The Occupied Territories Are the Biggest Prison on Earth


By Mark Karlin

  • A protester peers through a fence in Bil'in, Palestine, on January 7, 2011. (Photo: IDF)
    A protester peers through a fence in Bil’in, Palestine, on January 7, 2011. 

In this Truthout interview, Ilan Pappé, author of The Biggest Prison on Earth, argues that Israel’s model for the occupied territories is not an eventual two-state solution. Rather, Israel has built a model of a permanent open-air prison for Gaza and the West Bank.

Mark Karlin: Can you provide a succinct argument to refocus the identification of the West Bank and Gaza as open-air prisons and not “occupied territories”?

Ilan Pappé: Not only open air, but at times, and nowadays in Gaza, a maximum-security prison. Recently, the Israeli government officially celebrated the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria. Already in 1967, Judea and Samaria, namely the West Bank, were liberated areas, not territories to be held in custody for the return of a peace agreement, in the eyes of all the Zionist parties, while Gaza was seen as an enclave that had to be always guarded either from within or without.

Thus in 1967, the Israeli government then — and all the successive governments since — regarded the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as territories that had always be under either direct or indirect Israeli rule. The second decision was that the people who live in these territories will not be granted Israeli citizenship, nor were they allowed to have their own sovereignty or independence. They were also not driven out, as were the Palestinians in 1948. So, they were intentionally defined as people without citizen rights and at the mercy of first military rule, and then civil administration that did not only violate their civic rights, but also their human rights. The only system I know where people are deprived of these basic rights is the prison system. These people were incarcerated in this mega-prison for no other crime than being Palestinians. They were allowed some benefits, such as working in Israel and a limited measure of autonomy if they consented to such life — this is the open prison model, and they were collectively punished when they resisted, and this is the maximum-security prison.

Why do you date the Israeli mega-prison project to 1963?

The same people who maintained the military rule inside Israel were transferred to become rulers of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The year 1963 is a very important year in the history of Israel. This was the year Israel’s first Prime Minister and leader David Ben-Gurion left mainstream politics and was inherited by a younger generation of politicians. With his removal, two of his main obsessions ceased to influence Israeli politics. He insisted on imposing a callous military rule over the Palestinian minority inside Israel, and he refused to heed the pleas by a Greater Israel lobby to find an excuse to occupy the West Bank.

In that year, the Israeli military could begin preparing seriously in ignoring his two obsessions. They began to plan the abolition of military rule over the Palestinians in Israel, but did not dismantle the apparatus of control. They prepared it to be imposed on another group of Palestinians: those living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. When the opportunity arrived in 1967, the heads of the military had already prepared the human infrastructure for controlling the millions of Palestinians in the newly occupied territories. The same people who maintained the military rule inside Israel were transferred to become rulers of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Military rule was not meant to be temporary; it fit well with the strategy of the mega-prison I described above.

What particularly makes Gaza a “model prison”?

In 2005, Ariel Sharon and his advisors asserted they found the magic formula of how to control the Gaza Strip within the overall Israeli strategy that was looking for ways of how to have the territories — and not the people living in it. In the West Bank, it was done by Judaizing the areas there that Israel deemed as belonging or required by the Jewish State. This method did not work in the Gaza Strip; it was too small. So, the idea was to evict the settlers, allow the Palestinian authority to run the place and monitor it from the outside (Israel already cordoned the Strip with barbered wire in 1994). However, the people of Gaza had a different idea and spoiled the plan and turned the Strip into a desperate base of resistance. This was met with the methodology of the maximum-security prison: collective punitive operations that, in hindsight, are akin to an incremental genocide of the people there.

As noted above, the main function of the settlements is to demarcate clearly what part of the West Bank will directly be ruled by Israel, with a view of eventually formally annexing it to Israel. The governments usually tried to colonize only areas which were not densely populated by the Palestinians, but the messianic movement of settlers, Gush Emunim, settled according to what they regard as the biblical map, which led them to settle also at the heart of Palestinian areas. Whether intentional or not, the presence of the settlers also acts as a massive operation of harassment that can make life for the Palestinians there impossible and push them to even smaller enclaves within the West Bank.

What do you refer to as “the war of choice”?

Any war that could have been prevented by active and intensive diplomacy is a war of choice. Contrary to common wisdom, there were many exit points for the Israelis from the crisis that led to the June 1967 war. However, the Israeli government and army decided to ignore these exit points, as they deemed the crisis as opportunity to complete the takeover of historical Palestine (they only managed to take over 78 percent of Palestine in 1948 and deemed this part as indefensible and not viable in the long run).

Yes, indeed it has. It diverted world public opinion from the suffering of the Palestinians and the political elites’ sense of urgency of solving the problem. There is another side to this: The Palestinian suffering is daily and hardly catches the attention of the media, but has been going on for more than a century, whereas the same kind of brutality is inflicted on people in Syria and elsewhere in the Arab world within a short period of time and therefore attracts more attention from the global media.

However, the chances of pacifying Syria, Iraq and the rest of the Arab world are closely associated with the Palestine question. The refusal of the West to adapt the same moral yardstick by which it measures human and civil rights violations in the Arab world, to Israel, impedes the West — and the US in particular — from playing any positive role in bringing peace to the Middle East. The injustice in Palestine is one the main fuels feeding the fire of hate and violence in the area and will continue to be so unless a just and lasting solution to the Palestine question can be found. The consensual Israeli attitudes and polices toward the occupied territories are the main obstacle on the way to such a solution.

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