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Date posted: June 23, 2004
By Geoffrey Aronson

The idea of one nation "occupying" another is of contemporary vintage. Most of world history has concerned itself with victory by one country or tribe over another and the loser's expulsion or assimilation. The French attempted to maintain this age-old tradition well into the 20th century, most notably in Algeria, as did the Nazis in Austria.

However, already in the 19th century, Britain's conquest of countries like Egypt and India lead to a hybrid colonial administration aimed at the exploitation and control of subject peoples and loss of their economic and military sovereignty, but that stopped well short of their outright removal.

In the Middle East today we have two occupations - in Palestine and Iraq - both of which originated in failed British colonial experiences. Both also were born in blood and treasure - in the former instance a battle for land, in the latter a less tangible if no less real will to power.

Earlier this month, Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip turned 37 years old. Because of its aspiration to permanently control the territory it conquered and the political fate of the Palestinians who reside in it, Israel, until its recent decision to withdraw from Gaza, had rejected the definition of its role as that of an occupying power. In this vital respect, Israel's intentions in the West Bank resemble the dominant pre-modern policy of disinheritance and politicide.

The US, too, has been reluctant to formally assume the mantle of occupier in Iraq, not because Washington covets Iraqi land or resources, but because the idea of occupation threatens to break the self-induced spell under which America's conquest has been championed as disinterested liberation. President George W. Bush declared with bravado that the US was prepared to remain in Iraq for "as long as the job takes, and not a day longer," when in fact the American people neither desire nor understand the burdens or goals accompanying the occupation.

Israel's military, after its spectacular victory in the June 1967 war, has labored for decades to give politicians the freedom to realize Israel's rule over Palestinians throughout the "Land of Israel." During this time, Israel has shown great flexibility in its desire to find Palestinian partners prepared to acknowledge Israel's power to control their fate. It has devoted tremendous energy and skill to developing political initiatives where it (unsuccessfully) dealt, in turn, with pro-Hashemite notables, young pro-Fatah politicians, local quislings and nationalists from the Palestinian Liberation Organization, to pacify the local population so that it could enjoy the benefits of conquest without its burdens.

Israel has built bridges and destroyed them, knocked down walls and rebuilt them, encouraged Palestinians to work in Israel and then impeded them. In short, Israel has tried almost everything - the Islamists await their moment - to turn occupation into a permanent "fact on the ground." Yet despite the time and effort, Israel's occupation today is more costly, for everyone, and more divisive than ever.

In Iraq, the decisive US military victory over the forces of Saddam Hussein will long be remembered. The management of its aftermath is also a textbook lesson - in how the seductive fruits of military victory were squandered by politicians and administrators armed with an exaggerated and unwarranted sense of their own capabilities. The US occupation has jumped from illusion to illusion, as if one arrest or agreement patiently negotiated held the key to winning Iraqi "hearts and minds." Washington's policy of picking winners in Iraq has been characterized by a failure so complete that after merely one year of occupation, and long before the job is done, Washington is anxious to place the burden of administering, if not ruling, the country on the shoulders of others. Its favorite local allies, smelling retreat, have abandoned the US as a vehicle for their own power.

Just one year after an unprecedented military victory, Washington's occupation is more costly, for everyone, and more divisive than ever.

Today, at the dawn of the 21st century, the American army of occupation has been "transformed" into fighting a rebellion inspired by the imagery and tools of the 19th. American generals say they have no desire to rule Iraq, but merely wish to enable Iraqis to rule themselves. Yet for as long as the 130,000-strong US force remains the preeminent military power in Iraq, the American presence will fuel the very rebellion it seeks to pacify and antagonize the Iraqis it seeks to befriend.

After almost four decades, Israel now wants to withdraw its forces in order to end the occupation of Gaza - if not the West Bank, where the old rules still apply. It has despaired of creating or recognizing Palestinian partners and intends to exercise strategic control over Gaza from afar. Yet for a Palestine to be sovereign, it must control the borders of Gaza. And for Israel's occupation to end, Gaza is not enough.

Israel must also withdraw from the West Bank.

The US desires to end its status as an occupying power in Iraq, and to restore sovereignty there in order to maintain its forces in the country. Even as it disengages politically, the US is escalating militarily, amid unambiguous warnings that the battle will intensify in the coming months. Local commanders, to their credit, seeing virtue in necessity, are in the process of withdrawing from major Iraqi cities.

One simple truth, however, is known to every Iraqi old enough to pass through an American-manned checkpoint:

The occupation will end only when US military patrols cease, checkpoints are dismantled and garrisons emptied of American boys and girls from Omaha and Peoria.

Anything less than that is simply an attempt to pretend that a donkey is a thoroughbred.

Geoffrey Aronson is director of research and publications at the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington.

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