Last month, Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) amended a resolution initially drafted by Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) that supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The changes she made to the bill, H.R. 326, removed references to Israel’s occupation and West Bank settlement growth.
This is not the first time Democrats have shied away from using the term “occupation.” In 2016, the party rejected an amendment to its platform that would have condemned the occupation. More recently, the Democratic Majority for Israel, founded this year by major party veterans to reaffirm the bipartisan nature of support for Israel in Congress, fails to mention the occupation even once in its nearly 500-word mission statement. In response to a question about the occupation from the left-wing Jewish activist group IfNotNow, presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke didn’t say the word “occupation” at all.
It took less than a week for Israel to prove why Bass’s amendments and the failure to openly name the occupation are dangerous mistakes: On July 22, Israel demolished the Palestinian community Wadi Hummus in the village Sur Baher, which was under construction east of the rest of the village and well within Palestinian territory. The occupation may be the status quo, but it isn’t static.
Israel’s public security minister, Gilad Erdan, said the community “constitutes a severe security threat and can provide cover to suicide bombers and other terrorists hiding among [the] civilian population and endanger the lives of civilians and security forces alike.”
But somewhere between the Israeli soldiers filmed celebrating the demolition and the snaking course of the security barrier, a different story forms.
In January 2012, as a student at Tel Aviv University, I toured the security barrier with Col. Danny Tirza, chief architect of the wall. My group pressed him on the reasons the barrier diverted from the Green Line, which seemed to many to constitute an Israeli land grab. Tirza told us that every diversion was carefully planned with an eye toward security. He has been consistent on this. Which means either that Erdan is fearmongering to legitimize the needless demolition of Palestinian property and an incursion deeper into Palestinian territory, or that the security barrier was a poorly planned solution to terrorist threats.
Whatever the explanation, the failure of Democrats to remain consistent on policies toward Israel is alarming, as successive Likud governments legitimize new settlement outposts and as President Trump indicates that Israel will be used as a divisive issue in his 2020 campaign. The party must be honest about Israel’s dangerous trajectory — and it will find plenty of Israeli allies if it is honest about the occupation. Criticism of Israel by some Democrats — such as Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minn.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) — has gotten attention recently, and perhaps that’s why the party appears skittish about how it describes the situation in the West Bank, for fear of alienating voters who feel strongly about Israel.
But to be clear, that situation is definitely a military occupation. As a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, my unit was stationed at a hilltop army base surrounded by Palestinian villages. We patrolled the area at all times, setting up random checkpoints both inside and on roads entering Palestinian communities. We had the authority to stop any random Palestinian man, woman or child at any random time of the day or night and demand his or her identification papers. Sometimes, we hid in the bushes near the entrance to Palestinian villages, camouflaged, with the sole purpose of being seen by local Palestinian passersby; the point was to give the impression that the Israel Defense Forces were always watching. Our mission was to enact total military control over the Palestinian civilian population, and that mission remains the IDF’s aim today, eight years after my service there ended.
This is, by any reasonable definition, including that of the United Nations, generations of members of Congress and millions of Israelis and many of their representatives in the opposition, a military occupation. Avoiding saying so directly is not support for Israel — it’s just support for Israel’s current right-wing government. And more important, it’s a move that hinders the U.S. role in mediating a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because it removes U.S. barriers to Israel’s stated goal: annexation of the territory.
The relationship between Israel’s settlement movement and the army’s occupation is not complicated, either. Israel’s national religious camp believes the West Bank is Jewish land as decreed by God and recorded in the Bible. They believe the Palestinians are Arab squatters, and that Palestinian national aspirations are, at their core, illegitimate. They’ve been in power in Israel consistently for the past 10 years, and since the election of Trump, they’ve been on a mad dash to kill the two-state solution.
On the ground, this looks like settlement growth and the establishment of new Israeli settlement outposts. The IDF’s broad mission in the West Bank is to provide security for Israelis, so any new outpost must now have the army patrol the territory surrounding it. This process has accelerated over the past decade, but it has typically been met with frustration and condemnation from the State Department. Until Trump arrived.
Trump has changed the United States’ official approach in the region. The outcome, his so-called “deal of the century,” seems less important than painting himself as Israel’s most fervent defender. As Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt pursue the dead-on-arrival plan, Trump basks in the political support his position earns him from Israel’s Likud leadership and evangelical Christian Zionists at home. Moreover, he’s working to turn Israel into a partisan issue, in which the Trump administration backs Israel’s maximalist aspirations while labeling any Democratic opposition to them as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.
Unfortunately, Democrats seem unprepared to meet the challenge. Instead of standing by the facts that inform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they seem desperate to avoid turning into the anti-Israel party. The problem is, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already chosen Trump. No amount of vanilla statements in support of the two-state solution will change that.
But Democrats do have options. Most American Jewish supporters of Israel do not like Netanyahu. They know his partisan leanings, and they detest Trump. Condemning Israel’s self-destructive behavior — while firmly stating a belief that the Jewish state has a right to exist — is fully compatible with support for Israel. More important, maintaining a clear vision of the conflict will keep Democrats in a position to mediate it, something Republicans appear to have decided has no value.
The IDF controls all aspects of Palestinian life in the West Bank through many of the same tactics that have defined military occupations throughout the world, throughout history. The people who argue that it’s not an occupation have either never been to the region, or they have an interest in making you believe a lie. I hope Democrats will not make the same choice.
[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story was unclear about the location of Wadi Hummus, a Palestinian neighborhood.]