You’ve all seen the news reports on Gaza, but the heart of the conflict and the key to understanding it is elsewhere. It’s in the news of a massive Israeli seizure of Palestinian land in the West Bank, some four square kilometres, the largest single seizure in thirty years. It’s in the systematic theft and destruction of people’s homes and farms that’s been going on for decades and has intensified since the Oslo Accords. References are occasionally made to “settlements” in news reports on the conflict, but few people recognize how central they are, and how revealing of Israel’s intentions, objectives, and motivations.
The vast majority of settlements are and have always been in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, so that is what this chart illustrates. Israel provides substantial subsidies, including ones for housing and water, in order to encourage Israelis to move into these settlements. In the last eight months alone, Israel has evicted 400 Palestinian families from their homes and stolen their lands.
The settlements are internationally recognized as illegal, and they are commonly expanded by means of ethnic cleansing – Palestinian land is appropriated by Israel for the settlements themselves and for “buffer zones” around the settlements. Palestinians who have farms near the borders of the settlement are forbidden from cultivating them for “security reasons”; them, under an old Ottoman-era law allowing the government to claim farmland if it is left uncultivated for several years, Israel claims the land, adds it to the settlements, and creates a new “buffer zone” of additional land. Settlers in the more extremist settlements contribute to this process by cutting down Palestinian olive groves, throwing rubbish in the yards of Palestinian homes (at times, as I have seen personally, to the extent that the Palestinians are unable to leave their homes by the front door, as it is blocked by garbage), and throwing rocks at Palestinian children as they walk to school. There are international NGOs who have, as a significant part of their work, volunteers walking to school with Palestinian children in order to help dissuade Israeli settlers from doing this.
Bethlehem has been plagued by settlement expansion for many years, and this was intensified by the construction of the Separation Wall, which went not along the Green Line, but directly through the commercial heart of Bethlehem, with a devastating economic impact and equally severe personal impacts. On my first trip to the Middle East, I met with and heard (through translation) the story of a woman who lived near the wall and had been continually harassed by Israeli soldiers seeking to drive her from her home.
This latest theft of land by Israel, just to the west of Bethlehem, covers an area of the West Bank already surrounded on three sides by Israeli settlements. It steals land that has belonged to Palestinian families for generations.
“How is it possible that this is state land?” said Mohammad Assaf, a village resident. “I inherited this plot of land from my father, and him from my grandfather. We already live in a prison that prevents us from expanding for population or agricultural needs.”
Israel says that the move is in response to the killing of three settler teenagers in the West Bank last June. (In comparison, there were 399 attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinian civilians in 2013. Palestinian police are forbidden from responding to these attacks or defending their civilians.) But this is nonsensical – there’s no connection whatsoever between a murder and territorial expansion by Israel. If American tourists are killed in Mexico, the US doesn’t become entitled to annex Mexican territory.
And this new expansion goes beyond typical settlement construction. Israel has stated that the territory it is claiming will be considered as Israeli territory, and be within Israeli borders in any permanent agreement made with the Palestinian Territories in future. In short, having already annexed East Jerusalem, Israel is now annexing parts of the West bank as permanent territorial acquisitions. The acquisition of territory by force is entirely against international law, and is one of the most serious and dangerous violations that exists – the same kind that Russia is currently trying to commit in Ukraine, and receiving far more attention for.
What does this mean? It means that Israel’s primary objective is NOT security. Security is a distraction, a smokescreen. Israel’s goal is, and has been for decades, territorial expansion. Their fundamental problem is that they want the land of the West Bank and East Jerusalem – and the water that is under it – but they don’t want the people on that land to be able to vote in their elections. So they force the Palestinians onto ever smaller, ever more restricted, parts of land. They create settlements that make the remaining parts of the West Bank unconnected to each other or East Jerusalem, so that Palestinians cannot move from place to place. The final goal is a set of small Palestinian areas with the remaining population of Palestine – those who have not become refugees in other countries or been killed in Israeli attacks – tightly concentrated inside them, with the majority of the land of the West Bank, and all of East Jerusalem, in Israeli hands. As this is accomplished, additional land – like the land seized on Sunday – can be annexed to Israel, without needing to include the people who formerly lived on it.
The goal, in short, is a series of micro-territories in what is now the West Bank. Small areas with no economy, no way to make a decent life. Areas that can be controlled by Israel. That can be bombed until they submit or until they have no population left. Israel gains both the land and a captive workforce.
If that sounds like Bantustans, that’s because that’s exactly what it is.
These facts may not be recognized or acknowledged by much of the US or Canadian media, but they’re not fringe – many of the same things I have recounted above have been reported by The Economist in a recent article, which I highly recommend.
Israel has been dominant, and unopposed in any significant way by the United States, for over a decade, under no pressure to make any significant moves towards peace with the Palestinians. It has taken advantage of this situation in a comprehensive manner.
The world has two choices. It can act, now, strongly, to stop Israel’s annexation of the West Bank and put sufficient pressure on Israel to force to accept either a two-state solution, or a single state with Palestinian enfranchisement. Or it can wait, and see the end of Palestine and of the Palestinians go into the history books along with the dispossession of Native Americans, the partition of Poland, the Scramble for Africa, and other depredations of empire and conquest, as something that “should never have happened”, but that no one cared enough to stop.