For several decades, no term has dominated the discussion of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict more than "occupation," a reference to Israel's supposedly illegitimate presence on Palestinian lands. Critics of Israel routinely invoke this presence to explain the origins and persistence of the conflict with the Palestinians, to describe the allegedly brutal and repressive nature of Israeli policy, and to justify or rationalize terrorist atrocities aimed against Israel.
"Occupation" not only refers specifically to Israel's control of the West Bank, an area that it conquered during the Six-Day War of June 1967, but more generally to an uninterrupted narrative of "occupations" dating back to the very creation of Israel in 1948 on "stolen" land. As a propaganda tool, this narrative has an undeniable power. But in almost every particular, it is also demonstrably false.
In 1948, no Palestinian state was invaded or destroyed to make way for the establishment of Israel. From biblical times, when this area was the state of the Jews, until its occupation by the British army at the end of World War I, “Palestine” had never existed as a distinct political entity but was rather part of one empire after another, from the Romans, to the Arabs, to the Ottomans. When the British arrived in 1917, the immediate loyalties of the area's inhabitants were parochial -- to clan, tribe, village, town, or religious sect -- and coexisted with their fealty to the Ottoman sultan-caliph as the religious and temporal head of the world Muslim community.
Under a League of Nations mandate explicitly meant to pave the way for the creation of a Jewish national home, the British established the notion of an independent Palestine for the first time and delineated its boundaries. In 1947, confronted with a determined Jewish struggle for a homeland, Britain returned the mandate to the League's successor, the United Nations, which in turn decided on November 29, 1947, to partition mandatory Palestine into two states: one Jewish, the other Arab. The designated territory of the prospective Arab state was slated to include, among other areas, Gaza and the West Bank.
The implementation of the UN's partition plan was aborted by the (unsuccessful) effort of the Palestinians and of the surrounding Arab states in 1948 to destroy the Jewish state at its birth. But even if the Jews had lost that war, their territory would not have been handed over to those who are now referred to as “the Palestinians.” Rather, it would have been divided among the invading Arab forces, because none of the region's Arab regimes viewed the Palestinians as comprising a distinct nation. (The eminent Arab-American historian Philip Hitti described the common Arab view to an Anglo-American commission of inquiry in 1946: "There is no such thing as Palestine in history, absolutely not.")
The period after 1967, when the West Bank and Gaza passed into the hands of Israel, is a separate matter. This "occupation" did not come about as a consequence of some grand expansionist design, but rather was incidental to Israel's success against another pan-Arab attempt to destroy it. Israel was in the West Bank because that is where opposing armies had massed against it.
The “Oslo” peace declaration signed in 1993 by the PLO and the Israeli government provided for Palestinian self-rule in the entire West Bank and the Gaza Strip for a transitional period not to exceed five years, during which time Israel and the Palestinians were to negotiate a permanent peace settlement. During this interim period the territories would be administered by a Palestinian Council, to be freely and democratically elected after the withdrawal of Israeli military forces both from the Gaza Strip and from the populated areas of the West Bank.
By May 1994, Israel had completed its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip (apart from a small stretch of territory containing Israeli settlements) and the Jericho area of the West Bank. On July 1 of that year, Yasser Arafat made his triumphant entry into Gaza. On September 28, 1995, despite Arafat's failure to clamp down on terrorist activities in the territories now under his control, the two parties signed an interim agreement, and by the end of the year Israeli forces had been withdrawn from the West Bank's populated areas with the exception of Hebron (where redeployment was completed in early 1997). On January 20, 1996, elections to the Palestinian Council were held, and shortly afterward both the Israeli civil administration and military government were dissolved.
Since the beginning of 1996, and certainly following the completion of the redeployment from Hebron in January 1997, some 99 percent of the Palestinian population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have not lived under Israeli occupation.
There remains the issue of Israeli settlements, civilian communities situated in the lands that Israel captured from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria during the Six-Day War in 1967. Such settlements currently exist in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. The latter two areas are officially under military occupation by the international community, though they are governed by Israeli civil law. As of November 2009, approximately 280,000 Israelis lived in 121 West Bank settlements, while another 190,000 Israelis lived in East Jerusalem. At one time, there were also 18 Israeli settlements in the Sinai Peninsula and 21 in the Gaza Strip, but Israel withdrew entirely from those areas in 1982 and 2005, respectively.
Israeli settlements fall into five distinct categories:
- Agrarian settlements for military purposes, manned mostly by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers: These settlements were established soon after the 1948 war, along what the IDF felt were crucial corridors of defense, especially along the Jordan river, near the “Green Line,” in the Golan Heights, and near Gaza. These settlements were intended primarily to serve a strategic military defensive purpose, in light of these vital facts: Egypt, Syria and Jordan remained belligerent states; the PLO was actively trying to develop bases for terrorism in the newly conquered territories; and Israel had previously been invaded across these territories.
- Settlements of Jews returning to sites (Hebron, Gush Etzion, Jewish Quarter) occupied by Jews prior to 1948: Settlement of civilian Israelis in the West Bank began shortly after the Six Day War. Jews had lived in Hebron almost continuously for some 3,100 years, and were expelled only during the violent Arab pogroms of 1929 in which hundreds were slaughtered. Jewish habitation in Jerusalem had a similar millennia-long history, with the 1948 war and the massacre of about half of the population of the Jewish Quarter terminating the Jewish presence there.
- Expanding suburbs of Israeli cities on or near the “Green Line”: Unoccupied areas near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were used as sites for major low-cost housing projects to accommodate the expanding populations of those regions. In most cases, the land utilized for these projects was Jordanian “Crown Land,” to which no individual could lay claim of private ownership. Because of Jordan’s unwillingness to enter into peace negotiations after the war, Israel’s expropriation of these unoccupied areas was legal. In cases where West Bank Arabs legally owned land that Israel wanted for these expansion projects, Israel bought the land at fair market prices.
- Missionary settlements unrelated to the previous three types: Over time, religious and right-wing political pressure supported the creation of settlements elsewhere in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Often they were founded near ancient Jewish holy sites. These settlements proliferated under Prime Ministers Begin and Rabin. Arab spokesmen claim that these settlements, some of which were built well inside the West Bank or Gaza Strip areas, constituted a theft of land from Arab farmers. Israel claims that most of the land used for these developments was unoccupied and un-owned, thus qualifying as “Crown Land,” upon which Israel had every legal right to build and develop. Where privately owned land was needed for settlement expansion, Israel purchased that land from its legal owners at fair market values.
- Patently illegal rogue settlements: These settlements were set up by break-away settlement occupants, often contrary to IDF and/or government instructions, sometimes on privately owned Palestinian land. Palestinian complaints about such illegal land grabs have been adjudicated in the Israeli court system with decisions often rendered in favor of the Palestinians. It was almost exclusively this type of settlement on the West Bank that then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to dismantle even before peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
International law makes it clear that the first four types of settlements are entirely legal. Moreover, the impact of those settlements has been, contrary to Arab propaganda claims, extremely beneficial to Arabs in the region. From 1967 to 1992 -- that is, until the West Bank was turned over to the Palestinian Authority -- the population and economy of the West Bank grew substantially. Whenever an Israeli settlement was erected, areas around it that were hitherto uninhabited became the focus of Palestinian business enterprises. Consequently, the standard of living of the Palestinians, as well as their average per capita income, increased significantly. This was in part due to the Israeli “Marshall Plan”, which expanded the infra-structure, modernized roads and the supplies of water, electricity, and sewerage, and made 20th-century medical care available. Economic progress was also due in part to the integration of the Palestinian workforce into the Israeli economy as a result of the employment of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in a wide variety of Israeli business and agricultural endeavors. The population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip more than tripled from 1967 to 1994.
It was in 1994, when Palestinians came under the autonomous and independent control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), that the economies of the West Bank and Gaza Strip became crippled and the lives of the Palestinians were wrecked by the PA’s despotic, terrorist rule. By 2003, the West Bank’s Gross Domestic Product had shrunk by 90 percent since the PA’s initial ascent to power.
Adapted from: "What Occupation?" (Efraim Karsh, July-August 2002), and "Occupation and Settlement: The Myth and the Reality" (David Meir-Levi, June 5, 2005).