A brief history of 50 years of Israeli occupation.
By Mary J. Pneuman / Bishop’s Committee for Justice and Peace in the Holy Land
[Ed. note: After returning from a recent trip to the Holy Land, the author has updated her previous writings. We offer The Promised Land or the Land of Promise Revisited here in serial form.]
Mainstream Israelis now take it for granted that Israel should take over the West Bank as a legitimate claim related to their deep historical roots.
A visitor to the West Bank needs little time “on the ground” to observe the damaging effects of the 50 years of Israeli military occupation on the lives of the Palestinian people. Nowhere have these “facts” been more dramatic than in the towns and rural villages near Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron and Nablus. During our stay in the spring of 2016, we saw a proliferation of new red-tiled roofs on the hills around Ramallah, and nearly every hilltop encircling the city now had trailers denoting yet another new settler “outpost.” In February 2017, Israel approved the retroactive legalization of scores of illegal Jewish outposts built on privately owned Palestinian land (The Guardian, 2.17). This law stipulates that the original landowner should be compensated either with money or alternative land — even if they do not agree to give up their property.
Over half of some hundred outposts are home to ultra-orthodox Jewish settlers who believe that the land is and has always been theirs since God gave the land of Palestine to the Israelites, and they are becoming increasingly hostile to their Palestinian neighbors, committing violent acts that are creating a strong incentive for Palestinian families to consider leaving for fear of their lives. Attacks by settlers take the form of destruction of olive groves, orchards, and vineyards, threats or physical attacks on Palestinian harvesters, damage to homes and vehicles, and hate graffiti and arson on Christian and Muslim places of worship (Americans for Peace Now, 7.17).
Ultra-Orthodox Judaism is on the rise in Israel-Palestine. September 27, 2017 marked the third incidence of wanton violence, when stained glass and religious artifacts at St. Stephen’s church in the Beit Jamal Monastery not far from Jerusalem were damaged; this monastery previously had been firebombed and gravestones defaced. Between 2013 and 2016, “death to Christians,” “Christians go to hell,” and other graffiti had appeared on the walls of the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem. In October 2017, Ha’aretz reported a total of 53 churches and mosques have been vandalized in Israel since 2009, but only nine indictments had been filed.
Whereas most American Jews believe in separation of church and state, Israel is becoming a theocracy as the notion of a Jewish state gains ascendancy. In Israel, reform and conservative rabbis cannot perform weddings or funerals and conversion is not recognized (Allan Brownfeld, 7.17). In The Forward, the editor stated that “Netanyahu has turned his back on pluralist Jews,” and he also points out the fact that more liberal Jews in the diaspora are seen as outsiders. In America, some influential rabbis are asking why more American Jews are not expressing moral outrage at the implication of a Jewish state on the civil rights of non-Jews in Israel and Palestine, as it becomes clear to many that the leadership in Israel is moving away from the moral and ethical traditions of Judaism. Radical interpretation of Jewish sacred writings bolster and justify the more oppressive and discriminatory practices in Israel. Said Israel Shahak, a Holocaust survivor, scholar and civil rights advocate, Jewish extremists are “not basing their religion on the ethics of justice” (If Americans Knew, 4.17).
The collapse of the Israeli/Palestinian peace process and the present chaos in the Arab world has widely accelerated the settler movement in the last two years. Early in 2017 came the announcement that Israel would build nearly 6,000 new housing units on private land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which is in the West Bank. In fact, in February Israel also announced plans for a brand new West Bank settlement, the first in 20 years (Reuters 2.17). Israeli settlers, apparently sensing a new opportunity, are now considering whether to “separate or annex” — in effect, envisioning instead of a two-state solution, a final and single Jewish state outcome. Recent talk of the formal annexation of Ma’ale Adumim, a West Bank settlement of nearly 40,000 Jewish citizens located about 5 minutes east of Jerusalem, may bring this question to a head sooner than later.
In August 2017, The Independent quoted Prime Minister Netanyahu as saying, “We will deepen our roots, strengthen, build and settle.” At the time encouraged by the election of President Donald Trump and his apparent willingness to support a one-state configuration, the Israeli government had recently announced plans for more than 11,000 new settler homes in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. The Israeli daily Ha’aretz (6.17) reported a 70% rise in building starts in existing West Bank settlements between 2016 and 2017, and according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, by June, Israel had advanced its highest number of settlement projects since 1992 (Aljazeera, 6.17).
Population statistics vary widely from year to year, even month to month. Overall population figures from the CIA World Fact Book (2016) report 2.6 million Palestinians in the West Bank and 1.7 million in Gaza, with 6.2 million Jews and 1.6 million Arabs in Israel, not including the Druze, an Arabic speaking religious minority numbering about 130,000 who are citizens of Israel and serve in the Israeli Defense Force. The YESHA Council, an organization representing settlers, claims that there are 420,000 Israeli settlers now living in the West Bank. The “Saturday Essay” of the Wall Street Journal (2.17) reported an estimated 430,000 settlers living in 131 officially sanctioned settlements spread throughout the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem.
In East Jerusalem, until last year, there seemed to be consensus that there were approximately 200,000 settlers, along with roughly 300,000 Palestinians. However, Ha’aretz (5.17) stated that the number of Palestinians living in Jerusalem is underestimated by up to 100,000 because the Wall splits off two large Palestinian neighborhoods from the municipal boundaries declared by Israel to be “outside” the city limits. Since settlers enjoy full rights and privileges of citizenship regardless of where they are living, it appears that nearly 600,000 Israeli citizens are presently living alongside some about 2.7 million non-citizen Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
In addition to natural growth, factors that make accurate population estimates more challenging are the de facto changes in borders and population shifts brought about by the present construction of about 275 lineal miles of the separation Wall begun in 2002. The so-called “Green Line,” first established in 1949 between Israel and Palestine at the armistice ending the Arab-Israeli War, has been recognized by the international community as the boundary between Israel and Palestine and has been the basis of peace negotiations between the two sides since Israel took military control of the West Bank after the Six-Day War of 1967. Although it clearly prescribes life on both sides of the line, Israel does not accept the Green Line as a permanent border, and even the geographical designation of the “West Bank” is disappearing from maps and textbooks printed in Israel. Traditional Arab place names for towns and villages in Israel and the West Bank have been “Hebraized,” and trying to follow an old map is not easy.
Settlement expansion has encroached well inside the Green Line into the West Bank, which the Palestinians hoped would become the basis for a state of their own, but current figures from the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs indicate that only about 60% of the projected 444 miles of the Wall has been completed, and that about 85% of the Wall now falls on the Palestinian side of the Green Line. In fact, the Israeli settlement watchdog NGO, Peace Now, said the settlement boom coincided with a 2.5 percent drop in housing starts inside Israel. In a comprehensive report, Ha’aretz (6.17) indicates that nearly 40% of the settlers live outside the settlement blocs, a fact that may make it almost impossible to divide the West Bank into two separate states. It is interesting to note that Israeli government officials and citizens say the “new housing projects will not hinder Israel’s ability to resolve the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict” (Jewish News Source, 1.17).
Writing in the “Saturday Essay” (Wall Street Journal, 1.17) Yossi Klein Halevi, senior fellow of the Shalom Harman Institute in Jerusalem, stated that the election of President Trump has been accompanied by a “moment of high expectancy,” where mainstream Israelis now take it for granted that Israel should take over the West Bank as a legitimate claim related to their deep historical roots. Absorbing more than 2.5 million Palestinians into Israel would threaten the identity of Israel as a Jewish state, said Halevi. If rights of citizenship were to be granted to the Palestinians, Israel would be forced to choose between becoming a democratic or an apartheid Jewish state — a “moral and political dilemma.” While polls in the past have shown that Israelis supported a two-state solution and backed peace talks, now only a quarter think that talks will succeed.
 Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist, an editor for the American Council for Judaism, and a contributing editor for the Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs.