Language has a potent knack for steering public perception, and, if we’re not careful, certain words can become surprisingly effective tools of oppression. Before I came to Palestine, from my vantage point on the sidelines in the US, the word “occupation” definitely conjured a thoroughly negative picture of entrenched power-over oppression. But the picture I had was one of a more or less static system of oppression. Sure, I knew that Israel’s “occupation” of Gaza and the West Bank was punctuated by intense flare-ups. I had come to believe, as is common among folks in the US, that these flare-ups were often, if not usually, sparked by not-so-random acts of violence on the part of Palestinians, which were then answered with swift and grossly disproportionate vengeance by Israel. The US-backed Israeli Defense Force’s military onslaught on Gaza one year ago provided a horrifyingly stark illustration of this pattern. But, again like many of my US contemporaries, I assumed that such brutal outbursts, and the steady stream of much smaller-scale clashes here, were predictable side effects of the grinding, but mostly stationary reality known as “occupation.”
After a month here in Palestine, however, I’ve learned that the static quality I assumed to be characteristic of the Israeli occupation is an illusion. Israel’s so-called “settlements,” which would more accurately be called colonies, continue to grow and spread throughout the West Bank. At present, nearly half a million Jewish Israelis live in these modern, fenced-in mini-cities and gated enclaves, under the close, protective watch of the IDF and Israeli border police. The existence and propagation of these settlement-colonies is condemned by nations throughout the world, and by the UN itself, as an egregious violation of international law.
The settlement-colonies have been and continue to be established in locations of obvious strategic importance, connected by a road system that only Israelis can access, and buffered by the ever-expanding and human dignity-sapping separation wall. The reality here in Al Khalil (Hebron) is emblematic of the greater West Bank. Four settlements slice this ancient city into hyper-militarized compartments, each surveilled by means of segregated roadways, checkpoints, and army patrols. The result: the routinized harassment of Palestinians of all ages, through ID checks, body searches, and detention.
Israelis and Palestinians alike conclude that ongoing settlement-colony expansion has reduced the possibility of a two-state solution here to sheer fantasy. The inhabitants of the settlement-colonies draw their motivation from a two main sources: Zionism’s manifest destiny ideology and straight-up economic benefit (a variety of financial incentives and subsidies entice a great number of settlers-in-waiting, from Israel and far abroad). Whatever their motivation, the nearly half million settler-colonists in the West Bank have indeed sounded a death knell for the dream of a two-state solution. What’s more, they have illuminated a frightening reality which is almost entirely obscured by the “occupation” label. Just as the so-called “settlements” here would be much more accurately identified as colonies, the “occupation” itself would be much more accurately identified as a gradual and systematic takeover.
Our Palestinian partners here in Al Khalil consistently remind us of what we already know: nothing will change here, in a fundamental or structural sense, until a radical shift occurs in the US., our friends tell us, justice will remain an impossibility. It is for this reason that, in addition to accompanying the people of Al Khalil as they move through their day to day lives and day to day organizing in defense of their dignity, Christian Peacemaker Teams also spends a great deal of time and energy crafting narratives, reports, and photography from this remarkable place. Through such media we hope to contribute to a transformed conversation, in and beyond the US, about the true nature of the injustice here. A key step in the direction of this transformed conversation, I contend, is the act of seeing the “settlements” and the “occupation” for what they really are, and speaking of them accordingly. They’re not settlements; they’re colonies. It’s not occupation; it’s conquest.