JERUSALEM — Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories is nearing the half-century mark, and Israel’s new right-wing government offers little hope of ending it. Nevertheless, the new government promises something else of value: clarity. And with that clarity, the opportunity to challenge the prolonged lie of the occupation’s “temporary” status. For if the occupation has become permanent in all but its name, what about the voting rights of Palestinians?
Two months ago, on election day in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that Israel’s Arab citizens were flocking to the polls “in droves”— a clear effort to cast the voting of one-fifth of Israel’s citizens as a danger to be counteracted. That undermined basic democratic principles, but it paled in contrast to the status of the Palestinian population living next door in territories under direct or indirect Israeli rule. They have no say at all in choosing the government of the occupying power that is in ultimate command of their fate.
If you look at all the land Israel controls between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, that area contains some 8.3 million Israelis and Palestinians of voting age. Roughly 30 percent — about 2.5 million — are Palestinians living outside Israel under varying degrees of Israeli control — in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They have some ability to elect Palestinian bodies with limited functions. But they are powerless to choose Israeli officials, who make the weightiest decisions affecting them.
International humanitarian law does not grant a people living under temporary military occupation the right to vote for the institutions of the occupying power. But “temporary” is the operative word. Military occupations are meant to have an end. And common sense says half a century is not “temporary.”
Nevertheless, that is the basis for denying Palestinians their political rights: Their status is temporary, we are told, until a political agreement with Israel allows them to vote for sovereign Palestinian institutions. Now the chances of that happening are more clear. On the eve of elections, Mr. Netanyahu promised that there would be no Palestinian state while he is in office.
Does that mean nobody in the occupied territories has a meaningful vote? No. In fact, some people do: Israeli settlers.
In August 1970, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, discussed amending the Knesset Election Law, which stipulated that Israelis — with few exceptions like diplomats on duty abroad — had to be inside Israel to vote. The amendment sought to expand the exception to include Israelis “residing in the territories held by the Israel Defense Force.” In other words, Israeli settlers could vote for the Knesset from outside Israel; their Palestinian neighbors could not participate from anywhere.
In a Knesset session discussing the amendment before it passed, one legislator and peace activist, Uri Avnery, expressed a widely held belief that peace initiatives would soon make the amendment obsolete. He expressed the hope that “it won’t be long — a year, a year and a half, two at most — before the thing called ‘the held territories’ is no more, and the I.D.F. pulls back into Israel’s borders.”
More than four decades later, what has become obsolete is not the amendment, but rather the accuracy of a description of Knesset elections often heard here: general, national, direct, equal, confidential and proportional.
How can elections be “general” when millions of people under Israel’s control for almost 50 years cannot take part in electing the institutions that hold sway over them? Let’s face it. Only the first six of Israel’s parliamentary elections — those held before 1967 — were truly “general.” Even though the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel proper were under military rule inside its borders at the time, they could vote.
Settlers now have voted in their communities in 14 Knesset elections. Over time, their numbers rose from a few hundred to hundreds of thousands. Yet one thing remained constant: Millions of Palestinians could not cast a meaningful vote, even as the voting of their settler neighbors — citizens of an occupying power — helped decide the fate of the disenfranchised.
To be sure, after the Oslo accords were signed in 1993, Palestinians in the occupied territories got to cast ballots for some institutions of their own. But Palestinian independence never came to pass, and the interim partial autonomy established in its stead underscored how “temporariness” is abused while ultimate control remains with Israel.
The Oslo Accords themselves were meant to be an interim arrangement, in effect for five years. The most recent Palestinian vote under them, in 2006, proved of little value to the Palestinians; the results were set aside after Hamas emerged as the winner in the new Palestinian parliament — whose autonomous powers in effect merely relieved Israel of responsibilities for infrastructure, health care and education.
In reality, the Palestinian Authority remains subject to the whims of the occupying power — as was demonstrated most recently when Israel froze (and then unfroze) the transfer of Palestinian tax revenues to it.
All this is shameful. And one of the occupation’s most shameful aspects is the democratic facade that obscures an undemocratic and oppressive reality. Israel’s use of military force against Palestinians is one variety of violence. Its patronizing disregard for millions of subjects, while boasting of its own “celebration of democracy,” is violence of another kind — violence to history, reality and the truth.
A day will come when this occupation ends. It may end with one state, two states, or something else. That specific political choice is beyond the deeper question of human rights, as long as the option eventually chosen respects the human rights of all. For now, the one choice we cannot make is to continue calling the current reality democratic and the occupation temporary.
Clarity may be of value after all, if it helps bring the occupation’s end sooner.
Hagai El-Ad is the executive director of B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.