The world is full of occupied territories

Henry Srebrnik
Published on February 14, 2014

What do most people think of when someone talks about “the Occupied Territories?” They assume the speaker means the West Bank of the Jordan, of course, which has been under Israeli control following a defensive war in 1967, though much of it is now internally governed by the Palestinian Authority.

It shows us the power of the long-term attempt to de-legitimize Israel — because, in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, there are huge amounts of land occupied by various states or ethno-religious groups.

Next door to Israel, a civil war has been raging for the last three years in Syria, as the Sunni Arab majority is trying to wrest control of much of the country from the Alawite Shia minority, only 12 per cent of the population and centred in the country’s northwest. They have “occupied” the rest of Syria since the 1970s.

In next-door Iraq, the Shia-dominated regime of Nouri al-Maliki now “occupies” the “Sunni Triangle” in the mid-third of the country. Here too an insurgency in underway. The Kurdish entity in the north is now self-governing, but Kurds in southeastern Turkey, across the border, remain “occupied” by the Ankara-based Turkish state founded by Kemal Ataturk.

Kurds also live under occupation in Syria and Iran. Persians constitute just 61 per cent of the population in the Islamic Republic, followed by Azeris at 16 per cent and Kurds at 10 per cent. In 1945, Azeris in Iran’s northwest, where they form a majority, were defeated in their attempt to set up their own state.

India is effectively an occupying power in Muslim-majority Kashmir, while to its north, China occupies Tibet and Xinjiang, with its large Uyghur and other Muslim populations. In Myanmar, the Burman-majority state occupies large swaths of the country inhabited by various ethnic groups, including the Shan, Kayin, Mon and Kachin. They have been fighting for independence for decades.

Most African states are artificial entities, often dominated by one group to the exclusion of others. Ethiopia, for example, occupies the Ogaden region in its southeast, populated by Somalis. Until South Sudan gained its independence in 2011, it was occupied by Arab-majority Sudan. East Timor freed itself from Indonesian occupation in 2002. The Ibo of southeastern Nigeria failed to gain an independent state of Biafra in the 1960s.

The Russian Federation is a colonial occupier in the north Caucasus region, where Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia are populated by Muslim peoples.

As far as many people in Ireland are concerned, Great Britain’s control of Northern Ireland is also little more than an occupation, following the partition of the island in 1922. In Spain, many Basques and Catalans feel

the same way about rule from Madrid.

And, of course, the settler states in the western hemisphere, in particular Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay in South America, and Canada and the United States in North America, were all wrested away from indigenous populations. The same holds true for Australia and New Zealand.

So the next time someone refers, without further elaboration, to “the occupied territories,” you might wish to respond, “which ones?”


Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.