With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

David Meir-Levi: Occupation and Settlement: The Myth and Reality

David Meir-Levi, in the Frontpagemag.com (6-24-05)

One of the most prominent and contentious issues in the media coverage and Arab propaganda regarding the Israel-Arab conflict is that of Jewish “occupation” of Arab lands and the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (hereafter WBGS). Unfortunately, these issues have been clouded with misleading rhetoric and propagandistic mantras by both sides. To properly understand the role of the Israeli presence and settlements in the WBGS, it is necessary to review their history within the broader historical context of the Arab-Israel war, which has been proceeding without interruption since 1948.

Historical Introduction

Early Zionism

The conflict between Israel and the Arab world began well before the 1948 war. Zionist pioneers from middle of the 19th century onward began their work of rebuilding a Jewish homeland in what was then the Ottoman or Turkish Empire by their purchase of land from the Turkish Crown and from Arab landowners (Effendi). There was no invasion, no conquest, no theft of Arab land and certainly not of Palestinians who were subjects of Turkish rule. Unarmed and with no military, the Jews bought so much land that in 1892 a group of Effendi sent a letter to the Turkish Sultan, requesting that he make it illegal for his subjects to sell land to Jews. Their successors did the same thing, via a telegram, in 1915.

No one complained of theft because there was none. No Arabs were driven from their homes. In fact, as a demographic study published by Columbia University demonstrates[1], the Arab population of the area grew tremendously during this period in part because of the economic development that the Jews helped to generate. Thus, between 1514 AD and c. 1850, the Arab population of this region of the Turkish empire was more or less static at about 340,000. It suddenly began to increase c. 1855, and by 1947 it stood at c. 1,300,000 -- almost quadrupling in less than 100 years. The exact causes of this increase are beyond the scope of this essay, but the causal correlation between this independently documented phenomenon and the Zionist endeavor is beyond rational argument.

Far from driving out any Arabs, stealing their land or ruining their economy, the work of the Jewish pioneers in the 19th and early 20th centuries actually enabled the population to quadruple, the economy to enter the modern era, and the society to slough off the shackles of serfdom that typified the Effendi-Fellah (land-owner/serf) relationship of the Ottoman era. An Arab working in a Jewish factory or farming community could earn in a month what his father earned in a year eking out a living as a subsistence-level farmer using medieval technology. Arab infant mortality plummeted and longevity increased as the Jews shared their modern medical technology with their Arab neighbors.

Much of the land that the Zionists purchased was desert and swamp, uninhabited and deemed uninhabitable by the Arabs. Modern agrarian techniques and the blood and sweat of thousands of idealistic Jews reclaimed that land and turned it into prime real estate with flourishing farms and rapidly growing communities sporting modern technology and a healthy market economy. As a result, Arab migrants poured into the region from surrounding states, with hundreds of thousands seeking a better life and greater economic opportunity. Based on the above, it is fair to suggest that a significant plurality, if not a majority, of Arabs living in Israel today owe their very existence to the Zionist endeavor.

Validation of this history, a history quite at variance with the standard Arab revisionism, comes from a surprising source. Sheikh Yousuf al-Qaradhawi, international Arab terrorist and lieutenant to Osama bin Laden, in a televised speech in May, 2005 (cf. MEMRI), chided his followers with the following words: "Unfortunately, we (Arabs) do not excel in either military or civil industries. We import everything from needles to missiles…How come the Zionist gang has managed to be superior to us, despite being so few? It has become superior through knowledge, through technology, and through strength. It has become superior to us through work. We had the desert before our eyes but we didn't do anything with it. When they took over, they turned it into a green oasis. How can a nation that does not work progress? How can it grow?”[2]

It was precisely this success of the Zionist endeavor that raised the ire and fear of Arab leadership. Zionist progress, technology, economy, and the Jews’ willingness to share this technology with their Arab neighbors radically threatened the medieval strangle-hold of the Effendi over the fellahin (peasantry). As part of the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire, the Arabs of what is today called Israel did not wish to risk civil disobedience. Turkish methods of insuring tranquility under the Sultan were rather draconian. Not so with the British. So, after World War I when the British and the French dismantled the Ottoman empire (Sykes-Picot treaty, 1916), and Britain took over the governance of British Mandatory Palestine (today’s State of Israel and Kingdom of Jordan), Arab leadership found itself with a much freer hand. Stoking religious hatred, and fanning the flames of fellah resentment with lies about the Jews’ intent to destroy Islam, representatives of the leading Effendi families led by the Hajj Amin el-Husseini began an Islamic jihad involving a series of pogroms against the Jews.

Peel Partition Plan

1919, 1921, 1922, 1929, and 1936 saw Arab violence against Jews expanding in scope and growing in brutality, with the British doing almost nothing to curtail it and sometimes abetting it. Lord Earl Peel led a commission of inquiry in 1936, with the goal of finding a solution to the seemingly endless violence. His suggestion was partition. Let the Jews have their state on the c. 15% of lands that they have purchased and redeemed. Let the Arabs have theirs on the remaining 85%.

In 1922 Britain had given all of Palestine east of the Jordan river to the emir Abdullah, which became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, a kingdom with a majority Palestinian population which, by law, permitted no Jew to enter. When offered their own state in 1937 on c. 85% of British Mandatory Palestine west of the Jordan river the Arab leadership chose war and terrorism. This was the “Great Arab Revolt” of 1937-1939. With World War II in the offing, Britain lost no time in brutally crushing the Arab revolt.

Meanwhile, the pioneering Zionist endeavor continued, with the purchase of more crown land from the British. It is important to note that according to international law, what had been crown land under the Ottoman Empire was now legally crown land under the British Mandate. The disposition of that land through legal purchases was well within the rights of the British and conformed to the parameters of international law. When the West emerged from World War II, Zionist organizations owned about 28% of what is today Israel, and private Arab land ownership or British crown land accounted for the rest.

With the end of the war, Arab leadership again promoted violence and terrorism against Jewish settlements and against the British. The majority of Jewish leaders preached restraint and practiced the exploration of political solutions via the newly formed United Nations. A minority practiced terrorism against the British and violent reprisals against the Arabs.

UN Partition Plan

Sick of the violence and facing political crises growing out of economic problems following World War II, the British decided to place “the Palestine Question” into the hands of the United Nations. Several UN exploratory missions (UNESCOP being the latest) in 1947 reached Lord Peel’s conclusion of a decade earlier. On November 29, 1947 the UN decided to declare two states: the state of Palestine for the Arabs on c. 45% of the land, and the state of Israel for the Jews on c. 55%. The UN Partition Plan (UN Resolution # 181) created unwieldy boundaries between the two nascent states, based upon the land ownership and population densities of the two groups, plus the assignment of the Negev (the southern desert, crown land largely unpopulated and believed to be worthless) to the Jews. This desert constituted 60% of the Jewish portion.

It is important to note, at this juncture, that the Arab states were members of the UN. Their membership entailed their willingness to abide by majority decisions of the newly formed world governing body. But they did not.

In high-handed defiance of the UN partition plan, they launched a war of aggression which, by their own public rhetoric, was to be a war of annihilation. Their intent was not the correction of some border dispute or the reclamation of some turf lost in an earlier battle. Their vociferously ballyhooed intention was the destruction of the newly created State of Israel, and the genocide of its 605,000 Jews.

Much to their chagrin, they lost. And in losing, they lost much of the territory which the UN had designated for the state of Palestine. However, the remainder of what was to have been Palestine (the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) never became the State of Palestine. Rather, Egypt maintained illegal occupation of the Gaza Strip, and Jordan illegally annexed the West Bank, both in high-handed defiance of international law and UN resolutions 181 and 194. There was no Arab or Palestinian protest over this.

To add to the Arabs’ chagrin, they were faced in 1949 with an Israeli offer of peace. In exchange for a formal peace treaty, Israel would return much of the land conquered in the war and allow the repatriation of some substantive portion of the Arab refugees created by the war (Rhodes Armistice talks, February – July, 1949). Had the Arab nations been willing to accept the UN partition plan, or had they been willing to accept the Israeli peace offer, not only would there have been a State of Palestine since 1949, but there would never have been an Arab refugee problem. But the Arab response was NO PEACE. The refugees will return to their homes only when they can fly the flag of Palestine over the corpses of the Jews. Better our Palestinian brethren should rot in squalid refugee camps than that we should acknowledge a non-Arab state in our midst. As in 1937, Arab leadership rejected the possibility of a Palestinian state in favor of continued aggression against Israel. It was not the creation of the State of Israel that caused the refugee and other subsequent problems; it was the war of annihilation waged by the Arab states that snuffed out the second opportunity for the creation of a Palestinian state.

Pre-67 Terrorism Against Israel

From 1949 to 1956, Egypt waged a terror war against Israel, launching c. 9,000 attacks from terrorist cells set up in the refugee camps of the Gaza Strip. The 1956 “Sinai campaign” ended Egypt’s terror war, even though President Eisenhower forced Prime Minister Ben Gurion to return the Sinai to Egypt without a peace treaty. But the terror continued on other fronts. In 1964, Yasir Arafat began a 50-year campaign of terror the openly avowed goal of which was the destruction of Israel and the genocide of its Jews. (Arafat did not even mention the annexation of the West Bank by Jordan or the illegal occupation of Gaza by Egypt.) Sponsored first by Kuwait, and later by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran, Arafat declared unending war against Israel until all of “Palestine” would be liberated, redeemed in “fire and blood”.

It is important to note that from 1949 to 1967 there were no Jewish settlements in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. The “Palestine” that Arafat sought to “redeem” was the State of Israel within its 1949 “green line” borders. It is instructive to read the original 1964 version of the PLO Covenant: Article 24. “This Organization (the PLO) does not exercise any regional sovereignty over the West Bank in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, in the Gaza Strip or the Himmah area”. Since the PLO’s original Covenant explicitly recognized Judea, Samaria, the eastern portion of Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip as belonging to other Arab states, the only "homeland" it sought to "liberate" in 1964 was the State of Israel. However, in response to the Six Day War, in which five Arab states attacked Israel and as a result of which Israel militarily occupied the West Bank, the PLO revised its Covenant on July 17, 1968 to remove the operative language of Article 24, thereby newly asserting a "Palestinian" claim of sovereignty to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

It is also instructive to note that the Jordanian occupation of the West Bank and Egyptian control of the Gaza Strip were typified by brutal totalitarian repression. In the words of Arafat himself, the Egyptians (in 1948) herded Palestinians into refugee camps, kept them behind barbed wire, sent in spies to murder the Palestinian leaders, and executed those who tried to flee.[3] Nor were there any Palestinian protests of any self-determination they had been denied.

Belated Palestinian Nationalism

The reason why there was no agitation among Palestinians for their own national identity prior to 1967 is perfectly clear. The concept of Palestine as a nation and Palestinians as a separate people did not exist among the Arabs of the Turkish provinces that became British Mandatory Palestine after World War I. Despite the contorted, forced, and contrived narratives of Rashid Khalidi, Baruch Kimmerling and others, their own analyses acknowledge that there was never any state called Palestine, no country inhabited by “Palestinians”, and no concept of a separate political or cultural or linguistic entity representing a defined group that could be identified by such an appellation.

In fact, the opposite is the case. Arab respondents to the UN’s UNESCOP 1947 inquiries argued that there never was, nor should there ever be, a Palestine. The area under discussion was historically part of southern Syria; and for centuries had been known as “balad esh-sham” (the country of Damascus). In fact, at that time, the term “Palestinian” was applied to the Jews living in Mandatory Palestine. The Arabs of the region were known as “Arabs”.

In a March 31, 1977 interview with the Amsterdam-based newspaper Dagblad de Verdieping Trouw, PLO executive committee member Zahir Muhse’in said: “The Palestinian people does not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity. In reality today there is no difference between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. Only for political and tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence of a Palestinian people, since Arab national interests demand that we posit the existence of a distinct 'Palestinian people' to oppose Zionism. For tactical reasons, Jordan, which is a sovereign state with defined borders, cannot raise claims to Haifa and Jaffa, while as a Palestinian, I can undoubtedly demand Haifa, Jaffa, Beer-Sheva and Jerusalem. However, the moment we reclaim our right to all of Palestine, we will not wait even a minute to unite Palestine and Jordan.”

Even today, Syrian 5th Grade social studies textbooks show “Greater Syria” as Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. There is no nation called Palestine. The concept of “Palestinians” as Arabs living for millennia in “historic Palestine” is a fiction created for the political and military purposes described by Mr. Muhse’in. This belated frenzy of Palestinian agitation for national self-determination is simply the faux mantle of respectability behind which genocidal Arab terrorism can be perpetrated against Israel with impunity. After the Holocaust, the West cannot look kindly upon genocidal terrorism; but it can embrace warmly and enthusiastically the deep and heartfelt yearnings of an oppressed people struggling to be free. Hence, Arafat’s terrorist propagandists needed to invent the lies of Palestinian National Identity and Israeli oppression.

The Six-Day War

Contrary to current Arab propaganda, but congruent with all news accounts contemporary to the events, Israel was the victim of Arab genocidal aggression in the 6-Day War. On May 15, 1967 Egypt demanded that the UN peace-keeping forces, in place since the Sinai Campaign, evacuate at once. UN Secretary General U-Thant, for reasons never fully clarified, complied at once. Then Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran and moved two tank battalions and 150,000 troops right up to Israel’s western border. A military pact with Syria and Jordan, and illegal invasion of Israel’s air space for surveillance over-flights of the Israeli atomic reactor in Dimona, rounded out the threats. These were five casus belli: actions defined in international law as so threatening to a sovereign state that each one creates a legitimate cause for defensive military response. Had Israel retaliated with lethal force after any one of these five, its military action would have been completely legal per international law, as legitimate defensive response to existential threats from an aggressor.

However, Israel did not retaliate. It first tried political negotiations. Its complaints to the UN went unanswered. Its reminders to President Johnson that the United States had guaranteed in 1957 to intervene if the Straits of Tiran were ever closed, or if Egypt ever re-militarized the Sinai, fell on deaf ears. Mr. Johnson was too heavily involved in the Vietnam war to consider American military action elsewhere, even though President Eisenhower, when he forced PM Ben Gurion to retreat from the Sinai after the phenomenally successful Sinai Campaign in 1956, had promised America’s eternal vigilance that Israel would not again face a military threat from Egypt.

After three weeks of watching the Egyptian-Syrian-Jordanian forces grow in size and strength on its borders, Israel tried one last diplomatic action. Via the UN commander of the peace-keeping forces in Jerusalem, Colonel Od Bul (a Norwegian), Israel’s government sent a written message to King Hussein of Jordan: if you do not invade Israel, Israel will not invade the West Bank. King Hussein superciliously tossed the note back to Colonel Bul and walked away.

On Monday, June 5, 1967, after receiving military intelligence that Egypt was within hours of launching an invasion via the Gaza Strip, Israel launched its defensive pre-emptive strike, an air attack that destroyed the air forces of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria while they were still on the ground. With the control of the skies firmly in Israel’s hand, its armor and infantry put Egyptian forces to flight, reaching the Suez Canal within two days.

Despite Israel’s warning, King Hussein of Jordan began an artillery bombardment of Jerusalem and other Israeli cities along the Green Line. After more than a day of bombardment, with scores of Israelis dead, hundreds wounded, and millions of dollars of damages, Israel sent a second message to the Hashemite king: if you stop the bombardment now, we will consider it your politically necessary ‘salvo of honor’; and we will not retaliate. This message was sent via the Romanian embassy, from its West Jerusalem (Israeli) ambassador to its East Jerusalem (Jordanian) ambassador. Hussein ignored the warning and launched an infantry invasion of Jewish Jerusalem. It was only then that Israel responded with its invasion of the West Bank.

After almost a week of Syria’s constant artillery bombardment of Israeli towns and villages in the Galilee, Israel conquered the Golan Heights, destroyed the Syrian artillery, and drove the Syrian army back to within 40 kilometers of Damascus.

Israel did not invade Egypt, although its forces could have advanced almost unopposed to Cairo. It did not cross the Jordan river although the Jordan Legion was in disarray, with some troops having tossed their boots and rifles to more easily swim to the east bank. Nor did it continue its advance from the Golan Heights to Damascus, which it could have easily done in the wake of a terrified and decimated Syrian army. Israel stopped its advance on all three fronts after it had achieved its military objectives: the destruction of the armies that threatened its existence, and the establishment of defensible borders.

International Law and Israeli Sovereignty

Even one of the most critical of Israel’s historians, Professor Avi Schlaim acknowledges that Israel was the victim of Arab aggression in the six-day war. This is an important point with regard to the issue of Israeli settlements in and sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza Strip. International law is very clear. Had it been the aggressor, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip would have been illegal, as would all future expansion of Israeli population into these territories.

However, as the victim of aggression, Israel’s legal position is exactly the opposite. (See infra, Part II, for details.) Suffice it for this introduction that the legal disposition of territories conquered in a defensive war can be determined only by a peace treaty between the belligerents. Absent such a peace treaty, the continued sovereignty and economic activities of the victim of aggression over its newly won territories is completely legal as long as such activity does not unfavorably prejudice the indigenous inhabitants. For the beneficial results of Israel’s sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, see below, Parts II and III.

Moreover, immediately after the war, Israel offered to return conquered territory in exchange for peace. The Arab nations rejected this offer. Israel could legally have annexed the newly won territories, but chose not to because it expected that eventually the aggressor nations would come to their senses and want their land back, and Israel would return some of these territories to their former occupiers in exchange for peace. Israel did this with Egypt, returning all of Sinai at the Camp David I accords in 1979. Anwar es-Sadat refused to accept the Gaza Strip back, preferring that its Palestinians remain under Israeli sovereignty. When Jordan agreed to a peace treaty in 1994, King Hussein specifically excluded the West Bank from consideration, because by then 96% of Palestinians in the area were under the rule of the Palestinian Authority, and Hussein conceded that he had no legal claim to the area or its Arab population.

In sum, Israel is the only known country in all of history and across the entire world to come into existence via legal and beneficial land development (as opposed to the almost universal method of conquest). Israel’s victory in the 1948 war and in the 6-day war, in which it was the victim of genocidal aggression, and the refusal of Arab nations to join it in peace negotiations, give Israel the legal right to maintain its sovereignty over its newly won territories, and to develop those territories in any manner that is not prejudicial to the well-being of the indigenous civilians. Had Arab leadership been amenable to peace with Israel, there could have been a Palestinian state in 1937, and again in 1947, and again in 1949; and there would never have been an Arab refugee problem. Had Arab leadership in 1967 been amenable to peace with Israel, there would never have been a continued Israeli sovereignty over the disputed territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

With this historical framework in place, one can understand the real issues behind the controversy over Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the legal status of the settlements.

Click here to continue reading this article.