Israeli Settlement of the West Bank Policy Primer
April 20, 2015
(Image: Israel, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank. Source: Public domain through Ohio State University)
What are Israel and Palestine?
Israel is the world’s sole Jewish state, located in the Middle East bordering Egypt, Jordan, and the Mediterranean Sea. Palestine is not quite so simple to define. Loosely, it can be referred to as the collection of territories occupied by the Palestinian people, a group descended from the former Arabic inhabitants of the land Israel currently controls. The State of Palestine was declared sovereign in 1988 by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, but that declaration has been fraught with controversy: The United States has adamantly refused to recognize Palestine as a sovereign state, and indeed threatened to withdraw funding for the United Nations when that entity was considering formal recognition of Palestine. Ultimately, the UN granted Palestine “non-member observer state” status, the rough equivalent of an entity such as the Vatican.
Why are Israel and Palestine in conflict?
At its most basic level, the conflict is about land.
After World War II, many Jews had fled Europe and wanted a homeland they could call their own. The area which today is Israel was at that point a predominantly Muslim and Arabic territory of Great Britain. When around 650,000 Jews resettled there after the war, the Arabs in the territory objected to what they viewed as further European colonialism and the possible erosion of their homeland – which is viewed as Holy Land in both the Jewish and Islamic religions.
Fighting ensued, and in 1947 the United Nations attempted to split the land into two countries: one for the Jewish people and one for the (nearly twice as many, population-wise) Arabs.
(Image: 1947 UN partition plan. Source: BBC)
The Arabs were unhappy with this plan, and fighting recommenced. Additionally, the neighboring countries of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria declared war on Israel as well, though not entirely on behalf of the Palestinians.
Israel won the war and in the process displaced 700,000 Palestinian citizens, creating a still-largely-unresolved refugee crisis. Additionally, Israel’s borders significantly expanded and the Palestinians’ territory shrunk.
(Image: Israel’s borders after the UN partition plan (left) and after 1949 (right). Source: Josh Berer)
Unsurprisingly, fighting broke out again in 1967. After another war in 1967, the borders that more or less reflect the state of the world today were established.
(Image: Israeli borders pre- and post-1967 war. Source: BBC)
In many ways, one’s sympathies in this land conflict may largely reflect the narrative one principally accepts. Are the Palestinians yet another in a long list of victims of European colonialism whose territory and sovereignty have been slowly but surely eroded and marginalized? Or is Israel the sacred home of a beleaguered people who deserve a state to call their own, and who have been relentlessly besieged by hardline compromise-averse Palestinian governments?
For years, negotiators have been attempting to come up with the platonic ideal of a two-state solution, where both Israel and Palestine are granted their own sovereign territories, but no solution has ever been reached, for a number of reasons including but most certainly not limited to:
Who controls (or how to split) Jerusalem, a holy city for both the Jews and Muslims.
What is to be done about the descendants of the many Palestinian refugees displaced during the wars – do they have an internationally sanctioned “right of return” to their homeland?
Israeli settlements and military presence in the Palestinian territories.
Additionally and crucially, of course, both sides are dealing with hardline factions in their own parties who reject the idea of a two-state solution altogether – and want either Israel or Palestine to have complete control over the entire territory. Hardliners on both sides have been gaining more and more prominence lately – in Israel’s 2015 elections, no less than its own prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested he rejected the idea of a Palestinian state (though he later walked back these comments). As a result, the peace process has grown more muddled, and many on both sides more despairing.
For a far more comprehensive primer on the conflict, including the more recent attempts at peace as well as aggressions, see the Council on Foreign Relations’ interactive guide.
What does the “occupation” of the West Bank mean?
For the purposes of this article, we will take the “occupation” of the West Bank to refer to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Israel’s military presence required to defend them. Let’s take that definition piece by piece:
The West Bank
Other than a land of seemingly endless controversy during the 21st century and the latter half of the 20th century, the West Bank is a large amount of land home to 2.6 million Palestinians with western, northern, and southern borders with Israel and an eastern border with the Jordan river with Jordan and eastern side of it. The West Bank, although part of the greater “occupied Palestinian Territories” which includes the land of Gaza, is governed by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and is considered the national representation of the Palestinian people by the United Nations and also by Israel. The PLO is considered a more moderate political entity, enjoys diplomatic relations with over 100 world powers, and is recognized in the United Nations as an observer state to the general body. The PLO effectively runs the Palestinian National Authority (PA), both of which are led by PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who belongs to the dominant Palestinian political party, Fatah. This organized leadership does not extend into the the other portion of the occupied Palestinian Territories in the Gaza strip which is governed by Hamas – an extremist Palestinian faction which resorts to terrorist actions to strike at Israel.
Since the 1967 war, communities of Jewish Israelis – the number is now around 500,000 people in 130 settlements – have been moving to and “settling” in the West Bank. Needless to say, Palestinians do not like the settlements, which they view as an attempt to weaken the boundaries of any Palestinian state, and as a sort of trial balloon for the eventual full annexation of the territories by Israel. (For what it’s worth, some Israeli settlers also see it that way; in their mind, that’s the point.)
In addition to the settlements, Israel maintains a strong military presence in the West Bank. Israel argues it is merely protecting its own citizens and its national safety; Palestinians accuse Israel of forcing a military and political subjugation over territory they have no legal or moral right to control.
(Image: Israeli settlements and military checkpoints in the West Bank. Source: BBC)
The settlements have provoked bipartisan condemnation from the United States government, and the opposition of essentially every presidential administration since Lyndon B. Johnson’s. There are also questions as to the basic legality of the settlements: The Fourth Geneva Convention outlaws the transfer of populations to occupied territories. Nearly all international lawyers and legal bodies have endorsed this view.
As one might imagine, however, Israel disputes it. The argument is basically that the territories are not “disputed” insofar as they have never previously belonged to a sovereign entity. The only legal jurisdiction over the land was the original League of Nations mandate, which itself authorized the Israelis to settle in the territory.
What are the present-day implications for United States policy?
Many have urged the United States to take a stronger stand against the occupation. One weapon the US has at its disposal is its annual military aid to Israel. US aid to Israel is extensive and crucial to Israel’s military strength – which it of course needs, given that it is surrounded by many unstable, corrupt, or violent governments bent on its destruction. The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs has a breakdown of the magnitude, functions, and strategic implications of aid to Israel. A few key facts and figures from the reports:
US aid to Israel makes up approximately one third of America’s entire foreign aid budget.
A conservative estimate of total US aid to Israel since World War II tops $123 billion.
US aid comprises about a fifth of Israel’s total defense budget.
Israel is thus heavily militarily reliant on the United States, but what is also important to understand is that the United States is heavily politically reliant on support to Israel. Pro-Israel organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) are some of the most tenacious and deep-pocketed lobbying groups in the country.
As a result, nearly unquestioning support of Israel and its military and political priorities has been a prominent feature of American politics for decades.
What are the arguments in favor of the United States taking a harsher line on Israeli occupations?
Here are some of the reasons usually cited by Israel skeptics:
Israel has seriously violated human rights in the West Bank since 1967
Overall, some 1.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem remain under an Israeli military occupation. These Palestinian civilians continue to be subject to various forms of threats to their life, liberty, security on a daily basis. These threats stem from Israeli policies and practices, including arbitrary deprivation of life; abuse and mistreatment of detainees; prolonged detention; restrictions on civil liberties; infringement on privacy rights; denial of fair public trial; forced displacement and labor and so on. In 2014, Palestinians casualties and injures as a result of direct Israeli-Palestinian conflict increased sharply. The impact of violence and conflict on children is particularly concerning.
In 2014, 2256 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces and settlers, accounting for 96.5% of total direct conflict related deaths of Palestinians and Israelis. About 68% of Palestinian deaths and 99.9% of Palestinian injuries are civilians; about 35.7% of Palestinian deaths have been among children.
Since 1967, Israel has established about 150 settlements (residential and others) in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem; in addition to some 100 “outposts” erected by settlers without official authorization.
Since 1967, over 300,000 Palestinians have been imprisoned without trial, and over half a million have been tried in the Israeli military court system.
An estimated 1.26 million Palestinians are food-insecure and approximately 980,000 receive less than 60 litres of water a day.
(Table: Direct Israeli-Palestinian conflict related casualties. Source: United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs)
The United States has consistently undermined efforts to hold Israel accountable under international law
Israeli violation of the Geneva Conventions has been affirmed illegal by the International Court of Justice, the United Nations Security Council and United Nations General Assembly. However, Israel has refused to accept the applicability of the Conventions. The failure to respect international law has led to the violation of human rights in Occupied Palestinian Territories and will encourage further violence.
The United Nations has not been successful in enforcing international law or hold Israel accountable for its violation. The efforts of the United Nations have been undermined by the United States. The United States has kept vetoing UN resolutions concerning Israel and Palestine to shield Israel from criticism in order to meet the demands of Americans of Jewish origins and deal with its geopolitical interests in this area.
From 1991-2011, the United States vetoed 24 draft resolutions in the United Council Security Council, among which 15 vetoes were used to block resolutions condemning Israeli settlement and asking for the withdrawal of Israeli occupation. The most recent veto was employed in 2011. The United States vetoed a Palestinian-backed draft resolution that denounced Israel’s settlement as an illegal obstacle to peace efforts in the Middle East.
In 2014, the US voted against 18 United Nations General Assembly resolutions and was the only “no” vote against 5 UN Human Rights Council anti-Israel measures.
American public attitudes towards the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict favor ending Israeli occupation of the West Bank
According to a recent Brookings Institute survey:
Israeli Settlements: Sixty-three percent of Americans oppose Israeli settlement building, while 34% support it. This includes majorities of all major political affiliations: 75% of Democrats oppose, compared to 62% of Independents, and 51% of Republicans.
Nearly six in ten Americans rank the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one of the top five issues for US national interests, while one in five rate it as one of the top three issues or the top issue.
- Asked what their highest concern is in the Arab-Israeli issue, the highest number, 31%, say human rights, while 24% say they are most concerned about US interests, and 14% are most concerned about Israeli interests. Americans rate human rights very high in terms of their priorities for U.S. foreign policy. Americans rate human rights very high in terms of their priorities for US foreign policy. Fifty three percent say that human rights is the single most or one of the three most important issues as compared with 27% for international law and 21% for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
What are the counterarguments?
Despite critics from domestic and international groups, there are solid reasons for US to continue aid to Israel and not take a more forceful stance against the settlements. People on the pro-Israel side argue that the is essential to Israel’s security in the Middle East and is critical to maintaining the US-Israel “special relationship.”
The “special relationship” between US and Israel
Many would argue that US support for Israel is a “very profitable investment” due to the close bond between US and Israel in many aspects. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. US and Israel share basic values of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech and religion and so on. They have similar history of immigration and fighting for independence. Democracies are often expected to support one another. That partly explains the continuous support for Israel from US.
The US-Israel connections are also found in their military partnership and economic ties. Critical American-Israeli military engagements include joint military practice, missile defense, peacekeeping and intelligence sharing. Also, Israeli technology and medical innovations have saved millions of lives of American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Strong support from the US enabled Israel to boost its own economy. The growing trade and collaboration are beneficial to both nations.
In sum, Israel is a strategic ally of US in the Middle East. Foreign aids from the US plays a key role in ensuring Israel’s security in the Middle East as well as advancing US strategic interests in the region.
Aid benefits both Israel and US
For Israel, aid from the US are critical resources to maintain its self-defense. With US support, Israel has been able to establish a strong security system and military force. There has been continuing tension and conflict in the West Bank area between Israel and other surrounding countries, especially Palestine. Threatened by terrorism, nuclear weapons, and religious radicalism, Israel does need security and protection support.
Aid to Israel is also beneficial for the US, since the relationship is reciprocal. Because most (75%) of the financial aids is used to purchase US military goods, the aid to Israel can actually be considered indirect subsidies to the US arms manufacturers. As a critical ally, Israel always stands alongside US in global issues and helps to maintain US influence and control over the situations in Middle East. Moreover, Israel, with its expertise in military intelligence, has collaborated with US in international anti-terrorism and peacekeeping. In many aspects, Israel has been a strategic partner in advancing US interests in the vital Middle East region. The United States should not seek to undermine its closest strategic partner by aligning themselves against Israel’s foreign policy objectives.
Public opinion is not as clear as it may seem
Even public opinion is not so in favor of cutting aid. A 2014 Chicago Council Survey found that while public opinion towards Israel-Palestinian Conflict tended to be neutral in general, Americans felt warmer toward Israel than the Palestinian Authority. Regarding the US aid to Israel, a largest proportion (46%) represents the opinion that aid to Israel should be kept about the same.
Opposing Israel more dramatically could exacerbate geopolitical chaos
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial recent decision to give a speech to Congress in which he openly attacked White House policy from the House floor was unprecedented and put the tense relations between President Obama and his Israeli counterpart on public display. In recent months, longstanding policy differences between the two heads of state have become increasingly public. However, the recent freezing over of US-Israeli relations seems to serve as a reminder of how politically untouchable US aid to Israel has become. Washington, while vocal in expressing its displeasure with Jerusalem, never once mentioned a reduction in aid as a potential consequence. In fact, despite years of cold relations between the two heads of state, according to the Congressional Research Service President Obama has already requested $3.1 billion in aid to Israel from the United States Foreign Military Funding program for the 2015 fiscal year. This reluctance to touch US aid to Israel comes from an understanding of the highly dangerous geopolitical implications such an action would have on the region.
Netanyahu’s remarks to Congress and his declaration in opposition of a two-state solution prompted an aggressive response from Obama officials. Despite an apparent reversal of opinion, the White House challenged Netanyahu to demonstrate his support for a Palestinian state as part of a Middle East peace agreement, saying the U.S. will look for specific policy changes from Israel’s new government. President Obama himself said that as a result his administration is going to reevaluate its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Netanyahu’s newfound conciliatory tone reflects just how influential U.S. aid to Israel remains in keeping a lid on Israel and the region.
More drastic action from the Obama administration to oppose Israeli policies (including the occupation of the West Bank) could, on the one hand, possibly restrict Israel and force it to pursue diplomatic rather than military solutions. Arguably, however, this is an unlikely outcome.
What’s more, US aid to Israel has long been tied to US military aid to Egypt. Cutting off aid to Israel could throw into question the current aid package to Egypt at a time when the region has never been more unstable.
More drastic opposition to Israel would only serve to do irrevocable damage to an already strained relationship. The Israeli right, already growing in political strength would capitalize on a specific policy rebuke from the United States to pursue a much more aggressive agenda, using a rhetoric of fear to justify its actions. For a long time, there has existed a pattern of Israel announcing new settlements and the U.S. pressuring them to scale back if not postpone them. Without the implicit leverage of U.S. aid, the Israeli right would likely capitalize politically on soured relations with the U.S. and unleash a new round of controversial settlement building. Feeling vulnerable without the support of the United States - and likely Europe as well - Israel would also become much more prone to take more radical and maximalist policies. Should an armed conflict ignite, certainly, the United States would still work toward its cessation but it would have less of an ability to stop events from escalating. Furthermore, one could argue that without Americans’ ability to influence Israel in such a direct fashion, Netanyahu and the Israeli right could be tempted to take military action to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Such an action would certainly elicit a response from both Hamas and Hezbollah. Overall, without the United States to keep Netanyahu and the Israeli right in check, the region has a strong possibility of erupting into yet another devastating conflict.
Additional Blog Posts
Student Blog Disclaimer
The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.