Demystifying Israel’s Presence in the West Bank
Six incendiary days in June 1967 marked an anomaly in global war history as the State of Israel defeated Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, and Iraqi armed forces. During the war, Israel captured the West Bank from occupying Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from occupying Egypt. The reborn Jewish state defied the odds of its prior existential defensives in 1948 and 1956, essentially tripling its territory and shedding its “underdog” status. Israeli control over the Sinai was reversed in a 1979 peace agreement, and in 2005 Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip. However, 56 years later, Israel continues to control most of the West Bank, puzzling many who fail to see why the conditions of withdrawal from the latter would be much different from the prior.
The Israeli military presence in the West Bank began as a temporary defensive occupation, with military (not civilian) posts primarily established until 1975. The move shared some parallels with the occupations of post-war Germany and Japan by the Allies, i.e. to oversee structural and ideological reform of a hostile, irredentist population. Two Israeli proposals, the Allon Plan (1967) and the Jericho Plan (1974), called for the transfer of power over most West Bank territory to the previous occupying sovereign that annexed it, Jordan. However, official talks held in secret with Jordan and unofficial talks with Palestinians fell apart. Thus, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)’s continued presence soon became a national question of Israeli irredentism, concerning Israeli demographic and territorial expansion, including civilian settlement. Such settlement threatened the spirit of UN Resolution 181, which called for a partition of Israel-Palestine into a Jewish state (Israel) and a new Arab state (Palestine).
However, the resolution for partition was rejected twenty years prior by belligerent Arab representatives in 1947 and was left unadvanced during the years of Arab occupation leading up to Israeli capture (1949-1967). As a result, no internationally-recognized Palestinian state materialized. Israel’s destruction was treated by the Arab powers as nothing less than a prerequisite to the final status of Arab independence in Palestine. By the 1967 war, Israel had the upper hand through superior coordination of its forces and sweeping pre-emptive action and was thus able to administer the West Bank as it saw fit, albeit with much international scrutiny.
From an Israeli security standpoint, retaining military oversight and having Israeli-Jewish citizens re-establish communities in the disputed territory served to correct for Israel’s indefensible nine-mile-wide coastal boundary at its narrowest and most densely populated center (Qalqilya to Herzliya). This presence could deter most raids into Israel proper as well as major attacks from the elevated hills and mountains of the Jordan River Valley.
From an Israeli ideological standpoint, a segment of Israel’s population desired control over the West Bank, historically known as Judea and Samaria, because it was the heartland of ancient Jewish (Judean) civilization with strong ethnic and spiritual significance to the Jewish people. Moreover, the West Bank was formerly part of the internationally-recognized League of Nations Mandate under the British as a “Jewish national home” – a precursor to the State of Israel. The Mandate even originally included Jordan’s entirety (severed in 1922). The international debate on the legality of Israeli West Bank construction rests on interpretations of resolutions established during the Mandate or resolutions established following, i.e. UN Resolution 181, 3414, 2334, etc.
Yet, despite the voluntary civilian resettlement of Israelis that commenced in the West Bank, Israel could not fully take the territory without significant backlash from the occupied population and the international community at large. Regional isolation and the predominant Arab demographic in the territory made it virtually impossible for an unambiguous Israeli annexation to succeed without renewed instability and porous violence. The territory was instead retained in limbo by Israel, with several Israeli peace offers for withdrawal over the decades answered with reverberating rejection from Palestinian leaders.
In the decade following the Oslo Accords alone, prior to right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s re-election (1999-2009), Israeli offers for a Palestinian state were presented to the Palestinian Authority (PA) on 95-100% of the West Bank and Gaza with land swaps, a capital in Eastern Jerusalem, a reparations fund for Palestinian refugees, and limited repatriation as well. Like prior generous offers and arrangements, these proposals were rejected without alternatives.
In stark contrast, other Arab leaders took the initiative to end belligerence with Israel through formalized peace ties, such as Egypt (1979), Jordan (1994), the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan (2020). Some argue that the Israeli leaders who made offers to Palestinians were soon to be out of power. However, this is a non sequitur argument. After Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated, the peace accords that he established with Israel in 1979 still live on. After Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, his peace agreement signed with Jordan in 1994 still lives on. Without a final status Palestinian compromise and willingness for peace, gradual Israeli population influx into the West Bank and limited autonomy granted to Palestinians will maintain the present stalemate.
Time has shown that Palestinian national aspirations and the Palestinian drive for Israel’s withdrawal, including by organized violent means, will not dissipate anytime soon. But the Israeli reaction to violence is not what you’d expect from any large and established great power, i.e. the US and its withdrawal from Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. On the contrary, Israeli policy over the past five decades, with some exceptions, has incrementally responded to Palestinian belligerence and political violence with even further entrenchment. Possessing land roughly the size of the state of New Jersey and having fought most major wars in its own territory, Israel’s built-up capabilities, including the US-funded Iron Dome and David’s Sling, are largely defensive. This renders the kind of adventurism and pullout demonstrated by any great power to be out of reach for Israel.
This entrenchment is represented today by over 500,000 Israeli Jewish citizens who reside in the West Bank. Most are strategically concentrated along the armistice ceasefire line adjacent to Israel proper and have remained a steady proportion of around 18 percent of the territory’s inhabitants (similar to Israel’s Arab citizenry at 20 percent). Palestinian Authority (PA) leaders have acknowledged that any prospective Israeli West Bank withdrawal would include land swaps of sections of Israel proper to the PA in exchange for Israeli retention of these major settlement blocs. However, as aforementioned, final status negotiations on the matter have always been undercut by continued violence and retaliation.
Given these factors, as well as ongoing arms smuggling and organized Palestinian violence stemming from the West Bank and Eastern Jerusalem, Israel perceives its enduring occupation as existential, not as a limited war with the colonial leverage to simply “pack up” and leave. There is no “motherland,” permanent refuge, nor royal sovereign for Israelis outside of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, home to nearly half of the world’s Jewish population. Thus, the greatest threat to Israeli entrenchment in the West Bank is not Palestinian force or Palestinian insistence on control over all of Israel, but genuine final status security guarantees from the Palestinians to Israel that eliminate Israeli claims to prolong occupation.
- Abraham Accords
- American Jewry
- BDS Boycott Divestment Sanctions
- Benjamin Netanyahu
- Iron Dome
- Israel-Diaspora Ties
- Israel-US Relations
- Joe Biden
- Middle East
- Palestinian Authority
- Palestinian Statehood
- Peace Process
- United Nations
- UNSC Resolution 2334
- West Bank