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Occupation? What occupation?

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, an act of expansion that signalled the completion of the Zionist conquest of Palestine that began in 1948. The Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) have been subjected to a regime of military brutality, land seizure and bureaucratic oppression, at the same time as Israel’s friends in the West sign arms deals and preferential trade agreements with the Occupier.

This macabre milestone represents an occasion to thrust the occupation into the full glare of the public gaze, an opportunity that the Palestinians living without statehood, equality or hope demand we seize with both hands. Despite gains made, particularly in recent years, to make ‘occupation’ the frame of reference in understanding events in the OPT and the intifada, to a large extent the occupation continues to remain invisible.

The occupation’s invisibility is manifested in a number of ways. The first, and of most direct concern for Palestinian solidarity activists in the West, is the occupation’s invisibility in popular culture and propaganda-influenced media reports. Repeated studies of the media’s coverage of Palestine/Israel have highlighted the prevalent pro-Israeli bias, despite the shrill protests to the contrary by the Zionist lobby, a bias that flows from the refusal to frame individual events in the context of the occupation or a colonisation-resistance dynamic.

A recent example of this reflexive bias that renders the occupation ‘invisible’ was the reporting of James Cameron’s claim to have uncovered the remains of Jesus Christ in a tomb in Jerusalem. Except, it wasn’t quite Jerusalem. News coverage referred to the tomb’s location as “Jerusalem’s East Talpiot district” (BBC), or, “a suburb of Jerusalem” (Fox News), completely ignoring the fact that East Talpiot is a colony established in occupied East Jerusalem after the 1967 war, whose very presence is illegal under international law.

Thus to average Western readers and listeners, terms like “Palestine” and “occupation” become either completely alien, or are placed in a category of quasi-synonyms or contestable terms that come to sum up the confusing geopolitics of the Middle East: “Holy Land”, “Israel”, “Palestinian Territories” etc.

But the occupation’s invisibility in cultural and propaganda terms in the West is mirrored in Palestine itself. The occupation’s infrastructure has, quite deliberately, served to render the occupation invisible to the untrained eye, and ideologically speaking, serves to reinforce the idea of a confident, expansionist Zionism to Israelis. Take a drive through Jerusalem, and all of a sudden, you’ve gone from pre-1967 Israel to the unilaterally annexed East Jerusalem. Next, you’re in a colony built on occupied land, be it Gilo or Ma’ale Adumim: the road network that connects Tel Aviv and the illegal colonies of the West Bank is seamless.

The occupation is also bureaucratic, an oppression that weighs heavy on the lives of each and every Palestinian, yet is ‘invisible’ to TV crews and soundbite-seeking news bulletins. It is the oppression of the ‘permission’ to travel, the slip of paper that signals the loss of your ancestral land, or the regulation that deems your house to have been built without the ‘proper’ process and thus worthy of merciless demolition. This bureaucratic apartheid (though also requiring a parallel system of physical enforcement) is hard to “see”, yet is crucial to colonial control.

In 2007, it is time to bring home the reality of occupation to those in the West who really can make a difference; through the message we send elected officials, through our choices as consumers in the supermarket. It is time to make the occupation the primary lens through which people see the intifada and the conflict in the OPT, through demonstrations (such as the June march in London), public stunts, lectures, boycotts, concerts, and many other ways besides. 40 years is enough.

Published in Palestine Chronicle.

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