This piece examines the mainstream Israeli perspective on the country’s presence in the West Bank and its establishment of settlements in the area since 1967. It delves specifically into the hearts and minds of Jewish Israeli voters on the issue. It’s biased in a sense that this piece attempts to provide how Israelis understand why the Palestinians may be occupied, but this piece of land is something else altogether, which may explain the contradiction of settling the land while offering to leave it at the same time.
Let’s dive right in.
How Israel comes to control the West Bank
As a result of Israel being triumphant in the 1948 War, it establishes itself as a sovereign state in 78% of the former British Mandate of Palestine. Israel is not in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, or the Gaza Strip from 1948-1967 because its sovereign borders are established wherever the IDF was at the end of the first Arab-Israeli war. Jordan conquers the West Bank and East Jerusalem and Egypt conquers the Gaza Strip. While not relevant to the settlement conversation with regards to the contemporary conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, the Golan Heights is in Syrian hands when they sign an armistice agreement with Israel.
In 1967, Israel triples in size and acquires new territories during The Six Day War; the Golan Heights from Syria, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula from Egypt. As a result of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the remaining 22% of the former British Mandate of Palestine,, and then some, are now in Israel’s hands.
While the 1948 Arab-Israeli War determined “the sovereign” in the lands of the former British Mandate of Palestine, would the results of the 1967 War also be a moment determining sovereignty? Or would Israel be required to retreat because its sovereignty was determined in 1948, and any other territorial expansion would be deemed illegal?
The International Community has mostly agreed that Israel needs to leave these territories. UN Resolution 242 passed in November 1967 encouraged Israel to “leave territories occupied” when it gets an end to belligerency from the Arab sides. But Israelis on the other hand still disagree on what the moment of 1967 means to them today, and this is what we will now explore.
So what has Israel done with these territories since 1967?
Has it annexed all of these territories? No. Has it annexed some? Yes. Has it helped its citizens move to all of the territories? You bet. Has Israel forcibly withdrew citizen from many of these territories it had originally helped them to set up communities and towns, otherwise known as settlements? 100%.
How does all that above even make sense? Let’s try and understand Israel’s relationship with the various territories it took over in 1967 during The Six Day War.
Israel has actually returned 90% of the territories it took over in 1967, but that’s because the Sinai is huge; Israel returns the Sinai in a “Land for Peace” deal with Egypt signed in 1979.
The other territory Israel no longer controls is Gaza. It withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and handed over the territory to the Palestinian Authority (which loses it to Hamas in June 2007 in a military coup-d’etat).
These two territories — the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula — were never annexed by Israel. While 5,000 Israelis lived in the Sinai and nearly 10,000 Israelis lived in the Gaza Strip at their peaks, these lands were never technically part of sovereign Israel and were always under Israel’s military occupation, ruled by Israel’s ministry of defence.
In 1981, Israel actually annexed the Golan Heights, bringing it into the fold of sovereign Israeli territory. However, the language passed by the Knesset did not use the technical word for annexation, leaving open the potential possibility of a “land for peace” deal with Syria with regards to the Golan like it had with Egypt when returning the Sinai.
With regards to East Jerusalem, pretty soon after taking over the territory, Israel annexes it. The city is united and declared Israel’s eternal and undivided capital. It has built several Jewish neighborhoods in the post 1967 area of the city, such as reinhabiting the Jewish quarter of the Old City and establishing Jewish neighborhoods like Ramot, Pisgat Ze’ev and Gilot. But unlike the international community, Israel does not consider these areas settlements, but rather rightful residential expansions of its united and undivided capital city.
What is the West Bank for Israelis?
Unlike East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, Israel has never annexed the West Bank. However, it has helped facilitate the establishment of many settlements all over the area, with over 400,000 Israeli citizens live in what Israelis call Judea and Samaria over fifty years later.
Why has Israel built infrastructure and encouraged its citizens to live an area it has never annexed and has never considered part of its sovereign territory?
For many Israelis, it was simple. The country had a nine mile border from 1948-1967. Israel’s former foreign minister Abba Eban called these “Auschwitz borders.” Did Israelis feel secure in those early years of the state neighboring a mountainous territory where terrorist incursions upon Israeli population centers were common, and a more existential threat of a potential Arab army invasion from the East? The heart of Israel’s economy and population existed on the narrow coastal plain bordering what was, from 1948-1967, the Jordanian West Bank. So when the IDF takes over the territory, it provides the beating demographic and economic heart of the state valuable strategic depth.
This territory being seen as a strategic asset evolved from a buffer from an Arab military invasion to protect the heart of the Israeli home-front from terror. The idea was, if the country establishes “security” settlements in peripheral areas in the West Bank neighboring Palestinian population areas, then the violence and conflict would occur in those peripheral areas as opposed to major demographic and economic centers in Israel.
Additionally, as terror groups gained strength in the Palestinian areas of the West Bank, especially with the precedent of what happened when Israel left the Gaza Strip (2005), and Hamas has taken over Gaza less than two years later from the Palestinian Authority (2007), and used it, from Israelis perspective, as a base to terrorize Israelis with terror tunnels, rockets and wars, Israelis do not want that to happen in the West Bank. Unlike the Gaza Strip, the West Bank is simply too close to the center of the country where 70% of the Israeli population lives. It is two miles from the country’s main international airport and without an IDF presence in the Jordan Valley of the West Bank, it would be susceptible to arms smuggling from the East like what has occurred for years in Gaza from smuggling tunnels to its South.
Since 1967, Israelis have seen the West Bank as a security asset, and most Israelis simply see holding onto the territory as vital to their security today based on their failed experiment with unilateralism in 2005 with leaving Gaza without a peace agreement in hand. In the typical Israeli voter’s experience, if Israel leaves the West Bank, it will get Hamas there just as it got the terror group on its southern border. And Israelis simply will not tolerate such a future.
The West Bank is also a Liberated Territory for many Israelis
Besides seeing the West Bank as strategically important, many Israelis identify the territory not as the “west bank” of the Jordan River, but rather as the biblical heartland of the Jewish people. They do not call it the West Bank, but rather by its traditional biblical name – Judea and Samaria.
For many Zionists, this territory is part of the liberated land of Israel. It’s where the original Jewish kingdoms were, with Jerusalem the seat of the capital. Returning to control this territory in 1967 was a completion of the Zionist mission and the liberation of the entirety of the land of Israel, and therefore it was a Zionist imperative to pioneer and the settle the territory, just as the original Zionists from Europe did during the Ottoman and British periods before the establishment of the State. Just as the IDF held onto certain territories after the Independence War of 1948, the same story was being written again in 1967.
For many Israelis, returning to the heartland of the homeland was the greatest moment of Jewish redemption. The hopes and prayers of thousands of years of actually returning home rang true. It was truly redeeming and miraculous, and that’s why many Israelis see the West Bank, or once again as they call it Judea and Samaria, a liberated territory.
Occupied People on a Disputed Territory
So if the West Bank is a strategic and liberated territory for most Israelis, why then has it never been annexed by Israel? Why are the areas under Israeli civilian and security control not technically sovereign Israeli territory, but are under the jurisdiction of the IDF?
The reason is actually simple. Most Israeli voters simply look at the demographic numbers and understand the threat an annexation of the West Bank poses, as the move would mean that Israel, as a democracy, would have to give citizenship to over 2.5 Million Arab Palestinians living in the territory (this is assuming Israel annexes all of the West Bank, including Areas A & B, which are semi-autonomous areas ruled by the Palestinian Authority).
So if Israel annexed the West Bank, can it still remain a Jewish and democratic state? According to the majority of Israelis, that answer is no. Israel cannot be a Jewish and democratic state if it fully incorporates the West Bank into its sovereign territory.
Currently Israel has a population of around 8.5 million people, with 75% being Jewish. If it added another 2.5 million Arab citizens, it would significantly decrease the Jewish majority, and therefore threaten the Jewish character of the state if Zionist parties can no longer control political power. Even though Israel does not have a constitution and does not have any legal definition of what it means to be a Jewish state, there’s an underlying understanding that the basic definition of Israel as a Jewish state is one as a democratic state with an ethnic Jewish majority. If that majority is threatened, then it’s Jewish character is threatened.
As most Israeli voters understand the demographic threat the Arab Palestinian population poses in the West Bank, even if they see the West Bank as strategically vital and liberating to the Zionist story, they see annexation as an existential threat to the Zionist experiment.
Why isn’t the West Bank an Occupied Territory for most Israelis?
So if most Israelis look at the West Bank, and see that there is an Arab Palestinian majority, why do most Israelis not see the territory being occupied? If for the first half of Israel’s rule, the Palestinians lived under Israeli military occupation, and in the second half, they’ve mostly lived under the Palestinian Authority — although Palestinian autonomous areas (Area’s A & B) sit next to Israeli controlled areas (Area C) in the West Bank. This means Palestinians in the West Bank have to encounter the Israeli military and authorities in many forms on a macro and micro scale; this comes in the form of tax collection, infrastructure development, telecommunications, travelling between cities, and engagements with soldiers such as midnight raids, arrests, curfews, checkpoints and barriers.
While a population may live under military occupation, Israelis distinguish between the people and the land. Many say the West Bank is a disputed territory with a people – the Palestinians – living under a belligerent military occupation as understood by the Israeli Supreme Court. While some may protest this portrayal as the majority of West Bank Palestinians live under Palestinian Authority rule, the Palestinians still must encounter the IDF for many basic human services and rights. This is why the Israeli Supreme Court explains that the Palestinian population in the West Bank lives under a belligerent military occupation. So while the laws of occupation according to International Law are applied in the West Bank, the territory itself, according to the Israeli position, is not occupied but disputed.
To understand this justification of the people but not the land being occupied, many Israelis ask from which country is Israel occupying the territory?
Jordanian occupation of the West Bank was not recognized by the International Community as legal. Only the United Kingdom and Pakistan recognized Jordan’s presence in the West Bank as legitimate. According to International Law, the last legal sovereign of the West Bank was the British Mandate. And according to its League of Nations Charter, the British were supposed to facilitate the establishment of a Jewish national home in and encourage Jewish immigration to the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean sea, which today includes sovereign Israel and the West Bank.
So from the Israeli perspective, the territory is not illegally occupied as there’s a legal justification for it to rule over it based on international law. But with that being said, most Israelis understand that it cannot rule over another people forever. Besides it not being fair or just, this occupation threatens the very reason for Israel’s existence – to be a Jewish state. Therefore, by the early 1990’s, after a quarter century of its military occupation, Israelis voted in Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor Party to change the situation and remove the IDF and most of its settlers from the West Bank in return for an end of conflict deal with the Palestinians.
With attempts to leave the West Bank during the Oslo Process, offering up end of Conflict deals in 2000 and 2008, experimenting with unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, most Israelis would say their country has shown a commitment to ending what some would characterize its occupation of the West Bank. The problem for Israelis is the deep fear and mistrust they have of the Palestinians if they were to leave the West Bank. Most Israelis believe Israel’s military and population presence protects the heartland of the country. And for those that protest that Israel’s Occupation actually encourages hatred, violence and terrorism, and is a moral disaster and a human nightmare experienced by the Palestinians who endure it, even these skeptics argue Israel cannot leave the West Bank without a responsible withdrawal which would occur in an end of conflict bilateral agreement with the Palestinians.
While Israelis are convinced — at about a two to one ratio — of the existential imperative to leave the West Bank in order to preserve their Jewish and democratic state, a greater ratio of Israelis feel an irresponsible withdrawal from the territory without a peace agreement would make their security situation more unstable and untenable.
So while Israelis see the strategic importance of the West Bank, the liberating qualities of the territory to the Zionist story, and understand where the Palestinian population experiences life under Israeli occupation, the territory is in fact a disputed one between the sides. While Israel has a serious political, ideological and legal justification to hold onto the territory, it cannot extend complete sovereignty over it without threatening Israel’s Jewish and democratic characterization.
What are the settlements to most Israelis?
Israeli law treats the West Bank much differently than East Jerusalem, even though both areas are taken by the IDF during the 1967 War. Israel has never annexed the West Bank since taking over the area. From the Israeli government’s perspective, whether a left or right wing coalition, there are legal and illegal settlements in the territory. But the settlements, philosophically, from the Israeli perspective, can be characterized as being understood by most Israelis as one of the five following characterizations.
Economic settlers: For many Israelis, the settlements are like suburbs. They are small towns and villages very close to the major cities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – these are the settlements like Efrat, Gush Etzion, Ma’ale Edumim, Ariel, etc. Many Israeli see the settlements as economic solutions to a high cost of living in Israel. Simply put, you can get more bang for your buck as they are cheaper places to live.
“Family” settlers: Besides the economic element, there are generations of Israelis that grew up and have now returned to live in a settlement to be close to their families. After college, while many go live in the big cities, as young people get married and start families, there are plenty of people that simply want to be where they grew up, and that is now different with Israeli returning to live in the settlement communities of their youth.
Ultra Orthodox settlers: Additionally, one third of the Israeli settlement population are Ultra-Orthodox Israelis, who mostly live in the two biggest settlements of Beitar Illit and Modi’in Ilit (over 100,000 people). They live in these settlements not from a Zionist ideological justification, but rather because they are towns zoned for their constituency by the Israeli government. It is no different than living in Jerusalem, B’nai Brak, or Elad, cities with significant Ultra-Orthodox populations. As most Ultra-Orthodox Israelis are not ideologically committed to Zionism, for them living over the “Green Line” is not something that affirms or contradicts their Zionist ideals, as they do not have a Zionist starting point
Security settlers: Additionally, many of the original settlements were established by the Israeli government in the late 1960’s through the 1970’s as security establishments to protect the heartland of the Israeli population. The goal followed Ben-Gurion’s notion of settling the periphery in the emerging years of the state as a means to create facts on the ground, but also to have the “conflict” stay in peripheral areas. Some settlements established in this vain still act as a security buffer to the main Israeli population centers today.
Ideological settlers: Lastly, and what is perceived to be the most important characterization of the settlements, and absolutely plays a considerable part in why the settlements exist and why they continue to be supported politically, is the ideological reason. Although a minority, a strong and loud one with their own party in the Knesset called today Bayit Yehudi, these settlers are ideologically committed to the liberation of the entire land of greater Israel, and understand Israel’s complete victory in 1967 as an opportunity to continue the Zionist pioneering spirit of the early years before the state’s founding. For these settlers, and the Israelis who support their cause, the redemption of the Jewish people in the land of Israel is tied to the settlement enterprise in liberated Judea and Samaria (West Bank).
As seen with these five characterizations, the settlements are understood in very different ways for Israelis. You’ll find Israelis that will explain why the settlements are or are not an obstacle to peace as they understand why the settlements exist in the diverse ways as described above.
Some Israelis would say that the settlements are an obstacle to peace because they prevent the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state. There’s definitely a viewpoint, although a minority one amongst Zionist Israelis, that the settlements are illegitimate and provide no utility to Israel, whether ideologically or practically.
Many Israeli opinions but one Israeli consensus about the West Bank
What’s important to emphasize in this discussion is the there is not a homogenous Israel position when it comes to the issue of the West Bank and Settlements. Israeli society has debated for half a century about what to do with this complicated territory, and the question is still up in the air. While most of the international community and the Arab world simply see the settlements and Israel’s presence there as the main obstacle to peace, Israelis have a deeply layered relationship with the area. But with this diverse relationship, at the end of the day, if you look at polling of Israeli voters, about two-thirds support a two state solution, meaning they support the withdrawal of the majority of Israel’s settlements and its soldiers in the West Bank, but only if that means an end of conflict peace agreement with the Palestinians. But since most Israeli voters do not sincerely believe there to be a partner for peace on the other side, they are adamant about Israel continuing to “manage the conflict” to ensure their collective security, even if this means sacrificing the individual and basic rights of many Palestinians having to live under, around and be affected by Israel’s military occupation.