It’s a simple and oft-repeated mantra: “If it weren’t for ‘the settlements,’ violence against Israel would come to an end.” Some would even say the settlements are the catalyst of instability in the region.
These are, however, distorted notions, perpetrated by groups who either do not know the relevant history or prefer to disregard it for the sake of a cause.
The “settlements,” populations of Jews living in the “occupied territories,” came into existence in June 1967 as a result of Six Day War. Israel captured the territories–which then included the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Sinai Peninsula–in a defensive conflict against Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and other Arab states. Was this the genesis of the hatred and terrorism that plagues Israel?
Hardly. Violence and enmity against Jews in Palestine was endemic long before 1967.
In 1964 the Palestine Liberation Organization was founded. The “liberation” they sought and the terrorism they wrought against the Jews of Israel cannot be attributed to settlements that would not exist for another three years. They wanted Israel eliminated. The same goal motivated the armies of Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq in 1948, when they mounted a united attack to destroy their tiny neighbor. In 1941 the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, leader of the Palestinian Arabs, assured Adolf Hitler in a Berlin meeting that the Arabs were his natural friends because they shared the same enemies, including the Jews and the British. It’s a longstanding narrative.
The question should be posed: If the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza did not begin until 1967, who “occupied” Gaza and the West Bank before that? What nations usurped and controlled these lands?
It was Jordan who occupied the West Bank, and Egypt who occupied Gaza, from 1948 – 1967. Did the world condemn and Egypt and Jordan as imperialist villains for “occupying” Palestinian land during those 19 years? Seemingly, these countries were granted exemption from such criticism.
This raises another fundamental point: Is it accurate to call Gaza and the West Bank “Palestinian land” as of 1948, or 1967, or at any time in history? These territories have in fact never “belonged” to the Palestinians, or been part of any Palestinian state. The West Bank and Gaza would have been part of a Palestinian state, if only the Palestinians hadn’t rejected that opportunity.
The pivot point here was in 1947, so let’s revisit that for a moment. At that time the Arabs and Jews of Palestine were British subjects (before that, subjects of the Ottoman Empire). In 1947 the UN issued a Partition Plan for Palestine, establishing a Jewish State and a Palestinian State. The West Bank and Gaza were parts of the territory offered to the Palestinian Arabs. However, the Palestinians rejected the UN Partition Plan.
Palestine’s Jews accepted the UN Partition Plan, and in the aftermath Israel was born as a state in May 1948. Israel’s territory did not include the West Bank or Gaza, and these territories entered an indeterminate status–they were no longer Ottoman, no longer British, and had been designated by the UN for a proposed Palestinian Arab state in a plan the Palestinian Arabs and Arab nations rejected.
The coordinated 1948 Arab attack on Israel was launched the day after Israel declared itself an independent state. Israel prevailed but as noted, Egypt and Jordan seized control of Gaza and the West Bank, and they remained in control for the next 19 years.
That takes us up to 1967, when another war changed the borders. Egyptian President Nasser evicted UN Emergency Forces from his country’s Sinai Peninsula and closed off the Tiran Straits to Israeli shipping. Vast armies of Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian troops, along with armadas of Arab tanks and artillery, were mobilized to Israel’s south, north, and east flanks, in preparation for another attack on the vastly outnumbered Jewish state. A host of other Arab states supported the cause.
The rhetoric in the days leading up to this war was menacing and vitriolic. Hafez Assad, then the Syrian Defense Minister, proclaimed that the time had come to begin “a battle of annihilation.” Ahmed Shukairy, Chairman of the PLO, pronounced: “We shall destroy Israel and its inhabitants and as for the survivors – if there are any – the boats are ready to deport them.” Iraqi President Abdel Rahman Aref stated that the goal was to “wipe Israel off the face of the map.” Cairo Radio announced that the Arab people were “firmly resolved” to this very purpose.
However, the result was that the Arab nations lost the 1967 war, and in the process Jordan lost the West Bank, and Egypt lost the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula. Thus Israel became the “occupiers” of these lands–the consequence of a war of survival it did not seek.
Some say Israel should have been a gracious winner and given the territories back to the aggressors. Is this a reasonable expectation? Had the Arab nations succeeded in their coordinated mission to drive the Jews into the sea in 1967, would they have given Israel back to Jews after the war was over? Or, would Israel now exist only on the pages of history books. And here’s another problem: if war is a no-risk proposition where the aggressor is allowed keep any lands he gains but is guaranteed return of any lands he might lose, what is to deter belligerents from making war?
In any event, the rest of this story is that Israel did return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in 1979, in exchange for peace. This was a favorable exchange, but Gaza is a different story. Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Hamas took control of Gaza, and has since fired several thousand rockets and mortars at Israel’s civilian population. Gaza is no longer occupied by Israel but it is blockaded by both Israel and Egypt, because Hamas smuggles in missiles, mortars, and who knows what else from its kindly benefactors Iran and Syria.
The West Bank remains an “occupied” territory. About 95% of it was offered to the Palestinians in the 2000 Camp David peace talks (along with additional territory within pre-1967 Israel), with parts of East Jerusalem to serve as the capital of a Palestinian State, and Gaza was included as well, but that offer was rejected by the Palestinians under the leadership of Yasser Arafat.
Should Israel continue to build settlements in the West Bank? If I had the ear of Israeli leadership I would argue against it, based on the belief that expanding the settlements is counterproductive and reduces the chances of successful peace talks. But the issue is habitually contorted and exaggerated by Israel’s detractors. It is described as the crux of the problem, when history has shown that the real “problem” for those who perpetuate jihad is that Israel exists at all.
And, one must also consider the utility of having something of value to offer, in negotiating against a hostile and intractable adversary. Israel, a democratic nation with a thriving economy, peacefully minds its own business so long as it is not under attack. Its adversaries know it does not desire to wage war. What can Israel offer that its adversaries value, other than land? Indeed, would the treaty between Israel and Egypt have materialized, had Israel not been in a position to trade the Sinai Peninsula for peace?
The status of the West Bank is ripe for change. Israel may ultimately withdraw from most or all of it, on terms similar to what it offered Arafat in 2000. However, Israel is well advised not to do so unless and until the Palestinians have agreed to concrete, verifiable, and enforceable terms that assure secure Israeli borders, an end to the culture of anti-Israel jihad, and recognition by all necessary parties of Israel’s right to exist in peace.