Roads not taken and the danger of occupation: a warning from Algeria to Israel

Occupying powers never win in the end

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Nobel awardee Albert Camus is justly regarded as one of the most perceptive writers of the 20th century. In his novels, essays and plays, he espoused the view that men must recognize their limits but work within them to improve the world. In that spirit he actively opposed the Nazis in occupied France by editing and writing for COMBAT, the journal of the Resistance. He equally opposed French colonialism, within the limits of the possible, in his native Algeria. His humanistic views are succinctly summed up in the title of his remarkable book, "Neither Victims Nor Executioners."

Harvard University's Belknap Press has just published Camus' "Algerian Chronicles" in translation. Here the author discusses the French presence in Algeria and warns of the dire consequences that would follow (and indeed did follow) France's colonial rule of that country.

Just as France seeded its demise in French Indo-China (Vietnam) by robbing the country of its rubber for decades while ruthlessly governing by proxy and otherwise, so would similar policies in Algeria presage its fate there. Influenced strongly by the well-funded French colonizers in Algeria and backing them militarily, French forces killed more than 1 million Algerians before withdrawing -- a withdrawal that Charles DeGaulle foresaw and did not or would not oppose.

In some ways the Algerian example parallels what could happen with the Israeli-Palestinan situation. Comparisons have been made between the former apartheid system in South Africa and Israeli policies toward the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, and by degrees to Palestinians within Israel. But comparing the effects with what was created by similar French practices in Algeria might be more apt.

Israeli policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians generally reflect the preferences of the hard-line settler movement in the West Bank. Like the French colonizers in Algeria, these settlers are well-funded, politically powerful, armed and largely contemptuous of Palestinian rights. This is regarded as unhelpful toward a resolution of the conflict not only in the United Nations, but also in numerous other quarters, including among Jewish Voices for Peace, J Street, Rabbis for Human Rights (1,200 strong), as well as among many individuals in Israel and the United States, such as Uri Avinery, Vivian Gornick, Gideon Levy, Norman Finklestein, Sarah Roy, Tony Kushner, Noam Chomsky and the late Tony Judt.

At the start of his first term, even President Barack Obama in his Cairo address said the settlements on the West Bank and flanking Jerusalem were illegal and a barrier to a two-state solution. He has not repeated this since, which, for a Nobel Peace laureate and former professor of constitutional law seems curious, inconsistent, craven or all three.

The construction of a separation wall (with the forced acquisition of Palestinian land to do so) plus the cantonization of the West Bank, with the creation of hundreds of checkpoints that make travel for Palestinians difficult or impossible, are widely regarded as fatal to a two-state peace agreement. And any solution but the creation of two separate states has been ruled out by large majorities of Israelis and Palestinians.

Meanwhile, the shooting of rockets from Gaza and rock-throwing in the West Bank and other acts of resistance are countered by the use of stun guns, tear gas, rubber bullets and sometimes lethal fire, which in turn creates reprisals, sometimes by suicide bombers, and so on. Innocent people on both sides lose their lives.

In a four-year period after the turn of the century, for example, 61 pregnant women in labor were stopped at Israeli checkpoints en route to hospitals. These women gave birth at the checkpoints, and 36 of their infants died, according to investigations by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch. One woman's husband, it was reported, was shot in the neck while assisting her. He died. The baby survived. The young mother went mad. Later, a retaliatory suicide bomber detonated an explosive on an Israeli bus, killing more than 30 innocent people.

(Pamela Olson's "Fast Times in Palestine" provides further data on non-combat deaths in both camps. Her account is impartial and well documented.)

The political atmosphere in the West Bank (not to mention Gaza) grows more ominous by the day, and all opportunities for solution seem doomed by mistrust and by the unwillingness of the United States to fully exert its influence. Far-sighted leaders like the assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin are long gone, and the most trusted Palestinian leaders are in prison.

It is at this time that Camus' words have special relevance. "No historical situation is ever permanent. If you are unwilling to change quickly enough, you lose control of the situation."

In one of his last speeches President John F. Kennedy stated that the problems created by men can be solved by men. True enough, but only if the men are willing.

The solution to the Palestine-Israeli problem has been apparent for years, to paraphrase a statement by Sen. John F. Kerry before he was named secretary of state. It is a two-state solution.

Eternal occupation, as history has proved, is an eternal sentence to hatred and conflict. Occupation -- with its curfews, 24-hour surveillance, with its search and seizure and detention at any time and its constant threat of violence -- did not last in British-occupied Ireland and India; Nazi-occupied France, Holland, Belgium or Norway; Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe; French-occupied Algeria; in the U.S. crusade to "Vietnamize the Vietnamese" or in the more recent "Operation Iraqi Freedom."

People throughout the world hunger for sovereignty. They "aspire to political rights," as Camus put it regarding Algeria, " ... to set themselves on the road to social progress."

The only people who would deny those rights are those who come to believe through religious or nationalist extremism that certain other people are born to subservience. History and the human spirit have eventually and always proved them wrong.


Samuel Hazo is McAnulty Distinguished Professor of English emeritus at Duquesne University and director of the International Poetry Forum ( His most recent book is "Like a Man Gone Mad: Poems in a New Century."


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