Huffpost WorldPost
Brent E. Sasley Headshot

The Occupation Must End, but Not So Quickly...

Posted: Updated:

It is abundantly clear to virtually everyone that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza must end. Even right-wingers in Israel acknowledge this, arguing not for their continuation at any cost but for the right conditions to be present first. Israeli leaders and Jewish leaders around the world have stated publicly and privately that the occupation, if it remains in place, will damage Israel irrevocably through a waste of resources and complete corrosion of its moral nature.

But there is a core truth that the myriad of recommendations and advice coming from across the political spectrum have long been unwilling to recognize, let alone accept. And that is that the occupation cannot simply "end." Israel cannot just get up and walk out of the West Bank, nor can it just remove its soldiers and ships from Gaza's borders. Yet this is precisely what most observers assume should and will happen. It is misguided, and ignores the realities of life for both Israelis and Palestinians. Yes, things are bad in the West Bank and Gaza, but the potential for worsening conditions for everyone should not be ignored.

On the Israeli side, guarantees of security remain paramount. Israelis see that they withdrew from Lebanon and from Gaza, and instead of leading to peace, it led to more violence: Hezbollah and Hamas (and other militant groups) fired rockets and led cross-border attacks, leading to two Israeli invasions that cost lives and money and highlighted its weaknesses in fighting a non-conventional army.

The removal of tens of thousands of settlers, or more, will have an enormous impact on Israel. It will take considerable resources to move them, and to re-settle them within Israel. There are also economic issues: After being shut out of the Israeli economy in the 1990s, Palestinian labor is once again becoming increasingly important to Israeli firms.

On the Palestinian side, economic ties with Israel are important sectors of at least the West Bank economy (Gaza having been cut off because of the siege and of Hamas's tactics). In particular, joint Israeli-Palestinian ventures include cooperation in olive oil production, industrial zones, tourism, Jerusalem stone, and trade to third countries. Although in small numbers at the moment, Palestinians have in recent years begun working in Israel's high-tech industry. These associations are important for Palestinians not only because of income generated, but because the Palestinian economy absorbs Israeli expertise, knowledge, and technology. As well, Palestinian labor is essential for the building of settlements themselves. Seemingly counterproductive, the revenue is necessary for Palestinian families. The sudden disappearance of Israel, without careful, detailed plans for maintaining or replacing these economic connections, will weaken the Palestinian economy and the growth it has experienced in the last few years.

(There are also darker ties to be noted: a thriving black market in stolen cars is dependent on joint efforts by Israeli and Palestinian criminals.)

Finally, it's not totally clear that the Arab states would be fully satisfied with an end to the occupation. The Arab regimes derive considerable domestic legitimacy from the conflict, using it as a tool to deflect both internal concerns about conditions within their states. Arab rulers often focus their states' attention on an external enemy or foreign policy issue and use it as a policy instrument to conduct domestic politics. How they would replace the loss of the conflict should also be of at least secondary concern.

Don't mistake this argument for a contentment with the status quo: There is already too much hyperbole and shrillness in the discussions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which in turn undermines realistic and workable strategies for ending the occupation and the conflict.

But what this does mean is that meticulous planning must be done at many levels, involving many groups. There is no place for playing ideological, political, ethnic, or religious preferences: if most Israelis and Palestinians are not ultimately satisfied, no-one will be allowed to live in peace. The concerns of both sides -- and of the multiple groups within both -- must be addressed.

It is, in this context, unhelpful to speak of immediate change, to expect the United States to impose a peace, or to demand that Israel end the occupation. None of these can succeed without the groundwork being laid first. We must adjust our expectations of resolving the conflict in order to increase the chances of such success.