To many readers of mainstream news sites in recent weeks, it may seem as if Israel is preparing to implement a drastic plan to annex the occupied West Bank, following the new Israeli government’s coalition agreement and the United States’ so-called “Deal of the Century.”
But Palestinians know full well that there is nothing dramatic about Israeli annexation. If anything, they are angered that the international community is acting so surprised at the move.
To understand the gap between the media headlines and the facts on the ground, put yourself in the shoes of an ordinary Israeli citizen who decides to take a trip from their apartment in Tel Aviv to the Dead Sea, much of which lies within the occupied West Bank.
All that citizen needs to do is take a single highway eastward, and in less than an hour and a half, they have arrived near the bank of the Jordan River. There are no checkpoints and no route changes on that short journey — no indicator that one has entered the West Bank. Hebrew-language road signs extend along the entire route, Israeli police enforce traffic laws throughout, and the Israeli National Parks Authority welcomes visitors to its nearby sites.
The Israeli driver will be careful not to mistakenly enter the areas where Palestinian residents of the West Bank live. This is not difficult, since in the wake of the Oslo Accords the army put up large red signs at the entrances of Palestinian towns warning Israelis that entering those areas was “dangerous.” A Palestinian on the other side of those signs, of course, can neither take the road back into Israel nor visit the same Dead Sea resorts as the Israeli driver.
Despite the land’s seemingly complex political structures, the physical map of Palestine-Israel in 2020 is actually very simple: even with a few, semi-autonomous Palestinian enclaves in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, everything from north to south, east to west, is ruled by Israel.
This reality has existed for decades. And yet the world is somehow alarmed by the fact that Israel now wants to make this reality “official” through formal annexation. What the international community views as an illegal move by a military occupier, or as a territorial dispute over borders between two governments, Palestinians understand as another stage in Israel’s century-long settler colonial project.
The demographic ‘mistake’
Exclusion and control, which have always been essential features of Zionism, are the building blocks of the land’s geography. The goal of creating a Jewish-only country in which other people reside has caused an endless reality of oppression for Palestinians. Zionism gave Palestinians two choices: expulsion and exile, or Israeli rule without rights. All Palestinians, no matter where they are in the world, are subjected to either of those fates.
After the state’s establishment in 1948, many Israelis were disappointed that they did not capture cities such as Hebron, Nablus, and Jerusalem’s Old City, which are considered holy Jewish sites, as part of the newly established state. That hope was eventually fulfilled in 1967, when Israel took control of the entirety of Mandatory Palestine. But apart from East Jerusalem, the state never annexed those territories under Israeli law.
To this day, Israel has been eager to avoid repeating the demographic mistake it made by granting some Palestinians Israeli citizenship in 1948. Placed under military rule until 1966 and discriminated against ever since, the very existence of Palestinian citizens has thwarted Israel’s plans to create a purely Jewish state. As such, Palestinians in Israel are constantly reminded that they are unwanted: Netanyahu said clearly last year that “Israel is not a state for all its citizens,” and even the Deal of the Century proposed transferring their communities to a future Palestinian entity.
Haunted by its mistake, Israel decided to pursue a policy of “permanent temporariness” in the West Bank and Gaza: de facto annexation, rather than de jure, would be their escape. It created new categories for the unwanted population: red “permanent residencies” for East Jerusalemites (thousands of which have been revoked since 1967), and orange or green ID cards for those in Gaza and the West Bank, administered by the Israeli Defense Ministry.
The state simultaneously encouraged its Jewish population to settle in the occupied territories. As the settlements blossomed, Israel built bypass roads, walls, and fences to ensure not only that the settlements remained connected to each other and to Israel, but served as a tool to control and limit the movement of the Palestinian population.
So why, after more than fifty years of this “permanent temporariness,” is Israel deciding to make this reality official? And what should the response from Palestinians be?
The Palestinian response
The answer lies in what Israel may be preparing to announce: not only the absorption of the settlements and surrounding land, which are already under its control, but also the final cleansing of the Palestinians who remain in those areas. That plan has been unfolding for years in places like the Jordan Valley, E1, and the South Hebron Hills, but it could be pursued more swiftly once formal annexation is declared.
Given the impunity with which Israel has violated international law in the occupied territories, there is no better opportunity for Palestinians to finally abandon the legalistic discourse of “occupation.” Palestinians have long given this international framework a chance to aid their struggle, despite all its limitation and misrepresentations of their cause — but to no avail.
Palestinian leaders have been part of this failure. Until the late 1980s, the Palestinian national leadership viewed Israel as a settler colony that was usurping Palestinian land, demanding the return of refugees, and calling for a single democratic state for all. But since then, the Palestine Liberation Organization has formally recognized Israel and adopted the two-state solution, in great part to satisfy the international community’s perspective, which operates on the false premise of a “conflict” between two equal sides.
This framework replaced the Palestinian demand for decolonization of Mandatory Palestine, and accepted the Green Line as the border within which to cage Palestinians in a quasi-state. Nearly 30 years after the Oslo Accords, Israel’s settler-colonial policies continue to treat Palestinians as the same, unwanted, colonized group — whether they are citizens of Israel, occupied subjects, or expelled refugees.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas claims to recognize this fact by repeatedly threatening to dismantle the Palestinian Authority or to withdraw from so-called security agreements with Israel. But Abbas has never been brave enough to follow through. If the PA does nothing to correct its mistakes, it will simply maintain Israel’s plans to have the Palestinian leadership run the shrunken enclaves on the state’s behalf.
Thus, as Israel polishes the next phase of its settler colonial project, it is time for Palestinians to return to their original demands of full decolonization and one democratic state where all human beings have equal rights on this land, and to develop new strategies to achieve that goal. Until then, the international community has no right to express regret about upcoming annexation. It is simply the fruit of Israel’s colonial labors, which the international community itself never took action to stop.