The slippery slope of occupations

Image: Engin Akyurt


To condemn Russian colonization, one must be consistent and also condemn Israeli oppression of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip

The only thing to celebrate on the first anniversary of the Russian war is the scale and courage of the Ukrainian resistance, which surprised everyone, including Ukraine's allies and perhaps even the Ukrainians themselves. In its self-defence, Ukraine is managing to transform itself.

“People's desire for justice in their country has not diminished,” observes Ukrainian journalist Kateryna Semchuk. “In fact, it has strengthened – and rightly so, given that most citizens are risking their lives to fight Russia's genocidal threat. People are so personally invested in the future of Ukraine that they have become more sensitive than ever to what kind of country we are becoming and how things are likely to be after the war.”

As for this new provision, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently sacked several high-ranking officials suspected of corruption and other offenses. But it remains to be seen whether Ukraine's anti-corruption campaign will turn into a more radical questioning of "how things are supposed to be after the war".

Ukraine will only catch up with the liberal democracies of the West and allow big Western corporations to economically colonize it? Will it join the populist backlash against globalization and free markets, as Poland did? Or will she take the bigger gamble and try to resurrect old-fashioned social democracy?

These issues are linked to the mixed international response to Russia's aggression. To properly condemn Russian colonization, one must be consistent and equally condemn other examples of colonial subjugation, most notably Israeli oppression of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

True, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is not the result of a military offensive or invasion. Rather, it is the legacy of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, from which the Arab states were defeated. Furthermore, care must be taken when engaging in discussions around the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, as it is commonly used to foment anti-Semitism – a growing problem in the West. Tremendous caution is even more necessary at this time, now that Israeli and Palestinian violence is on the rise again.

In any case, it is an indisputable fact that most Palestinians in the West Bank today were born under the occupation, and, after nearly six decades, have no prospect of achieving real state sovereignty. On the contrary, they are forced to helplessly watch the progressive appropriation of their territory by Israeli settlers. Western media do not spare praise for the "heroic resistance" of the Ukrainians, but are silent in the face of the situation of the Palestinians in the West Bank, who are resisting a regime that is becoming more and more comparable to the defunct system of apartheid from South Africa.

Now that the new Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is engaged in an annexation de facto of the West Bank, it has become harder to deny the parallel with Russia's treatment of Ukraine, with President Vladimir Putin denying Ukrainians their very right to exist as people. In December 2022, the government of Israel explicitly stated that “the Jewish people have an exclusive and indisputable right to all parts of the Territory of Israel”, including Judea and Samaria – i.e. the West Bank.

And Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition doesn't stop there. According to an analysis of the JustSecurity, an NYU Law School-based initiative, "the new government's founding documents indicate a clear and dramatic shift in the normative organizational framework through which it administers the territories: from occupation law to an application of Israel's domestic law." In practice, this means an "annexation in all but name". Consequently, the change in enemy land law will return West Bank property to Israelis who owned it before 1948. Not surprisingly, this change operates only one-way: property in Israel formerly owned by Palestinians will not be similarly “regranted”.

In principle, such a change could be a progressive act, since it implies that the application of different legal regimes to West Bank Israelis and Palestinians – a central component of the apartheid charge – can no longer be justified. But we know that Israel's new government is anything but progressive. So how will the annexation be conducted? If the West Bank is simply going to become part of Israel, shouldn't the nearly three million Palestinians who live there become Israeli citizens able to vote in the country's elections?

Obviously, this outcome would be unacceptable to Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing allies. However, they have only two options to avoid it. They can, on the one hand, expel as many Palestinians as they can from the annexed territories, or, on the other hand, they can impose whatever the JustSecurity describes as an “institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination of one racial group over another, with the intention of maintaining this regime, also known as apartheid".

In recent months, Israel has been rocked by demonstrations against the Netanyahu government's attempt to subordinate the judiciary to its will. But the hundreds of thousands of liberal, freedom-loving Israelis who took to the streets largely ignored the plight of Palestinians (including the Arabs who make up about 20% of Israel's population), however much the latter will suffer the most. under the new government and its illiberal reforms. In fact, the proposed legislation was treated as an internal Jewish affair.

A true act of protest would recognize what is really at stake. In order to preserve democracy and the rule of law in Israel, liberal Israelis must forge a broad liberal coalition that includes representatives of the Palestinians. Yes, that would be a radical and risky gesture, since it would break with an unspoken rule of Israeli politics – the one that says Palestinian Israelis should not decide about the fate of the country.

But such radicalism may today be the only way to prevent Israel from becoming yet another religious fundamentalist – even racist – state. That would be a scam. It would be an abandonment of the Jews' deep historical affiliation with enlightenment and the pursuit of justice - and yet another victory for forces dedicated to dark ideals.

*Slavoj Žižek, professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School, he is international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London. Author, among other books, of In defense of lost causes (boitempo).

Translation: Daniel Pavan

Originally published on the website Project syndicate.

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