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Elia Zureik
Sat, 01/01/2011


Israel’s Occupation, by Neve Gordon.

Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2008. xix + 225 pages. Appendices to p. 231. Notes to p. 290. Index to p. 318. $55.00 cloth; $21.95 paper.



Reviewed by Elia Zureik

The strength of Israel’s Occupation, Neve Gordon’s new book, is not so much in revealing new data and facts—these are fairly known to students of the Palestine-Israel conflict. Rather, it is in using sophisticated analytical tools to track the changes in repressive Israeli occupation policies, and in highlighting the contradictions that ensue from such policies. The thrust of Gordon’s argument is that Israel’s colonization paradigm rests on devising ways to permanently, if gradually, alienate the Palestinian population from its land.


The book is divided into nine chapters covering five periods: the Israeli military government in the occupied territories (1967–80); the civil administration (1981–87); the first intifada (1987–93); the Oslo era (1994–2000); and the second intifada (2000–present). The first eight chapters cover the background up to the first intifada, the political and economic repercussions of the Oslo accords, and the changes in Israel’s control tactics in the West Bank and Gaza since 1967. The ninth chapter is devoted to the second intifada.


Inspired by Michel Foucault’s work, Gordon relies on a theoretical framework drawn from surveillance studies to outline three forms of control used by Israel to achieve its objective of alienating Palestinians from their land: disciplinary power, biopower, and sovereign power. These are not mutually exclusive means of control, although they signify different modes of the colonization process, and they can be utilized in tandem subject to specific configurations to suit changing patterns of control.


Israel initially resorted to disciplinary measures aimed at normalizing the occupation by making sure, through economic incentives, that individual Palestinians internalized codes of behavior and attitudes acceptable to Israel. At the outset, the occupying power aimed at controlling Palestinians through minimal, direct intervention in their daily lives. It allowed Palestinian labor to enter Israel for employment, with the goal of allowing some flow of revenue to

the Palestinian population. The idea was to improve the Palestinian standard of living in order to neutralize resistance. In the absence of genuine economic development in the occupied territories, however, Israel’s

policy created economic dependency. The outbreak of the first intifada demonstrated clearly that truncated economic development and attempts at normalization of occupation through disciplinary measures had not produced the intended effects.


Israel augmented its controlling techniques by using “biopower,” the application of bureaucratic and statistical techniques to managing a population. Here is how Gordon describes it:


In order to administer the population, biopower uses statistical devices and scientific methods as well as mechanisms of surveillance. It measures and

intervenes in a set of processes relating to mortality rate, longevity, the fertility of the population, hygiene, vaccination, prevalent illnesses in a population, birth rates, unemployment rates, and the distribution of labour in terms of gender, and sectors of occupation, per capita income and so on. (p. 12)


It is important to note that these tools of population management are used by all modern states to monitor the wellbeing of their populations and to incorporate their citizens into the state. In the case of the Israeli occupation, Gordon points out, biopower’s purpose is to control and manipulate the indigenous population to further Israel’s colonial objectives. As Palestinian opposition to Israeli rule increased, disciplinary measures and biopower were further supplemented by sovereign power, which involved direct intervention in the lives of Palestinians through

the imposition of a mobility regime (permits, checkpoints, and closures) and a legal regime (based on military edicts—some 2,500 orders in all) that demarcated in minute detail the permissible boundaries of conduct in all spheres of life. The upshot of this implementation of sovereign power is that, in the name of security, Israel has unilaterally used force to destroy Palestinian homes, confiscate land, engage in extrajudicial killings, mount large-scale military incursions in civilian areas, and make extensive use of collaborators and a domestic spy apparatus to collect information about Palestinians. Under these conditions, and in conjunction with the erection of the separation

barrier, the Green Line separating Israel from the occupied territories has all but disappeared.


Gordon reserves special critical assessment for the Oslo accords. He points out that the Palestinian per capita GNP plummeted by 37 percent in the years after 1993, when the PLO signed the agreement with Israel, and highlights the exponential increase in Zionist settlements following Oslo. This in itself, Gordon says, exposes the contradictions in Israel’s colonization policies: By increasing the number of settlements on Palestinian lands, Israel in effect has put an end to the idea of a sovereign, viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.


Unless Israel has plans to transfer the Palestinian population across the borders, which Gordon and others see as unfeasible, the two state idea is doomed to failure. Increasingly, unofficial discussion now focuses on the one state solution, wherein Palestinians and Jews would share equal status as citizens. It is this very idea, however, that Zionism will never accept.


As a result of the terms of the Oslo accords, the Palestinian Authority has become unwitting proxy for Israel in terms of exercising disciplinary power over its population. This form of “outsourcing” by “remote control” has allowed Israel to soften its image as an occupying power, and thus to abdicate its responsibility for meeting the minimum needs of the population. It has continued to be the only sovereign power in the territories with control of people, land, water,

and air—without being accountable for its actions. The culmination of this escalation in tactics is evident in Israel’s latest invasion of Gaza at the start of 2009 and the destruction it is heaping on the population and the infrastructure of the territory.


The Israeli license to kill Palestinians at will could not have been exercised without the total endorsement of the American administration during the last eight years. Here I find Gordon’s analysis wanting. Could Israel have acted with such impunity and disregard to international and humanitarian law if a balanced American policy to the Middle East was in place? I think not. The book could have analyzed, even if briefly, the way Israel has skillfully seized upon

the events of 11 September 2001 to legitimize its role as an oppressor of Palestinians under the umbrella of global war on terror.