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Israel Continues Unfettered Colonization of the West Bank Amid Genocide in Gaza

The West Bank has posed the biggest challenge to the Zionist settler movement's pursuit of a “Greater Israel.”

The Israeli Civil Administration and Israeli border police demolish a two-story structure that was home to a family of 11, including 9 children, in the village of Al-Jawaya, in the southern West Bank, Palestine, on May 7, 2024.

Part of the Series

Amid the genocidal campaign in Gaza, Israel has expanded its settlement project and markedly increased colonial violence and human rights abuses against Palestinians. “Killings are taking place at a level without recent precedent” in the occupied West Bank, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.

In this exclusive interview for Truthout, international relations scholar Richard Falk reminds us of the reality and aims of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Falk details the degradation, starvation, human rights abuses, unchecked political power and resource control in the occupied Palestinian territories. He also explains the U.S.’s aims in the West Bank and how they differ from those in Gaza.

Daniel Falcone: With a lot of the attention on Gaza due to the extremity of Israel’s bombing in Rafah, the West Bank is sometimes overlooked in media reports and political discussions about the ongoing Palestinian struggle for survival. How can we understand the differences between Israel’s strategic aims in Gaza and the West Bank?

Richard Falk: The three territories of East Jerusalem, West Bank and the Gaza Strip have experienced rather different conditions of occupation and governance during the 57 years of Israeli control, none of them positive.

The whole of Jerusalem was officially declared by the Knesset in 2019 to be “the eternal capital of the Jewish state of Israel.” Such a unilateral action on Israel’s part was incompatible with international humanitarian law. It also violated the letter and spirit of unanimous UN Security Council Resolution 242, which looked toward the complete withdrawal of Israel’s occupying armed forces in the near-term future with Israeli demands for “minor border adjustments.” It has always been a Palestinian demand and expectation that East Jerusalem would be the capital of any future Palestinian state, and this Palestinian position was generally treated as an integral element of the UN consensus that developed around persisting support for “a two-state solution.”

In 1967 Gaza was deemed the third and least important element in the administration of the occupied territories that came under Israel’s control during the war. Its status was viewed ambivalently at first, mainly because it was deemed as remote from the Zionist project, being conceived as not part of “the promised land” that formed the geographic contours of the Zionist vision of a Jewish supremacy state. It also seemed at first to possess little economic promise from Israel’s point of view. Nevertheless, in the period of 1967 to 2005 Gaza was treated by Israel as part of Occupied Palestine, with an intrusive and abusive IDF [Israel Defense Forces] military presence, and the unlawful establishment of Jewish settlements along the Gaza coast. The administration of Gaza was long viewed by Tel Aviv as an economic burden and security challenge for Israel.

The major resistance initiative directed at Israeli occupation known as the First Intifada originated in Gaza in 1987, challenging both Israel and the Palestinian leadership of Yasser Arafat and the coalition of secular Palestinian groups known under the rubric of the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization]. In 2005, Israel formally “disengaged” from Gaza, contending that the withdrawal of its armed forces and the dismantling of its settlements relieved Israel of further responsibilities as Occupier in Gaza, with possible future peace solutions consisting of some sort of federated arrangement with Jordan and/or Egypt. This Israeli interpretation of disengagement was rejected by the UN and both Arab states. They considered Israel’s revised approach to Gaza as nothing more substantive than a redeployment of ground forces to just across the Israeli border coupled with the maintenance of total control of Gaza’s air space and offshore water. The approach also included a tight regulation of entry and exit to and from the strip. Despite this gesture of “disengagement” Israel never overcame the perception of Gaza as “the largest open-air prison” in the world, which for many in Gaza, including secular Palestinians, meant growing sympathy with and support for Hamas.

The complex Gaza narrative after disengagement included the unexpected 2006 electoral victory of Hamas, previously listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and EU, as well as Israel. Despite Hamas foregoing “armed struggle,” in 2007 Israel imposed a strict and economically punitive blockade of goods and persons seeking to leave or enter Gaza, engaged in periodic major military incursions and put the population on “a diet.” Despite Israel’s repressive moves and military incursions, Hamas put forward long-term ceasefire proposals that were ignored by Tel Aviv and Washington. A creative nonviolent campaign of resistance known as “the Great March of Return” attributed to Palestinian refugees and their descendants, as well as Hamas, was met with deadly Israeli sniper violence in 2018 at the border, including the lethal targeting of well-marked journalists.

Finally, Israel’s provocations and the Hamas-led attack of October 7 set the stage for the latest genocidal phase of Israel’s presence, combining the wrongs of occupation with many crimes of oppression, dehumanization, devastation, starvation, ethnic cleansing and apartheid, culminating in genocide. It seemed that as of 2024, Gaza is strategically and economically far more important to the right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu government and its settler temperament than it was earlier. This is due to the discovery of extensive offshore oil and gas deposits, and a reported interest in a major engineering undertaking that involves the Israeli construction of a Ben Gurion Canal traversing part of Gazan territory, with the goal of creating an alternative to the Suez Canal. During all the devastation, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, obscenely proposed luxury waterfront homes for settlers in a Gaza emptied of Palestinians.

It is against this background that the West Bank has posed the biggest challenge to the pursuit of “Greater Israel,” which was the animating ideal of the settler movement. The settlers were closely allied with the extreme right Religious Zionism coalition partner of the Netanyahu-led government that took over the governance of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories in January 2023. From its first days of governance, it became clear that Israel was preparing to push to completion a maximal version of the Zionist Project. Israeli radicalism along these lines was exhibited by the greenlighting of settler violence on the West Bank that involved a series of inflammatory incidents intended to make the Palestinians feel unsafe and unwelcome in their own homeland. The occupying government in Tel Aviv revealed its orientation through tacitly approving settler violence rather than responsibly acting to protect Palestinian residents. Crimes against West Bank residents, including land seizures, were not only tolerated but applauded by rightist members of Netanyahu’s inner circle.

Of supplemental relevance was the official endorsement of increasing the settlement population in the West Bank by expanding building permits and territorial extensions to settlers and their settlements — already estimated to number 700,000 (500,000 in the West Bank, 200,000 in East Jerusalem). This move to ensure Israeli permanence on the West Bank was combined with the acceleration of diplomacy that focused on forming a de facto alliance with Sunni-dominated Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, and the containment and destabilization of Shiite-dominated Iran. Further, Netanyahu’s September 2023 performance at the UN General Assembly in which he arrogantly displayed a map of “the new Middle East” on which Palestine was erased — treated as nonexistent — must have made Palestinian resistance imperative.

These elements are the background context preceding the Hamas-led attack of October 7. The true character of the attack itself needs to be internationally investigated, given the extensive and credible warnings given to the Israeli government, Israel’s ultra-sophisticated surveillance capabilities, and the inflated initial accounts that blamed Hamas for all the most barbaric crimes allegedly committed during the attack. Some of the initial macabre claims of October 7 were later discredited and even modified by Israel. The most suspicious element of the Israeli response was its readiness to embark upon a genocidal campaign, which, while concentrated on Hamas and Gaza, seems also intended to induce a second Nakba with major secondary impacts on the West Bank.

In the months preceding the Hamas-led attack, the West Bank had been the scene of increased settler violence and a heightening of the IDF’s repressive tactics. In the years before October 7, Israel was found guilty of the international crime of apartheid in a series of well-documented reports compiled by objective, expert sources (Special Rapporteurs of the UN Human Rights Council and the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and B’tselem). Liberal democracies and the mainstream media refused to acknowledge this damaging consensus bearing on the legitimacy of Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and instead smeared and blacklisted Israel’s critics.

In addition to the settlements, Palestinian property rights, mobility and security of residence were undermined and threatened in various ways in the West Bank. Palestinian land was further encroached upon at the end of the 20th century by the construction of a separation wall between pre-1967 Israel and the West Bank that expropriated additional Palestine-owned land and divided villages such as Bil’in. Although this mode of constructing the wall on occupied Palestinian territory was found to be illegal by a near unanimous majority of the judges of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2003, Israel defied the findings of the advisory opinion and continued its wall project without deference to international law or international procedures of accountability.

Israel’s rejection of attempts to establish Palestinian statehood with sovereign rights within delimited borders have long concentrated upon the West Bank. This pattern goes back as long ago as 1947, when the UN approved a plan for the partition of Palestine relying on borders derived from the British mandate over Palestine. In the dark shadows cast by the Holocaust, there emerged a UN consensus that the only viable solution for the struggle of the two peoples claiming Palestine as their homeland was to split sovereign rights between two equal states, assumed to be named Israel and Palestine.

Distinguished commentators from both peoples opposed such a territorial division for a variety of reasons, well summarized from a Jewish perspective in Shaul Magid’s The Necessity of Exile and from a Palestinian perspective in the later writings of Edward Said.

Always the central question, even if often left implicit, was the destiny of the West Bank and its residents, as well as whether Palestinian “security” would be restricted by demilitarization and dependence on Israeli forbearance in the two-state models, and whether the Zionist commitment to a Jewish supremacist state could be accommodated or needed to be modified in the one-state models.

What are the U.S. goals in the West Bank and how do they differ from its Gaza policy?

The U.S. has a strong reputational interest in retaining the identity of the West Bank as Occupied Palestinian Territory. If Israel extends its sovereignty over the West Bank, which it has long claimed should be classified as “disputed territory” rather than “occupied territory,” it would bring to a screeching halt any further pretense by the U.S. government to be serious about the advocacy of a “two-state solution.”

Trump’s proposed “deal of the century” contained a nominal Palestinian mini state to sustain the illusion that the interests of both peoples were being considered, but it failed to fool any true two-state advocates.

American credibility as an “honest broker” in the Oslo Peace Process, and elsewhere, was greatly eroded by its acquiescence in the establishment of Israeli settlements in the West Bank despite their patent illegality and negative impacts on a meaningful political compromise on the final territorial allocation between the two peoples. The U.S.’s mild reaction to settlement expansion was limited to the muffled whisper that such behavior “was not helpful.”

By now, given the bipartisan U.S. endorsement of Israel’s genocide in Gaza and its repeated use of the veto to block a meaningful ceasefire directive and a widely supported initiative to treat Palestine as a full member of the UN, I believe that the U.S. could not any longer put itself forward as a trustworthy intermediary in any future bilateral negotiating process. It would overtly become Israel’s international sword and shield, exhibiting its extreme partisanship while falsely claiming adherence to international law and diplomatic balance.

With regard to the differing interests of the U.S. in the West Bank and Gaza, it comes down to two issues: first, supporting Israel’s right to defend itself in Gaza, while maintaining Israel’s legitimacy as an occupying power in the West Bank and insulating its violations of international humanitarian law from UN censure, boycotts and sanctions; and secondly, recognizing that the West Bank is the integral core of a Palestinian state.

How does Israel complicate the work on the ground by scholars, activists and elected officials? The fact that the two regions are separate seems to make the problem even more insurmountable.

The differing character of Israel’s approaches to the two areas creates many complications for those who seek normal operating conditions. Gaza is considered by Tel Aviv to be administered by Hamas, a terrorist entity in its view, whereas the West Bank is co-administered with the quasi-collaborationist Palestinian Authority to ensure that resistance activities are minimized. Even peaceful forms of resistance face harsh punishment, and since Israel came under more extremist leadership, the conditions of daily life have become so unpleasant and dangerous that Palestinians may be forced to leave for neighboring countries, and accept the loss of their homeland, becoming refugees or exiles.

Until recently the balance of opinion in Israel was wary about any Israeli state that purported to include Gaza. This wariness was associated with Israeli concerns about an emergent “demographic bomb” accompanying any attempt to absorb an additional 2.3 or 2.4 million Palestinians into Greater Israel.

In the West Bank, Israel was nervous about the effect of civil society activism, and even scholarly work, generating unfavorable international publicity as to the nature of such a prolonged occupation. The Israeli occupation is currently being challenged at the ICJ following a General Assembly request to legally assess the continued validity of Israel’s administrative role. This follows years without an implementation of the withdrawal envisioned by UN Security Council Resolution 242 and numerous flagrant continuing violations of international humanitarian law.

Even prior to the present Netanyahu government, Defense Minister Benny Gantz issued decrees in 2021 banning the activities of respected West Bank NGOs and deeming them “terrorist organizations.” Elected Palestinian leaders have been harassed and imprisoned despite Israel’s collaboration on security and administrative funding over the years with the Palestinian Authority, which is distrusted by a growing number of Palestinians inside and outside of the Occupied Territories.

What is the role of the West Bank in President Joe Biden’s foreign policy?

The West Bank is an indispensable component of Biden’s continued advocacy of a two-state solution. This advocacy was always half-hearted and never a persuasive expression of genuine U.S. policy intentions. The two-state mantra seems more and more like a public relations posture to satisfy world public opinion as time passes. If it had been a genuine goal, Biden would have challenged Israeli moves of recent years, which became more pronounced since the Netanyahu coalition took over in 2023. It was an open secret that this extremist coalition was committed to the unilateral completion of the Zionist Project by establishing Greater Israel in the shortest possible time even if it required brute force to get the job done. Extending Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank would have the consequence of making continued adherence to two-state advocacy a sign of geopolitical ignorance, so out of touch with the geographic contours of Palestinian statehood as to be in the category of a bad joke.

A viable Palestinian state presupposes full sovereign rights over the West Bank, which must include territorial governance and the dismantlement of the settlements. Neither seems likely to happen if Zionist ideology continues to shape the policy of the Israeli state. It would be awkward for Biden to be asked what kind of Palestinian state does the U.S. favor. He likely would be inclined to answer evasively by saying that “it is up to the parties.” But if he was forthright, it would probably look like a permanently demilitarized Palestinian state with settlements governed according to Israeli law and exempted from territorial regulation. Such a Palestinian state might meet the formal requirements of statehood, but it would be a nonstarter for many Palestinians, who continue to insist on their inalienable right of self-determination. The long Palestinian ordeal, stretching over the course of more than a century, would not be ended by the willingness of Israel to allow the formation of a puppet state.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

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