Amid talk of annexing the West Bank, the idea of population transfer rears its head again

Jewish settlers guarded by Israeli soldiers in the old city Al-Khalil (Hebron)

The view that it is in the interest of Israel to obtain the greatest amount of land with the least number of Palestinians stretches back decades

Michael Young

The National  /   June 12, 2019

As the United States works with Israel’s right-wing government in undermining a [so-called] two-state solution with the Palestinians, it may help to revive an alarming idea. With Israel facing an expanding number of Palestinians in the West Bank, and no plan for what to do with them, this may resuscitate the idea of transferring them out of the territories, allowing for a more complete integration of the West Bank into Israel.

To put this in context, this past weekend the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, told the New York Times: “Under certain circumstances, I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.” Such a move would make a two-state solution impossible, unless the Palestinians were to accept an entirely dependent, quasi-entity, ringed by Israel’s army, with none of the attributes of sovereignty.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long sought to extend Israeli law to parts of the West Bank. However, his annexationist designs could return us to another time in Israel’s history, before the declaration of the state in 1948.

During the 1930s, the idea of “transferring” [ethnic cleansing] the Palestinian population out of Palestine to make room for Jewish immigration was at the heart of Zionist thinking. Many in the Zionist movement considered that Palestinians could move to fellow Arab countries, without any prejudice to them, as there was no recognition among them of a Palestinian nationalist identity.

A particularly revealing moment occurred in 1937, when the British Peel Commission proposed the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. The Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion supported the proposals, but understood that they would only be acceptable if there were provisions for the removal of the Palestinians who remained in the Jewish state. Because Arabs represented half the population of that state, unless they were “transferred” they would have quickly formed a majority, owing to their higher birth rate.

If Israel annexes the West Bank, it will have to deal with upwards of what its Civil Administration estimated in 2012 to be some 2.6 million Palestinians in the territory. While they may be penned into areas of Palestinian autonomy, the long-term prospect that relative peace [sic] will prevail is difficult to imagine – particularly if Palestinians continue to be denied civil and political rights, and are pushed into increasingly restricted areas, as Israel consolidates and builds up the land under its control.

That is not to say that the Israelis will engage in the mass expulsions of Palestinians. Such scenes would be too reminiscent of ethnic cleansing in places such as Syria and Bosnia, and would bring international condemnation. However, Israel is aware that it is also facing a demographic time bomb [sic] and that, sooner or later, the millions of Palestinians under its control may rise up, representing a threat in the West Bank. This is all the more likely if annexation transforms many of its areas into Israel proper.

In such an event, armed clashes between Palestinians and Israelis, particularly if the Palestinian security forces get involved, could lead to dynamics that Israel exploits. Heavy fighting could create major population movements towards safer areas, perhaps allowing Israel to channel Palestinians into neighbouring Jordan. Certainly, the Israelis would strenuously deny any such intention, but fighting shaped the demographic landscape in 1948. So, why presume that such a thing could not happen again?

Considering that something might happen is not the same as saying that it will. Israeli society may yet sense where all this is going, and decide that becoming a pariah is a prospect to be rejected. However, Mr Netanyahu does not believe that Israel has to give up land, and in this he is backed by the US. There is a direct line between such thinking and the view before 1948 that it was in the interest of the Jewish community in Palestine to obtain the greatest amount of land with the fewest numbers of Palestinians.

The Jordanians are particularly worried by the direction of Israeli policy today. They don’t really believe that Mr Netanyahu, or a successor, will do everything possible to avoid a Palestinian takeover of their country. The “Jordan is Palestine” mantra has long been embraced by the Israeli right, and that is not about to change. In advancing Israeli expansionism, the leaders on the right will do whatever it takes to secure their aims.

Would such “transfer” of the Palestinians work? In a region where millions of people have been forcibly displaced, with anaemic responses from the international community, it is difficult to rule out such an option. Moreover, if a Palestinian exodus were the result of fighting, Israel could spin it all as an act of self-defence. It has done so time and again in Gaza, despite the overwhelming level of Israeli destruction in the territory. We are not in a region where victims are used to getting satisfaction.

Hopefully, this will not occur. However, everything points to a profoundly destructive deadlock on the Palestinian-Israeli front in the years ahead. Such deadlock already has existential implications [for the Palestinians], and so may bring about existential reactions. It is in such fraught environments that ethnic cleansing often takes place.

Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut