Israel and the West Bank: Is it an occupation, or just a hobby?
Yet again, AllExperts.com 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.
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,
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.
(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)
Categories: Israel, Palestine, Occupation, Middle East, Settlements.