For all practical purposes, Israel had annexed all of Area C – some 60% of the West Bank, where the hundreds of Israeli settlements have been placed – decades ago. The settlements are, without exception, situated on stolen Palestinian land; the settlers enjoy all the privileges of Israeli citizens – they vote in the elections, have health insurance and social security, come before Israeli civil courts if need be, are connected to the Israeli electricity and communications grid and to the Israeli water suppliers, and they are protected at every step by Israeli soldiers and police. Their settlements are surrounded by security fences, and they can call in the army whenever they feel like it, for example, to harass Palestinian shepherds or farmers. The army takes its orders directly from the settlers, as I have seen in practice endless times.
Palestinians living in Area C – several hundred thousand people – have no rights at all. They are disenfranchised; their lands, homes, and other possessions can be taken from them at any moment; they can be assaulted and even killed by settlers, usually with impunity; and they are subject to military courts which convict over 99% of Palestinians who have the misfortune to come before them. Not to put too fine a point on it: Israel has created and maintained a system all too akin to that of South Africa at the height of the apartheid days. A Jewish ethnic elite totally dominates a helpless non-Jewish population confined to small, discontinuous, Bantustan-like enclaves surrounded by the settlements.
Given this state of affairs, why would Benjamin Netanyahu want to formalise annexation by extending Israeli law to the settlements in Area C, when the negative consequences of this seemingly symbolic action are potentially disastrous?
It is easy to spell these consequences out.
First, security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, which has served for the last decades as an effective sub-contractor for Israel in combatting terrorism, has already been terminated. Israeli cities will soon be far less safe than they have been.
Second, the peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt are now in danger. These treaties, too, have been fundamental components of Israeli security; indeed, they transformed Israel’s entire situation in the Middle East, removing the existential threat that Israel had lived under before them. Jordan has made it clear that the treaty will be reconsidered and quite possibly abrogated.
Third, a third Intifada on the West Bank is more than likely; already, the Fatah leadership on the West Bank and the Hamas, based in Gaza – historically bitter enemies – have undergone a rapprochement, and they are speaking about renewing the struggle. One critical achievement of the last two decades was the adoption of non-violent action by the Palestinian mainstream as the preferred mode of resisting the Occupation, both because ahimsa was correctly seen as far more effective than violence and because of the innate moral superiority of Gandhian methods. This achievement will likely be lost. In the medium term, we are looking at the likely Hamasification of the West Bank. Stated simply: Israelis – who knows how many? – will die because of annexation.
Fourth, international protest, in Europe, Asia, and South America, will be intense and may for the first time generate real sanctions. If Trump loses the November election, the US will join, perhaps even lead, the protest. Although Israelis like to dismiss the possibility of serious post-annexation reaction by anyone in the world other than the US, they are wrong about that. There is a good chance that the International Court of Justice in the Hague will soon declare that it can adjudicate cases arising from Israeli misconduct in the occupied territories. Rational Israelis should hope that this happens. One possible consequence is that Israeli politicians or soldiers who can be shown to have been involved in crimes against Palestinian civilians – the kinds of things I see every week in the Palestinian territories – will be arrested if they set foot anywhere in Europe.
And these are only the short-to-medium term consequences. On a deeper level, annexation means the final demise of the so-called two-state solution and, indeed, of any conceivable compromise that would end, or at least significantly moderate, the century-long violent conflict in Israel-Palestine. No Palestinian leadership will ever be able to accept the Trump plan for Palestine, which includes Israel annexing the Jewish settlements.
The idea that Israel can destroy the Palestinian national movement once and for all is a pipe-dream of the Israeli right; it has no basis in reality. The notion that coercive force alone, the Israeli default, will solve our problems is no less foolish. Israel is not China, not Russia, indeed not anyone but a rather tiny state on the Mediterranean coast, albeit one armed to the teeth. The Jewish and Palestinian population west of the Jordan River is now at parity. There is no way that six or seven million Israeli Jews can enslave seven to eight million Palestinians forever.
So why annex?
There is a short answer, a middle-length answer, and a long answer, which can only be hinted at here. The short answer is that the whole crazy idea is a typically cynical move by Netanyahu to curry favour with his “base” of right-wing voters. He needs them more than ever; they are his only hope of escaping judgment in the criminal cases pending against him. He thinks annexation is just the kind of thing the Israeli right will love him for. Some people say that he also thinks this act will be his (one and only) memorable legacy.
Greed for land
The middle-length answer is all about greed, and there is real meaning to it. On the ground, annexation of even a relatively small portion of Israeli settlements will have the effect of reducing their Palestinian owners overnight to the status of absentees. Here is how it works. All Israeli settlements are surrounded by a Special Security Area, several times larger than the existing settlement itself; despite its name, this SSA is intended not for security but for future growth. Suppose a Palestinian family owns land either in a settlement proper or in the large SSA around it – land that will be annexed to Israel by an act of the Knesset. Since the rightful owner is now living in some village or town outside the “legal” boundaries of Israel, while his or her land is inside those boundaries, he or she will be classed as absentee owners. This means, under Israeli law, that their land is handed over to the Custodian for Absentee Properties, who, again with the backing of the Israeli courts, can give this land to the state, or to the settlers, or to whoever he sees fit. (There is an analogy here with the fate of so-called “state lands” in the occupied territories; they were to be held in reserve for the benefit of the local, Palestinian population, but in practice they have been given over to the state for Israeli settlement.) Of course, such application of the law is a vicious distortion of its original intention, and for a while, beginning in 1992 under the Rabin government, the courts (and the government’s own legal advisors) acted to restrain such usage.
Take, for example, the case of the home of the Sumarin family in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, in East Jerusalem. I know the family well. The home was built by the grandfather, Hajj Musa, in the 1950’s. When he died in 1982, his direct heirs – three sons – were living abroad. The state then appropriated the home through the Custodian of Absentee Properties and transferred ownership to the Jewish National Fund, even though three generations of Hajj Musa’s family, his nephew and his nephew’s children and grandchildren, were still living in the house. The Israeli settler organization Elad has been greedily eyeing this property for the last forty years – their goal is to “Judaize” Silwan, which they see as the mythical (in their eyes all-too-real) City of David – and the courts have recently ruled against the family’s claim, on the grounds that possession of this property was already subject to judicial dispute before the 1992 rulings, which were not applied retroactively. This means the family may be evicted from its historical home within a few weeks. The injustice of this mode of appropriating land and property is entirely transparent, but so far the human rights organizations in Israel have not been able to stop the imminent expulsion.
Precisely this mechanism will be used on the West Bank in the event of annexation. Even if, in the end, the annexation is limited to a small part of the occupied territory – say the Jerusalem suburb of Maale Adumim, on the eastern slopes of the city, which has been mentioned as a possible target in this respect – large numbers of Palestinian landowners will lose everything overnight. The first to go will be the Bedouins of Al-Khan al-Ahmar, about whom I have written in these pages. If the annexation grabs a wider swath of territory, in the Jordan Valley or the central West Bank, the numbers of dispossessed will be very large, and the stolen area will also be vast. Initial estimates, when it looked like the annexation was likely to be extensive, were of approximately one-third of all West Bank land.
Greed is a more substantial rationale than an election-year gimmick.
The longer answer is rooted in Jewish history and in the history of the Zionist movement, which from the very beginning was intent on “redeeming the land.”
Granted, the early Zionist pioneers actually bought the lands they wanted to redeem, unlike their present-day “redeemers,” quite often driving off Palestinian peasants living on them. But built into the DNA of this movement was the principle of taking as much land as possible with as few living Palestinians on it as possible. That principle is still operative, along with the unhappy marriage of the settlers’ fanatical, messianic vision to a hypostasis of the state as a metaphysical entity, the chosen arena for supplying a ready-made, though inevitably impoverished, identity. No nation state should ever be elevated to the status of a holy being, one worth dying for even when it goes badly wrong, as Israel has. States, even ethno-nationalist states, are for keeping the buses running and fighting epidemics and disposing of wastes.
To make things worse, I think the Jews are culturally handicapped when it comes to conceiving of a viable future. A long and often traumatic history has left them with a strong notion of time past, usually seen as a time of suffering and constant danger. As an eminent American historian said to me after spending half a year in Jerusalem: “Americans have no sense of history, as you can see from any newscast; but you Jews have not forgotten a single insult in 3000 years.”
Jewish civilisation does have some sense of a transient and highly precarious present, extending perhaps for a week or two. But anything beyond that is no more than a nebulous theory, utterly lacking in reality. That may explain, in part, why Israelis are so ready to sacrifice their future, and the lives of their children and grandchildren, to momentary expediencies and paranoid chimeras.
David Shulman is an Israeli Indologist and peace activist