Democratic occupation

April 11, 2005|By Neve Gordon

ISRAEL IS THE key to understanding President Bush's strategy in Iraq. Not because it had any influence over the decision-making process leading to the Iraq war, but because the Bush administration has adopted the democratic occupation model that Israel introduced in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

After the eruption of the first Palestinian intifada in December 1987, Israel had to deploy a relatively large number of troops aided by tanks and armored vehicles to sustain the occupation - exactly as the United States is now doing in Iraq.

This transformed the Israeli occupation from an economically profitable enterprise into a financial liability, leading Israel to come up with the ingenious idea of outsourcing the responsibility for the population while continuing to control the natural resources - in this case, land and water.

After a series of negotiations, the Palestinian Authority was established - an entity that willingly took on the role of managing the daily lives of the inhabitants in the occupied territories while Israel maintained control of more than 80 percent of the land.

Within months, the civil institutions needed to administer populations in modern societies - chiefly education, health and welfare - were passed from Israel to the hands of the fledgling PA, which was also given some limited form of sovereignty. Thus, without renouncing its right to rule the West Bank and Gaza, Israel transferred responsibility for the residents to a subcontractor of sorts - the PA - and in this way dramatically reduced the cost of the occupation.

The elections that were held in the occupied territories in January 1996 were crucial for bestowing upon the PA a degree of legitimacy. To be sure, the PA did not end up executing all of Israel's wishes, and in many ways it became a recalcitrant entity. But this has little to do with Israel's initial objectives.

Israel's occupation is crucial for understanding Iraq for two essential reasons.

First, like Israel, the United States has made a distinction between the occupied inhabitants and their resources. The Bush administration's idea is to allow the Iraqis to manage themselves and in this way to cut the cost of the occupation while at the same time continuing to control the rich oil fields. The important question now is which U.S. corporations will profit most from the expected 200 percent increase in Iraqi oil production - from 2.1 million to 6 million barrels a day.

Second, whereas Israel was certainly not the first country to stage elections in an occupied context, it was the first power to reintroduce this practice in a post-colonial age so as to legitimize an ongoing occupation. The Bush administration found this strategy useful because it fits extremely well with the narrative about "spreading freedom" to the Middle East.

Since one cannot promote freedom and install a puppet government at the same time, Mr. Bush was adamant about holding elections. The crux of the matter is that the goal of these elections is not to transfer power and authority to the Iraqi people, but rather to legitimize ongoing U.S. control in the region.

Therefore, the current debate among liberals about whether the elections in Iraq followed the minimum procedures informing a fair democratic process is actually beside the point. Even if Jimmy Carter had approved the elections, the Iraqis would still have no say, for example, about the deployment of foreign troops in their country.

When all is said and done, the new democratic government in Iraq is being created to manage the local population so that the occupying power's economic elite can enjoy the spoils.

Neve Gordon teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University in Israel and is currently a visiting scholar at the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the editor of From the Margins of Globalization: Critical Perspectives on Human Rights.

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