Palestinians, beset by calamities at every turn, have all but ceased to think about their indeterminate prospects for independence and freedom. This dismal state of affairs suits Israel's newly reelected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fine. His opposition to a sovereign Palestinian state, broadcast in word and deed, leaves little room for doubt.
The bar has been set so low that all concerned are searching for any shred of evidence that merely hints at better times for Palestinians, who have now lived under Israeli rule for almost a half century.
The moderation of Israel's occupation policies evidenced in some recent policy changes, however welcome, does not herald a material change in Israeli policy, or even a return to the "benevolent occupation" of the first decades of Israeli rule. In fact, the opposite is closer to the mark.
The policy modifications represent instead Israel’s dynamic, tactical flexibility as it uses the trappings of a kinder and gentler occupation to continue its single-minded pursuit of territorial expansion. For decades, through just this type of agile fine-tuning of occupation policy, Israeli leaders have successfully frustrated efforts by Palestinians—via diplomacy, terror, nonviolence, or war—to end the occupation.
Consider the following:
- 90 members of the Palestinian security forces and police have been permitted by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Central Command to set up shop in Abu Dis, al-Ram, and Biddu—Palestinian villages abutting Jerusalem that are nominally under joint security control (Area B) but from which Palestinian forces are usually banned.The IDF statement announcing Israel's decision to permit the opening of fixed police stations noted that the move is a response to "security chaos" and criminality resulting from the absence of a sustained police presence in these border areas, where neither Israeli police nor those of the Palestinian Authority (PA) operate regularly. The deployments are meant "to address criminal matters as well as to maintain public order for the Palestinian population." "We are doing what we can to release the pressure without exploding any political land mines," explained a Western security official.
- Israel recently announced that more than 100 doctors living in the Bethlehem and Hebron regions south of Jerusalem will be able to drive their own vehicles, displaying PA license plates, to Jerusalem, where many of them work. Such traffic has been banned since the outbreak of the second intifada 15 years ago. Israel's coordinator of government activities in the administered territories (COGAT) noted that these relaxed rules will also be extended to apply to Palestinian businesspeople. This policy shift comes in the wake of the announcement that men over the age of 55 and women over 50 residing in the West Bank will now be able to enter Jerusalem without permits. In addition, eligibility for work permits enabling entry to Israel from the West Bank has been eased to include married men over 22. Previously only married men over 24 who had children were eligible.
- For the first time since Hamas ousted the PA from the Gaza Strip in June 2007, Israel has permitted the export of Gaza agricultural produce to the Israeli market. Earlier this month, some 27 tons of tomatoes and five tons of eggplants were cleared to leave Gaza for Israel, according to Palestinian officials and Gaza merchants. Additional vegetables will be marketed along with the tomatoes and eggplants. Israeli officials expect to permit 1,500 tons of Gaza produce to be exported to Israel monthly, at a price of about $770/ton. "Exporting to Israel is better, but insufficient," said Gaza merchant Hosni Shehada to an AP reporter.
Netanyahu's latest efforts to ease restrictions do not begin to equal the defining elements of what the New York Times long ago described as Israel's "benevolent occupation."
Palestinians can be forgiven their longing for what Raymonda Tawil described to me in 2002 without irony as the "golden years of occupation" in the decades before the first intifada in 1987. Tawil is best remembered as the outspoken journalist whose 1979 memoir, My Home, My Prison, depicted the occupation as unbearable—thus offering an eloquent challenge to the myth of a far more benevolent occupation than the one now being endured.
Sitting one night in a deserted Gaza restaurant, famed for its seaside weddings featuring bride and groom posed against a glittering Mediterranean background, Raymonda recalled a lost world—one in which movement between the West Bank and all of Israel was free and unimpeded; in which Palestinians could work and travel in their own vehicles; and in which, instead of the monstrous checkpoint at Erez, not even a sign marked the border between Gaza and Israel.
And yet none of Israel's recent actions challenge the two interlocking foundations of Israeli occupation policy since June 1967: strategic security control over the entire area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and untrammeled settlement throughout the area, defined since the Oslo Accords of 1993 as Area C, comprising 61 percent of the West Bank. Outgoing EU representative John Gatt-Rutter recently acknowledged the obvious when he noted that "without this area, the two state solution—that we have invested in for years—will be impossible."
Further, measures aimed at "reducing the pressure" upon Palestinians that fall well short of "exploding political landmines" fit seamlessly with Netanyahu’s opposition to an independent Palestine in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The choice between a “benevolent” occupation and the penury that draconian Israeli restrictions impose on Palestinians today is a false one. Recent Israeli actions may signify a slightly new and improved occupation, but it nonetheless remains—and has always been—an occupation. One more Palestinian police station, easier access for some Palestinians to Jerusalem, and a few more vegetables from Gaza gracing Israeli tables may be reason for some feeble cheer. But these steps betray nothing positive about Israel's intentions, which remain opposed to authentic Palestinian sovereignty and committed to territorial expansion at Palestinian expense.
 Off the record interview with the author, April 2015.