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Moral cost of occupation for the occupiers

By Daniel Bar-Tal and Izhak Schnell


While many countries moved towards termination of occupation, colonialism, and imperialism, Israel still continues the prolonged occupation of West Bank and part of Golan Heights, and partially controls Gaza Strip. It appears that the prolonged occupation bears harsh moral, social, and psychological consequences, not only for the occupied population, but to the occupying society as well. Prolonged occupation refers not only to a statutory or geographical situation, but also inherently carries with it moral and socio-psychological meanings. It contains violations of shared basic moral principles on three levels: the international level, the societal level, and the individual level.

On the international level, prolonged occupation first violates the self-determination principle, as it replaces former indigenous political institutions with military rule or an imposed puppet government. Self-determination, as a basic moral right, was elaborated by John Stuart Mill, and is currently reemphasized by Michael Walzer, alongside two other closely connected collective rights that are denied during prolonged occupation: the right to independent sovereign rule and the right to territorial integrity. In regards to sovereignty, prolonged occupation negates the possibility that the occupied nation or ethnic group can express its collective right to independent sovereign rule, which represents the maximal expression of the self-determination principle. During prolonged occupation as in the case of the Israeli occupation, the basic principle of territorial integrity is constantly contravened, together with repeated violations of moral code that take place in the form of partial or full annexation of the occupied territory, land confiscations, establishment of settlements for occupants-civilians, oppression and repression of the occupied population, and so on. The establishment of the Jewish settlements and the transfer of parts of the occupant’s civilian population into the occupied territory are not only moral malpractice, but also considered to be a transgression of international law.

In addition, prolonged occupation and the occupier’s previously noted actions may violate various moral principles that are the bases of universal human rights, on the individual and collective levels. The most important of these principles is dignity of human life with special regard to life of noncombatants during occupation. This principle, viewed by many as a superior value, is also considered a basic principle in the ethics of war. A second breached principle is the right of individual and collective freedom and independence, considered by John Rawls as the first principle in the law of peoples. The law of peoples is offered as a moral code, which can be common to all “well-ordered peoples”; that is, both liberal-democratic societies and decent hierarchical societies.

On the societal and state level we can notice global changes that affect moral perceptions and behavior through the growing influences of liberal-democratic ideas and practices, which stress human rights and therefore point to the immoral aspects of prolonged occupation. The multifaceted globalization process has facilitated the dissemination of liberal-democratic moral principles to states and peoples through global trade, open communication, and activities of civil societies. Cultural globalization processes have also enabled liberal-democratic moral values to permeate local traditions, without encountering contestant global power and economic-political doctrine following the collapse of the Communist bloc. As the result these moral standards are considered in the global community as just, progressive, and enlightened. Therefore governments and states often use them in order to justify their existence, to establish popular domestic legitimization, and to construct their epistemic basis for various lines of action. The state of Israel not only uses this rhetoric but also often demands that the international community apply these moral standards to cases that serve its interests (for example in the struggle against anti-Semitism, or when it launched the campaign to free the Jewish peace in the Soviet Union).

Wall between Israeli and Palestinian territories. 11 April 2012. Photo by Dick Elbers. Creative Commons License.

On the individual level, psychological-developmental theories perceive moral principles as resulting from human development and socialization processes. Therefore, the integration of basic moral principles into the social normative system, whether through social or individual developmental processes, may result in their internalization by most society members. When these moral principles are contravened, such as in the case of prolonged occupation, they are likely to inflict psychological hardship on their violators.

During the occupation, the occupying group becomes accustomed to mistreating the occupied population; because of the inevitable generalization mechanism, it is impossible for the occupying society to keep a clear boundary between the two normative codes of behavior, one meant for the occupied and the other for the occupier, and breaches of moral principles infiltrate other domains of the occupying society’s life.

In a prolonged occupation, the direct victim of the recurrent violation of the basic moral principles by the occupier is undoubtedly the occupied society. Its basic rights for individual and collective liberty and independence, as well as for self-determination, territorial integrity, and economic prosperity are greatly deprived. However, paradoxical as it may seem, the consequences and costs of these violations, in spite of and because of the major use of the psychological and social coping mechanisms we noted, do not spare the occupying society. We believe that an examination of the prices of occupation from the occupant’s moral and social point of view may have significant implications for understanding situations of occupation as well as processes that may lead to their termination.

Two propositions illuminate the costs of the occupation for the occupying society:

Proposition 1: During the occupation, the occupying group becomes accustomed to mistreating the occupied population; because of the inevitable generalization mechanism, it is impossible for the occupying society to keep a clear boundary between the two normative codes of behavior, one meant for the occupied and the other for the occupier, and breaches of moral principles infiltrate other domains of the occupying society’s life.

Proposition 2: The prolonged and recurrent usage of socio-psychological coping mechanisms diminishes the sensitivity to breaches of moral values, and desensitizes the moral constraints of the occupying society.

We suggest thus that the Israeli society being an occupying society and its members are inevitably committing grave and different violations of basic moral principles, and have to cope with the dilemmas and dissonance that their acts are creating. These dilemmas are further intensified by global processes of international codification of moral basics, as well as growing acceptance (reluctantly or willingly) of liberal-democratic moral values by governments and their permeation into local traditions. The usage of psychological coping mechanisms, as well as the development of a system of societal beliefs that justify the occupation, allow the occupying society to continue its misdeeds, but don’t enable it to escape significant costs. These immoral acts and their justifications severely impair the social and moral fabric of the occupying society.

Daniel Bar-Tal and Izhak Schnell are the editors of The Impacts of Lasting Occupation: Lessons from Israeli Society (Oxford University Press). Daniel Bar-Tal is Branco Weiss Professor of Research in Child Development and Education in the School of Education at Tel Aviv University. His research in political and social psychology focuses on the socio-psychological foundations of intractable conflicts and peacemaking. Izhak Schnell is Professor in the Department of Geography and Human Environment at Tel Aviv University. His work focuses on understanding the transitions caused by Arab urbanization, as well as Arab industrial entrepreneurship.

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