The Biggest Prison on Earth. The History of the Occupied Territories – Ilan Pappe. 

The ‘Shacham Plan’, ‘The Organization of Military Rule in the Occupied Territories’.

The strategy was presented by the Israeli Chief of the General Staff to the army on 1 May 1963 and was meant to prepare the army for controlling the West Bank as an occupied military area.

The West Bank, of course, was not yet occupied, but the fact that four years before the actual occupation the Israeli military was ready with a judicial and administrative infrastructure for ruling the lives of one million Palestinians is highly significant.

Since 1948, and even more since 1956, Israel’s military and political elite was looking for the right historical moment to occupy the West Bank.

The plan was code-named the ‘Shacham Plan’ and it divided the West Bank into eight districts so as to facilitate the imposition of an organized military rule. The plan included the appointment of a legal advisor to the future Governor General of the Occupied Territories and four military courts.

The main concern was that the Geneva Convention did not permit executions. A year into the occupation Israel decided that the Convention did not apply to the occupation and, as for executions, the Israelis would not adopt the death penalty but instead resorted to other equally lethal means of execution.

Mandatory emergency regulations became the legal infrastructure for the military courts, those institutions through which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians would pass, arrested without trial, sent to be tortured and abused. Only rarely did they emerge from them unscathed. The judges were all army officers, and were not required to have a legal background. Courts had either one, two or three judges. Those courts with three judges had the right to order executions or sentence people to life imprisonment. Among the theoretical institutions envisaged in 1963 was a special military court of appeal that would become operational in 1967, sanctioning the decisions of the lower courts in order to show to the world a system that apparently had the right to appeal built into it.

What the 13th Israeli government contemplated and executed in 1967, and what successive generations of Israeli bureaucrats would maintain, was the largest ever mega-prison for a million and a half people – a number that would rise to four million – who are still today, in one way or another, incarcerated within the real or imaginary walls of this prison.

After almost three months of deliberation, they concluded their discussions with a series of decisions, all of which in one way or another condemned those living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to life imprisonment in the biggest ever mega-prison of the modern age. The Palestinians living there were incarcerated for crimes they never committed and for offences that were never committed, confessed or defined. As this book is being written, a third generation of such ‘inmates’ have begun their lives in that mega-prison.

Never before, or since, this government’s term in office would such a consensual partnership lead the State of Israel in its future and critical decisions.

Contrary to conventional wisdom about the history of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, no one apart from the government of Israel has played a crucial role, then or now, in deciding the fate of these territories or the people living in them. What these ministers decided in the second half of June 1967, and in the following months of July and August, has remained the cornerstone of Israeli policy towards the Occupied Territories to this day. None of the successive Israeli governments have deviated from this path, and nor have they ever wanted to, in any shape or form.

The resolutions adopted in that short period, between June and August 1967, clearly charted the principles to which future Israeli governments would religiously adhere and from which they would not diverge, even during the most dramatic events that followed, be it the first or second Intifada or the Oslo peace process and the Camp David Summit of 2000.

This government represented, as never before or since, the widest possible Zionist consensus. This can also be attributed to the euphoric mood in the wake of the total devastation of three Arab armies by the IDF and the successful blitzkrieg that ended with the military occupation of vast areas of Arab lands and countries. An almost messianic aura surrounded the decision-makers in those days, encouraging them to take bold decisions of historical consequence that their successors would find hard to refute or change.

Because the decisions taken reflected the consensual Zionist interpretation of the past and present reality of Palestine as an exclusive Jewish State, none of the developments occurring thereafter appeared to undermine their validity for future Israeli policymakers. The only way of challenging the decision taken then was by questioning the very validity of Zionism itself.

Two fundamentals of Zionist ideology were still unfailingly adhered to by the politicians of 1967, just as they had been by their predecessors. The struggle for the survival of the Jewish State depended, on the one hand, on its ability to control most of historical Palestine, and, on the other, on its capacity to reduce considerably the number of Palestinians living in it.

The historical consensus dictated a wish for a purely ethnic Jewish State. There were sometimes attempts to ascertain what would constitute a tolerable non-Jewish minority within a Jewish State, but the unspoken (and at times spoken) desire was to have only Jews in what was considered to be the ancient Land of Israel.

1948 provided the historical opportunity to realize both goals: taking over much of the land and getting rid of most of the local population.

Several discrete processes came together to allow the Zionist movement to ethnically cleanse Palestine that year: the British decision to withdraw from Palestine after thirty years of rule; the impact of the Holocaust on Western public opinion; the disarray in the Arab and Palestinian worlds; and, finally, the crystallization of a particularly determined Zionist leadership.

As a result, half of the country’s native population was expelled, half of its villages and towns destroyed and 80 per cent of Mandatory Palestine became the Jewish State of Israel.

The dispossession was witnessed at close hand by representatives of the international community: delegates of the International Red Cross, correspondents of the Western press and UN personnel.

The Western world, however, was not interested in listening to their incriminating reports; the political elites chose to ignore them.

The message from Europe and the US was clear: whatever happens in Palestine is the inevitable final act of the Second World War. Something had to be done so that Europe could atone for the crimes committed on its soil against the Jewish people – and therefore a last, massive dispossession of Palestinians was needed so that the West could move on to post-war peace and reconciliation.

The situation in Palestine, of course, had nothing to do with the movement of populations in Europe in the wake of the Second World War or with the genocide of Europe’s Jews; it was the culmination not of the war in Europe but of Zionist colonization of the land that had begun at the end of the nineteenth century. It was the final act in the making of a modern-day settler Jewish State at a time when the international community seemed to view colonization as unacceptable and an example of the deplorable ideology of the past.

But not in the case of Palestine. The message from the enlightened world was unambiguous: the Israeli dispossession of the Palestinians as well as the takeover of most of Palestine were both legitimate and acceptable. Almost half of the ministers attending the 1967 meetings were themselves veterans of the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Some were members of the small cabal that took the decision to expel almost a million Palestinians, destroy their villages and towns and prevent them from ever returning to their homeland. Others were generals or officers in the machinery that perpetrated the crime. All of them were fully aware of the international indifference in 1948 when the Zionist movement took over 78 per cent of Palestine. And this is why they, and their colleagues, were convinced that the international community would allow them once more to act unilaterally now that the Israeli army occupied the remaining 22 per cent of the land. Having acted with impunity in 1948, there was no reason to expect any serious rebuke for, or obstacles to, a similar policy of ethnic cleansing in June 1967.

The government was determined, almost en masse, to decide unilaterally about the territories’ future, but was more divided about the possibility or the wisdom of another huge ethnic cleansing after the official end of hostilities. The counter-arguments were clear: a post-war ethnic cleansing could have awakened an otherwise dormant Western conscience. Furthermore, it was also doubtful if the army had the will and mentality to carry it out, as it was unclear whether it had sufficient means to accomplish it. The 1967 government was also a larger forum than the one that devised the 1948 ethnic cleansing. The thirteenth government included quite a few conscientious ministers who would have objected to such a master plan on moral grounds.

Notwithstanding the decision to refrain from mass expulsion, very few members of that government and those that succeeded it objected to the incremental expulsions and dispossession that have reduced significantly the number of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories (nor did they object to the harassment that triggered emigration from Palestine). The fewer the Palestinians, the easier it would be to police them in the new mega-prison that was constructed.

So, ethnic cleansing on a grand scale was ruled out in 1967.

However, the prevailing sense was that the international community would not act against Israel’s land expansion – not as an endorsement of expansionism per se but more as a reflection of an unwillingness to confront it.

But there was one crucial caveat: there could not be a de jure annexation of the territories, only a de facto one.

There were two reasons for this: first, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were regarded by international law as occupied territories, whereas the areas Israel occupied during the operations in 1948 were all recognized by the United Nations as part of the State of Israel. Second, if the population could not be expelled, it could also not be fully integrated as equal citizens of the Jewish State, given their number and potential natural growth that would have.

There was then, and there is now, an Israeli consensus and an overwhelming desire to keep the West Bank and the Gaza Strip for ever, while at the same time there was and still is the two-fold recognition of the undesirability of officially annexing these territories and the inability to expel the population en masse.

And yet keeping these territories, with the population in them, seemed as vital as the need to maintain a decisive Jewish majority in whatever constituted a Jewish State.

Ministers were convinced, as all the ministers after them would be, that they had found the formula that would enable Israel to keep the territories it coveted, without annexing the people it negated, while safeguarding immunity against international condemnation and rebuke.

In fact, they had not discovered anything new. Since 1948 they had faced a similar predicament when they and their predecessors had had to decide how to treat the Palestinian minority inside Israel. They imposed on them a military rule that was only lifted after eighteen years and replaced by a new kind of regime of inspection, control and coercion. With time, this eased somewhat but became more hidden and complex. But by now there were more people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; therefore, while the limited citizenship granted to the Palestinian minority in Israel seemed to tally with the aim of maintaining a decisive Jewish majority in the state, the same would not have been the case had similar citizenship been extended to the people of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Thus, there was a need to keep the territories, not to expel the people in them, but at the same time not to grant them citizenship.

These three parameters or presumptions have remained unchanged to this day.

1. Maintain a decisive Jewish majority in the State of Israel.

2. Keep the Occupied Territories.

3. No granting of citizenship to the Palestinian people in them.

They remain the unholy trinity of the consensual Zionist catechism.

In 1967 the official Israeli navigation between impossible nationalist and colonialist ambitions turned a million and a half people into inmates of a mega-prison. But it was not a prison for a few inmates wrongly or rightly incarcerated: it was imposed on a society as a whole. It was, and still is, a malicious system that was constructed for the vilest of motives.

The open-air prison also became Israel’s peace plan, endorsed by the USA and European countries. This plan formed the basis of diplomatic efforts and the ‘peace process’. In Israel and in the West, a vast laundering of words and a very cooperative media and academic community were essential for maintaining the moral and political validity of the open-air prison option as the best solution for the ‘conflict’ and as an idealized vision of normal and healthy life in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

But this laundering did not cleanse the reality of the situation, and the hyperbole of peace and independence did not deafen the conscientious members of all the societies involved: in the Occupied Territories, in Israel and the outside world. In the age of the internet, an independent press, active civil society and energetic NGOs, it was hard to play the charade of peace and reconciliation on the ground where people were incarcerated in the biggest ever human prison witnessed in modern history.

This book is as much about the officials, academics and bureaucrats as it is about the system they built in June 1967 and that is still maintained today. A second generation is already in place and a third is imminent. Once you cross that generational gap any discourse about temporality or even finality is useless. It becomes a living organism that is very hard to combat or dismantle, hence the understandable desperation in recent years that takes the form of suicide bombs or rocket attacks, neither of which have any hope of persuading Israelis to dismantle this monstrosity.

This book does not seek to demonize Israeli society as a whole, although many of its members support the mega-prison and many others choose to turn a blind eye. It singles out the politicians and academics who in 1967 established the mechanism of the creation of an enclave and imprisonment, as well as the thousands of officials, officers, soldiers and police who ran it. Some who appear in this book are as guilty as those individuals all over the world, and throughout history, who stood by and did nothing about the crimes committed on their behalf, in their name and before their very eyes. These Israelis, who either support or do not object to the oppression, are still hailed in the Western world as champions of peace and humanity, endowed with an endless stream of undeserved prizes and awards.

But that said, there are very few really evil people in modern human history but there are quite a few evil systems. The mega-prison of Palestine is one of them.

The villains of the piece, of this book, are therefore the Israelis who worked out the fine detail of the system to begin with, those who upheld it for all those years and those who ‘perfected’ its operation: namely, its power to abuse, humiliate and destroy. They were and are servants of the bureaucracy of evil. They come quite innocent into the system but only very few among them fail to succumb to its raison d’être, to its modus operandi. As wardens of this largest prison on earth, they are constant abusers, dehumanizers and destroyers of Palestinian rights and lives. Only when the last of them has been discharged from this service will we know that the mega-prison of Palestine has been abolished for ever.

This book is dedicated to those who relentlessly tried to alert decent human beings to the importance of not standing by and watching while millions of people were being treated in such an inhumane and dehumanizing way – just because they were not Jews.


The Biggest Prison on Earth: the History of the Occupied Territories

by Ilan Pappe

Get it on Amazon

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