For an accomplished historian, Michael Oren seems to have an extraordinarily short memory.
In a recent article on CNN’s website, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States argued that in the absence of a two-state solution, “One solution could be a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian population centers in the West Bank.” This, he reasoned, would allow Israel to “end the occupation of the Palestinians, preserve its security, and perhaps lay new foundations for peace.”
But this precisely what Israel did some 20 years ago.
The declaration of principles (DOP, or Oslo I) signed on the White House lawn in September 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 settlement. By May 1994, Israel had completed its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip (apart from a small stretch of territory containing a small number of Israeli settlements that “occupied” not a single Palestinian and were subsequently evacuated in 2005) and the Jericho area of the West Bank. On July 1, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat made his triumphant entry into Gaza, and shortly afterward a newly-established Palestinian Authority (PA) under his headship took control of this territory.
On September 28, 1995, despite the PA’s abysmal failure to clamp down on terrorist activities in the territories under its control, the two parties signed an interim agreement, and by the end of the year Israeli forces had been withdrawn from the West Bank’s populated areas with the exception of Hebron (where redeployment was completed in early 1997).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. In one fell swoop, Israel relinquished control over virtually all of the West Bank’s 1.4 million residents. Since that time, nearly 60% 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% live in towns, villages, refugee camps and hamlets where the PA exercises civil authority but, in line with the Oslo accords, Israel has maintained “overriding responsibility for security.”
Some 2% 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 PA maintains “functional jurisdiction.”
In short, since the beginning of 1996, and certainly following the completion of the redeployment from Hebron in January 1997, 99% of the Palestinian population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has not lived under Israeli occupation. As the virulent anti-Israel and anti-Jewish media, school system and religious incitement can attest to, during these years, any presence of a foreign occupation has been virtually non-existent.
That a former holder of Israel’s top diplomatic post seems to be blissfully unaware of this basic fact, nearly two decades after its occurrence, is a sad testament to the failure of the country’s foreign policy establishment to confront the well-oiled Arab propaganda machine and its biggest and most damaging lies. And since the Israeli conquest of Gaza and the West Bank in the June 1967 war, “occupation” has become the Palestinians’ trump propaganda card, allowing them not only to demonize Israel as a repressive apartheid state and justify terrorism but also to extract substantial aid from the international community.
Of course the presentation of terrorism as a natural response to the so-called occupation is not only completely unfounded but the inverse of the truth. In the 26 years of Israeli occupation preceding the signing of the DOP, some 450 Israelis were murdered; in the two years attending the formation of the PA in July 1994, 224 people lost their lives in terrorist attacks, an almost sevenfold higher average annual death toll (112 vs. 17).
And this death toll skyrocketed to unprecedented heights after the launch of the Palestinian war of terror in September 2000 (euphemized as the “al-Aqsa intifada”), shortly after being offered an independent state in the entire Gaza Strip and 92% of the West Bank with east Jerusalem as its capital.
If occupation was indeed 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. Just as it was the partial restoration of security measures in the West Bank during the 2002 Operation Defensive Shield and its aftermath (albeit without reassuming control over the daily lives of the Palestinian population there) that brought the Palestinian war of terror to an end.
It is not “occupation” that is the foremost obstacle to a two-state solution but the 67-year-long Palestinian rejection of this notion as expressed in the 1947 UN Partition Resolution stipulating the establishment of a Jewish and an Arab state in mandatory Palestine. Until that disposition changes, the idea of Palestinian-Israeli peace will mean little more than the continuation of war by other means.
The writer is professor of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at Kings College London and professor of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University. His books include Arafat’s War and Palestine Betrayed.