We here in Washington DC currently have a front-seat view of how a country undertakes the ending of the military occupation by its ground forces of another country’s territory.
Today, Iraq’s elected PM Nuri al-Maliki will be meeting with Pres. Obama in the White House. Top on the agenda of their talks will doubtless be continuing disagreements over the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement (SOFA) that the two governments concluded last November, which mandates a complete withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq by the end of 2011.
Yes, there have been some disagreements between the two governments over how the WA will be implemented. But seeing how the US is now in the process of pulling its troops out of Iraq over the next 30 months can inform us a lot about some of the issues involved in ending Israel’s continuing military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan.
Over the past 20 years, we’ve actually seen a lot of military occupations being brought to an end. This is not rocket science. Here’s what we now know:
1. An occupation can end as a result of an agreement negotiated between the occupying power and a “sufficiently legitimate” governing authority representing the occupied area’s indigenous residents; or the occupying power can attempt a unilateral, essentially un-negotiated withdrawal. A third alternative: Of course, occupations can also be ended– as the German occupations of European countries, the Japanese occupations of Asian countries, and Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait all were– by the direct application of military force.
2. Examples of the second (unilateral) kind of withdrawal include the US’s withdrawal from the portions of southern Iraq it occupied in the course of the 1991 Gulf War, and Israel’s 2000 withdrawal from just about all of southern Lebanon. The Us withdrawal from Iraq occurred in the context of a ceasefire agreement the two governments hastily concluded; but that agreement did not end the overall state of hostilities between Saddam’s government and the US.
3. Unilateral withdrawals, because they do not end the state of hostilities between the parties, merely rearrange the furniture for the continued pursuit of those hostilities.
4. The “withdrawal” from Gaza that the Israeli government claims it undertook in 2005 did not, actually, end Israel’s formal status under international as the occupying power in Gaza, since Israel retained its control over all Gaza’s contact points with the outside world and over Gaza’s air-space; it also retained the “right” under international law to send its troops back into Gaza whenever it wished.
If Israel had not still been seen, under international law, as the occupying power in Gaza, last December’s massive Israeli assault against the Strip including the large-scale incursion of Israeli troops into it would of course have been seen as an international aggression, triggering the intervention of the UN Security Council under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. That did not happen, because Gaza is still under the same Israeli military occupation that it has been continuously since 1967. What happened in 2005 was not the ending of Gaza’s occupation, but a rearranging of the way Israel organized it.
5. If the occupying power occupies just part of the land of another country, then there would usually still be a government operational in the unoccupied part of that country, with which the occupying power can negotiate the terms of a ceasefire or of a conflict termination that involves withdrawal of its forces out of the occupied territory completely. That was the case with the US’s occupation of a small part of Iraq in 1991, and is the case with Israel’s occupation of a small part of Syria today– and it was the case with Israel’s occupation of part of Egypt, 1967-79.
6. Under all circumstances, the basic principle of international law that asserts the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force remains in application. (If it didn’t, the whole world would be a jungle and we could not even conceive of something like “international law.”) However, occupying powers do sometimes have the political weight and ability to impose terms on the conditions of their withdrawal, including in such arenas as demilitarization and security regimes; preferential access to economic goods; etc. Typically, they would win these terms by getting them written into the final peace agreement that also mandates the withdrawal of their forces.
7. Who gets what in a peace agreement is a result of the classic three balances in (realist) international relations: the balance of forces between the parties, the balance of interests, and balance of wills.
8. In the context of the now-underway US withdrawal from Iraq, the balance of (purely military) forces is clearly in the US’s favor; but the balance of interests and the balance of wills are not. Regarding wills, Iraqis clearly want the US forces out much more strongly than the US wants its forces to stay in Iraq. Regarding the balance of interests, why, Dick Cheney and his pals in the oil industry would surely love to have the US controlling Iraq’s wellheads in classic colonial fashion; but most Americans– including most members of the military leadership and the political elite– don’t see it as being in our country’s interest to stay there.
9. The Iraqi political leadership (that emerged, remember, from a US-organized election in December 2005) may have many failings and internal fissures. But the elected parliamentarians did stick together strongly enough to insist that the WA mandate the complete withdrawal of US troops– and by a date certain.
10. It is taking some members of the US political elite both inside and outside the government some time to adjust to the reality that the US was not able simply to dictate the terms of the with withdrawal from Iraq. Today’s WaPo story about Maliki’s visit to Washington has this hilariously revealing headline: Specter of Give-and-Take Looms Over Maliki’s Visit.
Excuse me? Since when did “give-and-take” in the context of a negotiation between different countries constitute a “specter”?
The way the writers characterize the US’s position in the continuing discussion the two governments are having over implementation of the WA is also pretty amusing:
- the Obama administration wants Baghdad to stop the sectarian disagreements that continue to impede economic and political progress, show a little more public respect for U.S. sacrifices on its behalf and start behaving like a normal, oil-rich democracy.
Okay. If the Obama administration wants the first of those things, why send VP Joe Biden to Baghdad to start talking about Iraqi politics in purely sectarian terms, as he did two weeks ago? Then second, “show[ing] a little more public respect for U.S. sacrifices on its behalf”? Um, how about the US start showing a little more respect and acknowledgment of the fate of the millions of Iraqis who were very badly harmed indeed by the US invasion and occupation of their country. And thirdly, how “a normal, oil-rich democracy” might behave is anyone’s guess. Well, there’s Venezuela; there’s Norway… Um, which of these would the folks in the Obama administration want to see Baghdad start emulating?
11. In contrast to #5 above, it is obviously also the case that sometimes a military occupation involves the takeover of the entirety of a country. So there is no immediately available center of indigenous political authority that the occupying power can negotiate its withdrawal with. This creates a situation that is very familiar indeed from the annals of the waves of decolonization that swept Asia and Africa between the 1940s and the 1960s: The decolonizing power needs to find a (preferably negotiated) way to exit the colonized country but it may already have spent decades trying to crush, exterminate, and divide any independence movements that have arisen among the indigenes; so when the demands of decolonization become urgent it was sometimes hard to find an indigenous leadership to negotiate with and hand over to. In nearly all cases, however, it did involve negotiating with nationalist leaders whom previously the colonial power had excoriated and hounded as “terrorists”, or worse.
12. In the case of Iraq, the US was “lucky” that the harshness of Saddam’s internal rule meant that many sectors of Iraqi society were happy to see him go and to give a degree of cooperation to the US project of toppling him. But very few portions of Iraq’s indigenous society (that is, excluding many of the
carpet-bagging exiles who flocked back to Iraq after 2003) wanted to see the US stay for very long; and they certainly did not support the project the Bush administration pursued for so many years of radically decentralizing their country’s governance and splitting it up into a collection of ethnic and sectarian statelets. Only in the Kurdish community– which accounts for roughly 6.5 million of the country’s 30 million people– was there any significant support for this decentralization scheme. And yes, among Kurdish Iraqis, this support has been very strong indeed.
13. In Iraq, a national leadership did emerge, through processes of constitution-writing and serial electing that were nearly entirely designed by the American occupiers, that has been able to a significant degree to “represent” the will of the people, even though it hasn’t done very well on delivering actual– often very vital– public services to them. But there has been a real politics inside Iraq, as there has between the Iraqi government and the US occupiers. (That “give-and-take” that the WaPo’s headline writers seem to find so disturbing.) The US authorities have continued, intermittently, to try to stir the pot of sectarian and ethnic division and apportionment (muhasasa). But despite many extremely sharp manifestations of (especially) sectarian hatred and conflict in the country, Iraqis have been able to pull themselves out of the situation of extreme sectarian breakdown and terror that they lived through in 2005-2006; and that is a real achievement.
I would argue that it is now (as always) strongly in the interests of the US citizenry that we encourage the continued consolidation of a central Iraqi government that represents and serves all its people. Cooperating fully with the Baghdad government in implementing the terms of the November 2008 WA is one way Washington can help to do this.
14. The situation in occupied Palestine is in some ways very similar to that in Iraq, and in some ways very different. It is similar in that the whole of occupied Palestine got occupied in 1967; so there, as in Iraq, there is the question of how a sufficiently legitimate leadership of the “occupied” people can be identified so it can be negotiated with. It is different, though in a number of key ways. Most crucially, the US public and most of the political elite never really wanted the US to stay in Iraq forever. One crucial indicator of this: Though the US brought in hundreds of thousands of migrant workers on short-term contracts, it never even considered implanting a population of permanent US settlers into Iraq.
Within Israel, by contrast, though a majority of Jewish Israelis still tell pollsters they want some form of a two-state outcome with the Palestinians, the various administrative arms of the government have been set up since at least the time of the first Likud government in 1977 precisely to implant a large enough body of settlers into the West Bank that pulling them out from it would then be impossible.
15. Therefore, if you can say that in the US-Iraq situation, at the level of the “balance of wills”, the will of Iraqis to have us withdraw is thousands of times stronger than the will of Americans to stay– in the Israeli-Palestinian situation, the will of Palestinians to have the Israelis withdraw may be every bit as strong as Iraqis’ desire for national liberation, but Jewish Israelis, as a collective, also have a very strong desire to stay.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have been so much easier to resolve– on the basis of a full land-for-peace exchange– if this had been done before 1977. Including, for example, if there had been a big US-international push to do so, coming out of the December 1973 Geneva peace conference. Since 1977, it has gotten harder every year, because the settlement-supporting arms of the Israeli government have been energetically in operation ever since then, regardless of which of the parties was in power in the Knesset.
16. Because Israel has never been able to muster the same kind of “desire/will to withdraw” that we have seen becoming increasingly stronger– regarding Iraq– in the US over the past three years, Israeli governments have proceeded with their longstanding attempts to continue to prevent the emergence of any even potentially legitimate Palestinian leadership. Every Palestinian leadership that emerges is excoriated and dismissed by Israel’s leaders either because it is too hard-line (“and therefore we can’t even think of sitting down to talk with such people!”), as in the case of Hamas; or because it is too compliant with Israeli wishes (“and therefore too weak among Palestinians to be able to deliver on any agreement”), as in the case of Abu Mazen; or on a muddled concatenation of both reasons, as in the case of Yasser Arafat.
The Israelis have also continued with their heinous and often violent campaigns of divide-and-rule among the Palestinians, including by working with the Americans to arm and train the “Contras” type force of Hamas-hunters among the PA’s forces.
At the insistence of Washington– and in line, as it also happens, with the requirements of the Oslo process– Israel did allow a brief experiment with elections as a way of generating legitimacy for the kind of Palestinian leadership that some Israeli politicians felt they could deal with. Well, we know how that went.
17. The contrast between the US’s relatively successful use of elections to generate an “interlocuteur valable” in Iraq and Israel’s almost rabid response to the interlocutor that emerged from the Palestinian elections of 2006 is really a very strong indicator of the contrast between the two occupying powers regarding their “desire to withdraw.” In the Iraqi elections of 2005, the US occupation authorities really did not want Daawa/Maliki to win… and they worked for a number of months to find a way to install a PM from “their” preferred party, SCIRI/ISCI. But at the end of the day, they went along with Maliki (as a compromise candidate.) And it has more or less worked out.
After the Palestinian elections of just one months later, the leaders of the victorious Hamas movement made clear from the very beginning that they would be happy to allow Abu Mazen to be the person doing the negotiating a two-state-based outcome with Israel– provided that any peace deal that resulted be submitted to a full referendum of the Palestinians. But the Israeli government showed its deep desire not to withdraw from the OPTs by rejecting that offer out of hand.
18. So Israel’s extremely damaging occupation of the West Bank and Gaza continues; and it doesn’t look as though it will be ending any time soon. But military occupations of other people’s land do have to be brought to an end. There is no provision at all under international law under which they can be continued forever. Indeed under international law, they are viewed as quintessentially a temporary phenomenon.
A belligerent military occupation (to give it its technical name) is what happens when, during the course of a war, the ground forces of one army find themselves occupying some or all of the terrain of another country. The occupation itself confers no rights whatsoever of permanent sovereignty over the land occupied. And given the very real danger that military rule anywhere– but most especially , military rule over people who not the compatriots of the military– can be very abusive to the civilians who fall under it, ever since the Hague Conventions of 1907, the civilian residents of land under military protection have been afforded particular protections under the Laws of War. Those protections were strengthened in the fourth of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.
19. As for the responsibilities of Americans, of course we have many– with regard to both Iraq and the OPTs, as well as to Afghanistan’s long war-battered people. Our responsibilities to the Palestinians derive from two sources: firstly, our country’s (considerably privileged) membership in the international community, which is a community built on laws; and secondly our country’s particular situation as the major political, financial, and military backer of the occupying power, Israel.
Just as we are now, finally, doing many of the right things by Iraqis– primarily, by getting out of their country, and hopefully also by doing so in a generous way that takes into account and tries to repair some of the great harm we have visited on their country– so too, now, we need to start doing the right thing by Palestinians. What that entails, I’ll be exploring in more posts here on JWN over the weeks ahead. But one thing it certainly entails is an energetic intervention by our country to ensure that Israel ends its occupation of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza, and does so as soon as possible.
Now, we know much better than we did six years years ago what occupation is, and what it always involves: bullying; mass incarcerations; the sowing of tensions through divide-and-rule policies; and the spreading of hatred, domination, and fear. We are, finally, bringing our occupation of Iraq to an end. Israel needs to end its long-lived attempts to stay in the OPTs and in Syria’s Golan.