End the occupation

We Americans are so fortunate! We are so blessed by the protections the Constitution gives us that many of us find it hard to imagine what it's like to live in a place where no such protections apply.

A place like the West Bank, or Gaza.

Amid the hoopla surrounding this week's visits to the White House by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Jordan's King Abdullah, Americans should remember that the 3.5 million Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza have lived under one version or another of foreign military occupation for nearly 35 years.

This situation makes assurance of their basic rights and liberties quite impossible. Such rights as may temporarily be "allowed" by the occupation authorities can – as we have seen recently – be trampled under the treads of advancing tanks at a moment's notice.

Israel's seeming reluctance to end its lengthy military occupation of these areas is an important root cause of the Middle East's continuing tragedies and unrest. So it's important to remember what foreign military rule is all about.

I got a small taste of it back in 1992. I was preparing a conference that would, for the first time, allow human-rights advocates from the Israeli, Palestinian, and other Arab communities to discuss their common concerns. My 14-year-old son came with me; we were staying with the family of a Palestinian-rights lawyer, in Gaza. That evening, my son and our host's children were playing on the dusty street outside the apartment. By then, Gaza was in the fifth year of a punitive curfew that, at the orders of Israel's military, forced all the area's 2 million Palestinian residents (but not its handful of Jewish settlers) off the streets at 8:00 each night.

Our boys stayed out a little late. Suddenly, Army jeeps screeched to the building. Soldiers battered down the downstairs door, and ran up the stairs. To save further property damage, our host met them at his front door. Three or four soldiers burst into the apartment, waving their rifles. Radios crackled. My host got on the phone to the local Israeli commander, protesting this invasion of his home. I brandished my US passport, and asked the soldiers what they wanted.

That evening, good sense prevailed. The soldiers withdrew. (And our conference went ahead a few weeks later.)

For the vast majority of Palestinian families, such an encounter with the Israeli military often ends tragically. Few Palestinians have house-guests waving US passports. Few have good phone contact with the local Israeli commander.

Most important, none has any meaningful redress under law against abuses of power by the occupying army.

That's what life under military occupation is like. Ask the French, the Poles, or Norwegians – or any of the other peoples who chafed under German military occupation in an earlier era.

Nazi Germany had, of course, deliberately sent its forces in to occupy those countries, in a genocidal attempt to gain additional "living space" for ethnic Germans. But military occupations can happen for other reasons, too. At the end of World War II, for example, Allied forces ended up in control of many countries, including Germany and Japan.

The international "laws of war" don't try to unscramble the causes of any particular occupation. What they do speak to is how a country that controls another nation's territory should behave. In particular, the Geneva Conventions and their predecessors recognize the extreme vulnerability of the civilian populations of occupied lands, and have mandated special protections for them. Two examples: The indigenous peoples' existing property rights must be upheld; and the occupying power is prohibited from moving its own civilians into occupied territory.

These provisions of the "laws of war" are based on a crucial principle of international law: the "inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force." It was wrong for the Germans to try to "acquire" more territory for themselves by force in the 1930s and '40s. And it would have been wrong for the victorious Allies to stake their own claims to, say, German or Japanese terrain after 1945 simply because their soldiers happened to be there.

Indeed, the Western Allies did no such thing. Instead, they used those years of military occupation in both countries to build up robust successor governments that were indigenous and democratic.

I think the Allies did a pretty good job. In both countries, the task was completed, and the occupation ended, in less than 10 years.

Israel's achievements during its 35 years in the West Bank and Gaza (and Golan) look far less impressive. Democracy and effective self-government seem seldom to have been Israel's major goals there. Not surprisingly, the prolonged denial of Palestinian rights sparked strong resistance. Of course it's regrettable that some (but by no means all) of the resisters have attacked civilians.

All of the violence that has consumed the Holy Land in recent years has been tragic. But we cannot forget the political context in which it has occurred. Prolonged military occupation is itself a major form of violence.

US diplomacy now needs to aim for a swift, definitive, hope-filled end to the occupation. Living side by side, without military rule, both peoples can see their rights respected. Thirty-five years is enough.

• Helena Cobban is the author of five books on international issues.

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