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From the field

B’Tselem Executive Director speaks about 50 years of Israeli occupation

Hagai El-Ad speaking before the Danish parliament in Copenhagen, 9 June 2017
Hagai El-Ad at the Danish parliament, Copenhagen, 9 June 2017

Allow me to begin these remarks by invoking two historical injustices our world has known. Humanity’s conscience has rejected these nightmares of oppression, humiliation and exploitation, yet I am here today to address one of the great injustices of our time: the oppression, humiliation and exploitation of the Palestinian people. In short: the occupation. Granted, no historical analogy is ever perfect – but that matters little to people who have been living under the brunt of occupation for half a century. History does not offer precision: rather it offers us a moral compass. An entire people living under the rule of another for fifty years is injustice. You do not have to be an expert in International Humanitarian Law to recognize that. All you need is a conscience, and a commitment to take non-violent action to end injustice.

First, let me quote American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. 165 years ago, he said: “…the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced… Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Of course, America’s deep south is no perfect analogy: Palestinians are not slaves; yet they are not free, either. The naked eye can see, that they live closed-in by walls and fences, under watch-towers and drones. The naked eye cannot see all the other, invisible chains, in place throughout the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza: endless permits, which control almost every aspect of life; military orders; the Israeli-administered population registry; and the overarching reality of being excluded from the political process that controls one’s future. 110 years after Frederick Douglass, Nelson Mandela faced his first trial, in Pretoria’s Old Synagogue court. He spoke precisely about that exclusion: “I consider myself neither legally nor morally bound to obey laws made by a parliament in which I have no representation.” Of course, neither is Apartheid South Africa a perfect analogy. But this is not about fetishizing the different formal contours of these injustices: The separate legal systems that Israel imposes in the West Bank are not divided by race – but by nationality; Palestinians are not bound by the laws of a parliament in which they have no representation – they are subjected to military orders issued by an occupying power, in which they have no representation; And, Palestinians are not prohibited to use the same shops, or toilets, or benches, as Israelis do. The essential point here is not about that; it is about human being’s ability to have a full life. So many effective restrictions control Palestinian lives, they impact one’s ability to travel, to study, to marry, to work, to prosper. Israelis, however, are free.

Hence we are faced with a reality where the possibilities an individual will have in life are entirely dependent not on her or his talents or desires – but by one’s national identity: an occupied Palestinian non-citizen, or an Israeli citizen.

And so, we arrive at the present, faced with an injustice that has no exact equivalent. Unique in its use of the letter of the law, the occupation works tirelessly to provide a guise of legality for what Israel is doing to Palestinians. Collective punishment, demolition of Palestinian homes? Israel has due process for both. Taking over of Palestinian land? Here’s an option to appeal, before its legally stolen. Impunity? Welcome to an entire military apparatus invested in whitewashing violations. The list goes on and on, from the segregated streets in the heart of Hebron to interrogation rooms where minors are left to fend for themselves; from the scorching summer heat, in a village denied connection to running water, to casually holding people in detention for months without trial; from soldiers entering the home of any Palestinian family, anywhere, anytime, to barring an unknown number of Palestinians – thousands, at least – from traveling out of the West Bank.

Israel has made this all legal: its lawyers, attorneys and judges are as complicit as the bureaucrats, ministers, and soldiers.

All this is meticulously documented. There is little new left to say: for fifty years, successive Israeli governments have been steadily establishing facts on the ground, to fulfil Israel’s intention of perpetually ruling the Palestinians while somehow remaining a Western democracy in the eyes of the world. If you have any doubt how far back this intention goes, recall how quickly Israel cancelled the local Palestinian planning committees in the West Bank and took over their powers, thereby denying Palestinians the possibility to build legally and paving the way for the construction of settlements: that was back in 1971. And when did Israel amend its own Election Law, enabling Israeli settlers to vote for the Knesset from outside Israel, yet denying that from their Palestinian neighbours? 1970.

By now, we have come very far from 1971, 1970, and certainly 1967.

For every moment of the last fifty years, we have all lived – and too many of us have died – in violence. It permeates the air in the occupied territories – for the oppression of one people by another is, by definition, violence. It can take the form of a bureaucrat denying a permit, or a soldier squeezing a trigger. Either way, every single day, it is violence – and it must end.

Taking global action against the occupation is the non-violent way out of this reality. Defending human rights and basic freedoms is a human responsibility anywhere, anytime. This is especially relevant to the complicated relationship between Europe and Israel, as Europe bears moral responsibility for the historical context in which my homeland, the State of Israel, was established. Indeed, Europe in particular, bears moral responsibility to ensure Israel’s security. But our security cannot be the basis for their oppression. In fact, their oppression is the basis for our insecurity.

The declared basis for the EU-Israel Association Agreement is, “the United Nations Charter, particularly the observance of human rights and democracy”. Yet since 1967, the reality in the occupied territories has been one of systemic denial of human rights and democracy. With no observance, we face one glaring reality: fifty years of denial.

Anyone who holds the best of European values dear must recognize how starkly they contrast Israel’s rule over Palestinians. Rule of law and impunity share no common ground. There is no gray area between equality and exploitation. If action is not taken to protect these values, they will continue to be flattened under the rubble.

Recently, the world came together to protect these values by adopting Security Council resolution 2334. The resolution reiterated the global consensus that the settlements have no legal validity, and called for member states to differentiate Israel from its control over the occupied territories. Implementing resolution 2334 is an essential first step in the right direction. The ultimate goal is to credibly present Israel with a choice: end the occupation, or face the consequences of remaining an occupying non-democracy. Israel must choose one option or the other. It must not be allowed to continue having it both ways.

By finally presenting Israel with a clear choice, you will help free the Palestinians – and also help Israel finally rid itself of the occupation. This is not a zero-sum reality: you will not be taking sides. You will be taking the side of both Israelis and Palestinians, the side of humanity, the right side of history. Ending the occupation is pro-Palestine, it is pro-Israel, it is justice.

If this speaks to your conscience, then together, to again use Frederick Douglass’s words, we can end the “crimes against God and man”, which are the occupation. Each and every one of us has power. That is why I call on you: accept that words alone will not suffice. “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will,” tells us Douglass. Now is the time, at last, to demand: end the occupation.