The meaning of occupation

What a Norwegian TV series can tell us about the occupation of Palestine.

Okkupert show
The Norwegian TV show Okkupert (Occupied) first aired in 2015 on Norwegian TV channel TV2 [Youtube]

“Words like occupation are inappropriate,” the prime minister says.

“An occupation entails the takeover of the government, the military, the police, robbing us of our civil rights.”

These words are spoken by a fictitious character of the Norwegian TV series Occupied. The question of when an occupation is really an occupation weaves through the fascinating Netflix drama, the choice of title suggesting that its producers think those who call a rose by any other name are deluded.

The show is set in an imagined near future, when the United States has left NATO and the European Union has conspired with Russia to take over Norway’s oil and gas fields through military intervention. The series propels the viewer through head-spinning twists and turns as Norway grapples with military occupation and hurtles from one political crisis to another. 

The show’s concept and framing touch upon Norway’s historical experience of occupation. During World War II, Nazi forces invaded the country, despite its announced neutrality, and installed a puppet government led by Major Vidkun Quisling. His name came to denote traitor in the English language. 

But Occupied is a series whose significance should resonate beyond the details of the storyline, historical associations and some parallels to the events of 2014 in Ukraine.

The show provides a master class in how sovereignty can be whittled away in inches. Political leaders are co-opted or compromised to become either unwitting or active servants of the occupying power. The occupier exploits violent resistance and even provokes it to legitimise the occupation. Unable to agree on a strategy to resist, the occupied people turn on each other as internal rivalries overtake the battle against the occupier.

The occupier presents occupation in the benign language of stability and economic growth. Those who use violence to challenge the occupation are condemned internationally as terrorists. A corrupt leadership profiteers. Civil society breaks down and the constitutional structure of the occupied state becomes bereft of a moral compass.

Does this remind you of anywhere? 

There is only one nation that has been living under institutionalised military occupation for more than half a century: Palestine. I have reported on the occupation periodically since my first trip there in 1988 as a young BBC producer.

While most journalists describe Palestinian lands as “occupied territories”, a real understanding of what occupation means is usually missing from news reports.

The story is something else: an attack, a bombing, a crisis, then comments from both sides and a mandatory mention of the occupier’s mantra that it only wants peace. The term “occupied territories” has almost come to denote a place name rather than a deliberate act of oppression that degrades the human condition.  

On the face of it, Occupied has nothing to do with Palestine. It sits modestly on Netflix lists of political drama, between numerous productions that frame occupation through an Israeli lens. Fouda, The Spy, The Angel, etc provide reproductions of the Israeli world view, consistently framing occupation as a necessary fact rather than a deliberate political choice.

While Israeli storylines at times express sympathy for Palestinians, they rarely present occupation for what it is: the conscious decision to deprive a people of their most basic human rights. This feeds a perception that while both sides include heroes and villains, the occupied and the occupiers share a level playing field.

In Occupied, however, the viewers get a different perspective – that of the occupied, a people facing a powerful and treacherous foreign enemy. The challenges of resisting occupation create a kaleidoscope of moral uncertainty, fluctuating from supporting violent resistance to being repulsed by it.

The series does not clearly answer the question of how much violence is justified in fighting an occupier or whether economic benefits and the avoidance of violence under occupation are better than war.

Norway’s and Palestine’s paths were entwined for many years while the Scandinavian nation hosted secret negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which led to the Oslo peace accords of 1993 and 1995. The deal created the Palestinian Authority (PA), which was granted limited self-governance of parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

It did not create a Palestinian state and the important decisions about statehood were left for future negotiations. In the years since, Norway, with its sovereign wealth fund, has supported non-governmental groups that have sought equal rights for Palestinians and a fair, two-state settlement. 

Despite Norway’s noble intentions and exceptional generosity, history is already condemning the Oslo accords as a cover for further Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. While it claimed during negotiations to be pursuing a just, two-state solution, it is hard to challenge the portrayal of Israel as a colonising power, repeatedly constructing settlements on occupied land in order to subvert the accords.

With its announced intention to annex parts of the occupied West Bank in July, the Israeli government is once again shunning international law and demonstrating that it is not interested in pursuing peace with the Palestinians.

The Trump administration has nodded its acceptance of the Israeli annexation plans further undermining the international legal regime and efforts to find a lasting peaceful solution. Meanwhile, the EU has issued weak condemnations of Israel’s actions but offered no credible threat of action to deter the occupying power.

In this context, Occupied makes for a necessary viewing for today’s incurious political elites and the people who vote for them.

While it is not about occupied Palestine, it says everything about it: the farther an occupier entrenches itself in a foreign land, the more chaos it sows.