Israel’s Expansion into the Occupied Territories

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

An article warns that the push to “impose sovereignty,” which could kill the two-state solution, is motivated by securitization, ideology, economics, and demographics.

As the war in Gaza spreads and Israel indicates its continued commitment to “total victory,” questions are being raised about the future of a Palestinian state. For those on the far-right Israel, the only solution is a complete and total takeover, proclaiming at the recent “Settlements Bring Security” event that “the only way to have peace is if the Arabs are not there.”

However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other officials have repeatedly claimed they have no intention of fully occupying Gaza, echoing the sentiments of many Israelis while attempting to appease the West and regional neighbors. But the government’s lack of a plan coupled with pressure from the right could put the Netanyahu regime in a delicate position.

The effects of this war go beyond the assault on Gaza. Separated by a thin strip of Israel less than 50 miles across, the West Bank is also facing violence and settlement expansion at alarming rates. In January, Israeli watchdog group Peace Now released a report documenting the “unprecedented surge” of unauthorized Jewish settlements in the occupied territory. The report asserts that “the three months of war in Gaza are being exploited by settlers to establish facts on the ground and effectively take control of extensive areas in Area C [of the West Bank]…The permissive military and political environment allow the reckless construction and land seizure almost unchecked, with minimal adherence to the law.”

A Middle East Policy contributor issued a warning about expansion efforts back in 2023. In his article “Assessing Israel’s Motives in Annexing the Jordan Valley,” Fadi Nahhas details ongoing annexation of Palestinian land and sheds light on the long history of Israel’s interest in expanding its control.

The rising number of settlements since October 7 is a continuation of policy that goes back decades. In the wake of the flawed Oslo Accords, Israel has exploited terms of the agreement to expand its presence in the West Bank. In 2020, the Netanyahu government reinforced the long-held approach with the announcement of the Annexation Plan, which would extend Israeli control to over 60 percent of the West Bank.

Nahhas discusses the Israeli options for carrying out their annexation strategy, noting that “in practice, Israeli governments have been implementing strategies of gradual, partial annexation since the June war of 1967.” However, with new approaches to civil law and strengthened American support under the Trump administration, the possibility of total annexation became more real. Western powers have largely continued to implicitly support the gradual approach, and the Netanyahu government has encroached on the West Bank through the militarization of land and prevention of Palestinian development, rather than direct takeover.

Many of Israel’s original motives still stand; the government has political, ideological, security, and economic interests in not only continuing to hold the land already under occupation, but to further expand. The annexation plan has not been without challenge, however, as both international and domestic opponents fear that annexation could actually undermine Israel’s security. Writing in May of 2023, Nahhas presciently notes that one of these hesitancies is “the fear of Palestinian resistance and popular outcry…as a result of the loss of political options.”

As the Gaza war rages on, the analysis offers insight into the possibility of what may come. Israel has continued to show its interest in annexing more and more Palestinian land, and as the armies in Gaza move southward and the settlers in the West Bank grow at alarming rates, such fear may yet come true.

Nahhas warns that “annexation through unilateral action would sound the death knell of the two-state solution and the status quo.”

Among the major takeaways readers can find in Nahhas’s Middle East Policy article, “Assessing Israel’s Motives in Annexing the Jordan Valley”:  

  • Israel is moving ahead with plans to annex the Jordan Valley (68 percent of the West Bank, from the Dead Sea to the eastern border with Jordan) despite opposition from some corners of the defense establishment. 
    • This would eliminate any possibility of establishing a Palestinian state (even on a small part of historic Palestine).  
    • Annexation could strain ties with Jordan, hamper regional diplomacy, and lead to the deterioration of relations with the West. 
  • Successive Israeli governments have pushed for annexation. There remain some key obstacles: 
    • fear of Palestinian resistance 
    • concern about having to grant citizenship to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians 
    • warnings of backlash among Arab states, especially those that have signed the Abraham Accords, including the UAE. 
  • Because of this, the approach to annexation has historically been gradual, featuring two key elements: 
    • militarization of land, allowing total control over territories 
    • prevention of Palestinian construction and development in the Jordan Valley. 
  • Internal opposition to complete annexation, within the security establishment and the opposition, stems primarily from the assumption that keeping the peace with the Palestinians, along with the idea of a two-state solution, has preserved the status quo and allowed Israel to impose control over the West Bank. 
  • Israel has used a discourse of securitization to make the case for annexation, though it has many motives: political-ideological, military-security, demographic, and economic.  
    • Political-ideological: The government seeks to prevent a contiguous Palestinian state and to establish a united Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, while maintaining a Palestinian Authority operating under severe constraints. 
    • Military-security: The Jordan Valley is a buffer to prevent a Palestinian state extending toward Jordan (Amman covertly supports Israel’s position) and to overcome Israel’s narrow defensive depth, which leaves population centers at risk of attack. 
    • Demographic: Preserving a Jewish state requires extending the eastern border to the Jordan River, as well as dispersing the Israeli citizenry across the Galilee, the Negev Desert, and Jerusalem, instead of concentrating it only on the coast. 
    • Economic 
    • Control over water: Annexation of the Jordan Valley would strip Palestinians of their water rights; Israel claims 90 percent of groundwater sources in the valley.  
    • Control over agriculture:  
        • The valley contributes 60 percent of gross agricultural output in the West Bank, and its high-end date production can compete on the global market. 
        • Israel’s taking over fertile lands forces a large proportion of the Palestinian population to work in settlements instead of subsisting from local production.
    • The Dead Sea: Palestinians estimate they are deprived of about $1 billion in annual revenue from the sea’s resources, including tourism and products made from its mineral-rich waters.

You can read Fadi Nahhas’s article, “Assessing Israel’s Motives in Annexing the Jordan Valley,” in the Gaza War issue of Middle East Policy.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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