American liberals too readily give Israel a pass on its outrageous human rights abuses, excusing Israeli brutality as a necessity for survival in a volatile region. But the security arguments once relied upon to justify colonization of the West Bank are no longer valid; Israeli policy in the West Bank today is nothing more than naked imperialism – a land grab for its own sake, to the considerable detriment of the land’s native Palestinias.
Israeli occupation of the West Bank does not effect a buffer between hostile states. Israel and Jordan made peace 20 years ago, and have become good neighbors, with relatively open borders and joint economic projects. To the north, Syria’s military is barely able to cope with its own civil war, much less project power beyond itself. Egypt and Israel have enjoyed peace for 35 years. Simply put, there is no conventional military force in the region posing a threat to the state of Israel, neither now nor in the foreseeable future, bordering the West Bank or otherwise.
And yet Israel continues, more aggressively than ever, its colonization of the West Bank. 25 years since Jordan renounced its territorial claims, and 20 years since Jordan and Israel made peace, Israel has tripled its colonial population.
The Field Guide eschews use of the neutral terms “settlement” and “settler” to describe Israeli imperialism in the West Bank and elsewhere. These terms hold a certain romance for Americans, evocative as they are of America’s own Westward Expansion. The analogy could hardly be more inapposite. The West Bank is not some sparsely populated hinterland – it is more densely populated than any US state. Though the West Bank is only the size of Delaware, its Arab population is greater than was America’s Native American population during the 19th century. Thus every inch of Israeli expansion comes necessarily via the theft of land privately held by the region’s centuries-old native Arab population, causing extraordinary misery and economic hardship for a people who were already poor.
Colony and colonist are fitting terms for recently constructed Israeli towns in the West Bank and the Israelis who people them. Imperialism is a fitting term to describe Israeli practices in the West Bank. Here’s a definition from Wikipedia:
Imperialism… is an unequal human and territorial relationship…, based on ideas of superiority and practices of dominance, and involving the extension of authority and control of one state or people over another. “Regressive imperialism” [is] identified with pure conquest, unequivocal exploitation, extermination or reductions of undesired peoples, and settlement of desired peoples into those territories.
As a matter of fact, Israel is the West Bank’s colonial power: delegating some authority to Palestinians for their own limited self-rule; while retaining plenary power for the most important matters – expropriating Palestinian lands without compensation on an ongoing basis, while controlling water rights and Palestinian movements. As a matter of international law, Israel is the military occupier of the West Bank – and the Fourth Geneva Convention explicitly prohibits an occupying power from transferring people into occupied territory, a practice commonly know as colonization.
Israeli colonization of the West Bank has been extremely aggressive, not just in the number of people Israel has moved into the region (more than 500,000 – of whom more than 300,000 have arrived in the past 20 years), but in the way it’s structured its colonies – as if calculated to maximize the disruption of life for the region’s 2.2 million Palestinians. Israel begins by seizing land – much of which is privately owned by Palestinians – offering no compensation. On that land, it builds a new colony, enclosing it in security walls. Then it builds a highway connecting the colony with Israel itself, and walls in the highway too. Palestinians are not permitted entry into colonies, nor are they permitted to cross – much less use – the highways.
Typically, Palestinians will live in a village, but will own olive orchards a few kilometers away. Many such villages have gone virtually unchanged since the 15th century. Suddenly, a newly constructed wall will cut villagers off from their orchards, destroying their livelihood. Israeli colonists also like to practice a form of economic terrorism: cutting down Palestinian olive orchards, in an attempt to drive them away. As a consequence, West Bank Palestinians are increasingly moving to cities, which have been growing more populous, and are coming more and more to resemble Gaza-like ghettos, isolated from surrounding areas and from other Palestinians cities by Israel’s system of walled colonies and highways. Israel presently controls more than 40% of the West Bank – but that Israeli presence disrupts the economic life of the entire region for Palestinians. The following time-series of images, from Wikipedia, conveys the story most compellingly:
One might hope that Israel would take Gaza as a cautionary tale for the failures of military occupation and oppression. In 47 years since the 6-Day War, Israel has, though its own actions, replaced the military threat once posed by Syria, Jordan and Egypt – with the threat of terrorism arising from 4 million disaffected Palestinians, now in their third and fourth generation of Israeli domination. Like Gaza, the West Bank’s Arab population also has extremely high rates of fertility, poverty and unemployment; and is teeming with youth with few economic prospects and little hope. The area is ripe for a Hamas-, ISIS- or Al Qaeda-style movement to take hold – and if Israel continues its present course, one might regard the rise of violent, fundamentalist Islam in the West Bank to be all but inevitable.