Military Occupations and their Effects ?>

Military Occupations and their Effects

The Nature of Military Occupation

Military occupations are never tolerated by the occupied. The British Armed Forces were deployed in Northern Ireland in 1969 at the request of the Unionist Government of Northern Ireland. These soldiers were welcomed by the Catholic population of Ireland in response to Protestant riots and terrorism against Catholic marches for civil rights at the time. However, by 1971 the same Catholics, organized as the IRA, were fighting the British in a brutal campaign of terrorism.

From Wikipedia’s article Provisional Irish Republican Army:

the IRA was responsible for 1,768 deaths, about 47% of the total conflict deaths. Of these, 934 (about 52%) were members of the British security forces, while 639 (about 36%) were civilians (including 61 former members of the security forces).

Source: David McKittrick et al. Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women and Children who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Random House, 2006. pp. 1551-55

Military occupations are always brutal. There is no other kind. The United State’s occupation of Iraq has been shockingly brutal. Below are a few anecdotal examples of terror inflicted on civilians by US Marines in military occupied Iraq:

  1. Haditha massacre
  2. Mahmudiyah rape and killings
  3. Mukaradeeb wedding party massacre
  4. Hamdania incident
  5. Ishaqi incident
  6. “…the victims had been taken to the hospital and one of them looked deceased. I asked them [the American soldiers] why they fired into the crowd. Without saying a word, the soldier turned away from me and asked the gathering group of Iraqi men if the “gunman” was shot. No one answered. I interrupted and said that as far as I knew — and I was standing next to the man who was shot — there was no gunman in the crowd. (Four other journalists in the crowd at the time told me later that the only shots fired were from the American soldiers.) Apparently satisfied, the Americans walked away.”

    Reporter Scott Anger reporting for PBS Frontline

More exhaustive lists of these incidents are easy to find but a Human Rights Watch report on the topic Post-war Civilian Deaths in Baghdad caused by US Forces provides numerous “case-studies” and gives a good sense of the scope and regularity of these abuses. From the opening summary:

The individual cases of civilian deaths documented in this report reveal a pattern by U.S. forces of over-aggressive tactics, indiscriminate shooting in residential areas and a quick reliance on lethal force. In some cases, U.S. forces faced a real threat, which gave them the right to respond with force. But that response was sometimes disproportionate to the threat or inadequately targeted, thereby harming civilians or putting them at risk.

In all of these scenarios, U.S. soldiers can be arrogant and abusive. They have been seen putting their feet on detained Iraqis’ heads—a highly insulting offense. Male soldiers sometimes touch or even search female Iraqis, also a culturally unacceptable act.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the British peace-keeping force during Ireland’s Troubles turned deadly as well. From Wikipedia’s article Operation Banner:

The British military was responsible for about 10% of all deaths in the conflict. According to one study, the British military killed 306 people during Operation Banner, 156 (~51%) of whom were unarmed civilians. Another study says the British military killed 301 people, 160 (~53%) of whom were unarmed civilians. Of the civilians killed, 61 were children. Only four soldiers were convicted of murder while on duty in Northern Ireland. All were released after serving two or three years of life sentences and allowed to rejoin the Army. Senior Army officers privately lobbied successive Attorney Generals not to prosecute soldiers, and the Committee on the Administration of Justice says there is evidence soldiers were given some level of immunity from prosecution.

Source: Ulster University’s Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN) (also)

Here are a few reasons I can think of that explain why occupations are so brutal:

  1. Like all terrorism the behavior of only a few “bad actors” is sufficient to thoroughly terrorize a whole population
  2. The Stanford prison experiment highlights the way human beings are inclined to suspend their otherwise sound moral judgments when lording power over other people (see also).
  3. Soldiers are generally young, trained to kill and can be expected to make mistakes when found in a state of unremitting stress, discomfort and fear.

The occupied rebel against their occupiers because occupation feels like state-sponsored terror. Moreover, the tendency for rebellion against power by the powerless seems to me to be a basic characteristic of human nature. “Healthy” human beings do not tolerate systemic abuse, abasement and marginalization and will go to great lengths to achieve self-determination. Terrorism and military occupation go hand-in-hand.

Whether or not an occupation is justified in an entirely different question. A brutal occupation is not necessarily illegitimate or unnecessary. However, the reality of occupation needs to be understood by the general public so that its worst effects can be mitigated and the value gained from occupation can be weighed against its moral and human cost.

The Social Effects of Occupation

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault outlines the emergence of the modern prison system and the “delinquent class” of people that inhabit it. Foucault, like legal scholar Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow and others, shed light on the way large portions of the poor black population in the United States have been systematically criminalized, incarcerated and excluded from the project of social mobility.

What emerges from these analyses is a template through which a superfluous population can be effectively eliminated. Uneven policing and incarceration (for minor drug offenses for example) inculcates an adversarial relationship with authority, surrounds the incarcerated with other criminal aspects of society, tears apart families, creates long-term obstacles for successful education and employment, and brands the incarcerated individual as a felon for the rest of his or her life leaving them vulnerable to other forms of discrimination and social exclusion. The inevitable effect of mass incarceration is more incarceration, more criminality and more violence. The consequences of the US’s “war on crime” policies are dramatic:

“According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.” (source)

The violent crime rate in the mostly black city of Detroit was 21.23 per 1,000 (15,011 violent crimes) in 2012, that same year the virtually all-white city of Grosse Point, Michigan nearby reported a rate of only 1.12 per 1,000 (6 violent crimes) (source).

On the other side of criminalization is a climate of fear and racism of the powerful toward the powerless. Affluent neighborhoods expect local police to patrol and protect them from anyone who might try to enter from a lower-class neighborhood. The constant barrage of local news reports on inner-city violence promote a narrative that the lower class is a dangerous population that must be contained. Before World War II our delinquent class would be called genetically predisposed toward violence, but in a Post-World War II world that same behavior is called a “cultural predisposition.” The racist implications of both sentiments are the same. The project of criminalization produces more segregation, fear and racism toward the criminalized.

The ingredients for criminalizing a population and the creation of a delinquent class are segregation, an adversarial relationship between members of that population and law enforcement, incarceration, dire economic conditions and a general climate of powerlessness. Many or all of these ingredients may be found in military occupations. The Palestinian populations of Gaza and the West Bank for example, are fully excluded from the prosperity enjoyed by their occupiers. Israeli policing and law-enforcement in those areas generates antagonism and continuously underscores the powerlessness of that population. From the International Labor Organization for example:

The Palestinian people continue to suffer under an occupation that has jeopardized the attainment of their basic human rights and human security, as well as any meaningful progress in human development. The economic situation has also been exacerbated by a continued divide between the West Bank and Gaza, stagnating economic growth, persistent fiscal crises, higher unemployment, as well as increased poverty and food insecurity.

Following economic gains primarily attributed to the upsurge in construction activity linked to the tunnel economy in Gaza during the 2008 to 2011 period, gross domestic product (GDP) growth has stagnated. Increased political instability, the absence of any further easing of Israeli-imposed restrictions on economic activity, as well as Israel’s 2012 military operation in Gaza have all contributed to raising the rate of unemployment from 21 per cent in 2011 to 24.5 per cent in 2013. (source)


Young jobseekers face an even more serious challenge as the youth unemployment rate reached almost 40 per cent for young men and 63 per cent for young women in 2014. More than 70 per cent of Palestinians are under 30 years of age and they are facing very serious difficulties in finding a job after completing their education. (source)

Due to an inequitable distribution of water between Israel and the Palestinians territories, Palestinians endure water shortages and rationing. The predictable outcome of these conditions is anger, criminality and violence on the one hand, ghettoization, harsher policing and racism on the other.

On Israel’s Military Occupation

The West Bank was seized by Israel from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, during the Six-Day War in 1967. The West Bank was never annexed by Israel and she maintains a large military presence there to this day. In 2005 Israel withdrew its military from the Gaza Strip. Nevertheless, the United Nations still considers Gaza to be under Israeli military occupation because Israel controls Gaza’s borders, waters and airspace.

The term “occupation” is understandably upsetting to people who are pro-Israel because it implies that Israel doesn’t belong in these places. And indeed, there are some pro-Palestinian voices that fight the occupation from the perspective that Israel does not belong in the region altogether. Nevertheless, “military occupation” is an accurate label for the way Israel restricts the flow of goods in and out of the territories, and policies the movement of people through overcrowded and demeaning security checkpoints. Israel’s anti-terrorism policing in the territories is aggressive, preemptive and violent (from 15:15 in the video, one soldier’s candid testimony). To the world, this is a definitional example of military occupation and we don’t do ourselves any favors by staying oblivious to that fact.

None of this is to say that the Israeli occupation is unjust or unnecessary. There are circumstances when military occupations are legitimate. The standard pro-occupation position is that the occupation is necessary for security reasons, and indeed this is a defensible argument. Moreover, one can argue that the Israeli government has taken steps to end the occupation and these projects proved to be impossible for one reason or another. However, it’s important to understand the implications of occupation so an informed cost-benefit analysis can be made for the short and long-term.

We are obviously distraught by terrorism emanating from the occupied territories, but we shouldn’t be surprised. When we think about Israel’s current policies, it’s critical to recognize that terrorism against Israelis is their inevitable side-effect. No matter how deeply we care about Israel, no matter how intractable the conflict seems, no matter how necessary the military occupation appears to be, we shouldn’t act surprised by:

  1. Racism and anti-Palestinian violence flourish in the settler movement (Duma arson attack, Israeli price tag attacks).
  2. The overwhelming consensus among recent heads of the Shin Bet, (Israel’s Security Agency), is that Israel’s policy in the Palestinian territories is damaging to security of the country and should be reformed (source, documentary on this topic).
  3. Prominent Israeli intellectual Yeshayahu Leibowitz wrote: “Rule over the occupied territories would have social repercussions… A state ruling a hostile population of 1.5 to 2 million foreigners would necessarily become a secret-police state, with all that this implies for education, free speech, and democratic institutions.  The corruption characteristic of every colonial regime would also prevail in the state of Israel.  The administration would have to suppress Arab insurgency on the one hand and acquire Arab Quislings on the other.  There is also good reason to fear that the Israel Defense Force, which has been until now a people’s army, would, as a result of being transformed into an army of occupation, degenerate, and its commanders, who will have become military governors, resemble their colleagues in other nations. Out of concern for the Jewish people and its state we have no choice but to withdraw from the territories and their population of one and a half million Arabs.” (source)
  4. Human Right Watch and other independent human rights organizations incessantly publish reports about horrendous abuses perpetrated by Israeli security forces in the occupied territories, eg: source, source, source.
  5. The whole international community condemns the occupation as unjust and illegal.

The path forward isn’t simple, and at times it’s downright scary. But if we are to achieve a more peaceful and equitable future for the region, it will be through honest and rigorous introspection, an openness to the narrative of others, and the courage to think creatively about the challenges we face.

Amichai Levy is a software developer at Articulate Global, Inc. and a wrestling coach at Westchester Hebrew High School. He blogs about politics at:


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