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The Other Occupations By: Seth Frantzman
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, September 11, 2009


In a little noticed incident during Libya’s 40th anniversary celebration of Muammar Gadaffi’s accession to power, the Moroccan delegation headed by Prime Minister Abbas El Fassi abruptly packed up and left.  The reason was the inclusion of representatives of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in the events.  The SADR is a government in exile residing in Algeria that claims to represent the people of Western Sahara, a territory occupied by Morocco.  The dispute highlights one of many ongoing “occupations” in the world where one country has taken control over territory that is disputed.  Many of these occupations have much in common with what Israel confronts in the West Bank, including the annexation of territory and the settling of people in the disputed area.  Yet, unlike Israel, these occupations have traditionally not garnered any international interest and certainly have not become a cause célèbre in Europe and the West. 

The Western Sahara is an arid, inhospitable and mostly featureless desert, slightly larger than the U.K.  When Spain abandoned its colony there were less than 100,000 residents who were primarily Sahrawi nomads who are of mixed Arab-Berber descent.   Between 1976 and 1979 Morocco occupied most of the territory and effectively annexed it as a “Saharan province.”  Since then the local Sahrawis, who had been fighting against Spain, have fought a thirty year war against Morocco.  To defend itself Morocco has brought in as many as 150,000 settlers (in addition to 100,000 Moroccan troops) so that there are now as many of them as the local population.  Meanwhile some 158,000 Sahrawi’s have become refugees in Algeria.  To defend against armed attacks by the SADR, the Moroccan government also constructed a 2,700 km border wall (mostly a sand berm with guard-posts) between the area controlled by Morocco and a sliver of land controlled by the guerillas.  

The area currently under the control of the SADR includes about 30,000 inhabitants and has diplomatic relations with 28 states (of which 13 have SADR embassies).  Parallels between the conflict in the Western Sahara and the West Bank cannot be missed.  They include no UN recognition of the claims of the occupying power, the introduction of settlers, a long running conflict and the construction of a security barrier.  What they do not include, in Western Sahara, are any visits by foreign diplomats from the EU, any international protestors, or any media attention whatsoever.

Another long running occupation is that of Northern Cyprus.  In 1974, following a series of ethnic clashes between Greek-Orthodox Cypriots and Muslim Cypriots, and a coup on the island, the Turkish army invaded Cyprus with the supposed goal of defending the Muslim citizens.  Turkey proceeded to occupy 35% of the island, an act condemned by UN resolution 3212.  Around 142,000 Christian Cypriots were driven from the Turkish-occupied part of the island and only 600 Christians remained.  In the 35 years of Turkish rule an estimated 115,000 Turks have arrived in northern Cyprus as settlers so that they now outnumber the local Muslim Cypriots.  Northern Cyprus has officially become the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus which “declared independence” in 1983.  It is only recognized by Turkey. Cyprus, like the Western Sahara, now includes a settler population that is greater than the indigenous one. It includes large number of refugees forced to flee by the occupying power and it includes a militarized border fence which separates it from the rest of Cyprus.  It receives almost no international attention, except during Turkish negotiations to join the EU. There are no protests on behalf of the Greek Cypriot refugees and there are no groups monitoring the Turkish settlers, their products or their demographic growth.  When they build a few new homes no one cares to count them. 

Another occupied territory is Pakistani-administered Kashmir. When India was being partitioned by the British in 1947 the territory of Jammu and Kashmir was ruled by a cranky Maharaja named Hari Singh. A Hindu, Singh ruled a multi-religious area that was majority Muslim with a large Hindu minority. The region was disputed by Pakistan and India. Initially, he played coy -- before faced with an invasion by Pashtun Muslim guerillas from Pakistan. He requested Indian assistance and agreed to make his state part of India.  A war ensued between India and Pakistan for control of Kashmir. At that time the territory was effectively partitioned.  UN resolution 47 demanded Pakistani withdrawal and a referendum. Neither was ever carried out and Pakistan currently occupies the area and has used it as a base to launch terrorist raids on India.  

These are not the only occupied areas in the world whose status remain unresolved. Russian-controlled-Kaliningrad, South Ossetia and Abkhazia are contested, as is Armenian occupied Nagorno-Karabakh. Some disputed territories have received international attention, such as Southern Sudan and Tibet. East Timor successfully became independent after decades of occupation by Indonesia. However, the examples of Cyprus and Western Sahara stand out as conflicts with many similarities to what Israel faces in the West Bank. The difference is that they are not cause célèbres. Why they are not seems to say much about the double standard Israel faces and less about the relative injustice of those occupations.


Seth Frantzman is doing his doctorate in Jerusalem at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His articles have appeared in the Jerusalem Post, Middle East Quarterly and the Tucson Weekly. He lives in Jerusalem.


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