The Violence of Culture: The Legitimation of the Israeli Occupation of Palestine

Aneta Brockhill & Karl Cordell. Third World Quarterly. Volume 40, Issue 5. May 2019.


In August 2017, days after meeting a White House delegation to discuss reviving peace negotiations with the Palestinians, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged that his government remained committed to maintaining Israel’s ‘presence’ in the West Bank. ‘We are here to stay forever’, he stated, ‘there will be no more uprooting of settlements in the land of Israel’. The statement evinced little or no attention or criticism in Israel. The Israeli occupation, now into its fifth decade, has become a normative situation and accepted by the majority of the Israeli society. Today, nearly two-thirds of Jewish Israelis do not consider holding on to the West Bank a form of occupation. The main question that comes to mind is how has the majority of Israeli society come to accept this occupation and concomitant rule of over four million Palestinians as a normative situation? Such social legitimation, the article argues, has not been generated in a vacuum. It is not a product of one specific agent, act or event, but rather it has, over the years, been created by complex cultural structures that in the mind of (the majority of) Jewish Israeli society have come to justify, legitimise and rationalise the occupation. In this paper we define culture as being a set of accumulated beliefs and practices, transmitted through public discourses and narratives, cultural and religious symbols, and institutionalised in cultural products such as textbooks. At the heart of the paper is an examination of five key cultural practices that are central to legitimising occupation in the Israeli consciousness. First, discursive delegitimisation of Palestinian identity by negating the existence of such identity and the denial of (historical) Palestinian presence in the land. Second, discursive deconstruction of the Palestinian right to the land by the employment of legal and religious claims to the occupied land. Third, the depiction of the Palestinians as ‘terrorists’. Fourth, the dehumanisation of Palestinians and, finally, the ‘naturalisation’ of the language and landscape of occupation. We argue that, collectively, these practices constitute acts of violence built into a long-established structure of cultural norms, narratives, normative beliefs and practices. The article then turns to the question of the intentionality of these cultural processes and analyses the multiple instrumentalities of these realms. The paper posits that such cultural practices have been strategic and political in nature, operating to, among others, organise knowledge and understanding of the occupation. They include: promoting settlement projects in the West Bank and garnering support for them; delegitimising the Palestinian right to the land and national sovereignty; rendering ‘invisible’ the occupation and the Palestinian presence from the political landscape; and justifying punitive collective actions carried out against the Palestinians and mobilising public support for these actions. Finally, they include the provision of a moral coping mechanism for Israelis, thereby producing a moral compass that supporters of occupation can use in order to justify the project. We argue that the ultimate end goal of these practices is the maintenance and legitimisation of the violence of Israeli occupation regime. Given the evident significance of the implications of these cultural practices, we call attention to the utility of the concept of cultural violence in analysis of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the longevity of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The theory of cultural violence is employed in an effort to increase understanding of how certain elements of culture have helped to maintain and legitimise the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. These findings were informed by field research carried out in June and July 2014 in Israel and the West Bank. In all interviews, the reasons for the continued occupation formed the thematic spine around which more focused questions were framed. The overall objective was to produce a corpus of work which would aid in the understanding of how violence is experienced and understood in the region, and the impact it has on the persistence of the conflict. To this end, 40 in-depth semi-structured elite interviews were carried out with personnel of various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and grassroots peace organisations in Israel and the West Bank, Israeli and Palestinian parties’ politicians, Palestinian and Israeli academics, all with direct knowledge of the Israel-Palestine conflict. This paper presents some of the findings drawn from these interviews and, together with a broader analysis, it contributes theoretically and empirically to the existing literature on the continuation of the conflict. Theoretically, it proposes a conceptual framework of cultural violence that has often been underutilised in the study of the intractability of the Israeli occupation and the social legitimation of violence. Empirically, it provides an analysis of Israeli cultural practices that have contributed to the legitimation of the Israeli occupation. The article does not claim to provide a meta-explanation of the protraction of the conflict, nor does it wish to oversimplify its causes. We recognise that cultural practices are not the only factors that have contributed to the longevity of the Israeli occupation. Rather, the purpose of this paper is to engage the questions over cultural practices, violence and legitimisation of violence with a view to developing an alternative account to understand the legitimation and the subsequent protraction of the Israeli occupation.

Violence: An Elaboration

Although various facets of violence have constituted an intrinsic feature of the Israel-Palestine conflict, analysis of violence has often been limited to acts of direct, physical force, with acts such as killing or injuring, and other forms of violence, either structural or cultural, underrepresented in theoretical and political discussions. This limited understanding of the nature of violence is in line with the study of the phenomenon in social science more generally. Violence is an omnipresent, inescapable and pervasive part of our world and the subject of a vast literature. Yet, it remains one of the most obscure, elusive and contested concepts in social science. One of the main scholarly debates centres on the question of whether the concept of violence should be defined narrowly, and limited to physical attack—violence as force, or whether it should be extended to a broader definition—violence as violation. Most definitions of violence, including that proposed in the Oxford English Dictionary, equate violence with force and define the concept as the exercise of physical force. This conceptualisation of violence, often referred to as ‘restricted’ or ‘minimalist’, is, therefore, often understood solely in terms of its physicality and visibility. It refers to acts of physical and direct infliction of pain through visible bodily injury with a clear and visible relation between subject and object of an act.

The ‘maximalist’ or ‘wide’ categorisation of violence calls for a much broader understanding of the phenomenon of violence. It asserts that not all acts of violence are visible as action. It also posits that not all have an identifiable perpetrator who can be held responsible for an act of violence, and that not all acts of violence result in death or injury. An act of violence can be invisible or embedded within violent social, economic and political structures or cultures. As a consequence, many forms of violence are not registered as such, as they do not meet traditional criteria, and their consequences are often unacknowledged or ignored. Cultural violence, a notion introduced by Johan Galtung, belongs to these often unregistered forms of violence. The concept refers to certain aspects of culture, exemplified by religion, ideology, language, art, empirical science and formal science, that can be employed to justify, legitimise and normalise direct and structural violence. The mechanism of cultural violence is two-fold. First, it ‘preaches, teaches, admonishes, eggs on, and dulls us into seeing exploitation and/or repression as normal and natural, or into not seeing them (particularly not exploitation) at all’. Second, it makes ‘reality opaque’ so that ‘we do not see the violent act or fact, or at least not as violent’. Along with cultural violence, Galtung identifies two other types of violence: direct and structural. Direct violence is visible as behaviour. Its application involves the use of physical force, such as shooting, stabbing, torture or beatings. For its part, structural violence is an indirect form of violence built into a violent political, economic and social structure. Although not visible in specific events, its effects are most clearly observable at the social level, manifesting itself in the deprivation of basic human needs such as survival, well-being, identity and freedom needs, thereby lowering the real level of needs satisfaction below what is potentially possible. Galtung argues that direct, structural and cultural violence are strictly interconnected and are symbolised by the image of a (vicious) violence triangle. ‘When the triangle is placed on its “direct” and “structural violence” base, the image invoked is of cultural violence as the legitimiser’ of both forms of violence. Cultural violence is seen therefore as right, natural, normal or not seen at all, and thus rendered socially acceptable. Despite the symmetry of the violence triangle, there is a basic difference in terms of time relations of the three types: ‘direct violence is an event; structural violence is a process, and cultural violence is an invariant, a “performance”, remaining essentially the same over long periods of time, given the slow transformation of basic culture’. Cultural violence is deemed to be invisible, but its invisibility is limited to forms of overt acts committed by people. It manifests itself as different forms of discrimination, delegitimisation, marginalisation and alienation.

Violence is often claimed to be intrinsically instrumental and strategic in nature. This, as Hannah Arendt argued, is what distinguishes violence from power, force and strength. Violence can be understood as constituting a means of achieving an intended end-aim and, as such, it can be perceived as predictable and calculable, pursued with a clearly defined goal. The end goal may vary depending on the situation. Violence can be instrumental for gaining control, strength and influence, as well as exercising, asserting or consolidating a position of power. As C. Wright Mills observed, ‘all politics is a struggle for power; the ultimate kind of power is violence’. In this context, the concept is similar to the Weberian definition of power: ‘the ability of an individual or group to achieve their own goals or aims when others are trying to prevent them from realising them’. For her part, Hannah Arendt argued that this equation of violence with power is incorrect and stresses the distinction between the two phenomena. The ability to get someone to do something is a matter of strength, rather than power. Galtung links cultural violence to political power and the legitimisation thereof; ‘just as political science is about two problems—the use of power and the legitimation of the use of power—violence studies are about two problems: the use of violence and the legitimation of that use’. However, in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict, it can be argued that cultural violence constitutes symbolic power: the ability to construct a superior dominant narrative and a hegemonic version of reality. Ideology, language, symbols and narratives, the main elements of cultural violence, constitute powerful tools in this process and may be best viewed as instruments of power and control in the production of the foundational understandings of the world, constructing particular knowledge about the conflict and the reasons for its longevity. The means and ends nexus is clearly visible here. Israeli cultural violence has an overlapping purpose, as analysed below. The ultimate end goal, however, is to legitimise (the direct and structural violence of) the occupation. Having established the parameters of violence as understood by the authors and therefore highlighted the utility of our conceptual framework with regards to the case, we now turn to an analysis of discursive cultural practices and processes and the intentionality and functionality of these acts.

Terra Nullius

Since the beginning of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Zionists have engaged in an elaborate process of delegitimisation of Palestinian nationhood through discursive deconstruction of their identity and denial of their presence on the land. In its early forms, this was carried out by the articulation of the concept of terra nullius (empty or vacant land). There is considerable debate concerning the origins and first use of the term on the part of those making territorial claims upon ’empty’ territory. Regardless of when the term was first used, there are myriad examples of its employment in a variety of instances. These include: justification for the encroachment of the British Empire into modern-day Australia and Canada; as a means for justifying the westward expansion of the embryonic United States of America; and with regard to Moroccan claims upon Western Sahara and on occasion in Europe with regard to (among others) territorial disputes between Germany and Poland. Turning to the case in hand, located firmly within the spirit and European elite acceptance of the doctrine of terra nullius, the British Zionist Israel Zangwill (among others) argued that the desired Jewish homeland was in effect: a land without a people [that cried out to be populated by] a people without a land. This claim became a core principle for the realisation and the legitimation of the Zionist project for the establishment of a Jewish state and since then it has become an enduring theme in Zionist discourse. As in almost all cases where the term has been employed as a legitimising tool, ’emptiness’, as employed by Zionists, did not mean that there were no people in Palestine; rather it signified the alleged absence of civilization and civilizational achievements. The land was presented as being barren and in a state of neglect, waiting to be redeemed and put to good use by migrants, colonists or indeed those to whom it apparently rightfully belonged, as opposed to the current inhabitants. As in all instances where incomers claimed rights after having legitimised their venture through employment of the doctrine, the ‘other’, the ‘natives’ encountered on the desired land, became an obstacle in this civilizational endeavour and were stigmatised as being primitive, lazy, dishonest and savage.

As the Second World War ground to its grisly conclusion, sundry victorious allies reached several joint conclusions. The one with which we are directly concerned is that state and nation should be rendered coterminous in Europe and that the European model of the nation-state should form the template for state formation in the post-colonial world. This decision legitimised a wave of forced migration that enveloped much of Europe, the Indian sub-continent and the Middle East. In common with other violent ethnonational impulses of the late 1940s, such as the forced migration of ethnic Germans from post-war Poland and the simultaneous expulsion of Poles from the post-war Soviet Union into post-war Poland, the forced migration that took place in Palestine in 1947-1948 were presented to both the domestic and ‘global’ audience as being necessary in order to minimise the chances of future ethnonational conflict. They were also presented by the perpetrators and the embryonic ‘international community’ as more often than not as being the consequence of spontaneous flight than they were of state policy. In the case of Israel and Palestine, both the rationale and consequence of such forced migration was legitimised by employing the myth that the land was in effect terra nullius. In fact, close to 800,000 Palestinians were displaced in 1947-1948, in a process that came to be known to Palestinians and the wider Arab world as al-Nakba—the Palestinian national catastrophe. According to one estimate, by the time the 1948 war ended, ‘531 villages had been destroyed, and eleven urban neighbourhoods emptied of their inhabitants’. The demolition of the villages was accompanied by the destruction of Arab agricultural, religious, historical and cultural sites. As in post-communist Europe where in the wake of the genocide of Europe’s Jewish population and post-war forced migrations, renewed violent experiments in ethno-social engineering were taking place, the old landscape was erased and replaced with a ‘recovered’ equivalent, in this instance, Jewish cultural heritage. Destroyed Palestinian villages were replaced with recreational parks and forests. With Palestine partially emptied, the process of re-fashioning the political and cultural heritage continued after the establishment of the State of Israel. As remarked upon in George Orwell’s 1984: ‘Who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past’. Orwell’s observation is germane to any analysis of the numerous political enterprises that have sought to re-fashion the future by drawing upon history and physically destroying tangible and intangible symbols of the immediate past. Typically, with the ‘accomplishment’ of population exchange and replacement, a second wave of assault upon the past is led by teams of archaeologists who are tasked with finding evidence which will ‘verify’ the claim of the successful nationalist movement to the land recently acquired. Israel was no exception to this iron rule and, following the defeat of the Arab armies in the 1948 war, the State of Israel began a Hebraisation project: the systematic process of the de-Arabisation of historical Palestine. The Government Naming Committee (GNC) replaced the names of Palestinian toponyms with their Hebrew counterparts, renaming hundreds of towns and villages, almost half of them invoking biblical and ancient places. Ilan Pappé argues that ‘the archaeological zeal to reproduce the map of “Ancient Israel” was in essence none other than a systematic, scholarly, political and military attempt to de-Arabise the terrain—its names and geography, but above all its history’. The Hebraisation project has constituted an integral element of the process of removing the traces and the memory of the Palestinians from the Israeli national memory.

The capture of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 war signifies another stage in perpetuating the founding myth: a land without people for a people without land. It is estimated that between 200,000 and 300,000 Palestinians, most of them refugees from the 1948 war, fled or were expelled as a result of Israeli actions. The dominant Israeli policy with regard to the territories has been to annex as much terra as possible with as few Palestinians necessary, thereby effectively making the land nullius, empty of the unwanted prior inhabitants. This territorial annexation was, above-all, aimed at sparsely populated areas, avoiding, as far as it was possible, spaces densely populated by Palestinians. As such the exclusion of the indigenous population on the annexed land became the modern manifestation of the founding myth.

‘Ownership’ of the Land

As with European post-1949 territorial disputes, such as that which existed for decades between the Federal Republic of Germany and Poland on the one hand and the Federal Republic and Czechoslovakia/the Czech Republic on the other, the Israeli claim of terra nullius has been supported by the official discourses of the legal and, in this instance, religious claim to the land. The legal claim involves Israel’s assertion that the West Bank is not occupied territory, but rather a disputed or administered territory. As such, the Israeli presence is not an occupation but an administration. The Israeli narrative surrounding the legal status is accurately summarised by Ze’ev Elkin, Former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, and now Minister of Jerusalem Affairs and Minister of Environmental Protection:

The Palestinian state was never established, even in the time between 1948 and 1967, when Jordan and Egypt controlled the territories […] From an international law point of view, you cannot take a part of a state, but it was not a Palestinian state, it was a disputed territory, as Egyptian and Jordanian presence on this land was illegal. If the Palestinian state was established in 1947-8, and they would have sent Arab leaders to agree with the decision of the United Nations like Israel did, then we could talk about a Palestinian occupied land. The West Bank, therefore, is a disputed territory because you cannot occupy a land that does not belong to anyone.

The origin of this claim goes back to the early days following the 1967 war, when the then Attorney General, Meir Shamgar, formulated a policy that rejected the applicability of the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, a humanitarian law relating to the occupation of conquered territories and the rights of civilian populations in those territories. Shamgar’s rationale was that the term ‘occupation’ only applies to a territory when a sovereign state is conquered by another sovereign state. According to the logic employed, since Jordan’s annexation of the West Bank in 1950 was illegitimate, and widely regarded as illegal (only being recognised by the UK, Iraq and Pakistan), and Egypt never claimed sovereignty over the Gaza Strip, the territories had never been an integral part of a sovereign state. Adopting the principle of a ‘missing sovereign’, Shamgar maintained that the West Bank and Gaza Strip should be considered ‘disputed’ rather than occupied territories. Although Israel refused to be seen as an occupier, the government of Israel, advised by Shamgar, pledged to respect the humanitarian provisions on a de facto basis.

Although the international community has overwhelmingly rejected this interpretation and has regarded the West Bank and Gaza Strip (until the Israelis withdrew from the latter in 2005) as occupied territories, Shamgar’s understanding of the legal status of the territories has prevailed in Israel until today. The dispute over the ‘ownership’ of the West Bank goes beyond its legal status. The Israeli sense of entitlement to the territory is based on the religious claim to the land: the Eretz Yisrael, a Promised Land, given by God to the Jewish people more than 2000 years ago. When modern Zionism first articulated the idea that this promise could be redeemed by means of the creation of a modern nation-state in the absence of the Messiah, it proved to be somewhat controversial among the wider Jewish population (of Europe) who, for the most part, were deeply religious and eschewed participation in politics. Gradually, and for a variety of reasons, a large majority of religiously observant Jews has become reconciled to the Zionist project and, ever since the creation of Israel, the covenant has been integrated into the national narrative. This growing unanimity was exemplified after the capture of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, when General Moshe Dayan stated: ‘The Mountains of Samaria are ours and we will no longer leave them in the hands of any other nations’. Menachem Begin later confirmed Israeli title: ‘The Land of Israel is not annexed. She is liberated. She is returned to her rightful owner, the Jewish people […] We dare not speak of the possibility that even one inch of our land … go to any foreign ruler’. Since Israel’s capture of the territories, a great majority of Israeli Jews has come to view the occupation of the territories as a liberation and redemption of the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria. The land, therefore, is seen as not occupied but being returned to its rightful owner after 2000 years of exile. The claim is not only an integral part of modern Jewish religious identity but also a crucial part of contemporary secular right-wing ideology. It comes in different shades, but it is basically the same phenomenon. It is the view that ‘Israel can, and should, rule over as much as of its claimed biblical, historical patrimony as possible’.

The religious assertion of Jewish exclusive right to the land has been incorporated in political discourse and continuously repeated by a number of Israeli politicians, including in August 2017 when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared: ‘We are here to stay forever […] This is the inheritance of our ancestors. This is our land’. Nurit Peled-Elhanan claims that as a result of this repeated [religious] discourse the majority of Jews in Israel views the West Bank as a part of the Land of Israel, which is ‘ours’ and see themselves as the Chosen People, as we have a ‘proof’ of historical rights to it, namely the Bible. As Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi argues:

The historicization of the Bible is a national enterprise in Israel, carried out by hundreds of scholars at all universities […] The Israeli Defence Ministry has even published a complete chronology of Biblical events giving exacts dates for the creation of the world … Claiming the ancient mythology as history is an essential part of Zionist secular nationalism, in its attempt to present a coherent account of the genesis of the Jewish people in ancient West Asia.

In effect, the Bible has been elevated to the status of ‘fact’ and used as ‘history rather than theology, or a source of belief’. The importance of the doctrine of terra nullius has in turn been re-enforced by the historicization of religious beliefs and the institutionalisation of both in the Israeli education system. The ideological basis of geography teaching in Israel consists of the Zionist message of the exclusive historical rights to the Land of Israel. Schoolchildren are taught that Israel was not established in 1948, but redeemed, re-established and resettled after 2000 years of exile. The ‘redemption’ of the whole land is presented as a historical right, legitimised by the Bible and the insertion of (irrefutable) Biblical phrases into the curriculum. The history of the land on which the modern State of Israel was constructed and the fate of its people is glossed over. Instead, schoolchildren are taught that Jews have rights over the Land of Israel and that pre-1967 Israel and the West Bank are presented as a contiguous geographic and political entity.

The Israeli ‘presence’ in the occupied territories has been further ‘naturalised’ by the official language employed by the Israelis. In the 1970s and 1980s, Likud, pursuing its objective of reconciling secular and religious objectives, actively sought to erase the distinction between Israel and the occupied territories from Israel’s collective psychology. Following Likud’s electoral victory in 1977, a ban on the terms ‘occupation’ and ‘occupied territories’ was issued with regard to the state-owned media, and was replaced by (the Biblical terms) Judea and Samaria. In government publications and documents, as well as in official announcements, the term ‘settlement’ was changed from a neutral word to one evocative of Biblical claims of ‘redemption’, thus further strengthening the alliance between the secular and religious wings of society.

Rendering Palestinians Invisible

The claim to Palestinian territories, based on a combination of a singular interpretation of the past, imaginative legal claims and a particular facet of Jewish religious beliefs, has been reinforced by changes in the physical character of the occupied territory. According to Ehud Eiran, the sense that the West Bank is a separate entity has almost completely disappeared and the Green Line has become increasingly invisible in the landscape. The Israeli settlements and related infrastructure in the West Bank are linked to each other and to Israel by a sophisticated system of highways and bypass roads, incorporating the settlements into Israel’s national highway system, allowing Israeli settlers to move freely between Israel and the West Bank.

Whilst the geographical and symbolic distinction between the State of Israel and the occupied territories is increasingly blurred the Palestinian presence is being perpetually concealed. Jamal Juma, the head of the Palestinian human rights campaign ‘Stop the Wall’, told the lead author that the Israeli government has done everything in its power to conceal the occupation and make the Palestinians invisible, ‘hiding us behind walls, fences, and concrete slabs’:

When you drive by the wall on the Israeli side, on the road number 6, it is a drive along the Green Line. In many sections, you do not see the wall, you do not see the Palestinians or Palestinian villages. They are behind the wall. When the wall was built, they planted trees to conceal it. Now the trees are very high, and you do not see the wall when you are driving. This has been done for psychological reasons. They do not see us living in ghettos. If they do not see the occupation, they can continue to live normally, leaving ‘the problem’ for the military to deal with.

As for younger generations, the invisibility of the Palestinians is institutionalised in the Israeli education system. Most Israeli schoolbooks tend to erase Palestinian life from the Israeli scene. Whereas the Palestinian territories are presented as part of the Land of Israel, the inhabitants of these same territories are portrayed as non-Jews, foreign labour, guest workers, who come to Israel to work, or they are not represented at all. However, as Peled-Elhanan points out, the readers may not be aware of this peculiarity because the occupied territories are not marked as Palestinian areas. The Palestinian inhabitants are missing from maps, photographs and graphs. As Peled-Elhanan concludes, deleting the other from the map is an epitome of cultural violence. In turn, Sari Hanafi argues that these practices have led to the ‘institutionalised invisibility of the Palestinian people’.

Arabs, Terrorists, and Animals

Whilst the invisibility of the Palestinians has been increasingly institutionalised and the Palestinian claim to the land repeatedly denied, Israel has been actively engaged in the process of discursive deconstruction of Palestinian nation. Over the years, no Israeli government has ever recognised the Palestinians as a distinct peoplehood. They have been labelled as ‘Arabs’, a generically deracinated term, subsuming Palestinian identity within the larger ‘Arab nation’. This narrative was famously summarised by Israel’s former Prime Minister Golda Meir: ‘it was not as if there was a Palestinian people in Palestine and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist’. At best, Palestinian national identity has been recognised only as an integral part of the Jordanian-Palestinian nation or having Jordanian-Palestinian ties. The institutionalisation of this narrative, Peled-Elhanan argues, is seen in Israeli school textbooks. Palestinians in the occupied territories are seldom depicted at all, but in the very few cases when the Palestinians are represented as human beings with faces, they are portrayed either as face-covered terrorists, primitive farmers or cartoon-like ‘Arabs’ wearing Kafieh and being followed by a camel. Whenever the word ‘Palestinian’ is mentioned, it has a connotation of terror; otherwise, they are called Arabs, or Arabs of the Land of Israel.

Another stratagem used to delegitimise Palestinian identity has been the representation of Palestinians as terrorists. Since the beginning of the conflict, the Zionist narrative has presented all Palestinian acts of resistance and self-determination against, first, the Zionist presence in Palestine and, later, the occupation of the Palestinian territories, solely as acts of terrorism. The concept of terrorism is difficult to define. It is as contested as it is open. Given the limited space, this paper employs Benjamin Netanyahu’s definition: ‘the deliberate and systematic murder, maiming, and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear for political ends’. As the Zionist return to their homeland was presented as just and moral, any Palestinian resistance to the Zionist project, or the rejection of the UN partition resolution, was viewed as an act of terrorism. Regardless of whether the Palestinians who attempted to cross Israel’s borders after 1948 were Palestinian refugees seeking lost herds, uncollected crops and abandoned properties, or Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) members, they were collectively labelled as ‘terrorists’. The PLO continued to be represented as terrorists even after it agreed to abandon the armed struggle in 1988. The status of the PLO as terrorists ceased with the signing of the Oslo Peace Process in 1993. As Pappé posits, ‘for the first time in its history and the history of Palestinian nationalism, the PLO was ‘de-terrorised’ and treated as a legitimate political partner’. Seven years later, however, with the failure of the Camp David summit in 2000 and the outbreak of the second Intifada, the Palestinians had been proclaimed as ‘no partners for peace’ and the whole Palestinian nation was once again labelled ‘terrorist’: the narrative that has remained unchallenged within Israeli society since then.

As the outbreak of the second Intifada coincided with the commencement of the American war on terror, Palestinian terrorism was linked to that of Al-Qaeda, and Arafat quickly became the Palestinian Bin Laden (Sharon was reported as having used these exact words to US Secretary of State Colin Powell). In the post-9/11 era, Juma argues, Israel has presented itself as both a ‘line of defence’ and another frontline in the global war on terror. When Israel began the construction of the wall between Israel and the West Bank in 2002, he continues, they were sending the message to the world that all the people on the other side are the terrorists. Palestinians are therefore the threat not only to Israel but also to Western security. Today, the term ‘terrorist’, Nassar Ibrahim, a political analyst and a member of the Alternative Information Centre, told the lead author, is used by the Israeli state to describe any and all Palestinian acts of resistance, even non-violent kinds of resistance:

For them [Israelis], even if we are not shooting, we are bothering them with demonstrations or writing. Even when we are raising our flag, this is seen as terrorism. They are using now a very funny concept, ‘non-violent Palestinian terror action’. The fact that I am sitting with you and smiling, I am resisting, because their target is to push me to leave the land. It is resistance to keep my home, trees, my family, food, songs. For them, it is terrorism.

The delegitimisation of the Palestinians has been accompanied by the discursive process of dehumanisation. As Nidal Abu Zuluf, the Manager of the Joint Advocacy Initiative (JAI) of the East Jerusalem YMCA and the YWCA of Palestine argues, senior Israeli military figures, politicians and even rabbis attempt to demonise Palestinians. The dehumanisation, according to Ayala Brilliant, Youth Leadership Director of One Voice Movement, is evident in Israeli public discourse. ‘Anyone following Israeli media outlets sees that Palestinians are portrayed as monsters, animals and terrorists’.

The Intentionality of Violence

Having analysed the social and political discourses of the legal and religious claims to the land and the discursive processes of delegitimisation, the question of the intentionality and functionality of these cultural practices comes to mind. What are the mechanisms of these practices? They have overlapping multiple purposes, analysed below, with the ultimate goal being the justification and the maintenance of the occupation.

The discourse of the administrative nature of the Israeli occupation and the religious claims of the Jewish ‘chosenness’ and ‘territorial wholeness’ of the Eretz Yisrael have led to the construction of a societal belief in the Israeli society that the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea constitutes an indivisible unit of Jewish homeland, with an inclusive and irrevocable Jewish right to that land. The invocation of the Bible as historical fact, and presentation of the modern State of Israel as a manifestation of (Messianic) redemption, has justified, neutralised and legitimised the state-sanctioned settlement project in the occupied territory. Since the beginning of the occupation, all Israeli governments, right and left, have participated in the expansion of settlements on the other side of the 1967 Green Line on the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Currently, over 600,000 settlers live in the territory. There is, Zach Levey told the lead author, an irony regarding the settlements in the West Bank. There is a very high percentage of the settlers in the West Bank who are not ideologically motivated at all. They have been attracted with economic incentives: government-led long-term loans with no interest and tax breaks. ‘It is cheaper to live out there, and the standard and the quality of living are better [than in Israel]. For that reason, it is very attractive’. According to Angela Godfrey-Goldstein, by providing generous subsidies, the government has aimed to encourage and legitimise the settlement project in the West Bank. ‘They do not tell the people that Israel is deliberately forcing the Palestinians out […] The majority of people think that if the government is encouraging that, then it is fine […] The majority do not even think about themselves as settlers’.

It is clear that for many years there has been an intentional strategy aimed at Judaising the West Bank. In addition, the claim of the exclusive Jewish right to the land deprives Palestinians of any right and affinity to the land. As the government of Israel sees the whole land as its own land, Hiba Husseini argues: ‘our presence in the land is an invasion, or at best, an inconvenience for them’. To facilitate the expansion of the Israeli settlement enterprise, Israel has relied on seizing Palestinian land and water resources, and conducting large-scale demolitions of Palestinian houses, forcing many Palestinians off their land. Whilst the Israeli settlements have been expanding, Palestinians have been increasingly confined to small non-contiguous territorial enclaves, with movement between them severely affected, and their daily existence ‘managed’ by the so-called system of ‘matrix of control’. The system that has operated on three interlocking levels—military controls and military strikes, a policy of creating facts on the ground, and a bureaucracy of administrative measures that provide a justification for seizing Palestinian land—has enabled Israel to maintain hegemony and total control over every aspect of Palestinian lives.

The delegitimisation of the Palestinian case has given the Israeli leadership a powerful tool for mobilising public support for maintaining the occupation. If the Palestinians are terrorists, and their only aspiration is to destroy the Israeli state, Israel’s ‘presence’ in the territory is critical to protect its national security. Subsequently, the mobilisation of discourses of danger and terror has institutionalised aggression towards the ‘enemy’, and it allowed gaining the consent of the society for maintaining the ‘matrix of control’ and taking extreme measures to fight the Palestinian ‘terrorism’. As the Palestinians are (seemingly) little more than violent animals, the principles of morality do not apply. Therefore, all Israeli punitive actions against them—shooting, arresting, restrictions on movement, demolishing social and industrial infrastructure or administrative detention—are morally justifiable, reasonable and unavoidable. Although for many Palestinians and international observers, Israeli military tactics in the West Bank fit the very definition of terrorism provided by Netanyahu, the discourse of terror and the discursive delegitimisation of the Palestinians sanction the Israeli responses. Israeli violence, therefore, is simply presented as a legitimate means of protecting its national security and is, as such, ‘consequentialist’ in nature. This systematic delegitimisation of the Palestinians works hand-in-hand with a long-standing political discourse that portrays their actions as a threat to the physical survival of Israel and its citizens. Such a narrative feeds into, and reinforces, the ‘Jewish siege mentality’, characterised by the perception of the existential threat to the very existence of Israel. With the constructed magnitude of the threat, the discourses have influenced a populace to support a leader who is strong to combat the perceived threat. Today’s Israeli politics is dominated by right-wing parties, such as Likud and Habayit Hayehudi, which are in favour of maintaining the occupation.

Further, the continued use of the generically deracinated term ‘Arabs’ by supporters of these parties, and others, carries political implications. As the Palestinians are no different from the rest of the Arab world, without a distinct identity, they are presented as lacking a legitimate or unique claim to the land. Consequently, the message Israelis receive is that Palestinians have 22 other Arab countries they can go to, so they do not need to be here. With national identity denied, so are national rights to sovereignty and self-determination. Accordingly, Palestinian acts of resistance to occupation have no context and no rationale, and any and all attempts to establish a national right of sovereignty have been portrayed as nothing more than acts of terrorism against the State of Israel, driven by a hatred of Jews.

The processes of institutionalised invisibility of the Palestinians, the erasure of memory, the discursive construction of ‘violent Palestinians’, or the narrative of terra nullius, can be argued, have provided moral justifications for the occupation and produced a sense of morality to its citizens. Such a narrative suppresses any sense of Israeli guilt and legal and moral responsibility for occupying the people, violating their rights and needs, or taking the punitive actions against them. If the Palestinians ‘existed’ and were seen as victims in the Israeli consciousness, the narrative of terra nullius and the very occupation would be questioned.

Conclusions: The Legitimisation of the Occupation

The violence of Israeli military rule and the Kafkaesque practices of the ‘matrix of control’, institutionalised and regulated by judiciary, have facilitated Israel’s grip on the West Bank for more than five decades. Despite widespread international condemnation of the prolonged Israeli occupation and concomitant rule of over four million Palestinians, occupation appears to have become a normative situation, accepted by the majority of Israeli society. Naturally, there are loud voices within Jewish society, represented by both secular and religious anti-Zionist Jews, who on various grounds object to the existing political status quo. Often labelled as ‘self-hating Jews’, they reject and oppose both Zionist discursive practices and Israeli policies in the West Bank, calling for an end to the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state. These voices, repeatedly accused of harming the future of the Jewish state, have been increasingly muted by the Israeli state and its supporters.

This paper has aimed to examine the social legitimisation of the occupation of the Palestinian territories. In order to aid in this process, extensive use of insights gleaned from interviews conducted in Israel and the West Bank and application of the concept of cultural violence was employed to analyse cultural processes that have been central to legitimising occupation in the Israeli consciousness. The paper argues that cultural practices, grounded in Jewish Israeli religious and ideological belief systems, have served to delegitimise Palestinian political rights, peoplehood, humanhood, and historical and legal affinity to the land. The ideology of terra nullius, that of an empty land waiting to be resettled by the Jews, and the encountered ‘people’, reduced to the status of non-Jewish communities in the Land of Israel, an undifferentiated mass of Arabs, has evolved over time. As a consequence, any Palestinian attempt to assert the right to self-determination, or resist Israel’s occupation, is portrayed as nothing more than an act of terrorism driven by a hatred of Jews. To further facilitate the deconstruction of the Palestinian right to the land, Israel has employed the discourse of legal and religious claim to the occupied land. Repeated Israeli claims that the West Bank is a ‘disputed’ or ‘administered’ territory that constitutes an integral part of the historic Jewish homeland have been incorporated into Israeli official discourse. Such a view has been reinforced by the process of the discursive invisibilisation of Palestine and the Palestinians, and the physical changes on the ground that blur the internationally recognised borders. Consequently, the West Bank is increasingly coming to resemble just another district of the State of Israel, rather than an occupied territory.

The parallels we draw with other ethnonationalist movements show that some of these processes are not unique to the Israel-Palestine conflict. The lack of historical uniqueness, however, should not detract from the magnitude and the intentionality of these acts. In the absence of a comprehensive framework, these processes risk being analysed as simply intrinsic elements of ethnonationalism: distinct and isolated practices, or by-products of protracted conflict. These processes, the paper argues, should be seen as constituting a collective whole: a long-standing intentional, planned and organised strategy aimed at justifying, legitimising and neutralising the occupation regime. Given the inherently highly political nature of these acts, their analysis must be brought to the fore in discussions on the longevity of the Israel-Palestine conflict. One way to achieve this is to employ a framework that captures both the mechanisms and the enormity of these acts. Cultural violence highlights the way in which the acts of direct and structural violence are legitimised and rendered acceptable in society. Although many of the discussed acts do not meet the criteria of the traditional conceptualisation of violence—an excessive and destructive force, with a clear visibility of an actor and subject of an act—its effects are most clearly observable at the societal level. Today, the overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis does not consider holding on to the West Bank to be a form of occupation and increasing numbers view the West Bank as being an integral part of the State of Israel.

The employment of a ‘restricted’ categorisation of violence mutes and discredits the accounts and concerns of the most disadvantaged people of a society that are more likely to be subjects of these forms of violence. This, consequently, results in an impunity that naturalises exploitative social relations and normalise the ‘mundane’ violence of Israel’s military occupation. The heterogeneity of the definitions of violence may thus be seen as reflecting a political rather than an ontological position and the employment of a particular definition of violence may depend on the interests of those employing them. The application of cultural violence is therefore not just a matter of semantics, nor is just a matter of conceptual cohesion. It serves to challenge the ways in which violence has been depicted and understood in the Israel-Palestine conflict. The concept offers a means of access to study the phenomenon in the conflict more systematically and profoundly, exposing the cultural and social structures of Israel ruling regime. The occupation is itself an act of continuous violence, so are the elements supporting, rationalising, legitimising and ultimately maintaining it.