Breaking Analysis | November 3rd, 2023
While Israel pounds Gaza, a combination of settler and state violence is claiming lives and seizing property from Palestinians. Middle East Policy has covered the politics of the occupied territories for 40 years; links to our key articles are included.
With more than 9,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza after the Hamas atrocities, and tens of thousands of Israelis uprooted, the West Bank has largely fallen off the radar of international attention. But in that occupied territory, clashes have hit their highest level in years. Israeli forces have continued to raid homes, and an increase in attacks by Israeli civilians also drives the violence.
Tensions are rising between those already living in the Palestinian-majority territory and Israeli settlers seeking to claim its land and homes. The reprisals by the right-wing government and its supporters have become so alarming that US Rep. Jerrold Nadler—a staunch supporter of Israel who affirmed earlier this year, “My Jewishness and love of the Jewish state is fundamental to who I am”—declared as Israeli human-rights groups sounded the alarm, “I forcefully condemn the state-backed wave of settler violence.”
It is clear, therefore, that criticism of Israel’s policies in the West Bank, and its recent opportunistic actions in the occupied territories, is not antisemitic.
The war between Israel and Hamas has amplified the long-volatile relationship, but concerns over settlement expansion have been raised for decades. Middle East Policy has covered this issue throughout its 40-year history.
The practice of settlement building serves to expand Israeli control over land in the occupied territories; by razing Palestinian properties, building new ones, and encouraging its citizens to move to them, the state can claim the land and establish its authority. Nearly 600,000 Israeli settlers now live in the West Bank.
In the last year, Middle East Policy has published analyses of Israel’s strategy of displacing and replacing Palestinians citizens in the West Bank. The war in Gaza is now seen, in part, as a convenient excuse to accelerate the state’s de facto annexation of the territory. Fadi Nahhas explains in an article in the journal’s Summer 2023 issue that the effort is underway—de facto if not de jure—with the Jordan Valley in Israel’s sights.
In recent years, the strategic importance of the valley and its relationship to Israel’s national security has been revised by successive governments. But, Nahhas argues, three main principles are shared regardless of the prime minister or ruling coalition: 1) the future of Israel is tied to the expansion of its eastern borders; 2) the “eastern front” poses a national security threat to Israel; 3) no Palestinian partners exist for peace negotiations, increasing the likelihood of future wars.
These three ideas, combined with general public opinion, have led to support for a “gradualist approach” to annexation. Nahhas warns that, if implemented, is a “plan that...will eliminate any possibility of establishing a Palestinian state.”
In Middle East Policy’s Winter 2022 issue, Oqab Jabali examines the situation on the ground in West Bank areas that are witnessing settlement expansion. “Over the past 50 years or more,” he explains, “Israel has demolished tens of thousands of Palestinian properties and displaced large segments of the population to build homes and basic facilities to illegally deploy their forces and embed their settlers.”
Having learned that violent opposition breeds more violence, Palestinians in the town of Beita have undertaken a strategy of nonviolent resistance. The town’s tactics include disrupting sleep patterns with excessive noise, using fireworks and lasers to disorient those in Israeli bases, and coordinating closely with media to document activities and abuses.
“The costs of repressing nonviolent resistance can be very high,” Jabali writes, “especially when media coverage captures the repression.” So far, “Beita has managed to gain a great deal of support, undermining the occupation.”
Does Hamas’ attack change the calculus, for both Israeli and Palestinian leadership? Grace O’Sullivan, an Irish member of the European Parliament, told Roger Gaess in an interview from the journal’s Fall 2023 issue that “The far-right government in Israel has made no secret of its intention to accelerate the annexation of the West Bank and to increase the violent repression of the people who live there.”
It may be too soon to say, but observers are already critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s approach to the war with Hamas and the occupied territories as a whole.
“Netanyahu cannot direct any part of this process—not the peace process, and not the war, either,” a Foreign Affairs article exclaims. “He has completely lost the trust of not only his foes but now, also, many of his friends.” This condemnation is striking, as it comes from Ami Ayalon, Gilead Sher, and Orni Petruschka, former officials in Israeli military and politics.
They argue that the prime minister “cannot lead Israel in a unique moment that requires the country to seize an opportunity to change the direction of its conflict with the Palestinians.” Netanyahu’s controversial attempts at domestic judicial reform also sought to advance annexation efforts.
Netanyahu is losing support among the public, and his opponents in Israel are growing. Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to Israel, called for his resignation in a recent editorial in Foreign Policy, arguing that his avoidance of responsibility and accountability is no longer acceptable.
As far as outright annexation of the Jordan Valley, Nahhas argues in the Middle East Policy article that some military and political elites see it as “posing a serious threat to the country's national security” and that “the costs and benefits of annexation will not give Israel a strategic advantage.”
Will the horrors of October 7 inspire a new strategy for the West Bank and Gaza? Middle East Policy has explored the potential effects of an Israeli ground invasion that topples Hamas and concerns about the simmering tensions in the West Bank are making their way to the highest levels of Israel’s government.
How the country responds will determine the next stage of the region’s most intractable conflict. The two-state solution seems to be gasping its last breaths, and an Israeli annexation of Gaza, the Jordan Valley, or other significant parts of the West Bank will almost certainly be, as Nahhas writes, “the death knell of the two-state solution and the status quo.”
To learn more about the occupied territories, please see the following coverage that Middle East Policy has provided over its 40-year history:
Symposium: New Approaches to Israel-Palestine Peace: Can Regional Powers Make a Difference? with Hady Amr, Ian Lustick, Riad Kahwaji, and Chas W. Freeman Jr. (2017)
Israel, Palestine and Nonterritorial Governance: A Reconfigured Status Quo, by Stephen Deets (2017)
Indispensible but Elusive: Palestinian National Reunification, by Hussein Ibish (2014)
Symposium: The Future of Israel and Palestine: Expanding the Debate, with Stephen M. Walt, Philip Weiss, and Henry Siegman (2013)
Palestine, the UN and the One-State Solution, by James Ron (2011)
Interview: Hussein Agha (2010)
Interview: Azzam Tamami (2006)
Ending the Palestinian Economy, by Sara Roy (2002)
Interview: Mousa Abu Marzook (1997)
The Battle Over Israeli and Palestinian National Character, by Alon Ben-Meir (1997)
U.S. Economic Aid to the West Bank and Gaza Strip: The Politics of Peace, by Sara Roy (1996)
Roundtable Discussion of an Interim Proposal: A Palestinian State with Sovereignty Over Gaza/Jericho and Administrative Authority Over the West Bank, with George McGovern, Robert O. Freedman, Peter Gubser, Khalil Jahshan, Omar Kader, Thomas Mattair, Don Peretz, Hasan Abdel Rahman, Jerome Segal, and Shibley Telhami (1995)
Symposium: Where to Go from Here to Ensure Success in Israeli-Palestinian Peacemaking, with George McGovern, Thomas Miller, Caio Koch-Weser, Mohamed Rabie, Thomas Mattair, and Omar Kader (1993)
The Islamic Fundamentalist Movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, by Michael Jubran and Laura Drake (1993)