Cursed Victory: A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories
In June 1967, Israel defeated the combined armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, and more than quadrupled its size, in six days. In the fraught weeks leading up to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Israelis thought they might be annihilated—a situation that prominent historian Anita Shapira has described as having an “eve-of-Holocaust atmosphere.” But after a week of intense fighting, Israel emerged with sovereignty over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. Israelis looked to the future with a newfound confidence and a feeling of invincibility.
The fateful consequences of the 1967 war are the subject of Ahron Bregman’s impressive new account, Cursed Victory. With this book, Bregman, a former Israeli soldier and a military historian at King’s College London, joins the ranks of modern revisionist historians who view Israel’s acquisition of these territories as the watershed in Israeli history—the moment when the Jewish state, now an occupying power, lost the moral high ground in its enduring conflict with the Palestinians. Bregman condemns the ongoing Israeli occupation as “one of the cruellest and [most] brutal in modern history.” His book’s main objective is to harness lessons from Israel’s 48-year occupation to make sense of an ever-darkening political present.
At the center of the debate over 1967 is the ambiguous legal status of Israel’s new territorial possessions after the war. Israel imposed military rule in these territories without formally annexing them, and refrained from defining its official international borders. In light of these facts, many international law experts contend that Israel’s presence in the territories qualifies as occupation, according to definitions established in the Hague Convention of 1907 and Fourth Geneva Convention.
Bregman’s “Note on Occupation” lays out why he’s so firm in his classification of Israel as an occupying power. “In common with the UN and most international observers,” he adopts the view that “the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are occupied lands and, hence, the 1949 Geneva and other Conventions should be applied there.” Bregman has little patience for the argument that the occupation of Gaza ended in 2005 with the unilateral disengagement plan orchestrated by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. For Bregman, the Gaza evacuation actually “turned out to be more of a reorganization of the way the occupying forces operated,” thus creating the mere “illusion” of full withdrawal. The physical absence of settlers and military bases in Gaza cannot possibly constitute “ending” the occupation, Bregman writes, so long as “Israel continues to control the area from air, sea and land.”
Only a few months after the war, the Israeli Defense Forces were staging draconian siege operations in major Palestinian population centers such as Nablus to make a show of authority in the face of any resistance.
Not everyone agrees with Bregman’s assessment, of course. To religious settlers in the West Bank, the lands they call Judea and Samaria are not being occupied—they were instead “liberated” in 1967. A more common position, maintained by the Israeli right and right-leaning Zionist circles in the United States, is that the West Bank and Gaza are simply “disputed” lands. This view has been championed by successive Israeli governments, which have consistently argued that the terms of the Geneva Conventions are not applicable.
It’s easy to forget that this terminological quarrel is a relatively recent development. After the 1967 war, what concerned most Israeli officials was only how long to hold on to the newly occupied territories. David Ben-Gurion—Israel’s first prime minister and one of the country’s luminary founding fathers—came out vehemently against the occupation in the weeks following victory. In a speech at a Labor Party meeting, the “Old Man” warned his comrades of the dangers of long-term occupation, and urged the government to return the territories as soon as possible, lest Israel imperil its future as a Jewish state.
Ben-Gurion was not alone. Amos Oz, now Israel’s most celebrated living writer and doyen of the Israeli peacenik movement, also argued stridently for giving up Gaza and the West Bank. Two decades and a Palestinian intifada later, Oz’s view—a negotiated two-state solution contingent upon a land-for-peace deal—became common currency for the Israeli left during the Oslo era (1993–2000), and Oz himself remains one of the most passionate believers in the notion that the occupation, more than jeopardizing Israel’s political future, is also costing the country its very soul.
Cursed Victory fills an important gap in the literature on the occupied territories. Rather than isolating one key theme or focusing on one locale, Bregman provides a comprehensive, chronological account of how Israel’s policies over time have affected each zone of occupation, including the Sinai Peninsula—the one occupied land that Israel did fully relinquish (in 1982, following a peace deal with Egypt).
Beyond the rich historical detail from such a thoroughly narrated study, Bregman’s approach throughout Cursed Victory yields two major insights.
First, Bregman shows that Israel’s logic of occupation, and the methods it used, were entrenched very early. Take Israel’s resort to collective punishment. Only a few months after the war, Israeli Defense Forces were staging draconian siege operations in major Palestinian population centers such as Nablus to make a show of authority in the face of any resistance. Entire Palestinian villages suspected of harboring Fatah operatives were punished, as when Israel “blew up scores of houses in the village of Jiftlig” in November 1967.
Second, Bregman delineates common patterns of occupation across the four different zones Israel seized in 1967. This is an important innovation. Unlike most historians of the occupied territories, who treat the Golan Heights and especially the Sinai Peninsula as distinct from the West Bank and Gaza, Bregman identifies several common objectives that unified Israeli policy in each place: The desire for additional land to enhance Israeli security, the creation of settlement blocs to serve as buffer zones, and the practice of population transfer. Bregman successfully connects the dots between the post-war deportation policy that the IDF enacted in Gaza (during which the Strip lost 25 percent of its population within two years), for example, and the forced mass exodus of Syrians from the Golan Heights (which lost 95 percent of its pre-war population in what Bregman terms an ethnic cleansing). Bregman’s writing on the Golan Heights makes for particularly fascinating reading given his documentation of how the IDF’s dubious mechanisms for expropriating Golani lands for the state closely paralleled those undertaken in the West Bank and Gaza.
Since the 1980s, when the Israeli New Historians began to critically examine their country’s foundational myths, scholars of the conflict have debated the appropriate starting point for casting moral judgments upon Israel’s past actions. Is it 1967, when Israel embarked upon an open-ended military occupation? Or is it 1948, when Israel established its independence during a war that resulted in the mass exodus of 750,000 Palestinians and the destruction of hundreds of towns and villages? Bregman’s position is clear: Like Oz and other avowed two-staters, he starts the moral clock in 1967. If only Israel could manage to end the occupation, so the peacenik argument goes, justice would be served.
This might seem like a noble stance, but there are fundamental limits to how righteous any solution can be that insists upon keeping Israelis and Palestinians in rigidly separate spheres, as former prime minister Ehud Barak proposed in 1999 with his succinct campaign slogan: “Peace Through Separation: We Are Here; They Are There.” Israeli and Palestinian lives cannot be so easily parsed; the histories and lived experiences of the two national communities are too inextricably bound together for that. And so any notion of a pre-1967 state of pristine separation between the populations is ultimately just another convenient myth, distorting a much messier historical reality that must also be addressed if there is to be any just and lasting resolution to the conflict.
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