Why occupiers systematically misunderstand their self-perceived benevolence

by Yaniv Reich on November 23, 2009

It shouldn’t need to be said. Yet to a shocking degree occupiers seem genuinely surprised that the occupied, who live under their boot, at the sharp end of their gun barrel, on the wrong side of discriminatory institutions, are not more thankful for the occupiers’ generous behavior. I mean to ask: aren’t Palestinians thankful for the fact they live better than the world’s most destitute? That Gazans are not more appreciative for their “humanitarian situation” as opposed to “humanitarian crisis”, to use Dershowitz’s repugnant distinction?

Understanding the psychological roots of resistance to occupation and injustice is not rocket science. But its all too often not a sufficiently important component of our policy discussions and military strategies.

Stephen Walt provides today a particularly cogent explanation of this process:

Military occupation generates resistance because it is humiliating, disruptive, arbitrary and sometimes terrifying to its objects, even when the occupying power is acting from more-or-less benevolent motives. If you’ve ever been caught in a speed trap by a rude or abusive policeman (I have), or selected out for special attention crossing a border (ditto), you have a mild sense of what this is like. You are at the mercy of the person in charge, who is inevitably well-armed and can do pretty much whatever he (or she) wants. Any sign of protest will only make things go badly — and in some situations will get you arrested, beaten, or worse — so you choke down your anger and just put up with it. Now imagine that this is occurring after you’ve waited for hours at some internal checkpoint, that none of the occupiers speak your language, and that it is like this every single day. And occasionally the occupying power kills innocent people by mistake, engages in other forms of indiscriminate force, and does so with scant regard for local customs and sensibilities. Maintain this situation long enough, and some members of the local population will start looking for ways to strike back. Some of them may even decide to strap on explosive vests or get behind the wheel of a explosives-laden truck, and sacrifice themselves.

It is sometimes said that Americans don’t understand this phenomenon because the United States has never been conquered and occupied. But this simply isn’t true. After the Civil War, a “foreign army” occupied the former Confederacy and imposed a new political order that most white southerners found abhorrent. The first Reconstruction Act of 1867 put most southern states under formal military control, supervised the writing of new state constitutions, and sought to enfranchise and empower former slaves. It also attempted to rebuild the south economically, but the reconstruction effort was undermined by corruption and poor administration. Sound familiar? However laudable the aims may have been, the results were precisely what one would expect. Northern occupation eventually triggered violent resistance by the Ku Klux Klan, White League, Red Shirts, and other insurgent groups, which helped thwart Reconstruction and paved the way for the Jim Crow system that lasted until the second half of the 20th century.

Nor should we forget how long a profound sense of anger and resentment lasted. I was recently discussing this issue with a distinguished American journalist who grew up in the South, and he told me that one hundred years after the end of the Civil War, he was still being taught songs that expressed a lingering hatred of what the Yankees had done. Here are a coupl of stanzas from one of them — “I’m a Good Old Rebel” — written by a former Confederate officer and first published in 1914:

I hates the Yankee nation, and everything they do,
I hates the Declaration of Independence too.
I hates the glorious Union, ’tis dripping with our blood
I hates their striped banner, I fought it all I could.

Three hundred thousand Yankees lie stiff in Southern dust;
We got three hundred thousand, before they conquered us
They died of Southern fever, and Southern steel and shot,
I wish they was three million, instead of what we got.

This is what defeat in war and prolonged occupation does to a society: it generates hatred and resentment that can last a century or more.
The bottom line is that you don’t need to be a sociologist, political scientist, or a student of colonialism or foreign cultures to understand why military occupation is such a poisonous activity and why it usually fails. If you’re an American, you just need to read a bit about Reconstruction and reflect on how its effects — along with the effects of slavery itself — have persisted across generations. If that’s not enough, visit a society that is currently experiencing occupation, and take the time to go through a checkpoint or two. Then you might understand why the local population doesn’t view the occupying forces as benevolent and isn’t as grateful as occupiers often think they ought to be.

Next time Israel’s leaders are considering round umpteen of the endless quest to secure military victory against nebulous guerrilla organizations, they should pause for a moment and reflect on the psychological process Walt so aptly describes.

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