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Israel’s Annexation Plan Is the Latest Stage in a Long History of Violent Dispossession

Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has missed its first deadline for annexing part of the West Bank, but this Trump-backed scheme for land theft is still firmly on the table. The goal of Netanyahu and his US sponsors is simple: they want to liquidate Palestinian national aspirations.

Israel's West Bank barrier wall in August 2004. Justin McIntosh / Wikimedia Commons

Israel’s US-approved plan to annex much of the West Bank, a naked violation of international law and act of racist thievery, aims to throttle Palestinian national aspirations out of existence. The move is based on the Trump administration’s “deal of the century,” a scheme that the Palestinians played no part in drawing up — less a road map to peace than an attempt to liquidate the Palestinian right to self-determination.

The arrangement supposedly seeks to resolve the Palestinian question by attempting to bribe Palestinians into granting Israel more land. They are expected to demilitarize without Israel doing the same and to accept a nonviable Bantustan in lieu of meaningful statehood, in return for meeting a long list of ludicrous conditions set out by their oppressors, including giving up the right of their refugees to return to their homes, and letting Israel and the United States either choose who governs Gaza or keep the territory unlivable.

Annexation would see Israel claim sovereignty overly roughly 30 percent of the West Bank, including most of the Jordan Valley and more than 230 illegal Israeli settlements — a familiar pattern of colonial larceny, given Israel’s earlier annexations of Jerusalem and of Syria’s Golan Heights, to say nothing of the 77 percent of historic Palestine that is presently called Israel.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu initially said that he would declare the newest round of annexations on July 1, but his government has delayed the move for an unspecified period, as Netanyahu tries to navigate his tenuous position in domestic politics while coping with COVID-19. He also wants precise indications of what form of pilfering his bosses in Washington will allow. However, all indications are that the Israeli leadership wants to seize the opportunity to consolidate this phase of colonization soon, lest conditions change.

A History of Conquest

Understanding the annexation gambit requires us to recognize that a dual impulse toward expansionism and demographic superiority lies at the heart of the Zionist endeavor. The challenge for Israeli strategists has been to increase the amount of land that that they control in historic Palestine while ensuring a Jewish majority — “maximum land with a minimal number of Arabs,” in the words of historian Nur Masalha. For example, the Trump blueprint involves the forced transfer of over 260,000 Palestinians from being citizens of Israel to subjects of a hypothetical future Palestinian enclave.

The annexations likely to occur this year are the latest chapter in the demographic engineering that has always been central to modern political Zionism. Its founder, Austro-Hungarian author Theodor Herzl, wrote in his diary in 1895 that “we shall endeavor to expel the poor [Palestinian] population across the border unnoticed, procuring employment for it in the transit countries, but denying it any employment” in the colonial Zionist state in Palestine that he envisioned.

Though Zionism has had various currents, the two that have been hegemonic since before the creation of the Israeli state — Labor Zionism and Revisionist Zionism — both, as Avi Shlaim points out, “sought to create a Jewish state in a land that was already inhabited by another people,” even if they differed over exactly how much of historic Palestine the Zionists should control, or the tactics to use in pursuit of their goals.

It has been a settler-colonial enterprise from the start, one based on uprooting the indigenous population and replacing it with people from elsewhere. As Joseph Massad puts it, throughout its history Zionism has “remained unabashed about . . . its commitment to building a demographically exclusive Jewish state modeled after Christian Europe, a notion pervaded . . . by a religio-racial epistemology of supremacy over the Palestinian Arabs not unlike that used by European colonialism with its ideology of white supremacy over the natives.”

In the years leading up to and immediately following the creation of Israel, Zionists were clear about their intentions, and even about the legitimacy of Palestinian claims to Palestine. Vladimir Jabotinsky — the founder of Revisionist Zionism — argued that Zionists who sought compromise with the Palestinians were deluded in their view “that  the Arabs are some kind of fools who can be tricked . . . [and] who will abandon their birthright to Palestine.”

Later, David Ben-Gurion, Labor Zionist and Israel’s first prime minister, admitted, “If I was an Arab leader, I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural; we have taken their country.” For him, turning Palestinians into a minority in their homeland was not enough: “There can be no stable and strong Jewish state so long as it has a Jewish majority of only 60 percent.”

Squeezing Palestinians Out

Shrinking the Palestinian population while enlarging that of Israel has been a foundational characteristic of Zionism not only in theory but also in practice. Israel’s creation involved Zionist forces expelling 750,000 Palestinians in the 1947–48 Nakba. Five million of those Palestinians and their descendants are still UN-registered refugees. According to BADIL, an NGO that has special consultative status with the UN’s Economic and Social Council, a further 2.25 million Palestinians have become refugees since 1948 — more than a million of them having been driven from their homes during Israel’s 1967 conquest of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem — and 718,000 more are internally displaced.

Israel prevents the refugees from exercising their right to return to their homes, while in contrast, Israel’s Law of Return allows anyone on Earth who the state deems to be Jewish to migrate to Israel and automatically become a citizen. If justice for the Palestinian refugees were realized, there would likely be a Palestinian majority on both sides of the Green Line, which would be a historic defeat for the Zionist movement.

Israel has gone beyond making sure that the refugees stay refugees in order to build its ethnostate. Its ghastly separation barrier is functionally an annexation wall, as 85 percent of it is Palestinian land. Israel shrinks Gaza by taking over Palestinian land on the Strip and calling it a “buffer zone,” depriving the Palestinians who live there of their homes and agriculture.

According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, Israeli policy in East Jerusalem is designed to pressure Palestinians to leave the city, so as to shape “a geographical and demographic reality that would thwart any future attempt to challenge Israeli sovereignty there.” Since 1967, as the group points out, Israel has revoked the permanent residency of approximately 14,500 Palestinians from East Jerusalem. It is nearly impossible for Palestinians to get building permits in the city and, in 1973, Israel legally mandated a 73–26 demographic advantage for Jewish people in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu has made it clear that he intends to keep growing the colony while leaving Israel legally responsible for the fewest possible number of Palestinians — the logical corollaries of “maximum land with a minimal number of Arabs” are “maximum Arabs on minimum land” and “maximum control and minimum responsibility.” Israel, Netanyahu told a right-wing newspaper, will annex the Jordan Valley without the 50,000–65,000 Palestinians who live there becoming citizens of Israel, lest they have a say in who governs them and how.

Nevertheless, he insisted, overall Israeli “security control” will still apply to Jericho, for example, a Palestinian city in the Jordan Valley. The prime minister added that he won’t even permit the discontiguous, non-sovereign parody of a hypothetical Palestinian “state” that Trump promised. In other words, the US-Israeli plan is to continue to dominate Palestinians while denying them elementary democratic and national rights.

While Israel has added land and subtracted Palestinians in these ways, and by regularly killing them in large numbers, it has enlarged its own population and the territory in its grasp by illegally settling 620,000 people in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In this context, annexation is a further illustration of the fact that the Zionist project involves taking Palestinian land that Israel has no intention of returning.

To the Victor Go the Spoils

The history of Palestinian dispossession has not merely been driven by racial-religious supremacy for its own sake. It also means enhancing the wealth of the Israeli ruling class, as well as that of their international capitalist partners. Following the Nakba, Israel passed the Absentees’ Property Law, which defines ethnically cleansed Palestinians as “absentee,” creating a pretext for Israel to steal the land, houses, and bank accounts of Palestinians.

The law created the absurd category of the “present absentee,” so that Israel could confiscate the property of Palestinians who were still in Palestine but had been internally displaced. These steps simultaneously created a further barrier to Palestinian return while enriching Israelis.

The Israeli state-owned water company Mekorot takes water from Palestinians in the West Bank to supply Israelis — including those living in illegal settlements — for domestic, agricultural, and industrial purposes. It often sells that water back to Palestinians at inflated prices that can absorb half of a poor family’s monthly income.

Israeli settlements control just over 85 percent of the most fertile land in the West Bank: the Jordan Valley in particular is a resource-rich farming region. The northern Dead Sea, also a target of the “deal of the century” armed robbery, is home to magnesium, potash, and bromine that could be monetized into hundreds of millions of dollars annually. The annexations the Trump plot sanctions would, B’Tselem notes, allow Israel to go on plundering valuable Palestinian land and resources.

Even if the US-Israeli alliance were to allow for the creation of “self-governing Palestinian enclaves,” the idea is for Israel to control border crossings, air space, and the sea, which means that it would determine the conditions under which capital, labor, and natural resources flow in and out of the whole of historic Palestine. Likewise, Palestinians would still require Israel’s permission for any construction or development. These dynamics would enable Israel to keep Palestinians in its economic chokehold, while allowing the Israeli ruling class to control productive activities from the river to the sea.

Israel’s Enablers

All of these outrages must be seen in a global and regional context that makes them possible. For decades, the United States has provided Israel with the necessary political, economic, and military tools for carrying out its crimes against the Palestinians, because Israel acts as an attack dog for US imperialist interests around the world.

Israel is now in a position to annex, not only because the Trump White House is giving it permission to do so, but also because Trump was preceded by an eight-year Obama administration that was one of the most pro-Zionist in history. Meanwhile, some European nations may favor disciplining Israel — relatively lightly — over annexation, but the EU as a whole is divided over what, if anything, to do. It is questionable whether any eventual response would amount to more than a mild rebuke.

Conditions in the Middle East are also suitable for annexation: nearly all of the governments in Arab-majority countries, which have long been tacit enablers of Israeli pillaging, are now openly in an alliance with Israel, based on economic ties and shared enmity toward Iran. These relationships mean that Israel knows it can do whatever it wants to the Palestinians without risking any pushback from states in the region. Jordan has made some noises about ending its peace treaty with Israel, but is unlikely to follow through on this rhetoric, given the Jordanian monarchy’s dependence on the United States.

Steadfast Resistance

The goal of annexation is to extinguish the Palestinian cause, but it won’t succeed. Palestinians have not endured a century of colonization, and more than seventy years of exile and statelessness, only to be bought off by Donald Trump and his failson-in-law. Even the most self-interested members of the Palestinian bourgeoisie have refused to take the bait.

Annexation, and the Trump document on which it is based, promises to exacerbate rather than resolve Palestinian grievances. Instead of agreeing to the terms of surrender now being put to them, Palestinians are certain to continue their brave, principled struggle against US-Israeli designs.

The main effect of annexation would be to formalize what is already the de facto reality on the ground: one state controls all of historic Palestine. A Joe Biden administration would likely return to the pre-Trump status quo in which US support for Israeli land theft remains tacit. If Biden becomes president, Israel might sometimes be mildly inconvenienced by murmurs about restarting the peace-process pantomime, to little real effect. Europe might oppose something as openly provocative as annexation, but the EU is so deeply enmeshed with Israel that Europe is not about to abandon the broader project of Zionist settler-colonialism.

Palestinian redress, and the decolonization of Palestine, will not be gifted from the conference rooms of Brussels and Washington. It can only be realized through a combination of mass Palestinian resistance with regional support and international solidarity inside the imperial core. As US-Israeli maneuvers make the idea of a two-state solution even more of a cruel joke, the Palestinian struggle becomes ever more likely to foreground demands for equal rights in a single state across the entirety of historic Palestine. In that sense, with each annexation and every new settlement, Zionism could be sowing the seeds of its own destruction.