Commentary Upfront Blog

What decides a claim on land?

As solid and grounded as the Israeli settlements on the West Bank look, Israelis have never been the land's only inhabitants.

Simple solutions sound great. Then along come nuance and detail. One place where nuance and detail cannot be ignored is the Middle East. What at first looks like a simple explanation for the way things are – or ought to be – becomes more elusive the more you learn. The history of one community overlays that of another. Mosques sit atop churches, which sit atop temples. Some inhabitants have roots centuries deep. Some go back a millennium or more. Some just arrived. 

The long-running issue of Israeli settlements, which Christa Case Bryant examines in a Monitor cover story (click here), seems simple at first glance. Under the Geneva Conventions, which Israel has signed, an occupying power cannot transfer its population onto occupied territory. Most members of the United Nations have repeatedly condemned Israel for allowing what are now hundreds of thousands of Israelis to live in territory it captured in 1967. That seems like an open-and-shut case. 

Israel, however, argues that the clock didn’t start in 1967, that the occupied territory was never a part of a sovereign state before it was annexed by Jordan after 1948, and that Israelis have a historical right to live in the territory both because of biblical ties to Judea and Samaria and because Jewish communities lived in the region for hundreds of years.

Palestinians have ancient ties to the Holy Land as well. The biblical Philistines, among other peoples, were contemporaneous with the biblical Israelites. While it is not certain that today’s Palestinians are their direct descendants, it is not certain either that most of today’s Israelis are direct descendants of Israelites. Most modern Israelis migrated from Europe, Russia, and North Africa. Most modern Palestinians are a mixture of ethnicities that have ebbed and flowed through the Middle East for thousands of years. In any case, Palestinian families were well established throughout the Holy Land when the Zionist settlement movement began in the late 19th century.

So what decides a claim to the land – international law, possession, antiquity? Palestinians and Israelis can cancel each other out on all of those points. There is one decisive factor, however: Israel is currently in control. Its military is dominant. It can impose its will. And because pro-settlement Israelis, who have become a potent political force in Israel, see an ally in the Trump administration, an Israeli push to grow the settlements and even to annex the West Bank seems increasingly likely. That would fundamentally change Israel, either weakening its Jewishness by enfranchising millions of Palestinians or weakening its democracy by denying them full citizenship rights. Annexation would also isolate Israel internationally and perhaps plunge it into new conflict.

Most settlers live in concrete-and-steel cities connected by superhighways. A visitor from Arizona or southern California would feel right at home. Most settlers live normal lives. They go to work, send their children to school, shop, ride bikes, swim. But as solid and grounded as the settlements seem, Israelis have never been the only inhabitants of the West Bank.