Sunday, September 10, 2006

Israel and the West Bank: Is it an occupation, or just a hobby?

Yet again, has come to my rescue. Just when I was coming to grips with having to finish the first post in my upcoming and long-awaited “Lessons from Lebanon” series, someone asked me a good question that allowed me to write something bloggable while continuing to procrastinate.


Dear Don,

I hope you don’t interpret my questions as hostile, I’m just wondering what the Israeli point of view is.

Firstly, do you consider Israel’s presence in the West Bank to be an “occupation”?

If so, why does Israel continue to occupy the West Bank? The fact that it is building more settlements in the West Bank (I read that 9,000 settlers were removed from Gaza in the summer of 2005, but a larger number have since moved into the West Bank) suggests that it wants to annex the territory and make it part of Israel. Do you agree?

I think I may have some more questions after your response,

With respect,


Dear E____ –

Whether Israel’s presence in the West Bank constitutes an occupation is a surprisingly complex question. The normal definition of that term – or at least the standard definition under the Geneva Conventions – designates land as “occupied” when it legally belongs to one “High Contracting Party” (meaning a sovereign country that is signatory to the Conventions) and is currently under the military control of another “High Contracting Party”. In the case of the West Bank, however, there is no generally-recognized previous owner (that is, a country with sovereignty) of the West Bank:

  • The Ottoman Empire no longer exists, and modern Turkey makes no claim on land in our region;

  • Jordan's post-1948 annexation of the area was recognized only by the United Kingdom and Pakistan (and Jordan has renounced all claim to the West Bank in any case);

  • “Palestine” has never existed as a sovereign country;

  • All the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean was allocated by the League of Nations to the “Jewish Homeland” – but the League of Nations Mandate (which is still part of “international law” to this day) did not specifically mention Jewish statehood and sovereignty, even if eventual Jewish statehood was implied by the terms of the Mandate;

  • The pre-1967 “Green Line” was never a legally-recognized border; it was just an armistice line. The 1949 Armistice Agreements explicitly state that the Green Line is not an official border, and that neither side renounces territorial claims on the other side of the Green Line. (This, by the way, is the principal reason why Israel never put up a fence along the Green Line: to do so would have been to grant it de facto recognition, and considering how vulnerable the pre-1967 shape of our country made us – with hardly anything between our effective eastern border and the sea – we never wanted to make the unmodified Green Line permanent);

  • Outside of Jerusalem, Israel has never formally annexed any of the land taken from Jordan in 1967; so while we have never abandoned our claim to sovereignty over the West Bank, we have never formally asserted this claim either – except regarding the small portion of the territory that is now part of Jerusalem;

  • United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which is generally accepted as the political and legal basis for Mideast peacemaking, affirms that Israeli withdrawal from territory occupied in the 1967 war should be one of the principles on which a Mideast peace agreement should be based; but the resolution does not specify a full withdrawal, designate Israel’s legal border, or call for an Israeli withdrawal outside the context of a Mideast peace agreement. (Note, also, that U.N. 242 refers to the territories as “occupied” rather than “disputed”; but in this context, it’s not clear that the phrase “territories occupied in the recent conflict” implies any specific opinion regarding the West Bank’s legal status. The United Nations certainly never recognized the West Bank as sovereign Jordanian territory, which at that time was the only obvious alternative to Israeli sovereignty over the area. Resolution 242 makes no mention of “Palestine” as an actual or potential state, or of the creation of a new country to accommodate Palestinian Arabs.)

All this means that for political and legal purposes, the West Bank is more accurately described as “disputed” rather than “occupied” territory. On the other hand, the practical realities on the ground are essentially the same whether the land is “occupied” or “disputed” – and thus Israel has chosen to adopt a sort of hybrid approach: we adhere (in theory, and for the most part in practice) to the humanitarian provisions of the Geneva Conventions regarding our treatment of the Palestinians living in the West Bank, while we do not necessarily adhere to the more strictly political provisions of the Conventions.

The League of Nations Mandate for Palestine (which, by the way, uses the term “Palestine” in a strictly geographic sense – the term was never used to refer to a potential state until much later) specifically gives Jews the right to settle in all areas of Palestine west of the Jordan River; this right has never been revoked, and the United Nations Charter recognizes the legal validity of League of Nations mandates. Thus one can make a very solid legal argument that Jews have every right to settle in the West Bank – subject, of course, to humanitarian considerations, land-ownership issues, and so on.

In practical terms, most Israelis have no desire to annex all of the West Bank – not that we wouldn’t like to have a larger country without that vulnerable 14-kilometer-wide “wasp waist”, but simply because we know that there are far too many Palestinian Arabs living in Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron, and the other West Bank towns and cities; to incorporate this territory into Israel, we would have to choose between giving up our status as a Jewish state, abandoning democracy, or committing a mass expulsion (or worse) of West Bank Arabs – a measure which only a tiny minority of Israelis are ready to tolerate.

At the same time, most Israelis are very reluctant to withdraw all the way to the pre-1967 “border”: to do so would be a strategic nightmare, especially in this age of rocket attacks. Given all of the West Bank to play with, the Palestinians would easily be able to fire rockets at the vast majority of Israeli population centers.

Accordingly, the vast majority of Israelis are ready to make some sort of territorial compromise on the West Bank: Most of the land would be used to set up a Palestinian state (or, alternatively, given to Jordan – except that nowadays Jordan probably wouldn’t take the West Bank even if we asked nicely), while Israel would retain “settlement blocs” near the Green Line, and perhaps give up some sovereign Israeli territory adjacent to the Gaza Strip as well. Of course, the devil (as always) is in the details; but the fact remains that Israel has repeatedly expressed willingness to negotiate along these lines, while the Palestinians have never responded affirmatively or even offered a realistic counter-proposal.

I hope this clarified the issues a bit. If your head is spinning, that’s a good sign: the status of the West Bank, the legality of Israeli settlements there, and eventual prospects for a resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict are tremendously complex issues, with far more questions than answers. Of course, I’ll be more than happy to try to answer follow-up questions.

Best regards,

-Don Radlauer

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

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At Sun Sep 10, 10:33:00 PM GMT+3, Blogger Yoel.Ben-Avraham said...

I strongly suggest you copy this post to an appropriate item in the Wikipedia Encyclopedia! Seriously!


At Sun Sep 10, 11:59:00 PM GMT+3, Blogger Don Radlauer said...

Thanks for the kind words, Yoel - it's an interesting notion, and one that really hadn't occurred to me.

Frankly, I'm not sure if I should be trusted around Wikipedia. As you may have noticed if you've surfed around this blog, I'm occasionally very serious - but also occasionally rather un-serious, at rather unpredictable times. Should I start posting to Wikipedia, I can't guarantee that I wouldn't start insinuating interesting facts about Giant Carnivorous Land Clams into otherwise serious material. You've been warned!

At Mon Sep 11, 02:57:00 AM GMT+3, Anonymous Debbie said...

You might be interested in an article by Fern Sidman left in a comment at Right Truth in my post "Life After The Summer War", found here.

Very good article and I have no clues myself what the answer is for Israel and the Middle East. I do know that folks are not too happy with Olmert these days.


At Thu Sep 14, 10:27:00 AM GMT+3, Blogger westbankmama said...

The "raging centrist" does it again. Great post. Does this mean, in your opinion, that if we get enough Jews to live in Judea and Samaria we can annex it?

At Thu Sep 14, 03:22:00 PM GMT+3, Blogger Yazan said...

I enjoyed reading that,

What about the Golan Heights?

At Thu Sep 14, 04:09:00 PM GMT+3, Blogger Don Radlauer said...

Thanks, WBM and Yazan!

WBM, I'd say that in theory, if Jews were a solid majority in the West Bank, there would be a prima facie case that the land should become part of Israel. However, I don't see any realistic possibility of that situation's coming about: Jews represent a fairly small minority of all the inhabitants of the West Bank, and the vast majority of these Jews (myself included) live in a relatively small number of settlements fairly close to the Green Line. (Ariel is something of an exception to this, as it's both large and fairly far from the Green Line.) To create a meaningful Jewish majority in the bulk of the West Bank would require massive population transfers - either Jews coming in, Arabs going out, or both. I don't see any way this can be done in the real world.

Had the British run the Palestine Mandate differently - that is, had they actually obeyed the terms of the Mandate - there might well have been enough Jews in Palestine to create a Jewish, democratic state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean; but that opportunity has been lost, probably forever.

* * *

Yazan, the Golan Heights is a very different kettle of fish from the West Bank, for various reasons. For one thing, it wasn't part of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine; it was assigned to France's Mandatory territory rather than to Britain's. That's why there is a genuine "international border" that is often mentioned in discussions of Israeli/Syrian peacemaking; and in fact, one of the sticking points has been that Syria traditionally insists on returning to the "June 4 line", referring to the status quo just before the 1967 war.

(At this time, Syria controlled some Israeli territory on our side of the international border, including part of the shore of Lake Kineret (a.k.a. the Sea of Gallilee). The difference in territorial terms is small, but the significance is large: According to the international border, all of Lake Kineret and its shore are part of Israel, while according to the Syrian position part of the shore of the lake would be in Syrian control. Given the lake's importance to Israel's water supply, the distinction is crucial.)

There is no strong legal case for Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. On the other hand, the plateau, which overlooks much of Israel's most productive farmland and includes some of our most important water sources, has tremendous strategic importance. Thus the feeling in Israel is that the Golan can be negotiated away in return for genuine peace with Syria (and presumably with the rest of our neighbors); but only if the peace is "for real" and the Syrian government to which we cede the plateau is (and will remain) strong and stable.

Our fear, of course, is that we would give up the Golan Heights and then find out that we got nothing "real" in return: either a peace agreement that was abrogated, or else an agreement with a government that was soon overthrown. In short, the Golan Heights is an asset that we can't afford to trade away lightly.


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