Democrats Echo Israel’s Far-Right by Refusing to Even Use the Word “Occupation”

Israel's military rules over millions of disenfranchised Palestinians in territories it seized by force in 1967. Why can't Democrats call that what it is?

HEBRON, WEST BANK - SEPTEMBER 23: (ISRAEL OUT) Palestinians watch an Israeli soldier on patrol in a street on September 23, 2013 in Hebron, West Bank. Israeli security forces showed strong presence in Hebron following the incident in which a Palestinian sniper shot dead an Israeli soldier September 22 and thousands of Jewish visitors come to pray at the Cave of the Patriarchs for the Sukkot holday. (Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)
An Israeli soldier patrolled the West Bank city of Hebron in 2013. Photo: Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

Here’s a riddle any Democrat hoping to be elected president at the crest of a progressive wave in 2020 should be able to solve: what do you call Israel’s military rule over millions of disenfranchised Palestinians in the territories it seized by force in 1967?

The answer, “an occupation,” is obvious to anyone familiar with the laws of war, but in recent years American progressives who use that term to describe Israeli control of the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights have come under intense pressure from Democratic leaders concerned about exposing the party to charges of bias against Israel.

This hesitancy to acknowledge that the territories are indeed occupied, rather than contested or disputed as right-wing Israelis insist, is particularly strange to anyone who recalls that one of Israel’s most revered leaders, Ariel Sharon, made a point of using the term repeatedly in a televised news conference almost 16 years ago.

Sharon, who was then Israel’s prime minister, told fellow members of the Likud party in 2003 that a political solution to the conflict with the Palestinians was necessary because “the idea that we can continue holding under occupation — and it is occupation, you might not like this word, but it’s really an occupation — to hold 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation is, in my opinion, a very bad thing for us and for them.”

“It cannot continue forever,” Sharon added. “Do you want to stay forever in Jenin, in Nablus, in Ramallah, in Bethlehem? I don’t think that’s right.”

Of course, Ariel Sharon was eventually succeeded as Israel’s leader by the man who sat silently to his right during that news conference, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the current Israeli prime minister has led the way in making a very opposite case: that the territories Israel conquered in 1967 are not occupied at all. Netanyahu recently told members of his party that speaking of describing lands that have either been annexed by Israel or will remain under its control forever as “‘the occupation,’ is nonsense.”

While right-wing Israelis prefer to say that the land where they rule a Palestinian population that is denied basic civil rights is contested, the occupation is a fact under international law, and is routinely referred to that way left-wing Israelis.

So what explains the skittishness of the American political establishment, both Democrat and Republican, to be as candid about using the word occupation now as Israel’s ultranationalist leader was in 2003? That question has been particularly evident since the election of a handful of young Democrats — Representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York — openly critical of the occupation, unafarid to call it what it is, and supportive of measures to end it, like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. All three Congresswomen have been attacked by Republicans and members of their own party for denouncing the occupation as a humanitarian and moral outrage akin to Jim Crow segregation in the United States or apartheid in South Africa.

Their outspoken support for Palestinian rights — which reflects a growing unease among young American progressives with unconditional support for an increasingly far-right Israel — has even prompted a new group, the Democratic Majority for Israel, to launch an online ad campaign intended to convey the message that “Israel is a progressive country.”

That group’s president, Mark Mellman, also accused another progressive Democrat, Representative Betty McCollum of Minnesota, of “employing an anti-Semitic canard” in her criticism of Israel. “The right-wing, extremist government of Benjamin Netanyahu and its apartheid-like policies are at the core of what is alienating Democrats and a growing number of Americans,” McCollum told Vice News. “What has changed is that there are now members of Congress who are not willing to ignore the Israeli government’s destructive actions because they are afraid of losing an election.”

In 2017, McCollum, along with 30 Democratic co-sponsors from what was then the House minority, introduced legislation that would have prohibited “U.S. assistance to Israel from being used to support the military detention, interrogation, or ill-treatment of Palestinian children,” which described the occupation in frank terms. “In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, there are two separate legal systems, with Israeli military law imposed on Palestinians and Israeli civilian law applied to Israeli settlers,” the bill’s text explained. “Approximately 2,700,000 Palestinians live in the West Bank, of which around 47 percent are children under the age of 18, who live under military occupation, the constant fear of arrest, detention, and violence by the Israeli military, and the threat of recruitment by armed groups.”

McCollum’s bill, introduced in November of 2017, also cited statistics from the State Department’s annual human rights report on “Israel and the Occupied Territories.” The 2018 version of the global report, however, dropped the term “occupied territories,” referring instead to the region of “Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank, and Gaza.” The report’s executive summary noted that “Problems primarily related to Palestinian residents of Jerusalem are covered in the ‘West Bank and Gaza’ section,” underscoring that, despite Israel’s claim to have annexed East Jerusalem, and the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided capital,” the State Department still sees the final status East Jerusalem as undefined.

Simone Zimmerman, a co-founder of IfNotNow, a progressive group working “to shift the American Jewish public away from the status quo that upholds the occupation,” pointed out in an interview that Democrats had confronted their differences over this issue in 2016 too. That summer, representatives of Bernie Sanders tried, and failed, to amend the 2016 Democratic party platform to include language calling for “an end to occupation and illegal settlements.” That amendment was opposed by representatives of Hillary Clinton, and the platform’s final version called only for solution to the conflict “that guarantees Israel’s future as a secure and democratic Jewish state with recognized borders and provides the Palestinians with independence, sovereignty, and dignity.”

“I think today,” Zimmerman said, “definitely among the more progressive elements of the Democratic party, that it would be impossible not to use the word occupation” in the 2020 platform.

“I think that’s the fight that’s playing out right now,” she adds. “What’s happening is that supporters of Palestinian rights are becoming way more vocal and way more organized and the establishment is trying desperately to stop that shift, and that kind of cracking open of a more critical discourse. And it’s frankly what we’re seeing happen on a lot of issues right now. We’re seeing a backlash from the establishment that wants to preserve the old business as usual, as younger, bolder, more progressive voices are starting to really lead inside the party.”

Meanwhile in Israel, Zimmerman notes, dozens of ministers and senior lawmakers from Netanyahu’s Likud party and other right-wing parties just signed a pledge to support massively increased settlement construction, with the goal of settling an additional 2 million Jews in the occupied West Bank, which would more than triple the current Jewish population.

Of course, establishment Democrats are not alone in their willingness to acquiesce to the official Israeli preference to not even use the word occupation. Republicans are far more united in their refusal to call the occupation what it is, and have even admitted to journalists that their recent support for an anti-BDS bill in the Senate was proposed in part to expose rifts in the Democratic party. (Although one of the bill’s co-sponsors was a Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, nearly half of the Democratic minority in the Senate opposed the measure, including six declared or likely presidential candidates: Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sherrod Brown of Ohio).

The intensity of this identification with Israel’s position on the American right was obvious last summer, when Ocasio-Cortez came under sustained attack from Fox News pundits simply referring for to “the occupation of Palestine” when she was pressed to explain why she had described the killing of dozens of Palestinian protesters by Israeli soldiers as “a massacre.”

Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, suggested last month that the long-running Israeli effort to contest the use of the word occupation seems to have had an impact on how Israel’s control of the territories has been described in the American press. As evidence, Munayyer points to a recent study by a Canadian research group, 416LABS, looking at 99,594 headlines on articles about Israel-Palestine published in the first 50 years of the occupation, from 1967 to 2017, in five leading American newspapers: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune.

The researchers found that over time, in headlines focused on Israel or Israelis, “a large decline in the term occupation can be observed. From the late 60s till the end of 80s, there was a 42% drop in the instances of the word occupation and its affiliated unigrams, and then a further 70% decline from the 90s to the 2010s, an overall drop of 85%.” In headlines focused on Palestine or Palestinians, “there was a 67% increase in the use of the term from the late 60s to the end of the 80s, but subsequently declined by 76% from the 90s onwards – an overall decrease of 65%.”

It is important to keep in mind that this attempt to constrain the debate over the occupation, which has seeped into the American political discourse, originated in Israel immediately after the territories were conquered in 1967.

“In the early years of the occupation, the state argued the territories were not at all occupied, as before Israel seized control of them, they had not been recognized as the sovereign territory of any other country,” Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of the Israeli rights group B’Tselem, explained in an email. “Therefore, goes Israel’s argument, it is exempt from upholding the rules governing occupation. Israel declared that, nonetheless, though not required to do so by law, it would uphold the ‘humanitarian provisions’ of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which addresses the protection of civilians. Israel has never stated which provisions it considers humanitarian.”

“It’s totally absurd that after more than half a century this is still somehow an issue,” El-Ad continued. “Of course it’s a non-issue – there is no serious factual or legal question with regard to the status of the, well, occupied territories. What does exist is an ongoing propaganda effort, both in Israel and abroad, not only to solidify Israeli control over Palestinians and their land, but also to control the mere conversation discussing this injustice.”

As the Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf explains, perhaps the most important reason for Israel to deny that the territories are occupied is that the Geneva Conventions specifically prohibit occupying powers from moving any part of their own civilian populations into such lands. That means that admitting that the territories are occupied would force Israel to confront the fact that all of the Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where over half a million Israelis now live, are illegal.

In 2012, an expert panel of Israeli legal experts appointed by Prime Minister Netanyahu attempted to obscure that reality by concluding that the territories were not, in fact, occupied. “Now that we found out that there is no occupation and there never was,” Sheizaf observed when the panel’s report was released, “I wonder how the great minds of the Israeli legal community would justify the two separate legal systems Israel has in the West Bank — one for 20 percent of the population (Jews) and one for the other 80 percent. If it’s not occupation, how do we call a situation in which millions of people are deprived of freedom of movement, tried in military tribunals, and don’t even have a recognized nationality or a passport? And don’t say Apartheid, because you’ll be called an anti-Semite.”

Daniel Seidemann, director of Terrestrial Jerusalem, focuses professionally on crisis management and conflict resolution in the city, but he also devotes a portion of his time to correcting people on Twitter who argue that the territories seized in 1967, including East Jerusalem, are not occupied.

The Israeli military, which enforces the occupation, “defines this as occupied territory, so does the Israeli Supreme Court,” Seidemann explained in an interview. “That is not a value judgement… that is the fact. You may like it, you may not like it, but that is the fact.”

“Personally, when I started dealing with Israeli rule over East Jerusalem, and that was 27 years ago, I would not use the term occupation,” Seidemann recalled. “I bought into the mantra this is part of Israel, and it took years for me to acknowledge empirically that that was the case.”

“One of the pillars of Netanyahu’s policy is to bully both Israeli society and the international community into what I call Clinical Occupation Denial,” Seidemann added. “His approach is that the world will acquiesce to Israeli rule and the Palestinians will submit to it.”

Seidemann holds out little hope for the Trump administration’s peace plan, since it has been formulated by envoys who appear unwilling to press Netanyahu to end the occupation, and an ambassador who refers to the “alleged occupation.”

“If you are incapable of recognizing the reality of occupation, you will not understand this conflict,” he says, “and if you don’t understand the conflict, you won’t be able to formulate policy, and whatever plan you come up with that is a denial of occupation is going to be a train-wreck.”

Updated: February 8, 2019
This article was revised to add an explanation of legislation introduced in 2017 by Representative Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat, which described the Israeli occupation in frank terms.

Join The Conversation