The US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has announced that his country understands Israel’s need to have dominant security control in the West Bank as part of any peace agreement reached with the Palestinians. He said that this is because Washington understands the threat to Israel’s existence if Hamas ever took control of the occupied Palestinian territory in the way that it has controlled the Gaza Strip following the evacuation of Israeli settlers in 2005.
This suggests that the “deal of the century” includes a clear position that Israel will not withdraw from the West Bank to ensure that it does not come under Hamas rule. That is also consistent with recent Israeli statements about its protection of the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority, which would fall immediately into Hamas hands if such protection is lifted.
Will the status of the West Bank within the so-called “deal of the century” give Israel the right to remain therein, with its “withdrawal” a mere theoretical formality? What will be the position of the PA and the credibility of US and Israeli security concerns regarding Hamas’s ability to take control of the occupied territory, as well as the extent to which the Palestinian movement has the military, popular and organisational capacity to overthrow the PA, despite being pursued by the Authority’s and Israeli security agencies?
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas does not hide his disappointment and frustration at the results of the Israeli General Election. He pushed strongly, albeit indirectly, for the defeat of Benjamin Netanyahu and declared implicitly that the Israelis should vote for the option of peace. All the PA positions pointed towards Israelis choosing any candidate other than Netanyahu.
The election results and the start of the discussions about forming a new coalition government coincide with the leaks regarding the details of the US deal being announced soon. There has also been talk about the future status of the West Bank, especially given the current political situation which is considered to provide an opportunity for Israel to declare sovereignty over the Palestinian territory.
It is important to note the special relationship between Israel and the current US administration, as well as their partnership in political projects. We must also keep in mind the historic measures being taken by President Donald Trump, such as moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, the cessation of funding for Palestinian refugees through the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and, most recently, the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.
The Israelis believe that these steps pave the way for a rare political window which they must use to get rid of the legacy left by the Oslo Accords and start imposing their sovereignty over the West Bank. Right-wing election campaigns called recently for the gradual dissolution of the consequences of the Oslo Accords and changing the general direction of Israeli policies.
On the ground, this means that the Israelis seek to establish a Jewish majority and abolish military rule. In Areas A and B, where 98 per cent of the Palestinians live in the occupied West Bank, self-rule will be put into effect and they will be able to work in education, culture, tourism, the economic sector and entertainment.
At the same time, Israel will impose civil law in Area C, and will reduce the potential for friction with the Palestinians. This will increase their freedom to move about, develop their infrastructure, create conditions conducive to economic recovery and thus improve living standards through measures on the ground that will turn walls into bridges.
The move towards Israel’s annexation of the West Bank settlement blocs, coordinated with Washington, demonstrates complete disregard for the Palestinian Authority. Israel plans to keep these areas to provide protection for the illegal settlements.
Israel’s claims fall on fertile ground in Washington, not least that security lies in controlling Area C which requires not only precautionary and pre-emptive measures such as the demolition of homes built without permits, but also the rapid expansion of construction and the imposition of Israeli sovereignty. These claims require Israel to fight any Palestinian presence in these areas, and to demolish any house or building on the grounds that it violates signed agreements.
Such practices prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Israel’s goal is for the number of settlers in the West Bank to reach the one million mark. This has always been a dream of extremist, Zionist, right-wing figures and it will happen at the expense of the Palestinians, the indigenous people of the land in question.
Israel believes that the realisation of this dream, which is a nightmare for the Palestinians, is imminent for a number of reasons: the Palestinians are at their lowest ebb because of the political split; Palestinian sovereignty over parts of the West Bank has declined; and the PA’s status and influence over the security situation has declined in favour of expanding the influence of the Israeli army and security forces.
Moreover, the decision-making circles in Tel Aviv believe that the Trump administration to the right of the Israeli right-wing represents a golden opportunity that is rarely seen and may never be repeated, as Washington aligns policies with the Israeli vision for the future of the West Bank, which Zionists call “Judea and Samaria”. One US official apparently visited a West Bank settlement recently and expressed his desire to buy a house there.
The Israelis have known from day one of their occupation of the West Bank in 1967 that they have to have complete control over the geography, demography, security, politics and other areas of contention. They actually have such control, despite the West Bank being divided by Oslo into Areas A, B and C.
It is important to talk about the measures taken by Israel’s security, political and legal institutions in the occupied West Bank, which are in line with what is being planned by the “deal of the century”. Israel is moving forward by imposing facts on the ground — such as the vast settlement blocs — which are the real battleground on which the final page of this conflict will be written by both sides.
The Israeli government’s approach to annexing large parts of the West Bank, with open US diplomatic cover, faces calls from its own citizens for complete separation from the Palestinians and an end to annexation plans, as they will threaten the Jewish majority in the state and pose a threat to its security. Such arguments against annexation tend to be based on extensive research which makes it clear that Israel’s annexation of Area C in the West Bank will have devastating effects on the security, political, economic and social aspects of life. The state cannot guarantee that the situation with the Palestinians will not deteriorate post-annexation, because millions may be affected directly.
Furthermore, the annexation policy may result in the end of the PA’s security cooperation with the Israeli occupation forces. There is also a likelihood that the PA itself will collapse and a wave of violence against and with the Palestinians will break out. Israel may find itself moving towards the re-occupation of Areas A, B and C, and controlling the three million Palestinians living there, not by choice but as a security necessity. This will put Israel at a crossroads where it must make a major decision.
Israel and the United States are trying to justify and legitimise their future approaches in the West Bank — through the Israeli annexation and imposition of sovereignty over the territory — by intimidating the Israeli people and stressing the possibility of Hamas taking control after rebuilding its West Bank bases following a decade of being banned from any social or political activities there. The latter has been enforced by the security coordination between Israel and the PA.
Israeli security agencies claim that Hamas is paving the way to step up its expansion in the West Bank and is planning to manage its activities through the establishment of charitable institutions, youth clubs and social activities that are not associated directly with the movement. In this way, it is alleged, Hamas hopes to expand its popular support amongst the Palestinians across the occupied territory.
Recent opinion polls suggest a significant leap in the popularity of Hamas in the West Bank. Israeli research centres have analysed these findings and believe that in the event that Palestinian legislative and presidential elections are held, the result would be a certain victory for the movement. The only thing that prevents Hamas from controlling the West Bank, whether by elections or by force, they claim, is Israel.
It is clear, therefore, that the West Bank will be at the centre of political events in the coming period, whether in respect of the imposition of Israeli sovereignty over the territory, in line with the new right-wing coalition government’s wishes, or with regard to the details of the US “deal of the century”. Such details may include the offer of US recognition of Israeli sovereignty in return for Israel’s agreement on the other terms of the deal.
At the same time, the security crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank will remain at the top of the PA and Israeli agenda, given that the movement is a common enemy. This is unfortunate, as the PA has swallowed the Israeli bait which claims that the movement is in the process of controlling the West Bank, as it does Gaza. However, these claims are baseless and are not supported by reality or by political or geographical facts.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.