West Bank Annexation: Through the Eyes of Those Impacted

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How many of us feel genuine empathy for Palestinians in the West Bank?

How many of us feel genuine empathy for settlers living in the West Bank? 

How many of us feel genuine empathy for both?

Empathy is fascinating. Empathy is not about agreement or acquiescence. Empathy is the capacity to genuinely understand and identify with what someone else is experiencing, not from your frame of reference, but from their frame of reference. 

It is a high bar, to be sure, but in the past week, I learned a lot about empathy from a trusted colleague of mine, who respectfully offered constructive feedback on our Weekly on the topic of confronting racism. For over an hour, we discussed and debated each aspect of the Weekly. It was a fun conversation, but — more importantly — it was refreshing. It was refreshing because we did not need to agree with one another in order to respect one another. Asking for someone who does not adhere to your standard or mine on an issue is a recipe for disaster. It is an unattainable threshold. 

But, empathy? That’s attainable. That’s achievable.

It merely requires us to transcend ourselves. C.S. Lewis pithily defines humility in a way that resonates. He explains” “Humility is not thinking less of oneself; humility is thinking of oneself less.

And so, the road to empathy goes through humility. 

This week, we want to unpack the question of annexation from the perspective of the two groups most affected by this – Palestinians and Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Let’s do our best to put aside the politicians and the various lobbying groups. Let’s hear directly from them. 

We may not agree with each of them, but can we empathize with both of them?

Let’s give it a shot.

Best,

Noam 

What Happened

Following the announcement of the “Deal of the Century,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly pledged that he would declare the annexation of Israel’s West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley starting July 1, 2020 (as permitted by both the Trump plan and Netanyahu’s coalition deal with Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz). However, with the White House cooling its stance toward the controversial move in recent weeks, Israeli officials now say that Netanyahu will initially announce annexation of three West Bank settlements, but not the Jordan Valley and other settlement areas. This announcement of a potentially “phased” annexation comes as Jordan has threatened to reconsider its peace treaty with Israel, and as Israel faces continued international condemnation. Some countries are threatening to recognize a state of Palestine if the planned annexation goes ahead. Meanwhile, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced that the Palestinian Authority has submitted a counter-proposal to the U.S. plan, providing for a demilitarized Palestinian state. With political leaders from around the world weighing in on the issue, what do Israeli settlers and Palestinians living in the West Bank—the people who would be most directly affected—think about Netanyahu’s controversial plans, and how do these new developments impact the tense situation in the Middle East?

Why Does It Matter

1. What part of the West Bank would Israel annex under the Trump plan?

The answer to this question starts with understanding the different areas of the West Bank: Areas “A,” “B,” and “C,” which came out of the 1993-1995 Oslo Accords. At the time, these three jurisdictions were intended to be temporary until a resolution between the Israelis and Palestinians was achieved. However, that final agreement never happened, and the differences between Areas A, B, and C (both in terms of their legal distinctions and the actual realities on the ground) have only grown since then. Here is a breakdown of the three jurisdictions: 

  • Area A is under Palestinian Authority (PA) control and is home to only Palestinian residents. 
  • Area B is under joint PA-Israeli control. The PA has political, administrative and police jurisdiction over the Palestinian inhabitants, while Israel maintains jurisdiction over the Israeli inhabitants and security control over both Israelis and Palestinians. 
  • Area C is under Israeli control, and though it is sparsely populated, has both Palestinian and Israeli residents. Israeli cities and towns in the West Bank are known as settlements and they are all located in Area C. 

Palestinians living in the West Bank are governed by the PA, hold PA-issued passports, and are not Israeli citizens. The Trump plan allows Israel to annex all of the Israeli settlements in Area C, including the Jordan Valley, which would amount to a total of 30% of the West Bank. The Jordan Valley, which is located along the border between the West Bank and Jordan, is important to Israel’s security, and there is plenty of consensus in Israeli society about the importance of applying Israeli sovereignty to it in any future peace deals. 

2. What’s in a name? “Annexation” or “Application of Sovereignty”

War on language and terms is not new for The Palestinian-Israeli dispute. The name of the conflict itself has been disputed. Is it the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Jewish-Arab conflict, the Israel-Palestine conflict or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Is the separation fence dividing the West Bank from sovereign Israel a “security wall,” a “separation barrier” or an “apartheid wall”? Is the West Bank supposed to be called “Judea and Samaria,” ”the West Bank,” “the Palestinian territories,” “The Occupied Territories,” or “Palestine”? When engaging in this conflict, language disputes emerge. The same thing holds true here. Is it “application of sovereignty,” hachalat ribonut in Hebrew, or “annexation,” sipuach in Hebrew? Even this question is political. This is because annexation means one state imposing legal authority over the territory of another state. To many people, using the word “annexation” implies that Israel isn’t necessarily entitled to the land of the West Bank and may be committing an illegal act under international law. The alternative, “to apply sovereignty” implies that the area of land is an inseparable part of the land of Israel. The reason many use the term hachalat ribonut in Israel is because the West Bank has never legally been part of a state of Palestine, which did not exist. Rather, the West Bank was part of Jordan. 

3. What is life like for Israeli settlers living in the West Bank?

First, who are Israeli settlers, and what caused them to live in the West Bank? Many settlers are driven by ideological beliefs having to do with the Jews’ historic, ancient and prophetic ties to the land. Other settlers are more strongly motivated by economic and lifestyle factors, such as more affordable housing, jobs, and a suburban lifestyle. For example, the West Bank settlement of Ariel offers residents parks, malls, and a university for a cost of living that is significantly lower compared with the Tel Aviv area. A source of tension in the lives of settlers is the security situation; many believe that there are more terrorist attacks against Israelis in settlements, compared with sovereign Israel. Still, other Israeli settlers say that life in the West Bank feels similar to life in sovereign Israel. If Netanyahu’s annexation plans actually happen, settlers may face a legal transfer process in which Israeli law would be fully imposed over the area; this would include new laws related to planning, building, and infrastructure that would replace the current policy in those areas under military rule. In general, however, the specifics of post-annexation governance are still unclear.

4. What is life like for Palestinians living in the West Bank?

There is not one monolithic experience. Palestinians living in the West Bank experience challenges that include internal violence, economic problems, corruption and lack of political reform, suspended elections, water shortages, and the Palestinian Authority struggling to pay its civil service employees. Settlement construction continues to be a source of frustration among most Palestinians. Many Palestinians, and those sympathetic to their cause, see settlements and the Israeli military presence as an unjust and illegal occupation of land they feel is rightfully theirs. Recently, deepening the economic crisis, Palestinian officials announced that the PA could not pay the salaries of government employees; this followed another recent decision by the Palestinians to end agreements with Israel, including security coordination. In terms of how Palestinians would be impacted by annexation, Netanyahu has said that Palestinians residing in the Jordan Valley would not be granted Israeli citizenship after the region is annexed, while Yamina party head Naftali Bennett said that the estimated 50,000-150,000 Palestinians living in Area C would receive Israeli citizenship under the plan. Estimates suggest that tens of thousands of Palestinians live in the Jordan Valley; Israel is currently preparing a census of Palestinians living in future annexed areas.

Diversity of Perspectives

While annexation is hotly debated, it’s important to better understand the perspectives of the people who will actually be affected by the move: the Israeli settlers and the Palestinians living in the West Bank. Let’s explore these two perspectives.

Settler Community

Settler leaders are split over Netanyahu’s annexation plans. Some have voiced their support for annexation as envisioned by the Trump proposal, saying that while the plan does not allow for annexation of a sufficient amount of West Bank land, it is still a positive step forward. Other settler leaders, however, oppose the plan because it conditionally allows for the creation of a Palestinian state, and because it does not go far enough. “In any future plan, we will not support the establishment of a Palestinian state in the heart of the State of Israel,” said Yesha Council Chairman David Elhayani (Yesha Council is the umbrella group of settlement mayors). “We demand that the prime minister listen to the needs of the settlement movement and change the map to suit their needs. The map as it is presented today is the road map to a Palestinian state.” Still other settlers object to the plan on the grounds that it is disconnected from reality. Michael Koplow, Israel Policy Forum’s Policy Director, summarized this point of view, focusing on the 15 disconnected enclaves for Jewish settlements that the plan envisions: “Nobody will want to move to far-flung spots in the West Bank that are remote islands…where the security situation will be particularly hairy… The Trump plan does indeed contain a host of extremely unworkable arrangements predicated on a foundation of fantastic magical thinking that took no account of practicalities.”

Palestinian Community

Palestinian leaders, for their part, have rejected the Trump plan in its entirety. Palestinian Prime Minister Shtayyeh announced that the Palestinian Authority submitted a counter-proposal to the U.S. plan, providing for a demilitarized Palestinian state. The PA is also calling on the European Union, and the international community, to impose sanctions on Israel and to recognize a Palestinian state. Shtayyeh said: “Nowhere on earth can we live with this annexation. If Israel goes to annexation, it is a different day for us… Annexation is an existential threat to our future.” According to a report on Israeli Channel 13, multiple Palestinians are actually in support of annexation due to corruption and lack of economic opportunities under the Palestinian Authority. In the same vein, Haaretz reported that the Palestinian public “will not take to the streets over annexation, but would over the economic crisis.”

Discussion Questions

  1. Former Israeli diplomat Abba Eban famously said that “the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” This statement is often referenced when referring to the many times that the Palestinian/Arab leadership has rejected offers for a Palestinian state or peace with Israel in the last century. However, just this week Palestinian prime minister submitted a counter-proposal to President Trump’s peace plan. Does the counter-proposal they submitted prove Abba Eban’s point wrong, or does Eban’s “axiom” remain true? 
  2. This week, the Yesha council (the umbrella group of settlement mayors) launched a public campaign to oppose the Trump plan, due to the fear of the establishment of a Palestinian state that includes most of the West Bank. If you were the mayor of a West Bank settlement, would you:
    • Support the plan because your town will come under Israeli sovereignty?
      OR
    • Oppose the plan because it may lead to a Palestinian state (in the areas not annexed by Israel)?
  3. In a press conference in Jerusalem between the German and Israeli foreign ministers, the German diplomat Heiko Maas expressed serious concerns over Israel’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank. Around 40 years ago, a similar occurrence took place when the German chancellor told then Prime Minister Menachem Begin to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank. Watch Begin’s response here. Do you think Begin’s response is appropriate? Why or why not?
  4. In a recent Times of Israel op-ed, “A plea to Gantz, Ashkenazi: Israel and its friends need you to block annexation,” Yossi Klein Halevi warned: “Annexation will be a betrayal of those around the world who are heroically fighting to protect the good name of the state of Israel. Annexation will betray those young Jews who publicly identify as Zionists in a culture that increasingly defines ‘Zionist’ as ‘racist.’ Sending them to defend us on campus in the aftermath of annexation will be the equivalent of dispatching soldiers into battle without ammunition.” If Netanyahu’s plans were to go forward, would this make it harder for you, personally, to defend Israel? Why or why not?

Classroom Tips 

  1. Let’s flex our empathy muscles. After watching this video about the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process, try to put yourself in the shoes of both Israelis and Palestinians. From both perspectives, which of the following issues would be most important to you and why? 
    • Jerusalem
    • Palestinian refugees
    • Borders
    • Security
    • Settlements 
  2. Split your students into two groups. Ask one group to read this article which is in support of annexation and ask the other group to read this article which is opposed to annexation. Ask the students of each respective group to come up with 3-5 arguments in support of the main ideas presented in their pre-assigned articles. Then, match up your students in pairs, with each pair made up of students that read the different articles. Ask them to discuss and debate the following question: should Israel annex the settlements of the West Bank? After the discussions/debates are over, hold a classroom vote on the question.
  3. With your students, watch this debate on i24News in Israel between Daniella Weiss, head of the Nahala Settlement Movement, and Rabbi Uri Pilichowski, over the Trump proposal and annexation plans. Ask your students to listen closely for the arguments made by each side. Then ask your students to summarize the main arguments of Daniella and Uri, and reflect on whose position they identify with more. Is the West Bank land that Israel is allowed to annex under the Trump plan “a poisoned prize,” or does the proposal represent a necessary compromise?
  4. Watch the following two videos and utilize the educational resources that accompany them:

In Other News

  1. In this feel-good article, read about “Hotel Corona” in Jerusalem, the Dan Jerusalem hotel that hosted COVID-19 patients from a variety of backgrounds — Jewish, Arab, religious and secular — and witnessed incredible co-existence and unity. 
  2. The two largest parties in the Knesset, Likud and Blue and White, are actively working towards decriminalizing cannabis. The two parties issued a joint statement that they would work to “resolve the issue of decriminalization and legalization” of marijuana.
  3. Due to meat shortages during the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic, 5 Israeli cultivated meat startups have benefitted from increased interest and funding.

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is Senior Vice President at OpenDor Media. He leads the education vision and implementation at OpenDor Media with a special focus on the development of meaningful content and resources for students and educators. He holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design.

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