Mapping Israeli Sovereignty, Jewish Settlements, and a Future Palestinian State
Mayuri Mukherjee

July 1 has come and gone, and despite the hysteria in some circles, the world did not wake up this past Wednesday to find that Israel had become sovereign over large parts of Palestinian land. So what was all the hoopla about, and what lies ahead?

Let’s start with a basic question: what exactly was supposed to happen on July 1?

The short answer is: Not much. July 1 was the earliest date for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to present to his government a plan for the annexation of parts of the West Bank. What that plan will be, and if and how it will be implemented is still being negotiated.

If there is no clear plan, why is Netanyahu even talking about annexation at this time?

Annexing some parts of the West Bank has been one of Netanyahu’s electoral promises. But given the Prime Minister’s generally cautious approach to the conflict overall (usually preferring to just keep the peace and not push for radical changes to the status quo), a unilateral annexation of this sort, done without Palestinian input, was considered to be a fringe idea. However, after US President Donald Trump’s Israel-Palestine peace plan was unveiled earlier this year, the possibility of such an annexation quickly moved up the agenda.

A key element of the Trump plan is that it does not envisage any transfer of population. No Israeli or Palestinian will be uprooted from their homes. This is specifically in reference to Israel’s Jewish citizens who live in the West Bank, or more specifically, in settlements across the 1949 Armistice Line. Although they live under Israeli law for all practical purposes, these residents of the West Bank would like to be part of ‘Israel-proper’ -- and the Trump plan offers them a rare opportunity for just that.

But why do Israeli Jews want to live in a disputed territory with the Palestinians? Is this even legal?

Israeli Jews live in the West Bank for many reasons. The earliest settlements, established right after the 1967 war, were built for strategic purposes--to create a security buffer. But as Israel continued to control the ancient Biblical hills of Judea and Samaria, ideologically motivated Jews who believed that this was their ancestral land also began to move to the region, starting with Hebron, the second holiest city in Judaism. Finally, today, there are many secular Jews who live in the West Bank simply because it’s cheaper.

The legality question is more complicated, and the answer depends on who exactly you ask. The international community considers as illegal all Israeli settlements located to the west of the 1949 Armistice Line (also known as the Green Line), built on land captured by Israel during the 1967 war. This is premised on the Fourth Geneva Convention which deals with the protection of civilians in war-time and also lays down the rights and duties of an occupying power. Specifically, an occupying power is prohibited from transferring its own population to the occupied areas. It is also not allowed to grab private land from the occupied population. Finally, while the occupying power may administer the occupied territory, it does not become the sovereign in that territory unless there is a negotiated settlement with the previous sovereign.

Israel’s argument here is that it cannot be labelled as an occupying power in the West Bank because the region did not have a sovereign at all when Israel took control. The last official sovereign of the West Bank was, in fact, the Ottoman Empire. After the First World War, the Ottomans signed over their entire Empire to the Allied Powers. The British took control of the West Bank (and Israel), established a Mandate, but didn’t claim sovereignty (unlike in the Indian subcontinent) in the region. After the British withdrew in 1948, Jordan took control and officially annexed the West Bank (and East Jerusalem including the Old City) in 1950. But this annexation was not recognised by the international community. Therefore, in 1967, when Israel took over the West Bank, the area had no official sovereign. Moreover, in 1988, even Jordan officially relinquished all its claims to the West Bank, and recognised the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole representative (but still not the sovereign) of the Palestinian people.

This brings us back full circle to the Israeli argument that it is not an occupying force in the West Bank because it did not take the territory from another state. But that’s not all. Israel still applies the laws of the Belligerent Occupation to the region. This guarantees Palestinian residents certain rights and protections under international law, but it complicates Israel’s own position in the region. It also means that Israel’s Jewish citizen settlers in the West Bank live, technically, under military rule. Annexation will bring them under civilian rule in ‘Israel-proper’.

Will annexation not bring the West Bank’s Palestinian residents under Israeli rule as well? Will they then become Israeli citizens?

This is where the concept of applying Israeli civilian law, without officially calling it an annexation, comes into play. To understand what exactly this looks like, we go back to the 1967 war. As mentioned earlier, during this war Israel took control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan. It also took the Golan Heights from Syria, and the Gaza strip and the Sinai desert from Egypt. While Israel eventually returned the Sinai to Egypt after signing a peace treaty in 1979, and unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, it has retained control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Syria’s Golan Heights.

In 1980, Israel unilaterally applied Israeli law to the Golan Heights and to East Jerusalem (but not to the West Bank). It did not claim to officially annex and, therefore, impose sovereignty in these areas. Instead, it only revoked Israeli military law which had been in effect in these occupied areas, and applied Israeli civilian law--ostensibly for administrative convenience. This was essentially a roundabout way for Israel to get to the point of annexation, but without actually doing so.

It also allowed Israel some benefits. First, it kept the door open for another Sinai-style land-for-peace deal (especially vis-a-vis Syria) in the future. Second, it allowed Israel at the same time to steadily integrate the occupied regions into the Israeli state. This would help create new Israel-friendly ‘facts on the ground’, which could be leveraged during potential peace talks. Third, the mere application of Israeli law without the application of sovereignty also meant that the Arabs living in these regions, who were Jordanian and Syrian citizens, were not by default immediately converted into Israeli citizens with voting rights--which would have jeopardised Israel’s Jewish democratic character.

Instead, Israel offered the Arabs in these areas permanent residency (which meant Israeli work permits, access to Israel’s social security system, the right to vote in municipal elections etc.), and a path to citizenship. In the early years, few took up the offer of Israeli citizenship. In the Golan, for example, there was a general expectation that the area would eventually be returned to Syria. However, as prospects for a negotiated peace with Syria in the near-term become dim, and indeed the Syrian state itself is in ruins today, an increasing number of younger Arabs of Syrian descent, many of whom have never known a life in Syria, are applying for Israeli citizenship.

In East Jerusalem, where the facts on the ground seem less settled and the conflict still simmers just under the surface, there is greater reluctance on both sides to walk the path of citizenship although perceptions are changing on both sides. East Jerusalemites also have the right to vote and contest in municipal elections (but they usually don’t, so as not to legitimise Israeli rule). Either way, Israel’s approach to the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem offer some insight into what exactly annexation, or more specifically, the extension of Israeli law to the West Bank could look like: civilian rule for Israel’s Jewish settler-citizens and permanent Israeli residency for Palestinian Arabs with some sort of pathway to Israeli citizenship

But why would Israel want to take on the responsibility of providing for tens of thousands of understandably hostile Palestinians?

Currently, there are about 4,60,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank (not including the 3,00,000 Israelis living in the already annexed neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem), and about 2.1 million Palestinians. They live next to each other but not together. The overwhelming majority of Israeli settlers are concentrated in about three percent of the West Bank area (and only half of this is actually built-up area), in settlements hugging the 1967 line. For example, one of the biggest settlements, the city of Maale Adumim, home to more than 40,000 Israelis, is barely five kilometers outside of Jerusalem. However, there are a few others, like Ariel, home to about 20,000 Israelis that are much deeper inside the West Bank, nearly 16 kms from the Green Line, and surrounded by Palestinian villages. There are also smaller settlement outposts, usually comprised of just a few family homes, which are again deep inside Palestinian territory and were built without Israeli authorisation. As of now, it is unclear which settlements or areas Netanyahu will propose for annexation, but it could be anything between three (just the major settlement blocs along the Green Line) to 30 percent (including almost all Israeli settlements).

Depending on the contours of this plan, Palestinians will be impacted in two ways. The very few living within the annexed settlements will become permanent residents of Israel with full benefits, as explained earlier. Because their numbers are small, they aren’t really a headache for the Israeli government, especially if only the major settlement blocs are annexed. However, if a larger section of land is annexed, then the vast majority of the Palestinians, living right outside and around the settlements, will have to deal with a whole lot more Israeli checkpoints, making everyday life and travel that much harder. They may also effectively lose access to their private properties if located within the annexed settlements. Finally, their hopes of having a territorially contiguous state will be shattered.

If annexation will kill a two-state solution, how will it impact the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?

Annexation will only radically change the contours of a future Palestinian state if Israel goes all out and extends sovereignty to all the settlements. But this is unlikely. Annexation doesn’t really bring, even to Israel, a lot of concrete benefits when compared to the price that it will have to pay in terms of its reputation, trade sanctions from the EU, difficulties in normalising relations with Arab countries etc.

In a best case scenario, annexation strengthens the ideological argument for Israel having sovereignty in Judea and Samaria, and offers to some West Bank settlers the tag of official Israeli sovereignty. But most settlers already live under Israeli law for all practical purposes. In fact, extending Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank might actually make it harder to acquire land, especially private Palestinian land, for new settlements; and if the annexation is part of a negotiated peace plan then there will most certainly be a moratorium on new construction for some time. Similarly, from a strictly security perspective, extending Israeli civil law might actually weaken the Israeli Defence Forces’ ability to function in the Territories, empowering instead the police who have nowhere nearly the same powers as the military. Finally, of course, Israel unilaterally extending sovereignty to the West Bank won’t change international opinion on the issue. Most of the world will still see the territories as illegally occupied by Israel, just as it does with the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem.

So, the entire debate about annexation seems to be a bit of a damp squib at the moment. But that’s because it is being framed as debates over land, and self-determination, and sovereignty. Look at it instead as a negotiating tool in the larger peace process, and it makes much more sense. Irrespective of if, what and how much land Israel annexes in the West Bank, the fact that the US has supported this previously-untouchable idea creates pressure for both the Israeli and the Palestinian leadership to come to the negotiating table.

Israel’s settler communities see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take control of their ancestral lands--and they will push Netanyahu to at least work on Trump’s plan. As for the Palestinians, the deal calls out the bluff of the leadership in Ramallah who have done nothing but extend an already protracted conflict even as the common people continue to suffer.

Half a million settlers will not just walk away from their homes and communities. And neither will seven million people of Palestinian-origin be allowed to return to their ancestral homes in Israel, whose total population is about nine million. And Jerusalem will remain under Israeli control. Sure, the Trump Plan is maximalist but it is clear-eyed about the facts on the ground and has no qualms in saying them out loud.

The Trump Plan offers the Palestinian leadership another chance at having their own state, and a lot of money to build that state. Of course, the plan also lists a whole host of terms and conditions that they need to abide by that they were not consulted about, and of course, they have rejected the plan (for being one-sided, and rightly so). But at the very least, if the very real possibility of Israeli sovereignty being extended to the West Bank compels both parties to begin serious negotiations, then that in itself might be worth it.

What is India’s position on this issue?

Like the rest of the world, India considers Israeli rule in the Golan, and in East Jerusalem as illegal, and sees Israel as an occupying force in the West Bank. On the current issue of Israel possibly extending sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, the Ministry of External Affairs said on July 2 that India’s view is that: “Final status issues should be resolved through direct negotiations between the two Parties”. And that both Parties should “engage with each other and find an acceptable two-State solution for peaceful coexistence”. This is in keeping with what New Delhi had said in January 2020 when the political section of the Trump Plan was released. At the time, the Government had also specifically urged both Parties to engage with each other on the “recent proposals put forward by the United States”.

Generally speaking, India’s view on the Israel-Palestine issue as a whole is that “a two-state solution should be pursued to achieve a comprehensive, just and lasting settlement of the Palestinian issue through negotiation based on the relevant UN resolutions, the principle of "land for peace”, the Arab peace initiative and pre-existing agreements between Israel and Palestine, leading to the establishment of a sovereign, independent and united State of Palestine coexisting peacefully with the State of Israel.” This position was last reiterated in February 2019 at the Russia-India-China foreign ministers’ meet in Zhejiang.

Putting together the above points, it is interesting to note that India has neither criticised the Trump Plan nor has it condemned the Netanyahu government for its annexation proposals. This is exactly as it should be. It shows that New Delhi is realistic, both about the ground realities of the conflict as well as its own position (or lack thereof) in shaping the contours of the conflict resolution process. India does not recognise Israeli sovereignty beyond the 1967 borders in keeping with the majority interpretation of international law in this context, and that’s fine. But there is no reason why it should now stick its neck out and unnecessarily hassle one of its closest strategic partners, for no concrete gains whatsoever.

There is not even a moral argument to be made here, framed in terms of India’s consistent support of the Palestinian cause. The official extension of Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank--especially if it’s only the major settlement blocs--will not radically change anything on the ground. Moreover, the basic administrative arrangement--wherein the Palestinian Authority manages Area A (home to the vast majority if Palestinians), Israel controls Area C (home to most Israeli settlers), and the two share management of Area B--will still remain in place. Finally, if the possibility of annexation, taboo as it may be in certain circles, can re-jig the status quo, then it’s worth a shot.

Either way, when it comes to diplomacy and conflict resolution, it is best not tie oneself down to old shibboleths, to keep all options open, and be realistic. India does not have a frontline role to play in this conflict, but as a mature member of the world polity, it can do its bit by leading through example. For instance, after at least a decade of explicitly calling for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, India (as well as China and Russia) has dropped the reference in the past few years. This isn’t recognition of Israeli sovereignty in East Jerusalem as much as it is an acknowledgement of ground realities.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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