Book Review: ‘A Half Century of Occupation: Israel, Palestine, and the World’s Most Intractable Conflict’ by Gershon Shafir

Note: The following was initially written for a graduate class assignment as an analytical essay responding to and critiquing a book presentation. The presentation was by UC San Diego sociologist Gershon Shafir, who discussed his book ‘A Half Century of Occupation: Israel, Palestine, and the World’s Most Intractable Conflict.’

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is widely regarded as the longest running modern conflict in the world, with such longevity that its presence has been taken for granted in the global arena and entire industries having been developed to simply manage it, carrying the implicit assumption that all solutions have been exhausted. In his latest book, A Half Century of Occupation: Israel, Palestine, and the World’s Most Intractable Conflict, UC San Diego sociologist Gershon Shafir attempts to revive the conversation with a fresh and unconventional approach, going beyond both theoretical discussions rife with idealized notions of radical political solutions (whether from the Left or the Right) as well as traditional analyses which are often dated and lacking in original material.  The crux of his discussion is to argue for the viability of the two-state solution based on a feasibility study of the social sciences, while accounting for these aforementioned approaches and maintaining a humane tenor toward both actors in the conflict that the approaches tend to lack.

Shafir elucidated his argument in a lecture at the Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University where he presented his book. In the following essay, I will first outline the argument of his presentation and then include an analysis of it. Having read parts of the book as well, I will be sure to include additional details from it that were not mentioned in the presentation.

I argue that while Shafir must be credited for meticulously sketching the granular schema and calculated legal machinery of the occupation to an impressively precise degree, and for accurately portraying the durability of the occupation itself along with the formidability of undoing the ongoing settlement gridlock in the West Bank, he falls short of convincing the audience that the settlement project and the occupation are indeed reversible. Shafir spends a considerable amount of time arguing for the feasibility of two contiguous states, and unlike many two-state advocates who operate without accounting for facts on the ground, he openly acknowledges these as daunting challenges that must be taken into consideration in order for the solution to manifest into reality. However, I believe that where Shafir falls short is not in his accounting for feasibility but in his accounting for desirability.

Shafir divides his text into three main portions. The first portion aims to set the stage for the rest of the discussion by exploring definitions, particularly around the word “occupation.” What is it? How is it perpetuated? Here he must be credited for connecting the post-1967 occupation to the broader project of Zionist colonial settlement which began decades before the establishment of the state, an analysis often missed or outright denied by liberal advocates of the two-state solution. He thus minces no words in describing ongoing settlement-building as colonization.

He accounts for the lived experiences of Palestinians – another rare feat in discussions of realpolitik – who are made to endure the daily machinery of the occupation’s violence which occurs in a continuum, manifesting from technologies as mundane as a checkpoint interrogation to as rattling as a house raid. The violence perpetrated by Palestinians cannot be seen in a vacuum and in isolation to the continuum of state violence perpetrated against them by the machinery of Israeli occupation, he argues.

He then shares the perspective of the international community, citing the ‘Law of Belligerent Occupation,’ which states that a country cannot establish sovereignty over a territory that it occupies and is entrusted to care for the occupied population. He subsequently describes the paradoxical perspective of all Israeli government administrations, which do not recognize the West Bank as occupied (the term they use is “disputed”) except when making a case against the Supreme Court, which does.

The next part of the book asks why occupation has lasted this long, and Shafir does so by elaborating on the methodical, granular, and calculated techniques and mechanisms – along with the ideological rationale – that Israel employs to sustain it indefinitely. For example, Kfar Etzion, which was a Jewish settlement in the territories that was established before the existence of the state, was rebuilt after the 1967 conquest of the territories. Its prior existence served as the legal basis and provided the ideological rationale for its reconstruction.

Other techniques include the colonization patterns of economic monopolization he describes in his previous book on land and labor, and he does an excellent job at tracing the ideological shifts driving settlement expansion, marking the juncture where the efforts took on a more religious fervor. When discussing this second component of the book in his talk, he jokingly quoted an Israeli official who commented something to the effect of occupation being temporary, but permanently temporary.

His final question aims to explore how this occupation has transformed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in what ways it has made reversing the entrenchment of the conflict a formidable task. He tackles each one of the qualities of the occupation that make it appear irreversible, and then ultimately concludes, using maps and statistics, that a two-state solution is indeed a realistic possibility. He argues that a two-state solution would require only (emphasis mine) 27,000 settlers to be removed while the remaining (several hundred thousand) would remain where they are because they are located in territories that would be absorbed into Israel in any territorial exchange (which he calculated to be 4%). Of course, the argument takes for granted the fact that such a land exchange would even take place in any final status negotiation.

Another crucial point taken for granted is that moving 27,000 settlers into Israel and dismantling their homes would be a seamless process. He preemptively answers this critique by citing the Gaza evacuation of 2005 which saw 7,500 settlers moved and notes that eventually, despite initial resistance, the settler leadership assented to it. While this may certainly have been the case for Gaza, his projected number here is nearly four times as many, spread out over a wider geographical plane, and in the context of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history in power, so the viability of such an argument deserves to be challenged.

Where he argues that settlement expansion has been limited and slow because of the constraints placed on Israel through international pressure and by Palestinian resistance, I believe his work could benefit from analysis from another text, which should be read side-by-side with Shafir’s. Nathan Thrall’s ‘The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine’ like Shafir’s text examines the last five decades of the conflict but also attends to the question of desirability. Thrall comes to the sobering conclusion that political actors and analysts of this conflict must stop operating under the premise that Israel has a genuine goodwill desire for a solution. In fact, Thrall argues, from the perspective of the United States, the benefits of a contiguous Palestinian state are small in comparison to the cost of pressuring and isolating a significant ally. I would take it further and argue that for Israel, the costs of a negotiated solution (at least initially) far outweigh the costs of maintaining the status quo, and that the occupation lasts precisely because it can.

Thrall argues that the only occasions when Israel – and the Palestinians for that matter – have come to the negotiating table were when they were coerced to. The PLO’s maximalist demand for all of historic Palestine was tempered only after tremendous losses of land after 1967. The Israelis came to negotiate with the PLO only after experiencing the pressure from the First Intifada. Recognizing that both sides will have to compromise, Thrall nonetheless places more responsibility on the more powerful of the two, Israel. Shafir’s book was released around the same time as Thrall’s, so if he were to write a new edition, the quality of his conclusions would be strengthened by taking Thrall’s work into account.

Another text I believe would either complement – or complicate – Shafir’s discussion is ‘The Bride and the Dowry: Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians in the Aftermath of the June 1967 War’ by Avi Raz. Raz’s meticulously researched book examines the historical archives of every meeting and significant event that took place in the first 21 months after the Six Day War and concludes that there was a complete absence of desirability for a peace deal on part of the Israelis.

Raz’s primary argument is that in the early days and months of occupation, Israel had never intended to abandon its control over the land it acquired, and instead set up avenues for buying time to keep it. The de facto Israeli policy seemed to be that of stalling while settlement creation and the establishment of “strategic depth” in the West Bank continued unabated. Raz’s book is a powerful rebuke to Shafir’s argument. Why feasibility when there is no desirability?

Though the thrust of Raz’s book is Israel’s relationship to its Arab neighbors, the general impart of his book is relevant insofar as it relates to Israel’s overall approach to the West Bank. This brings me to another critique: Shafir comments very little, if at all, on the role of Arab states in peace negotiations. The internationalization of the conflict and the increased role of Arab states – particularly Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia – cannot be ignored in any feasibility study, especially when the “right of return” (theoretically) forms the backbone of transnational Palestinian identity and solidarity among diaspora refugees in Arab lands.

One consideration which all three authors have a consensus on is their acknowledgment of the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel, and it is significant: American complacency – if not outright enablement – of Israel’s intransigent and obstructive policies has forestalled any sort of resolution despite the U.S.’s occasional perfunctory condemnations of the occupation and settlements.

Shafir’s argument for feasibility, Thrall’s argument for pressure, and Raz’s historical backdrop combined would present a more multidimensional portrait of the factors and stakes involved in this conflict. Moreover, the latter two readings would provide some serious challenges to the former.

Insofar as Shafir attempts to accomplish what he intended, which in his words was a “modestly conceived feasibility study from the perspective of the social sciences,” I believe he succeeded. However, his work would significantly improve had he included some of the criticisms mentioned in this paper. Even if a two-state solution is theoretically feasible, it must also be realistically desirable.

And if not, then what next?


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