The everyday occupation

Issue section: 

Although it generally receives international media attention only during episodes of spectacular or large-scale violence, the Israeli presence in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem is best understood as an everyday occupation.

The overwhelming majority of the daily encounters between Israel and the Palestinians occur in those everyday spaces where Israeli policy becomes Palestinian reality - where a politically charged vision, having assumed the neutral and technical language of administrative procedures, is played out at roadblocks and checkpoints, government offices, and daily encounters with an inflexible bureaucracy.

It is an occupation primarily expressed not with tanks and bombs, but with application forms, residency permits, population registries, and title deeds - comprehensively investing all the normally banal activities of everyday life. And for Palestinians it is an everyday occupation also in the sense that just dealing with Israeli occupation on a daily basis is like having an enormously demanding job: waiting in endless queues; applying for permission to access one's own land; applying for what Israel regards as the privilege - rather than the right - of living with one's spouse and children; applying for permission to drive one's car; to dig a well; to visit relatives in the next town; to visit Jerusalem; to go to work; to school; to university; to hospital.

There is hardly any function of everyday life in Palestine that is not absolutely dominated by the presence of the Israeli occupation.

Partly, the occupation of everyday life enables the Israelis to maintain their vigilant control over the Palestinian population. But it also serves the purpose of slowly removing Palestinians from their land, forcing them to make way for Jewish colonists.

The expulsion of half of Palestine's population in 1948 in order to clear space for the creation of a Jewish state in what had always until then been a multicultural land was a large-scale event involving hundreds of thousands of people. Today the process is much smaller, much more intimate, even almost invisible: it takes place on a minutely individual scale. But even ones and twos eventually add up.

Just in 2006, for example, Israel stripped 1,363 Jerusalem Palestinians of the right - well, according to Israeli law, for Jews the inherent right, for Palestinian non-Jews evidently merely an exceptional and easily revoked privilege - of living in Jerusalem.

It did this not by dramatically forcing dozens of people at a time onto trucks and dumping them at the city limits, but rather by quietly stripping them, one by one, of their Jerusalem residency permits. This in turn was enabled by a series of bureaucratic procedures.

For example, while it continues to violate international law by building exclusively Jewish colonies ("settlements", "neighbourhoods") in East Jerusalem, Israel rarely grants building permits to Palestinian residents of the city.

Since 1967 the third of Jerusalem's population that is Palestinian has been granted just 9 percent of the city's official housing permits. The result is a growing abundance of housing for Jews, and a severe shortage of housing for non-Jews, ie Palestinians. In fact, 90 percent of the Palestinian territory Israel claimed to have annexed to Jerusalem after 1967 is today off-limits to Palestinian development, because the land is either already built on by exclusively Jewish colonies or being reserved for their future expansion.

Denied permits, many Palestinians in Jerusalem build without them, but at considerable risk. The Israelis routinely demolish Palestinian homes built without a permit (they demolished over 300 homes in East Jerusalem between 2004 and 2007; they have demolished 18,000 Palestinian homes in the occupied territories since 1967).

One alternative has been to move to the West Bank suburbs and commute to Jerusalem. The wall cutting off East Jerusalem from the West Bank (thereby separating tens of thousands of Jerusalem Palestinians from the city of their birth) has made that much more difficult. And at best it too has its risks: Palestinians who cannot prove to Israel's satisfaction that Jerusalem has always continuously been their "centre of life" can be stripped of their Jerusalem residency papers - which is what happened to those 1,363 people in 2006. Without those papers they will be expelled from Jerusalem, adding one, two or a thousand more to the ranks of the millions of Palestinians denied the right of return to their native land.

The Palestinian Nakba did not end in 1948, in other words. It is a process that continues to this very day. And it will end only when the Palestinian right of return is recognised. That will require the reconstitution of the state whose usurpation of rights is - and was always - inherent in its constitution on religiously exclusive terms, and the creation instead of a multicultural, secular and democratic state in which Jewish Israelis and Muslim, Christian and Jewish Palestinians can live in true equality.

Saree Makdisi is the author of Palestine Inside Out. He will be speaking in London in July. For more information go to