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Is "Occupation" an Excuse for Terrorism?

By Carlos

No reasonable person can doubt that Palestinian extremists have been committing terrorist acts against the Israeli civilian population on a very wide scale. Call it what you will, under the banners of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Al Aksa Martyrs' Brigades and others, these terrorists have intentionally targeted the most defenseless Israelis, including infants, children, and the elderly. They say they must do it to fight the "Israeli occupation." They say they have no alternative.

The word "occupation" is indeed the most powerful weapon in the Palestinians' propaganda arsenal. It is a serious charge. Therefore we must examine the questions: Just what is this "occupation," and is it a legitimate excuse for violence against innocent people?

The claim that "occupation" excuses terrorism has made Palestinian extremists seem credible and has made gratuitous violence look legitimate. Aside from the very obvious moral weakness of any attempt to excuse intentional violence against civilians, the claim is false for at least two basic reasons:

  1. Arabs committed terrorist atrocities against Jewish civilians years before the existence of what is now called the "occupation."
  2. (1)

  3. The Palestinians refused even to negotiate a genuine peace offer that could soon have ended the so-called "occupation." There was never any need to resort to violence.
  4. (2)

These two facts are enough to invalidate any attempt to use "occupation" to justify terrorism. The "occupation" excuse for terrorism has persisted nevertheless, and so deserves a full examination.

The word "occupation" in this discussion refers to the presence of Israelis in the West Bank and in Gaza. What is its origin?

Before 1967, the West Bank was part of Jordan and Gaza was part of Egypt, and Israel had nothing to do with them. Then came the Six Day War.

In the spring of 1967 the Arab states were preparing for war. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered the UN Emergency Force to leave the Sinai. Egyptian and Syrian troops massed along the Israeli border. Egypt closed the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping and blockaded the port of Eilat. This itself was an act of war. Cutting off a major supply route placed Israel in a stranglehold.

The Arabs made their intentions clear. An official radio broadcast proclaimed:

As of today, there no longer exists an international emergency force to protect Israel. We shall exercise patience no more. We shall not complain any more to the UN about Israel. The sole method we shall apply against Israel is total war, which will result in the extermination of Zionist existence.(3)

Israel, knowing its existence was threatened, launched a preemptive strike against the Egyptian air force. The result was an Israeli victory in a surprisingly short period of time. Afterwards Israel found itself in control of pieces of Arab territory in the front-line states that had attacked it: Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.

On June 19, 1967 the Israeli Unity Government announced that it was willing to give back these territories in return for peace treaties and normalization of relations. The Arabs responded with resolutions passed at the Khartoum Conference held at the end of that summer. Then as now, the Arab response to an offer of peace was belligerence. Article 3 of the Khartoum Resolutions states:

The Arab Heads of State have agreed to unite their political efforts at the international and diplomatic level to eliminate the effects of the aggression and to ensure the withdrawal of the aggressive Israeli forces from the Arab lands which have been occupied since the aggression of June 5. This will be done within the framework of the main principles by which the Arab States abide, namely, no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it, and insistence on the rights of the Palestinian people in their own country. [Emphasis added](4)

Over time the situation with Egypt did improve. Largely due to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's bold gesture for peace, for which he paid with his life, Israel was able to negotiate a treaty with Egypt, which included return of the Sinai. The negotiations were hard and took years, but they have proven that Israel values peace more than the land it captured in 1967 and is ready to negotiate the return of the land as part of any serious peace offer.

In contrast, the situation in the West Bank steadily deteriorated. Any hope of reaching an accord with Jordan ended in 1988 when King Hussein relinquished all claims to the West Bank, severed all administrative ties, and canceled his investments there. Israel was left with the Palestine Liberation Organization as the only possible partner to any negotiations.

In 1992 disillusion with the policies of Yitzhak Shamir and the desire to try new approaches to peace led to the election of his Labor Party rival Yitzhak Rabin. While Shamir did not truly believe in the negotiation process, Rabin had faith that it could lead to results. The history of the Oslo agreement is complicated and beyond the scope of this essay, but we do need to consider its basic provisions.(5)

The agreement of September 1993 consisted of mutual letters of recognition, plus a "Declaration of Principles" (DOP). In these letters Yasser Arafat affirmed the right of Israel to exist, and Yitzhak Rabin formally recognized the PLO as the official representative of the Palestinian people. Arafat also promised to renounce terrorism and to control those factions that would still engage in it.

The intention of the DOP was to provide for a gradual process of Palestinian autonomy over the West Bank and Gaza, beginning with Gaza and Jericho. To that end a "Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority" was to govern the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank for a transitional period of at most five years, during which time permanent status negotiations would take place. The parties were to negotiate an "interim agreement" specifying the structure of this Self-Government Authority or "Council" and the transfer of power from the Israeli military government to this Council.

There were delays in the implementation of the DOP. Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and Jericho was achieved in May 1994, five months behind schedule. And in September 1995, two years after the initial accords, Rabin and Arafat signed the "interim agreement." Known popularly as "Oslo II," it was a detailed prescription for Palestinian autonomy.

Oslo II was far more comprehensive than Oslo I, comprising over 300 pages. It provided for the election of the Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority, more commonly known as the Palestinian Authority, and specified its powers. It also provided for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, the establishment of a Palestinian police force, and the creation of a safe passageway between Gaza and the West Bank. But the heart of the agreement was a prescription for gradual Israeli withdrawal from the territories. The West Bank was divided into three zones:

Zone A consisted of the major Palestinian cities: Jenin, Nablus, Qalqilya, Tulkarem, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Hebron. In these areas, to be evacuated by Israel, the Palestinian Authority would have full jurisdiction over both civil affairs and security.

Zone B consisted of the more rural areas, including hundreds of small towns and villages. In this zone the Palestinian Authority would have full jurisdiction over civil affairs and internal security, while Israel retained authority over external security.

Zone C consisted of areas that were largely unpopulated, as well as Israeli settlements and military camps. Here the Palestinian Authority would have control over civil affairs, while Israel remained responsible for both internal and external security.

Israel was gradually to transfer Zone B areas to Zone A status, and Zone C areas to Zone B. This would prepare the way for the final stage of this peace process, the permanent status negotiations.

To summarize, Zone A consisted of areas under Palestinian control, Zone B of areas under joint control, and Zone C of areas under Israeli control, with a process in motion to achieve steadily increasing Palestinian autonomy in all areas.

The plan should have worked. Both parties agreed to it. It was based on the same land-for-peace principle that had worked with Egypt. So what happened after Oslo?

Arab violence against Israelis not only continued, it intensified. After Israel withdrew from Jericho and the Gaza Strip, those places became safe bases of operation for Hamas and Islamic Jihad. By the end of 1995 Israel had withdrawn from all Zone A cities save Hebron. A rash of terrorism including suicide bomb attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in early 1996 caused a delay of Israel's departure from Hebron. Arafat proved either unwilling or unable to control the terrorists responsible for these attacks, and indeed members of his own Fatah group perpetrated much of the violence. Israel finally withdrew from most of Hebron immediately after ratifying the Hebron Accord in January 1997.

And so since 1997 the Palestinian Authority had total jurisdiction over all Palestinians living in the seven Zone A cities plus Jericho. These areas comprised about 60% of the Palestinian population. Almost all of the rest lived in the smaller towns of Zone B, over which the Palestinian Authority had civil jurisdiction with Israel responsible only for security. The Palestinians had achieved self-rule. There was no longer any occupation in any real sense of the word.

But instead of getting better, things got worse.

After Oslo a new form of terrorism became increasingly common: bus bombings. These attacks were especially deadly, the fatality rate much higher with the explosion confined to a small enclosed space. Suicide bombing and other violence spread rapidly to all areas where civilians congregate: dance halls, shopping malls, birthday parties, holiday celebrations, even children's bedrooms. No one was safe.

Yasser Arafat, signer of the Oslo Agreement, was complicit in this terrorism. He signed the checks that financed many of the terrorist operations.(6) He was the Commander of Fatah and the Al Aksa Martyrs' Brigades. The areas that Israel turned over to Palestinian control under the Oslo Accords became terrorist strongholds. Jenin became the capital of the suicide bombers. Nablus became the terrorist leaders' headquarters as well as their major bomb factory. Hamas developed Qassam 2 rockets in Gaza, built them in Nablus, and shipped them to Tulkarem for use against cities in central Israel. This was the Palestinian response to the concessions Israel made at Oslo.(7)

The great irony here is that it is not Israeli "occupation" that provokes escalations of Palestinian terrorism but rather steps taken to diminish the Israeli presence in the territories. Palestinian terrorism has only increased since Oslo. And the greatest escalation of terrorism in history came after the historic peace offer of Camp David 2000, when Israel signed on to an American plan that would have ceded to the Palestinians virtually the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip plus shared control over Jerusalem. The Palestinian response to this peace offer was the Second Intifada, which grew so bloody, to the point of suicide bombing attacks almost every day, that Israel had to take drastic measures during Operation Defensive Shield and reenter the Palestinian cities that had been granted autonomy under Oslo. This Palestinian answer to the peace process has so far claimed 500 Israeli dead and 4,000 wounded.

The big lie behind Palestinian terrorism is that it is a response to Israeli occupation. Palestinian terrorism began long before Israel gained control of the territories in 1967, and the more autonomy (that is, the less "occupation") the Palestinians gained, the worse the terrorism became. The Palestinians have shown the world conclusively what they would do with their autonomy and with their own state if they ever acquire one: turn it into one big suicide bomb aimed at the heart of Israel, taking Israel down and themselves with it.

What can possibly account for such irrationality?

If the Palestinian agenda were really to acquire a state of their own, they would have achieved it by now. If we understand the Palestinian goal to be an end of Israeli "occupation" in the West Bank and Gaza so that they can establish their own state there, then their strategy makes no sense. They could have done so much more quickly and without all this bloodshed. The Palestinian strategy makes sense only if we understand what their goal really is.

The Palestinians are smart, much smarter than the Israelis when it comes to public relations. The word "occupation" has a double meaning, and they use it knowing that Western people understand it one way while they themselves understand it in another. To the West, "occupation" means Israeli presence in territories captured in the 1967 war. To the Palestinians, "occupation" means the existence of Israel itself. Their own maps have no "Israel" at all but show the entire area, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, as "Palestine."

Occasionally in news interviews given in English one can hear a Palestinian spokesperson slip and talk about "fifty years of occupation," going all the way back to the creation of the State of Israel. Often when speaking to friendly audiences they do not even try to hide it. In an article entitled "Mother's Day Rally: Over 50 Years of Occupation" a staff writer for the Ottawa Muslim Network writes:

End The Occupation! No Land No Peace! These are the slogans shouted by thousands who gathered on Mother's day on Parliament Hill to voice their support for Palestinians and to oppose the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. May 15, 2002 marks the 54th anniversary of the occupation of Palestine and the crowd in front of the Peace Tower were reminded of the unrelenting struggle of generations of Palestinians.(8)

And in her address to the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa no less a figure than Hanan Ashrawi spoke of "occupation" pre-1967:

In 1948, we became subject to a grave historical injustice manifested in a dual victimization: on the one hand, the injustice of dispossession, dispersion, and exile forcibly enacted on the population that has come to be known as the refugee question that currently encompasses more than 5 million Palestinians. On the other hand, those that remained were subject to the systematic oppression and brutality of an inhuman occupation that robbed them of all their rights and liberties including their national identity on their own land.(9)

This paragraph is full of distortions and lies, only one of them being that an "occupation" started in 1948. To the Palestinians, "occupation" means the existence of Israel itself; yet by clever use of language they have turned the word into a potent propaganda tool justifying the worst kind of brutality. They have gotten the world to sympathize with them while their nail-packed bombs tear apart the bodies of innocent people.

What then can we say about Oslo from Israel's perspective? Was it a mistake?

Oslo was a tragic mistake in that by granting the Palestinians autonomy without insisting that they live up to their promises, Israel has compromised its security more than ever. But Oslo was a necessary mistake. Israel had to participate, to do what it could to give peace a chance. The Oslo process began at a more optimistic time, when there seemed to be real hope for peace, when people believed that if only the Palestinians would remove from their charter the clauses urging Israel's destruction that their hearts would change and they would become real partners for peace. It took Oslo, plus the rejected peace offer of Camp David 2000, to reveal to the world, once and for all, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the Palestinians' true intentions. And still the world refuses to listen.

And yet from the beginning there were signs of what was to come. On the very same day that he signed the Oslo Accord, Arafat gave a speech on Jordanian television indicating he had no intention whatsoever of abiding by it:

O, my beloved ones, do not forget that our Palestine National Council adopted the resolution in l974. It called for the establishment of a national authority on any part of Palestinian soil that is liberated or from which the Israelis withdraw. This is the fruit of your struggle, sacrifice and Jihad....

Long live Palestine, free and Arab!(10)

The "resolution in 1974" to which Arafat refers is the infamous "Phased Plan" for Israel's destruction(11), a reference well known to his television audience. Many times when speaking to his own people Arafat referred to Oslo as a step in this Phased Plan. And both Arafat and Feisal Husseini, another Palestinian negotiator, have compared Oslo to a "Trojan Horse," a weapon poised to penetrate Israel's defenses and destroy it from within.(12)

"Occupation" is not only the lie that fuels the Intifada, it is the Palestinians' most potent excuse for Israel's destruction. A knowledge of history exposes the lie. But one important question still remains: Why has this lie so easily taken root?

It is difficult to respond to the word "occupation" because the word itself has become a powerful slogan whose purpose is to turn off thought and elicit sympathy for terrorism. Such manipulations of people's emotions are always hard to counter. Reason and reflection are often no match for prejudice and hatred - but only in the short term. Prejudice and hatred abound not only in the front-line Muslim states but also in those countries that accept the "occupation" excuse reflexively, without considering the other side. Nevertheless, the truth must continue to be told. Like water dripping on a rock, after time its effect on people of good will can overcome even the hardness of a heart calcified by prejudice.

Lies have power only when people are willing to believe them. Most of the nations of the world, not only the Arab states but the countries of Europe as well, have shown themselves only too willing to embrace this lie. When terrorists receive not condemnation but sympathy for committing terrorist acts, then those who give their sympathy become accomplices. Let those nations of the world who give tacit approval to the deaths of innocent children and grandparents deal not only with their consciences but with the results of their own policies when they in turn become the victims of terrorism.

September 2002

Works Consulted:

Karsh, Efraim. "What Occupation?" Commentary 114, no. 1 (July-August 2002):46-51.

Kozodoy, Neal, ed. The Mideast Peace Process: An Autopsy. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002.

Morris, Benny. Righteous Victims. New York: Random House, Vintage, 2001.

Sachar, Howard M. A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time. 2d ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

Shlaim, Avi. The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. New York: Norton, 2001.

Smith, Charles D. Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History with Documents. Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001.


1. "Which Came First- Terrorism or Occupation - Major Arab Terrorist Attacks Against Israelis Prior to the 1967 Six-Day War," Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, March 31, 2002.

2. "Dennis Ross on Fox News Sunday," Fox News, April 21, 2002.

3. Isi Leibler, The Case for Israel (Australia: Globe Press, 1972), 60. Cited by Mitchell G. Bard, "PA Has Failed to Fulfill Its Commitments Under Hebron Accord," Myths & Facts Online.

4. "The Khartoum Resolutions," Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, September 1, 1967.

5. For a detailed account of the Oslo process see David Makovsky, Making Peace with the PLO (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1996).

6. Ronen Bergman, "Arafat Involved in Supporting Terrorism - Secret Documents Reveal," Yedioth Ahronoth, July 23, 2002.

7. For more detail see Dani Naveh, "The Involvement of Arafat - PA Senior Officials and Apparatuses in Terrorism Against Israel - Corruption and Crime," Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, May 6, 2002.

8. Ronen Bergman, "Mother's Day Rally: Over 50 Years of Occupation," Ottawa Muslim Network, May 13, 2002.

9. Hanan Ashrawi, "Address by Hanan Ashrawi to the World Conference Against Racism," Palestine Solidarity Campaign, August 28, 2001.

10. Efraim Karsh, "Arafat's Grand Strategy," Middle East Quarterly, spring 2004. See also "Arab Newspaper Interview: Arafat Says He Adheres to 'Phased Plan' to Destory Israel," Zionist Organization of America, Jamuary 8, 1998; "Arafat's Police Chief: Wye Accord Is Nothing More than Temporary Truce," Zionist Organization of America, November 3, 1998.

11. The Phased Plan for Israel's Destruction," on this web site.

12. Efraim Karsh, "A Trojan Horse?," Boston Review, December 2001/January 2002; "In Their Own Words, National Christian Leadership Council for Israel.

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict:
Peace with Realism