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The Political Battle Over the ‘Occupation’ Narrative

11:33 AM, Jul 20, 2012 • By DORE GOLD
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This view was reinforced again a quarter of a century later. In May 2003, after the IDF conducted Operation Defensive Shield in order to put an end to a two-year wave of Palestinian suicide bombing attacks, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon astonished his supporters by saying that the IDF could not continue to be deployed throughout West Bank cities because that would mean keeping the Palestinians "under occupation." However, Attorney General Elyakim Rubenstein, responded that it was not correct to call the West Bank and the Gaza Strip "occupied territories" but rather "disputed territories." A statement published by the justice ministry added that "their status will be decided by future agreements."

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It is instructive to see how the international community looks at far clearer cases of territories that came under military control of foreign forces as a result of armed conflict. On July 20, 1974, the Turkish army invaded Cyprus, which had been an independent state since 1960, taking over 37 percent of the island. The Turkish zone declared its independence in 1983, but no state, except Turkey, recognized the new government.

How does most of the international community refer to the territory of Northern Cyprus? The fact of the matter is that they don't label it an "occupation." When the EU accepted Cyprus as a new member state in 2004, it prepared a memorandum explaining that the accession to the EU was suspended "in the area of the Republic of Cyprus in which the Government of the Republic of Cyprus does not exercise effective control."

There is also the example of Western Sahara, which was completely taken over by the Moroccan army in 1979. After Spain withdrew from the territory and a joint administration with Mauritania failed to emerge, Morocco viewed Western Sahara as Moroccan territory. Morocco's claim was challenged by the Polisario, the militia manned by residents of the region that waged a guerilla war against the Moroccan army with the backing of Algeria.  The International Court of Justice in the Hague formally rejected the Moroccan claim of sovereignty, recognizing the people of Western Sahara’s right to self-determination. In numerous resolutions in the U.N., Western Sahara has not been called "occupied territory," even though the Moroccan army has been sitting on land beyond the internationally recognized borders of Morocco.

At the end of World War II, the Soviet army invaded Japan and occupied the Kuril Islands, which had been previously Japanese territory. Here again, the Japanese foreign ministry's recent paper on the Kuril Islands doesn't even speak about ending the Russian occupation, but rather about the need to "reach a settlement of this unresolved issue of the Northern Territories."

All three cases of Northern Cyprus, Western Sahara, and the Kuril Islands are open and shut cases of foreign occupation under international law and yet in the diplomatic arena the term "occupation" is not formally applied to them. Ironically, in the case of the West Bank, where the Israeli presence is a far more complex legal issue, the term "occupation" has been uncritically applied, even by Israelis.

Thus the decision to use the term "occupation" appears to emanate as much from political considerations as it does from any legal analysis. For "occupation" is a term of opprobrium. In much of Europe, the term still invokes memories of the Nazi occupation of France. Those being constantly bombarded by the term "occupation" in Europe undoubtedly make subconscious links between Israeli behavior in the territories and the events of the Second World War. Indeed, that is the intention, in many cases, of those using and promoting this language, despite the fact that such analogies are repulsive to anyone with the least bit of Jewish historical memory.

Nonetheless, pro-Palestinian groups, and their allies on the far left, use the charge of "occupation" as part of their rhetorical arsenal—along with other epithets, like "colonialist, apartheid state"—for waging political warfare against Israel. The charge of "occupation" has evolved into one of the most potent weapons in the delegitimization campaign against Israel.

It is noteworthy that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva published a study on the subject of occupation in April 2012 that concluded that the term had unquestionably acquired a "pejorative connotation." Experts attending the meetings of the ICRC recommended replacing the term with new legal nomenclature, in order to get wider adherence to international humanitarian law by those who were occupying foreign territory but wanted to avoid the occupation label.

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