Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Cursed Empire: Israel’s Occupied Territories

The purpose of Israel’s current offensive in the Gaza Strip is to protect the status quo – with itself in control of the illegally occupied Palestinian territories. In 2005, it carried out a unilateral disengagement from Gaza, but under international law it is still the occupying power because it controls access by land, sea and air. In 2007 Israel imposed an economic blockade, cutting the Gaza Strip off from the West Bank and from the rest of the world. A blockade is a form of collective punishment proscribed by international law.

The death toll is a grim reflection of the asymmetry of the conflict. In the past fortnight, the Palestinians have suffered over 220 fatalities, 80% of whom were civilians; in Israel, only one man was killed by a rocket fired from Gaza. Israel claims that its assault is an act of self-defence to put an end to the Hamas rocket attacks against its civilians. Hamas claims it is engaged in legitimate resistance to Israel’s military occupation. The chain of action and reaction is endless. But the underlying cause of the violence is Israeli colonialism.

Israel’s spectacular victory in the June 1967 war was followed by an occupation of Arab lands that was supposed to be temporary but which, with the exception of the Sinai Peninsula, is now well into its fifth decade. For the Palestinians, Israel’s coercive rule has been a catastrophe at every level and a tragic sequel to the bigger catastrophe, the Nakba of 1948. But as the title of this new book suggests, the victory has also been a curse for the victors: it has transformed a small, united and predominantly socialist society into a colonial empire.

Gershom Gorenberg called his book on the birth of the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories in the first decade after the guns fell silent The Accidental Empire. Israel’s postwar policy was indeed muddled, but the end result was one of the most prolonged military occupations of modern times. Within its original borders, Israel had been a democracy, however flawed. Greater Israel, on the other hand, is an ethnocracy, a country in which one ethnic group rules over another. There is another word to describe this situation, a word Israelis do not like to hear: apartheid.

 — by Avi Shlaim

To read Avi Shlaim’s review of The Accidental Empire by Gershom Gorenberg published in The Guardian, click here.

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