Is the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, now in its 53rd year, a necessity for Israel’s security, or is it the result of Israeli colonialism?
To Israel’s enemies, the answer is colonialism, but I do not believe the answer to be so simple.
I asked many friends who are Israeli, non-Israeli Jewish, and other friends of Israel a simple question: If Israel withdrew unilaterally from the West Bank (except large settlement blocks), would it survive? The answers were revealing.
Practically all my friends are politically on the left or center, yet almost no one thought that such a move would be good for either Israel or the Palestinians. Many of them thought that Israel would survive, but would suffer significant losses. Some of them thought that Israel would simply not survive because the West Bank would be taken over by terrorists who would have access to heavy weaponry that could kill so many Israelis in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that Israel would not recover.
I think that Israel would survive, at least in the short term. Israel and Jews have suffered bigger blows in the past and still survived, but it would still be a huge blow.
To predict what would happen, we can use Gaza as a model and extrapolate. Israel’s defense systems can stop most rockets but not all, and the effectiveness of these systems is significantly reduced with shorter distances. We can expect that Palestinian rockets would level some buildings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and unlike the IDF, Palestinian terrorists do not warn before attacking. Even a devastating response by the IDF would not totally silence rockets unless Israel is willing to re-occupy the West Bank, at the cost of many lives on both sides.
In all likelihood, Israel’s economy would suffer immensely, and many Israelis and Palestinians would be killed or seriously injured. In the long term, Israel could become weaker and therefore more vulnerable to powerful enemies such as Iran.
Even ardent critics of Israel, if they are honest, recognize that unilateral withdrawal is not an option. The expanded edition of Yossi Klein Halevi’s book “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” includes responses by several Palestinians. One of them is Subhi Awad who grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut and now lives in Australia. Awad is a BDS activist who says that the end to the occupation “needs to happen now. No road maps, no time frames, just happen now. Anything that delays it from happening right now is just facilitating the brutality of my people”. And yet, even Awad says that the areas vacated by Israel would be left in the hands of “peacekeepers”, not in the hands of the PA, implying that the withdrawal would not be unilateral but would require negotiations with other countries that could enforce security.
But the question of whether the occupation constitutes colonialism still lingers. Three candidates for the Democratic nomination for President (Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg) have said that they would consider putting financial pressure on Israel to try to limit the settlements construction in the West Bank. Warren, who is currently tied for the lead with Joe Biden, said, “Right now, [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu says he is going to take Israel in a direction of increasing settlements. That does not move us toward a two-state solution”.
Practically the whole world sees Israeli settlements in the West Bank as an illegal encroachment on Palestinian rights. There is no doubt that those settlements would not exist if Israel was not present militarily on that land, so it is easy to conclude that the IDF is in the West Bank to force the settlements on the Palestinians, and for no other reason.
Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank is intellectually easy to justify, but the continued expansion of settlements on Palestinian land is not, making Israel’s occupation look a lot more like colonialism than like a military necessity.
For the vast majority of Jews, Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria (the biblical name of the West Bank) cannot be anything but normal and natural, and it is not colonialism which consists of acquiring land that one has no legitimate right to acquire.
And yet the West Bank and Gaza is not uninhabited land. It is the home of millions of Palestinians who have no state. When Israel acquires parts of that land for its own citizens and leaves the Palestinian residents stateless, this cannot logically be seen as anything but colonialism or even Apartheid.
If Israel wishes the world to see its military presence in the West Bank as a military necessity and not as colonialism, it should start by shutting down settlements outside of East Jerusalem and large settlement blocks. Until then, opposition to the Israeli occupation will continue to grow, and it will reach a powerful office that until now has not seriously challenged the occupation, the White House.