The disintegration of the Palestinian West Bank

27 April 2024
Ben Hillier
The Tunnel Road, also known as the Apartheid Road, near the West Bank settlement of Mount Gilo in 2020 PHOTO: Yonatan Sindel / FLASH90

Gaza has been obliterated in a matter of months, but the West Bank has faced death by a thousand cuts for close to 60 years. Jewish “settlers”, backed by the Israeli government, have taken control of much of the territory, driving Palestinians from their homes and their lands, sinking wells and establishing enclaves that amount to de facto annexations.

Sixty percent of West Bank land is controlled exclusively by the Israeli government. Peace Now, an Israeli group, estimates that there are 147 settlements, excluding those in the suburbs of East Jerusalem, and 151 Jewish “outposts”­—settlements not (yet) officially recognised by the Israeli government.

Twenty-six new Jewish outposts were established last year, the highest number on record. And media reports of settler actions and government announcements over the last six months indicate significantly increased expansion plans while the world’s eyes are fixed on Gaza.

In early April, US non-profit organisation the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention issued an “active genocide alert” for the West Bank. State-sanctioned violence, the institute noted, is “at an all-time high”. The thousands of arrests, hundreds of killings and forced evictions, it said, are part of an attempt to ethnically cleanse sections of the West Bank.

Israelis already account for 40 percent of residents in occupied East Jerusalem, the most populous Palestinian city in the area. And the settler population of the occupied territories is more than 700,000—close to 20 percent of inhabitants.

The Washington Institute, a US think tank, maintains an interactive map of all enclaves in the region. It graphically documents the breadth of colonisation: north to south, west to east, exclusive Jewish-Israeli communities dot almost every section of the territory.

The cantons remaining under a semblance of Palestinian control are isolated from the outside world and from each other (the only contiguous territory in the West Bank is that under full Israeli control). Within these cantons, the Palestinian elite associated with the Palestinian Authority live relatively privileged lives, administering and policing the population on behalf of Israel.

The situation is the outcome of a long process of state consolidation underpinned by the expansive territorial ambitions of leading Israeli politicians and by Western military and diplomatic aid.

“A partial Jewish state is not the end, but only the beginning”, Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion wrote to his son in 1937. “We will expel the Arabs and take their places ... with the force at our disposal.” Twelve years later, and now head of the newly established state of Israel, Ben-Gurion reportedly told aides that there was “no real limit” to the new state’s future borders.

Not all Zionists viewed the colonisation of Palestine in such zero-sum terms. Some believed peaceful coexistence with the existing Arab population was possible. Perhaps this would have been true if Zionist aspirations had been limited to securing a homeland, rather than a home state on other people’s land. Either way, such attitudes proved naïve once the Zionist entho-state dream was realised in 1948.

After Israel placed the West Bank and East Jerusalem under military occupation in 1967, having wrested territory from Jordan after the Six-Day War, the Zionist movement began appropriating more and more Palestinian land. Under the so-called Alon Plan, by the end of 1977 about 46 settlements had been established, including eight in the suburbs of East Jerusalem, according to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics.

That city was annexed in 1980 when Israel’s parliament approved the Jerusalem Law, declaring it Israel’s united capital. The boundaries of “Greater Jerusalem” have expanded several times since the occupation began in 1967, taking in more and more of the West Bank and allowing for larger numbers of Israeli settlers within the city limits.

But none of this satisfied the expansionists in Israel. Matityahu Drobles, chairman of the World Zionist Organization settlement department, wrote a strategy paper in 1980 titled “Settlement in Judea and Samaria—strategy, policy and plans”, which was reported to have been adopted by the Israeli government the following year. (Judea and Samaria is the biblical name for the West Bank, and the administrative name for it adopted by Israel.)

The document notes that the Zionists were in “a race against time” to acquire ever more West Bank territory, and that no effort ought to be spared establishing “facts on the ground” to prevent the emergence of any territorially coherent Palestinian polity. Known as the Drobles Plan, it read in part:

“The state-owned lands and the uncultivated barren lands in Judea and Samaria ought to be seized right away, with the purpose of settling the areas between and around the centres occupied by the minorities [an inaccurate moniker for the Palestinians] so as to reduce to the minimum the danger of an additional Arab state being established in these territories. Being cut off by Jewish settlements, the minority population will find it difficult to form a territorial and political continuity.

“The best and most effective way of removing every shadow of a doubt about our intention to hold on to Judea and Samaria forever is by speeding up the settlement momentum in these territories. Over the next five years it is necessary to establish 12 to 15 rural and urban settlements per annum ... so that five years from now the number of settlements will grow by 60 to 75 and the Jewish population thereof will amount to between 120,000 and 150,000 people.”

The pace was not as fast as hoped for: it took a decade for another 70 settlements to be established. But each occupied the most arable or strategically important land in the area, creating large zones of Palestinian exclusion and “facts on the ground” that were the basis for the disintegration of the Palestinian economy and society.

Then came the Oslo Accords, agreed by the Palestine Liberation Organization, in the mid-1990s. One of these treaties divided the West Bank into the three zones that still form the basis of its administrative organisation.

There’s Area C, the sobriquet given to the 60 percent of contiguous land under full Israeli control, in which the settlements thrive and apartheid reigns. Area B covers the 22 percent of the land in which Palestinian cantons are jointly administered by the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Area A, the most densely populated areas, covers just 18 percent of the land and is policed solely by the Palestinian Authority.

The United States, Europe, Australia and most of the Arab dictatorships watch on idly while Israel expands the settlements and strangles Palestinian life—uprooting farmers, bulldozing homes, erecting checkpoints, laying Israeli-only roads and constructing an apartheid wall. All of it has pretty much been in breach of international law. But those professing fidelity to the “international rules-based order” have provided military aid and diplomatic cover to the Zionist state throughout.

What’s next? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year started annexing parts of the West Bank by transferring control from Israeli military authorities to civilian government leadership. There is reason to suppose that these de jure annexations will continue. At any rate, settlement expansions and their de facto annexation by the Zionist state will continue to be overriding Israeli policy.

It is as Ben-Gurion prophesied in 1938: “I favour partition of the country because when we become a strong power after the establishment of the state, we will abolish partition and spread throughout all of Palestine”.

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