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Why ending occupation is in Israel’s best interests




“The occupation is the number one threat to Israel’s future,” Jessica Montell, a leader in Israeli civil society, said at a talk hosted by the Jewish Democratic Initiative (JDI) at the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town recently. Montell was brought to South Africa by Limmud SA, with support from the JDI.

Montell served as director of Israeli human-rights organisation B’Tselem for 13 years, and founded the organisation SISO: Save Israel, Stop the Occupation. She is currently director of human-rights organisation HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual.

In introducing Montell, Josh Hovsha, the director of JDI Cape Town, said Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank was like being in “perpetual purgatory, and a moment lost in time”. He said the possibility of peace during the Oslo Accords has been “25 years of a promise unfulfilled”.

Hovsha asked audience members to imagine the frustration people would have felt if South Africa had never fully transitioned to democracy, and had floundered in limbo between apartheid and democracy for a quarter of a century. This is how it felt for anyone who wanted Israel to end the occupation.

At the same time, he emphasised that “hope is a political action”, and that Jewish communities around the world should hope for change 52 years after Israel occupied these territories in the Six-Day War.

“The occupation is removed from the daily lives of Israelis, but it affects us all,” said Montell. “It’s eroding Israeli democracy, and it has a corrosive effect on our institutions, our security, our education, and even our mental health. It violates our own values. Anyone who cares about Israel needs to know that it’s the foremost existential threat to our existence as a Jewish, democratic state. If we want to safeguard Israel’s long-term future, ending the occupation is in our long-term interest.”

“The price we pay is tangible, like the deaths and injuries [that occur] as the conflict continues, but also intangible,” she said. Sending young Israelis to defend a state of occupation during their military service is unhealthy for society as a whole.

She explained that the situation of 52 years of Israel ruling over another people was made possible because of the temporary nature of occupation. But, ultimately, it needs to be resolved one way or another. Occupation, by its very nature, isn’t a permanent state of being.

The current situation is untenable. Israel can’t remain Jewish and democratic if it continues the occupation, Montell said. The danger at the moment is that Israel’s leaders seem to be steering towards the possibility of letting go of the democratic element. If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu follows through on his election promise to annex part or all of the West Bank, then Israel will no longer be a democratic state. “Right now, some of our politicians don’t seem to mind,” she said.

Montell described occupation as “essentially a permit bureaucracy, in which the 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank need permits for everything in their daily lives”. In addition, everything is governed by the law of occupation, which is why the Israeli military is the legislator and judiciary for Jews and Arabs living in this area.

Ultimately, even Israeli settlers living in the West Bank don’t live under Israeli law, they live under military law, said Montell. But, these military orders mirror Israeli laws, while the military orders for Palestinians are often very different.

Montell said that the occupation was sometimes prioritised over standing up to anti-Semitism. For example, when Hungarian Jews and the Israeli ambassador to Hungary criticised Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán for anti-Semitism, the ambassador was recalled because Prime Minister Netanyahu preferred Orbán’s support for Israel’s policies.

After the Pittsburgh massacre, when Israel Education Minister Naftali Bennett was told by anti-Semitism watchdog the Anti-Defamation League that anti-Semitism was rising because of white nationalism in the US, Bennett said anti-Semitism was stronger in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. In both of these cases, attention was driven away from real anti-Semitism to protect Israel’s continued occupation.

Montell understands that the South African Jewish community is wary of even imagining the possibility of questioning the occupation. She knows that the BDS movement here is hard-line, extreme, and often anti-Semitic. She understands that our government has historic links to the Palestinians, and is considering downgrading our embassy in Tel Aviv. She gets that we have a fear of Hamas ruling in the West Bank, or being called “self-hating” if we criticise Israel. But she maintains that as Jews, it’s our duty to be brave, and demand that Israel negotiates a way to end the occupation of the West Bank.

If South African Jews want to see change, she said, we should engage with Israeli representatives on the issue whenever possible. This is especially important because ending occupation isn’t high on the agenda of parties in the upcoming Israeli elections. We also need to connect with other Jews around the world who want this to happen. Lastly, she recommends that we engage the South African government to push for a resolution. If we want to tell our children one day that we opposed occupation, we need to start now. “Ethically, there is no alternative,” she said.

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