End the Occupation Now? Let's talk About It

“End the Occupation Now!” is a slogan heard frequently from some groups focused on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The slogan effectively calls upon Israel to withdraw unilaterally from Palestinian territories regardless of any Palestinian commitment to peace. Some of these groups are simply anti-Zionist organizations, like the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, seeking to delegitimize and undermine the Jewish State of Israel. Others sincerely believe that the slogan represents a real solution to the conflict and the path to a just peace for both parties.

Well-intentioned advocates for ending the occupation now believe that Israeli military dominance of Palestinians in the West Bank, along with the partial military blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, is the source of the conflict, and if Israel simply relinquished this control sustainable peace would prevail. Many others just as sincere about peace vigorously disagree with this assessment and believe peace must be agreed upon by both parties before any such actions can be taken. They believe that a unilateral Israeli withdrawal of security from most of the West Bank could instead result in disaster and put the lives of millions of Israelis and Palestinians at risk. Which perspective is best supported by all of the factual evidence? This is a question that calls for engagement, respectful dialogue, and fair debate.

The argument for ending the occupation now is based on two fundamental assumptions. The first is that Israel holds all the levers of power and that this power overwhelms any possible resistance from Palestinians. The second is that Palestinians are a defenseless people simply seeking freedom and self-determination. If one accepts this reasoning, Israel has the power to end the conflict unilaterally and should be pressured to do so. Israel could simply withdraw from the West Bank. A Palestinian state would then come into being, the two-state solution would become reality, and the conflict would end permanently. Ending the occupation now becomes an attractive course of action.

The hard evidence against these two fundamental assumptions is substantial. Israel certainly has a strong military with the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) while Palestinians, particularly in the West Bank, would seem to have nothing comparable. However, the Palestinian factions committed to Israel’s destruction, in particular Hamas in Gaza, are well armed, and Hamas is arming its operatives in the West Bank, in spite of Israeli security.

Hamas has a powerful ally and supporter in the State of Iran, a deeply resourced country much larger than Israel, with comparable military capability and weaponry. Iran’s leaders have made clear their desire to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, and have backed their violent rhetoric with the shipment of arms and missiles to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In addition, Iran has armed Hezbollah in Lebanon, causing Israel to face an arsenal of rockets and missiles on both its northern and western borders.

Among people truly concerned with peace and the well-being of both Palestinians and Israelis, what is called for is thoughtful and respectful discussion. We at Presbyterians for Middle East Peace believe that peace is possible, but requires commitment from both Israelis and Palestinians and cannot be accomplished by Israel alone. For a thoughtful and detailed discussion of why there is no solution to the conflict based on Israel acting unilaterally, read this insightful paper on the subject published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

The PC(USA) played a significant peacemaking role in ending the Northern Ireland conflict by acknowledging the importance of both parties committing to peace and putting down arms, security for all, denouncing injustices by both sides, and never giving up hope that the two peoples could live together. The same principles should be applied to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

End the Occupation Now! is a divisive slogan with emotional appeal but little to contribute to actual peace. It separates people of good will who should be working respectfully with one another other to advance peace and not against each other. There is a better way.