John Podhoretz has an op-ed in the New York Post in which he defends Mitt Romney's comments on culture being determinative of economic development. To make his case, he lists the bad decisions Palestinians have made (corruption, kleptocracy, violence over negotiation). He then contends that "the PA has dominion over almost all of the West Bank and Hamas has control over all of Gaza, so the word 'occupation' is all but meaningless."
This assessment is representative of the right in the United States (the right in Israel is more aware of the facts). The problem is that it's simply not an accurate representation of reality: by any material criteria, Israel and the Israeli military control much of what goes on in the West Bank. (It should be obvious that Hamas does control all of the Gaza's internal politics, economy, and society.)
First, of the entire West Bank, 42 percent of the land mass is out of Palestinian hands -- and primarily under settler control. And the geographic spread of Israeli settlements and outposts throughout the West Bank means that Palestinians exercise the kind of control Podhoretz seemed to have in mind only over several separate, limited, constrained pieces of territory, surrounded by Israeli areas.
Second, Israel -- through the security barrier, checkpoints, and other army obstructions -- blocks Palestinians from freely accessing their farmlands and pastures (and the military admits it). I'd bet that Romney didn't have agriculture in mind when he trumpeted Israel's economic development, but it's still a source of livelihood for many Palestinians. Regardless, the most recent World Bank report on the Palestinian economy (April 2012) argued that Palestinians could do much more to improve their economic structures, but it also noted that "[t]he major constraints to private sector activity are the tight Israeli restrictions, and growth will not be sustainable until Palestinians have access to resources and are allowed to move freely."
Third, the roads in the West Bank are constructed to give Israeli settlers and the army far more access than Palestinians have, interrupting easy movement of individuals. During my recent tour of the West Bank with Lior Amihai of Peace Now, we traced where once-existing roads out of Palestinian areas were blocked off, leaving only a single road for access, so that the military could more easily monitor who went in and out. The Israeli checkpoints (both permanent and "flying" ones), physical obstructions like dirt mounds, instructions that Palestinian travelers move out of the way to accommodate passing Israeli vehicles, and 232 kilometers of roads designed only for Israelis all severely restrict Palestinian movement and hamper economic activity.
Similarly, Israel controls virtually all of the borders of the Palestinian areas (with the exception of the Gaza-Sinai border). Israeli management of Gaza's borders is well known, but Israel is the sovereign power on the West Bank side of the border with Jordan as well (which falls in Area C). That means it decides who and what goes in and out -- in other words, it controls Palestinian trade.
Fourth, taxation is an important means by which government earns revenue and disburses it throughout the economy. Israel "collects the equivalent of more than $1 billion annually in customs and other taxes on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and transfers the revenue to the Palestinian side under terms that were part of the Oslo accords."
And Israel regularly withholds or threatens to withhold that critically necessary income when it hasn't agreed with Palestinian politics or PA decisions. No economy can function well with such interruptions.
Finally, even within Palestinian towns and villages such as those found in the map linked to above, where Israeli control is not directly imposed, the Israel Defense Forces can still enter at will to arrest, harass, and disrupt normal life.
All of the information listed above is taken from detailed studies by credible agencies.
One can argue whether these measures are necessary or not, temporary or long-term, the fault of Palestinians themselves or Israel, and so on -- and these are reasonable debates. And most certainly the Palestinians share much of the blame for their own mismanagement and poor decision-making, inability to let go of outdated but deeply-held narratives and myths, and more.
But it's such an unreasonable distortion of reality to deny occupation. Or if the term "occupation" seems legally and morally problematic, at least don't pretend that Israel isn't the primary controlling power in the area. Doing otherwise is not worthy of serious analysts.
First published at Mideast Matrix, August 1, 2012.