There is a direct link between the summers of 2005 and 2020, and the Gaza disengagement and annexation plans that hung over both, respectively. Both the Gaza plan, which was initiated and executed by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with the backing of U.S. President George Bush, and Donald Trump’s Middle East plan and the attendant push for annexation by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are attempts to manipulate the population numbers to create a new demographic and geographic reality between the river and the sea.
Today, as then, Israeli and American leaders are trying to blur the fact that half of this land’s population is Jewish, and the other half is Palestinian. With unilateral measures based on numerical and rhetorical tricks, they are artificially creating a reality that guarantees Israeli control over the entire territory while concurrently denying Palestinians their rights.
Since its creation, Israel has defined itself as a “Jewish and democratic” state, with much ink having been spilled over the tension between these two concepts. For the country’s leaders, the tension between the desire to control as much territory as possible and the reality of Palestinians living in areas coveted by Israel has always been a point of dissonance.
During the 1948 War, Israeli forces expelled many Palestinians to nearby Arab countries and encouraged others to leave their homes on their own. After the war was over, the new Israeli government sealed the country’s borders to prevent them from returning. These actions reduced Palestinian demography such that the new state could achieve a Jewish majority. The 1967 Six-Day War, during which Israel conquered and subsequently occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip without providing Palestinian residents citizenship or basic rights, reopened the question of Israel’s solid Jewish majority and democratic regime.
Government officials approached this tension in different ways. Then-cabinet minister Yigal Allon, for example, called to annex large tracts of the West Bank where the Palestinian population was relatively sparse, while leaving the rest of it to the Palestinians to administer themselves.
On the other hand, then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan asserted that “we have returned to the holiest of our sites, never to part from them again,” believing it was essential to hold on to the entire territory. Dayan’s solution to the demographic question was what has been termed “a functional compromise,” whereby Israel would control the entire territory and the Palestinians would manage their own population.
What both the Gaza and annexation plans share is the refusal to take steps toward either the establishment of a truly sovereign Palestinian state, or the granting of citizenship and equality to Palestinians under Israeli control. The former would mean giving up full control over the land while the latter would mean losing a Jewish demographic majority.
In the decades since the occupation began, Israel has deepened its control over the West Bank in many ways, including through settlement construction, which has enabled hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens to live in settlements that divide Palestinian territory into fragmented enclaves. This is how we have reached a reality in which Israel effectively controls the territory between the river and the sea, with half the population lacking citizenship and basic rights.
Ariel Sharon, who came to power in 2001 in the wake of the collapse of the Camp David negotiations and the outbreak of the Second Intifada, was well aware of the territorial and demographic tensions at play. The man who, as early as the late 1970s, had formulated a plan to guarantee permanent Israeli control of the West Bank, came to understand that in order to block diplomatic processes that might lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state, he had to face the challenge of demography.
Sharon did that by spearheading the Gaza Disengagement. He took the strip out of the demographic equation by removing 8,500 settlers from a territory that at the time was inhabited by 1.5 million Palestinians.
The world, so impressed by the readiness of a hawk to dismantle part of the settlement enterprise to which he had devoted his political career, did not stop to consider that the act was unilateral rather than part of a mutual political settlement. The international community did not consider that Israel retained effective control over the strip or that the outcome of the move was the further isolation of Gaza from the West Bank — a fact that obstructs the creation of a Palestinian state comprising of the two areas.
In pulling off the Gaza Disengagement, Sharon chalked up two accomplishments. The first was the freezing of the peace process, as acknowledged by his senior adviser at the time, Dov Weissglas. The second was the reconfiguration of the territory: without Gaza, the remaining area under Israeli control now had a 60 percent Jewish majority. Sharon thus successfully “eliminated” the Palestinians living in Gaza — now numbering about two million people — from the demographic equation.
It is this precise tactic and mode of thinking that Trump and Netanyahu now seek to implement. In fragmenting Palestinian territory in the West Bank and entrenching Israeli geographic domination, today’s annexation plans similarly seek to cut out the issue of Palestinian demography. Now, as then, the goal of those playing with Israel’s borders and numbers has always been to preserve Israeli control over the occupied territories, and to shirk Israel’s responsibility for the Palestinian residents under its rule.
In Sharon’s day, Israel tried to circumvent counting Gaza’s population in its demography. Now, Trump and Netanyahu are trying to establish Bantustans that will allow Palestinians to have “autonomy,” but over which Israel will continue to have ultimate and permanent dominion. Waving a wand may make the magician’s rabbit disappear, but no magic words — whether “disengagement,” “peace,” or “Palestinian state” — can make the millions of Palestinians under Israeli control go away.
Magic tricks work as long as the audience is prepared to be deceived. In the short run, there will be those who are captivated by the rhetoric and propaganda that sell these belligerent acts packaged as “peace” and a “solution to the conflict.”
Yet reality is stronger than the attempts to distort it. Annexation will ultimately have the same effect as the Disengagement — bolstering Israeli control over the entire region and perpetuating the occupation. In other words, the Trump plan seeks to create miniature Gaza Strips across the West Bank — isolated enclaves drowning in a sea of Israeli domination.
Trump is now actualizing Sharon’s failed vision as if it were the other side of the same coin. It did not work then, and it will not work now. We must not repeat the mistakes of the past by believing that these unilateral moves, aimed at re-engineering the country through fictional parceling, are the way to a genuine solution. A true solution is contingent upon whether the residents of this divided land can live in freedom and equality, citizenship and sovereignty.
So long as these are denied to the millions of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, a different kind of rule will continue to exist, one of separation and discrimination. There is a word for that in Afrikaans: apartheid. For those of us who hope for a different future, we must reject plans that seek to diminish Palestinian demography and work instead toward a reality in which both peoples can live side by side, with equality and dignity, in two sovereign and secure states.
This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.