Washington Report on Middle East Affairs / May 2020
The Trump Administration’s decision to green-light Israel’s annexation of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank grabbed headlines when it was published in late January. But one of its other provisions—one equally cherished by Israel’s extreme right—went largely unnoticed.
Under the terms of the ‘Peace to Prosperity’ document, the U.S. could allow Israel to strip potentially hundreds of thousands of its own inhabitants of their citizenship in a so-called ‘populated land swap’ with the settlements.
Those in danger of having their citizenship revoked are drawn from Israel’s large Palestinian minority—one in five of the country’s population. These Palestinians are descended from families that managed to avoid the large-scale expulsions by the Israeli army in 1948 that led to the creation of a Jewish state on the ruins of the Palestinians’ homeland.
The plan would require minor modifications to borders recognized since Israel agreed to a ceasefire with its Palestinian neighbours in 1949. The result would be to transfer a long, thin strip of land in Israel known as the ‘Triangle’ into the West Bank—along with a dozen towns and villages densely populated with Israel’s Palestinian citizens.
Samer Atamni, director of the Jewish-Arab center for peace at Givat Haviva, an institute promoting greater social integration in Israel, lives in Kafr Qara, one of the towns likely to be moved under the plan. ‘There’s been talk about this idea for a while but mostly from the extreme right. Now Trump has brought it out of the margins and into the mainstream,’ he said. ‘The worry is that it will become the basis of any future political solution. It has been normalized.’
In fact, before Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu began lobbying for a transfer of the Triangle in 2017, he had sought to persuade former President Barack Obama’s officials of its benefits as early as 2014. According to the Maariv newspaper, Netanyahu argued that the move would reduce the Palestinian minority from a fifth of Israel’s population to 12 percent.
Yousef Jabareen, a member of the Israeli parliament from Umm al-Fahm, home to 50,000 Palestinians and the largest community targeted by the ‘land swap,’ said the proposal was a dramatic step-up in a growing campaign to delegitimize the Palestinian minority. ‘Even if the plan cannot be implemented yet, it presents us—the native people of the land—as unwelcome guests, as a fifth column, as the enemy,’ he said. ‘And, it will inflame the right-wing’s incitement, including from Netanyahu, that Palestinian members of the parliament are representatives for a terrorist population.’
Defenders of the plan have argued that it does not violate the rights of those affected because they would not be physically forced from their homes. Instead, their communities would be reassigned to a Palestinian state. But forcible transfer of the kind suggested in the Trump plan—sometimes referred to as ‘static transfer’—is likely to constitute a war crime under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
In an attempt to address that argument, the Israeli foreign ministry produced a document, in 2014, analysing how a ‘population exchange’ might be presented as in accordance with international law. It concluded that the measure would require that either the affected Palestinian citizens would need to support the move or the Palestinian Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas would have to back it. However, polls have consistently shown that a majority of Palestinian citizens are opposed.
Atamni noted that families would be torn apart. Those inside the Triangle would be separated behind checkpoints and walls from family members living elsewhere in Israel. It would also cut many off from their places of work, schools and colleges, as well as their historic lands. ‘We study and work in Israel. It is the only reality our community has known for decades,’ he said. ‘It confirms our worst fears that Israel does not take our rights as citizens seriously, that it thinks it can simply issue diktats, and play with our futures as if we are pieces on a chessboard.’
Jabareen pointed out that residents of the Triangle had no reason to be reassured about their prospects from the Trump document. ‘What state is it that we would be transferred to? From the Trump plan it is clear that there will be no Palestinian state, only a series of ghettoes, South African-style Bantustans. Under this plan, we would be placed under Israeli military rule, under occupation and apartheid.’
Baraa Mahamid, a 20-year-old activist with the Umm al-Fahm Youth Movement, agreed. He pointed out that many residents of the Triangle travel into West Bank cities like Jenin, which is close by. ‘We see the greater poverty there, the checkpoints, the walls, Israeli soldiers everywhere. There are many problems for us living here in Israel, but people are afraid their life would become much worse on the other side of the wall.’
According to Israeli government sources quoted by the Haaretz daily, Netanyahu was the one who persuaded the Americans to include the transfer option. He is reported to have been lobbying U.S. officials to adopt the provision since work first began on Trump’s so-called ‘deal of the century’ back in 2017. It is the first time that an official U.S. peace plan has included such a proposal or produced a map showing how such a territorial exchange would work on the ground.
For Netanyahu, and many Israeli Jews, who see the country’s Palestinian citizens as a ‘demographic time-bomb,’ with high birth rates that might slowly erode the state’s decisive Jewish majority, the transfer plan is both a demographic and territorial win. According to polls, about half of Israeli Jews support the expulsion of Palestinian citizens.
Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, which brings together the main Palestinian political factions, warned in February that the transfer of the Triangle was likely to be only the first stage in wider measures. The Israeli right, he said, was ‘conveying a clear message to all of Israel’s Palestinian citizens: ‘You are not welcome here and your turn will come when the next plan is released.’’
The transfer of the Triangle offers a twofold gain for the right. First, it subtracts large numbers of Palestinians from Israel’s population without losing much territory, thereby strengthening Israel’s Jewish majority. Second, it rationalizes Israel’s ‘reciprocal’ annexation of swaths of West Bank territory on which the Jewish settlements are built, thereby defeating any chance of creating a viable Palestinian state. But critically for those who support annexation, it substantially increases Israel’s territorial area without risking a rise in Palestinian numbers.
According to figures published in February by Peace Now, some 380,000 Palestinians—260,000 in the Triangle and a further 120,000 in East Jerusalem—would be ‘swapped out’ to a Palestinian state. Meanwhile, some 330,000 Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem would need to be ‘swapped in’—that is, brought under Israeli rule as part of the annexations. The overall gain would be official U.S. recognition, for the first time, of territory housing 650,000 Jewish settlers as part of Israel. ‘The demographic rationale behind this isn’t being hidden,’ said Jabareen. ‘Israel loses lots of Palestinian citizens and gains lots of territory seized by Jewish settlers.’
Schemes to transfer the Triangle have been floating around on the right for nearly two decades. It first came to prominence when a formal plan was published by Avigdor Lieberman, a settler who has served as defense and foreign minister under Netanyahu. He has been keen to tie citizenship rights to ‘loyalty’ to Israel as a Jewish state. In previous election campaigns, he has run under the slogan: ‘No loyalty, no citizenship.’ Transferring the Triangle has been seen by the right as a prelude to much wider revocations of citizenship for Palestinians, according to Jabareen.
In recent years more politicians on the right, including Netanyahu, have been explicit that Palestinian citizens are necessarily disloyal to a Jewish state because they hold on to their Palestinian identity. Such imputations of disloyalty were a mainstay of Netanyahu’s two election campaigns last year. He accused Israel’s Palestinian voters of wanting ‘to annihilate us all—women, children and men.’ He also sent his Likud party’s monitors into polling stations in Palestinian communities in Israel wearing body cameras, implying that Palestinian voters were defrauding the Jewish majority.
Jabareen noted: ‘In the parliament, members of the ruling coalition openly incite against us. Bezalel Smotrich [a settler leader, and currently the transport minister] says it proudly: ‘Accept your inferior status, or you will go to jail or be expelled.’ For them, the Triangle plan is a sword hanging over our heads.’
The assumption of disloyalty is implied in the wording of the Trump plan, which states that residents of the Triangle’s communities ‘largely self-identify as Palestinian.’ In fact, noted Atamni, the situation is far more complex. Surveys suggest that there is a complicated interplay between the minority’s Palestinian, Arab, Israeli and various religious identities. ‘Yes, our national identity is Palestinian, but that doesn’t detract in any way from the fact that our civil identity is Israeli,’ he said. ‘When we struggle in Israel it is for our civil rights, to end the discrimination we face from the state and receive equality as citizens.’
Nonetheless, the transfer proposal contained in Trump’s so-called ‘deal of the century’ is in line with recent legislative moves by Israel that sanction the downgrading of the status of Palestinian citizens. The most significant is the nation-state law, passed in 2018. It confers constitution-like status on Israel’s Jewishness, revokes Arabic as an official language, and makes a top priority of Judaization—a policy of settling Jews into Palestinian areas inside Israel and the occupied territories.
‘Over the last 10 years Israeli society has moved further right very quickly,’ said Atamni. ‘The left in Israel has been a huge disappointment. Most have kept silent about the recent threats to our status.’ Jabareen observed that the ultra-nationalist bloc supporting Netanyahu had a pressing political need to delegitimize the standing of Palestinians as citizens, and especially as voters.
Netanyahu has been unable to form a government for the past year because, in three elections he has narrowly lost to an opposition bloc led by a former army general, Benny Gantz, of the Blue and White party. The bloc, under Gantz, can only end the stalemate and win power itself by allying with the Joint List, which represents Israel’s Palestinian minority. But Gantz has embraced the Trump plan, making an alliance with the Joint List difficult.
At the time of writing, Netanyahu appeared to have succeeded in pressuring Gantz to break with the Joint List, which won a record 15 seats in an election on March 2, and create an ‘emergency’ unity government. Netanyahu, who would continue as prime minister for 18 months, argued that such a move was vital to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. Gantz’s Blue and White party had reportedly split over the move.
Mahamid, the youth activist from Umm al-Fahm, said the acceptance of the Trump plan by the two main political blocs had at least made the reality of life for Palestinian citizens clearer. ‘We were told our citizenship would protect us, that it would get us our rights if we were loyal. But it never did. And now that is being made explicit in the threat to expel us.’
Jonathan Cook is a journalist based in Nazareth and a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism; he is the author of Blood and Religion and Israel and the Clash of Civilisations