Gaza Strip and the West Bank 40 years ago this week. The victory was celebrated as a great triumph, at once tripling the size of the land under Israeli control, including East Jerusalem. It was, however, a Pyrrhic victory. As the occupation stretched over the decades, it transformed and deformed Israeli society. It led Israel to abandon the norms and practices of a democratic society until, in the name of national security, it began to routinely accept the brutal violence of occupation and open discrimination and abuse of Palestinians, including the torture of prisoners and collective reprisals for Palestinians attacks. Palestinian neighborhoods, olive groves and villages were, in the name of national security, bulldozed into the ground.
Israel's image has shifted from that of a heroic, open society set amid a sea of despotic regimes to that of an international pariah. Israel's West Bank separation barrier, built ostensibly to keep out Palestinian bombers, has also been used to swallow huge tracts of the West Bank into Israel. Palestinian towns are ringed by Israeli checkpoints. Major roads in the West Bank are reserved for Israeli settlers. The U.N. estimates that about half the West Bank is now off-limits to Palestinians. And every week there are new reports of Palestinian produce that is held up until it rots, pregnant women giving birth in cars because they cannot get to hospitals and even senseless and avoidable deaths, such as one young woman who died recently when she couldn't get through a checkpoint to her kidney dialysis treatment.
"We are raising commanders who are policemen," former Israeli General Amiram Levine told the newspaper Maariv. "We ask them to excel at the checkpoint. What does it means to excel at the checkpoint? It means being enough of a bastard to delay a pregnant woman from getting to the hospital."
The occupation was benign at the beginning. Israelis crossed into Palestinian territory to buy cheap vegetables, eat at local restaurants, spend the weekend in the desert oasis of Jericho and get their cars fixed. The Palestinians were a pool of cheap labor and by the mid-1980s, 40 percent of the Palestinian workforce was employed in Israel. The Palestinians flowed over the border to the shops and beaches of Tel Aviv. But the second-class status of Palestinians, growing repression by Israeli authorities in the West Bank and Gaza and festering poverty saw Palestinians, most of them too young to remember the moment of occupation, rise up in December 1987 to launch six years of street protests. The uprising eventually led to a peace accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization led by Yasir Arafat. Arafat, who had spent most of his life in exile, returned in triumph to Gaza.
The Oslo Accords that followed momentarily heralded a new era, a moment of hope. I was in Gaza when they were signed. The Gaza Strip was awash in a giddy optimism. Palestinian businessmen who had made their fortunes abroad returned to help build the new Palestinian state. The radical Islamists seemed to shrink away. Palestinian women threw off their head scarves and beauty salons sprouted on city streets. There was a brief and shining sense that life could be normal, free from strife and violence, that finally Palestinians had a future. But it all swiftly turned sour. The 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, coupled with mounting draconian restrictions on Palestinians to prevent them from entering Israel and keep them in submission, led to another uprising in 2000. This one, which I also covered for The New York Times, was far more violent. This latest uprising has led to the deaths of more than 4,300 Palestinians and 1,100 Israelis. It ushered in an Israeli policy that saw Jewish settlers relocated from Gaza. Gaza was then sealed off like a vast prison. Israel also began to build a security barrier—at a cost of about $ 1 million per mile—in the West Bank. When it is done, the barrier is expected to incorporate 40 percent of Palestinian land into the Israeli state.
Israeli air strikes have, over the past year, decimated the infrastructure in Gaza, destroying bridges, power stations and civilian administration buildings. The breakdown in law and order, coupled with the growing desperation in Gaza, has triggered an internecine conflict between Hamas and Fatah. There are some 200 Palestinians who have died in clashes and street fighting between the two factions during the past year—more than one-third of those killed by Israel during the same period.
The Israeli abuses have been well documented, not only by international human rights organizations, but Israeli human rights groups such as B'Tselem. On June 4, 2007, Amnesty International released a new 45-page report called "Enduring Occupation: Palestinians Under Siege in the West Bank," which again illustrates the devastating impact of four decades of Israeli military occupation. The report documents the relentless expansion of unlawful settlements on occupied land. It details the ways Israel has seized or denied crucial resources, such as water, to Palestinians under occupation. It documents a plethora of measures that confine Palestinians to fragmented enclaves and hinder their access to work, health and education facilities. These measures include the 700-kilometer barrier or wall, more than 500 checkpoints and blockades, and a complicated system of permits to heavily restrict movement.
"Palestinians living in the West Bank are blocked at every turn. This is not simply an inconvenience—it can be a matter of life or death. It is unacceptable that women in labor, sick children, or victims of accidents on their way to hospital should be forced to take long detours and face delays which can cost them their lives," said Malcolm Smart, director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Program.
"International action is urgently needed to address the widespread human rights abuses being committed under the occupation, and which are fueling resentment and despair among a predominantly young and increasingly radicalized Palestinian population," said Smart. "For 40 years, the international community has failed adequately to address the Israeli-Palestinian problem; it cannot, must not, wait another 40 years to do so."
Of Gaza's 1.4 million residents, a staggering 1.1 million now depend on outside food assistance. The World Food Program has identified Gaza as one of the world's hunger global hotspots. The WFP is a principal food aid provider to Palestinians, providing assistance to 640,000 Palestinians, more than a third of them in Gaza.
The desperation—with young men unable to find work, travel outside the Gaza Strip or West Bank and forced to sleep 10 to a room in concrete hovels without running water—has empowered the Islamic radicals. The desperation has led the Palestinian population, once one of the most secular in the Middle East, to turn to radical fundamentalism. The more pressure and violence Israel employs, the more these radicals are empowered.
The Israeli lobby in the United States is captive to the far right of Israeli politics. It exerts influence not on behalf of the Jewish state but an ideological strain within Israel that believes it can crush Palestinian aspirations through force. The self-defeating policies of the Bush administration are mirrored in the self-defeating policies championed by the hard-right administration of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem. Israel flouts international law and dismisses Security Council resolutions to respect the integrity of Palestinian territory. It has instead trapped Palestinians in squalid, barricaded ghettos where they barely survive.
It is not in Israel's interest—or our own—to continue to fuel increased Palestinian strife and rising militancy. Economic sanctions and an arms ban against Israel are our last hope. These were the tools that toppled the apartheid regime in South Africa. And it was, after all, the sanctions imposed by the first President Bush—he suspended $10 billion of loan guarantees for resettling Russian immigrants in Israel—that prodded right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to attend peace talks in Madrid.
A trade embargo—even if imposed only by European states—would be a start. It is outside pressure that can alone halt the inexorable slide into a conflict that could become regional. And a new regional conflict with Israel could spell the end of the Zionist experiment in the Middle East. It may be quixotic, perhaps even impossible, but it is the last measure left to save Israel from itself.