By Efraim Karsh,head of Mediterranean studies at Kings
College, University of London.
His articles in COMMENTARY include “Israel’s War” (April
2002) and “The Palestinians and the `Right of Return'” (May
Abstract: Few subjects have been falsified so thoroughly as
the recent history of the West Bank and Gaza. The history of
Israel’s so-called “occupation” of Palestinian lands and the
ways in which Palestinians and Arabs have distorted Israeli
actions in the West Bank and Gaza are discussed.
NO TERM has dominated the discourse of the Palestinian-Israeli
conflict more than “occupation.” For decades now, hardly a day
has passed without some mention in the international media of
Israel’s supposedly illegitimate presence on Palestinian
lands. This presence is invoked to explain the origins and
persistence of the conflict between the parties, to show
Israel’s allegedly brutal and repressive nature, and to
justify the worst anti-Israel terrorist atrocities.
The occupation, in short, has become a catchphrase, and like
many catchphrases it means different things to different
people. For most Western observers, the term “occupation”
describes Israel’s control of the Gaza Strip and the West
Bank, areas that it conquered during the Six-Day war of June
But for many Palestinians and Arabs, the Israeli presence
in these territories represents only the latest chapter in an
uninterrupted story of “occupations” dating back to the very
creation of Israel on “stolen” land. If you go looking for a
book about Israel in the foremost Arab bookstore on London’s
Charing Cross Road, you will find it in the section labeled
That this is the prevailing view not only among Arab residents
of the West Bank and Gaza but among Palestinians living within
Israel itself as well as elsewhere around the world is shown
by the routine insistence on a Palestinian “right of return”
that is meant to reverse the effects of the “1948 occupation”
– i.e., the establishment of the state of Israel itself.
Palestinian intellectuals routinely blur any distinction
between Israel’s actions before and after 1967.
Writing recently in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, the prominent
Palestinian cultural figure Jacques Persiqian told his Jewish
readers that today’s terrorist attacks were “what you have
brought upon yourselves after 54 years of systematic
oppression of another people” – a historical accounting that,
going back to 1948, calls into question not Israel’s presence
in the West Bank and Gaza but its very legitimacy as a state.
Hanan Ashrawi, the most articulate exponent of the Palestinian
cause, has been even more forthright in erasing the line
between post-1967 and pre-1967 “occupations.”
“I come to you today with a heavy heart,” she told the
now-infamous World Conference Against Racism in Durban last
summer, “leaving behind a nation in captivity held hostage to
an ongoing naqba [catastrophe]”: In 1948, we became subject to
a grave historical injustice manifested in a dual
victimization: on the one hand, the injustice of
dispossession, dispersion, and exile forcibly enacted on the
population …. On the other hand, those who remained were
subjected to the systematic oppression and brutality of an
inhuman occupation that robbed them of all their rights and
liberties. This original “occupation”-that is, again, the
creation and existence of the state of Israel-was later
extended, in Ashrawi’s narrative, as a result of the Six-Day
war: Those of us who came under Israeli occupation in 1967
have languished in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the Gaza
Strip under a unique combination of military occupation,
settler colonization, and systematic oppression.
Rarely has the human mind devised such varied, diverse, and
comprehensive means of wholesale brutalization and
persecution. Taken together, the charges against Israel’s
various “occupations” represent-and are plainly intended to
be-a damning indictment of the entire Zionist enterprise. In
almost every particular, they are also grossly false.
IN 1948, no Palestinian state was invaded or destroyed to make
way for the establishment of Israel. From biblical times, when
this territory was the state of the Jews, to its occupation by
the British army at the end of World War I, Palestine had
never existed as a distinct political entity but was rather
part of one empire after another, from the Romans, to the
Arabs, to the Ottomans.
When the British arrived in 1917, the immediate loyalties
of the area’s inhabitants were parochial – to clan, tribe,
village, town, or religious sect – and coexisted with their
fealty to the Ottoman sultan-caliph as the religious and
temporal head of the world Muslim community.
Under a League of Nations mandate explicitly meant to pave the
way for the creation of a Jewish national home, the British
established the notion of an independent Palestine for the
first time and delineated its boundaries. In 1947, confronted
with a determined Jewish struggle for independence,
Britain returned the mandate to the League’s successor,
the United Nations, which in turn decided on November 29,
1947, to partition mandatory Palestine into two states: one
Jewish, the other Arab.
The state of Israel was thus created by an internationally
recognized act of national self-determination-an act,
moreover, undertaken by an ancient people in its own homeland.
In accordance with common democratic practice, the Arab
population in the new state’s midst was immediately recognized
as a legitimate ethnic and religious minority.
As for the prospective Arab state, its designated
territory was slated to include, among other areas, the two
regions under contest today-namely, Gaza and the West Bank
(with the exception of Jerusalem, which was to be placed under
As is well known, the implementation of the UN’s partition
plan was aborted by the effort of the Palestinians and of the
surrounding Arab states to destroy the Jewish state at birth.
What is less well known is that even if the Jews had lost the
war, their territory would not have been handed over to the
Rather, it would have been divided among the invading Arab
forces, for the simple reason that none of the region’s Arab
regimes viewed the Palestinians as a distinct nation.
As the eminent Arab-American historian Philip Hitti described
the common Arab view to an Anglo-American commission of
inquiry in 1946, “There is no such thing as Palestine in
history, absolutely not.”
This fact was keenly recognized by the British authorities on
the eve of their departure. As one official observed in
mid-December 1947, “it does not appear that Arab Palestine
will be an entity, but rather that the Arab countries will
each claim a portion in return for their assistance [in the
war against Israel], unless [Transjordan’s] King Abdallah
takes rapid and firm action as soon as the British withdrawal
A couple of months later, the British high commissioner for
Palestine, General Sir Alan Cunningham, informed the colonial
secretary, Arthur Creech Jones, that “the most likely
arrangement seems to be Eastern Galilee to Syria, Samaria and
Hebron to Abdallah, and the south to Egypt.”
THE BRITISH proved to be prescient. Neither Egypt nor Jordan
ever allowed Palestinian self-determination in Gaza and the
West Bank– which were, respectively, the parts of Palestine
conquered by them during the 1948-49 war.
Indeed, even UN Security Council Resolution 242, which after
the Six-Day war of 1967 established the principle of “land for
peace” as the cornerstone of future Arab-Israeli peace
negotiations, did not envisage the creation of a Palestinian
To the contrary: since the Palestinians were still not
viewed as a distinct nation, it was assumed that any
territories evacuated by Israel, would be returned to their
pre-1967 Arab occupiers-Gaza to Egypt, and the West Bank to
Jordan. The resolution did not even mention the Palestinians
by name, affirming instead the necessity “for achieving a just
settlement of the refugee problem”-a clause that applied not
just to the Palestinians but to the hundreds of thousands of
Jews expelled from the Arab states following the 1948 war.
At this time – we are speaking of the late 1960’s –
Palestinian nationhood was rejected by the entire
international community, including the Western democracies,
the Soviet Union (the foremost supporter of radical Arabism),
and the Arab world itself. “Moderate” Arab rulers like the
Hashemites in Jordan viewed an independent Palestinian state
as a mortal threat to their own kingdom, while the Saudis saw
it as a potential source of extremism and instability.
Pan-Arab nationalists were no less adamantly opposed, having
their own purposes in mind for the region. As late as 1974,
Syrian President Hafez al Assad openly referred to Palestine
as “not only a part of the Arab homeland but a basic part of
southern Syria”; there is no reason to think he had changed
his mind by the time of his death in 2000.
Nor, for that matter, did the populace of the West Bank and
Gaza regard itself as a distinct nation. The collapse and
dispersion of Palestinian society following the 1948 defeat
had shattered an always fragile communal fabric, and the
subsequent physical separation of the various parts of the
Palestinian diaspora prevented the crystallization of a
national identity. Host Arab regimes actively colluded in
discouraging any such sense from arising.
Upon occupying the West Bank during the 1948 war, King
Abdallah had moved quickly to erase all traces of corporate
Palestinian identity. On April 4, 1950, the territory was
formally annexed to Jordan, its residents became Jordanian
citizens, and they were increasingly integrated into the
kingdom’s economic, political, and social structures.
For its part, the Egyptian government showed no desire to
annex the Gaza Strip but had instead ruled the newly acquired
area as an occupied military zone. This did not imply support
of Palestinian nationalism, however, or of any sort of
collective political awareness among the Palestinians. The
local population was kept under tight control, was denied
Egyptian citizenship, and was subjected to severe restrictions
WHAT, THEN, of the period after 1967, when these territories
passed into the hands of Israel? Is it the case that
Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have been the victims
of the most “varied, diverse, and comprehensive means of
wholesale brutalization and persecution” ever devised by the
At the very least, such a characterization would require a
rather drastic downgrading of certain other well-documented
20th-century phenomena, from the slaughter of Armenians during
World War I and onward through a grisly chronicle of tens upon
tens of millions murdered, driven out, crushed under the heels
By stark contrast, during the three decades of Israel’s
control, far fewer Palestinians were killed at Jewish hands
than by King Hussein of Jordan in the single month of
September 1970 when, fighting off an attempt by Yasir Arafat’s
PLO to destroy his monarchy, he dispatched (according to the
Palestinian scholar Yezid Sayigh) between 3,000 and 5,000
Palestinians, among them anywhere from 1,500 to 3,500
Similarly, the number of innocent Palestinians killed by
their Kuwaiti hosts in the winter of 1991, in revenge for the
PLO’s support for Saddam Hussein’s brutal occupation of
Kuwait, far exceeds the number of Palestinian rioters and
terrorists who lost their lives in the first intifada against
Israel during the late 1980’s.
Such crude comparisons aside, to present the Israeli
occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as “systematic
oppression” is itself the inverse of the truth. It should be
recalled, first of all, that this occupation did not come
about as a consequence of some grand expansionist design, but
rather was incidental to Israel’s success against a pan-Arab
attempt to destroy it.
Upon the outbreak of Israeli-Egyptian hostilities on June 5,
1967, the Israeli government secretly pleaded with King
Hussein of Jordan, the de-facto ruler of the West Bank, to
forgo any military action; the plea was rebuffed by the
Jordanian monarch, who was loathe to lose the anticipated
spoils of what was to be the Arabs’ “final round” with Israel.
Thus it happened that, at the end of the conflict, Israel
unexpectedly found itself in control of some one million
Palestinians, with no definite idea about their future status
and lacking any concrete policy for their administration. In
the wake of the war, the only objective adopted by
then-Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan was to preserve normalcy
in the territories through a mixture of economic inducements
and a minimum of Israeli intervention.
The idea was that the local populace would be given the
freedom to administer itself as it wished, and would be able
to maintain regular contact with the Arab world via the Jordan
River bridges. In sharp contrast with, for example, the U.S.
occupation of postwar Japan, which saw a general censorship of
all Japanese media and a comprehensive revision of school
curricula, Israel made no attempt to reshape Palestinian
culture. It limited its oversight of the Arabic press in the
territories to military and security matters, and allowed the
continued use in local schools of Jordanian textbooks filled
with vile anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda.
Israel’s restraint in this sphere-which turned out to be
desperately misguided-is only part of the story. The larger
part, still untold in all its detail, is of the astounding
social and economic progress made by the Palestinian Arabs
under Israeli “oppression.”
At the inception of the occupation, conditions in the
territories were quite dire. Life expectancy was low;
malnutrition, infectious diseases, and child mortality were
rife; and the level of education was very poor. Prior to the
1967 war, fewer than 60 percent of all male adults had been
employed, with unemployment among refugees running as high as
83 percent. Within a brief period after the war, Israeli
occupation had led to dramatic improvements in general
well-being, placing the population of the territories ahead of
most of their Arab neighbors.
In the economic sphere, most of this progress was the result
of access to the far larger and more advanced Israeli economy:
the number of Palestinians working in Israel rose from zero in
1967 to 66,000 in 1975 and 109,000 by 1986, accounting for 35
percent of the employed population of the West Bank and 45
percent in Gaza. Close to 2,000 industrial plants, employing
almost half of the work force, were established in the
territories under Israeli rule.
During the 1970’s, the West Bank and Gaza constituted the
fourth fastest-growing economy in the world-ahead of such
“wonders” as Singapore, Hong Kong, and Korea, and
substantially ahead of Israel itself. Although GNP per capita
grew somewhat more slowly, the rate was still high by
international standards, with per-capita GNP expanding tenfold
between 1968 and 1991 from $165 to $1,715 (compared with
Jordan’s $1,050, Egypt’s $600, Turkey’s $1,630, and Tunisia’s
$1,440). By 1999,
Palestinian per-capita income was nearly double Syria’s, more
than four times Yemen’s, and 10 percent higher than Jordan’s
(one of the betteroff Arab states). Only the oil-rich Gulf
states and Lebanon were more affluent.
Under Israeli rule, the Palestinians also made vast progress
in social welfare. Perhaps most significantly, mortality rates
in the West Bank and Gaza fell by more than two-thirds between
1970 and 1990, while life expectancy rose from 48 years in
1967 to 72 in 2000 (compared with an average of 68 years for
all the countries of the Middle East and North Africa).
Israeli medical programs reduced the infant-mortality rate of
60 per 1,000 live births in 1968 to 15 per 1,000 in 2000 (in
Iraq the rate is 64, in Egypt 40, in Jordan 23, in Syria 22).
And under a systematic program of inoculation, childhood
diseases like polio, whooping cough, tetanus, and measles were
No less remarkable were advances in the Palestinians’ standard
of living. By 1986, 92.8 percent of the population in the West
Bank and Gaza had electricity around the clock, as compared to
20.5 percent in 1967; 85 percent had running water in
dwellings, as compared to 16 percent in 1967; 83.5 percent had
electric or gas ranges for cooking, as compared to 4 percent
in 1967; and so on for refrigerators, televisions, and cars.
Finally, and perhaps most strikingly, during the two decades
preceding the intifada of the late 1980’s, the number of
schoolchildren in the territories grew by 102 percent, and the
number of classes by 99 percent, though the population itself
had grown by only 28 percent. Even more dramatic was the
progress in higher education. At the time of the Israeli
occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, not a single university
existed in these territories. By the early 1990’s, there were
seven such institutions, boasting some 16,500 students.
Illiteracy rates dropped to 14 percent of adults over age 15,
compared with 69 percent in Morocco, 61 percent in Egypt, 45
percent in Tunisia, and 44 percent in Syria.
ALL THIS, as I have noted, took place against the backdrop of
Israel’s hands-off policy in the political and administrative
spheres. Indeed, even as the PLO (until 1982 headquartered in
Lebanon and thereafter in Tunisia) proclaimed its ongoing
commitment to the destruction of the Jewish state, the
Israelis did surprisingly little to limit its political
influence in the territories. The publication of pro-PLO
editorials was permitted in the local press, and anti-Israel
activities by PLO supporters were tolerated so long as they
did not involve overt incitements to violence.
Israel also allowed the free flow of PLO-controlled funds, a
policy justified by Minister of Defense Ezer Weizmann in 1978
in these (deluded) words: “It does not matter that they get
money from the PLO, as long as they don’t build arms factories
Nor, with very few exceptions, did Israel encourage the
formation of Palestinian political institutions that might
serve as a counterweight to the PLO. As a result, the PLO
gradually established itself as the predominant force in the
territories, relegating the pragmatic traditional leadership
to the fringes of the political system.*
Given the extreme and even self-destructive leniency of
Israel’s administrative policies, what seems remarkable is
that it took as long as it did for the PLO to entice the
residents of the West Bank and Gaza into a popular struggle
against the Jewish state. Here Israel’s counterinsurgency
measures must be given their due, as well as the low level of
national consciousness among the Palestinians and the sheer
rapidity and scope of the improvements in their standard of
The fact remains, however, that during the two-and-a-half
decades from the occupation of the territories to the onset of
the Oslo peace process in 1993, there was very little “armed
resistance,” and most terrorist attacks emanated from
outside-from Jordan in the late 1960’s, then from Lebanon.
In an effort to cover up this embarrassing circumstance,
Fatah, the PLO’s largest constituent organization, adopted the
slogan that “there is no difference between inside and
outside.” But there was a difference, and a rather fundamental
By and large, the residents of the territories wished to
get on with their lives and take advantage of the
opportunities afforded by Israeli rule. Had the West Bank
eventually been returned to Jordan, its residents, all of whom
had been Jordanian citizens before 1967, might well have
reverted to that status. Alternatively, had Israel prevented
the spread of the PLO’s influence in the territories, a local
leadership, better attuned to the real interests and desires
of the people and more amenable to peaceful coexistence with
Israel, might have emerged.
But these things were not to be. By the mid 1970’s, the PLO
had made itself into the “sole representative of the
Palestinian people,” and in short order Jordan and Egypt
washed their hands of the West Bank and Gaza.
Whatever the desires of the people living in the territories,
the PLO had vowed from the moment of its founding in the mid
1960’s – well before the Six-Day war – to pursue its
“revolution until victory,” that is, until the destruction of
the Jewish state. Once its position was secure, it proceeded
to do precisely that.
BY THE mid-1990’s, thanks to Oslo, the PLO had achieved a firm
foothold in the West Bank and Gaza. Its announced purpose was
to lay the groundwork for Palestinian statehood but its real
purpose was to do what it knew best-namely, create an
extensive terrorist infrastructure and use it against its
Israeli “peace partner.”
At first it did this tacitly, giving a green light to other
terrorist organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad; then it
operated openly and directly.
But what did all this have to do with Israel’s “occupation”?
The declaration signed on the White House lawn in 1993 by the
PLO and the Israeli government provided for Palestinian
self-rule in the entire West Bank and the Gaza Strip for a
transitional period not to exceed five years, during which
Israel and the Palestinians would negotiate a permanent peace
During this interim period the territories would be
administered by a Palestinian Council, to be freely and
democratically elected after the withdrawal of Israeli
military forces both from the Gaza Strip and from the
populated areas of the West Bank.
By May 1994, Israel had completed its withdrawal from the Gaza
Strip (apart from a small stretch of territory containing
Israeli settlements) and the Jericho area of the West Bank. On
July 1, Yasir Arafat made his triumphant entry into Gaza. On
September 28, 1995, despite Arafat’s abysmal failure to clamp
down on terrorist activities in the territories now under his
control, the two parties signed an interim agreement, and by
the end of the year Israeli forces had been withdrawn from the
West Bank’s populated areas with the exception of Hebron
(where redeployment was completed in early 1997).
On January 20, 1996, elections to the Palestinian Council were
held, and shortly afterward both the Israeli civil
administration and military government were dissolved.
The geographical scope of these Israeli withdrawals was
relatively limited; the surrendered land amounted to some 30
percent of the West Bank’s overall territory. But its impact
on the Palestinian population was nothing short of
revolutionary. At one fell swoop, Israel relinquished control
over virtually all of the West Bank’s 1.4 million residents.
Since that time, nearly 60 percent of them-in the Jericho area
and in the seven main cities of Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarm,
Qalqilya, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Hebron-have lived entirely
under Palestinian jurisdiction. Another 40 percent live in
towns, villages, refugee camps, and hamlets where the
Palestinian Authority exercises civil authority but, in line
with the Oslo accords, Israel has maintained “overriding
responsibility for security.”
Some two percent of the West Bank’s population-tens of
thousands of Palestinians-continue to live in areas where
Israel has complete control, but even there the Palestinian
Authority maintains “functional jurisdiction.”
In short, since the beginning of 1996, and certainly following
the completion of the redeployment from Hebron in January
1997, 99 percent of the Palestinian population of the West
Bank and the Gaza Strip have not lived under Israeli
occupation. By no conceivable stretching of words can the
anti-Israel violence emanating from the territories during
these years be made to qualify as resistance to foreign
occupation. In these years there has been no such occupation.
IF THE stubborn persistence of Palestinian terrorism is not
attributable to the continuing occupation, many of the worst
outrages against Israeli civilians likewise occurred-contrary
to the mantra of Palestinian spokesmen and their
apologists-not at moments of breakdown in the Oslo “peace
process” but at its high points, when the prospect of Israeli
withdrawal appeared brightest and most imminent.
Suicide bombings, for example, were introduced in the
atmosphere of euphoria only a few months after the historic
Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn: eight people
were murdered in April 1994 while riding a bus in the town of
Afula. Six months later, 21 Israelis were murdered on a bus in
Tel Aviv. In the following year, five bombings took the lives
of a further 38 Israelis. During the short-lived government of
the dovish Shimon Peres (November 1995-May 1996), after the
assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, 58 Israelis were murdered
within the span of one week in three suicide bombings in
Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Further disproving the standard view is the fact that
terrorism was largely curtailed following Benjamin Netanyahu’s
election in May 1996 and the consequent slowdown in the Oslo
process. During Netanyahu’s three years in power, some 50
Israelis were murdered in terrorist attacks – a third of the
casualty rate during the Rabin government and a sixth of the
casualty rate during Peres’s term.
There was a material side to this downturn in terrorism as
well. Between 1994 and 1996, the Rabin and Peres governments
had imposed repeated closures on the territories in order to
stem the tidal wave of terrorism in the wake of the Oslo
accords. This had led to a steep drop in the Palestinian
economy. With workers unable to get into Israel, unemployment
rose sharply, reaching as high as 50 percent in Gaza. The
movement of goods between Israel and the territories, as well
as between the West Bank and Gaza, was seriously disrupted,
slowing exports and discouraging potential private investment.
The economic situation in the territories began to improve
during the term of the Netanyahu government, as the steep fall
in terrorist attacks led to a corresponding decrease in
closures. Real GNP per capita grew by 3.5 percent in 1997, 7.7
percent in 1998, and 3.5 percent in 1999, while unemployment
was more than halved. By the beginning of 1999, according to
the World Bank, the West Bank and Gaza had fully recovered
from the economic decline of the previous years.
Then, in still another turnabout, came Ehud Barak, who in the
course of a dizzying six months in late 2000 and early 2001
offered Yasir Arafat a complete end to the Israeli presence,
ceding virtually the entire West Bank and the Gaza Strip to
the nascent Palestinian state together with some Israeli
territory, and making breathtaking concessions over Israel’s
capital city of Jerusalem.
To this, however, Arafat’s response was war. Since its launch,
the Palestinian campaign has inflicted thousands of brutal
attacks on Israeli civilians-suicide bombings, drive-by
shootings, stabbings, lynching, stonings-murdering more than
500 and wounding some 4,000.
In the entire two decades of Israeli occupation preceding the
Oslo accords, some 400 Israelis were murdered; since the
conclusion of that “peace” agreement, twice as many have lost
their lives in terrorist attacks.
If the occupation was the cause of terrorism, why was
terrorism sparse during the years of actual occupation, why
did it increase dramatically with the prospect of the end of
the occupation, and why did it escalate into open war upon
Israel’s most far-reaching concessions ever?
To the contrary, one might argue with far greater plausibility
that the absence of occupation-that is, the withdrawal of
close Israeli surveillance-is precisely what facilitated the
launching of the terrorist war in the first place.
There are limits to Israel’s ability to transform a virulent
enemy into a peace partner, and those limits have long since
been reached. To borrow from Baruch Spinoza, peace is not the
absence of war but rather a state of mind: a disposition to
benevolence, confidence, and justice.
From the birth of the Zionist movement until today, that
disposition has remained conspicuously absent from the mind of
the Palestinian leadership.
It is not the 1967 occupation that led to the Palestinians’
rejection of peaceful coexistence and their pursuit of
violence. Palestinian terrorism started well before 1967, and
continued-and intensified-after the occupation ended in all
Rather, what is at fault is the perduring Arab view that the
creation of the Jewish state was itself an original act of
“inhuman occupation” with which compromise of any final kind
is beyond the realm of the possible.
Until that disposition changes, which is to say until a
different leadership arises, the idea of peace in the context
of the Arab Middle East will continue to mean little more than
the continuation of war by other means.