Israeli Annexation in a Historical Perspective

(Photo: College Tribune)

By Jacob Starr – Regular Contributor

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is currently striving towards formally annexing the Jordan Valley, a part of the West Bank, with cautious approval of Washington, coinciding with Trump’s Middle East peace plan. This ambition has been widely condemned, with critics claiming it would have detrimental effects on the rights of Palestinians, and that it purely resembles the culmination of how extreme and violent forms of Zionism have systematically enhanced Israeli control of Palestine. Consequently, to contextualise the annexation plans, we must accurately observe them within their historical context.

Modern Zionism, the aim to establish a homeland for the Jewish people, outlined at the First Zionist Congress in 1897, was an understandable response to European antisemitism. However, these ambitions do not justify the expulsion of the Palestinian population, or the authoritarian and racist actions of the modern Israeli state. Nor, conversely, do these actions diminish the conceptual justification for Zionism or the State of Israel. During this period, Palestine experienced the emergence of Arab nationalism, calls for independence from the Ottoman Empire, alongside a specific Palestinian national identity, desires that were not mutually exclusive to the establishment of a Jewish homeland. Despite this, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been inflicted on the region by imperialism and extremism throughout the 20th century.

The First World War provides the defining impetus for the conflict. Striving to achieve military victory over the Ottoman Empire, the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence pledged British support for Sharif Hussein of Mecca to establish an Arab state throughout the Arabian Peninsula in return for launching the 1916 Arab Revolt against their Ottoman rulers. Conflictingly, to strengthen a faltering military alliance with France, the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement determined the division of Ottoman territories in the Middle East between Britain and France. Control over Palestine was vital for Britain’s strategic interests, as it solidified control of the neighbouring Suez Canal in Egypt, facilitating trade across the empire.

At the war’s end, and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France were given mandates by the League of Nations over these territories, disregarding promises for an Arab state. The British Mandate for Palestine contained the 1917 Balfour Declaration, pledging British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This was primarily a strategic attempt to amass Jewish support for Britain’s imperialist war. This dynamic of broken promises placed the region on a course generating decades of violence and demonstrates how the conflict originated with the ambitions of the British imperialist state.

In the interwar period, Jewish immigration increased as antisemitic fascism emerged across Europe. The escalation of violence in Palestine climaxed with the Arab Revolt of 1936-39, directed against Jewish immigration and British administration. Britain’s response, the 1939 White Paper, which limited Jewish immigration and called for the eventual establishment of a single, independent, Arab-majority Palestinian state that could simultaneously act of a Jewish homeland, was rejected by various Zionist and Arab groups, as it failed to fulfil either of their requirements.

Demonstrating the brutality of antisemitism, the Holocaust provided further justification for the establishment of a Jewish homeland, though the Arab Revolt and Palestinian ties to Nazi Germany had hampered any grounding for cooperation with the Palestinians in this endeavour. Crucially, the war had enabled the organisation of Jewish forces within the British army, proving pivotal for the establishment of the IDF and success in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. These developments, amongst others, determined that by the end of the British mandate in 1948, the framework was in place for the establishment of a Jewish state, which would be pursued with little consideration to the rights of the Palestinian people.   

Britain, meanwhile, was it no position to fulfil its responsibilities to the Zionists or Palestinians, the responsibility no longer being within their strategic interests or financial capabilities. Consequently, they handed the issue to the newly established UN. The 1947 UN partition plan proposed the division of Palestine into one Jewish and one Arab state. The Zionist leadership accepted this proposal, though Arab leadership, unwilling to compromise on a Jewish state, refused the plan, resulting in the outbreak of civil war in Palestine. At the end of the British Mandate for Palestine and the declaration of the State of Israel on 14 May 1948, the hostility intensified into the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, after the invasion of Israel by several Arab states the following day.

The conflict is viewed as a glorifying moment for the Israeli state yet referred to as Al-Nakba (‘the catastrophe’) by Palestinians, after 750,000 were expelled. Upon Israeli victory, their armistice borders contained territory allocated to the Arab state under the partition plan. These borders roughly attribute to the modern borders of Israel, regarded as under Israeli sovereignty under international law. Meanwhile, Egypt occupied Gaza, while Jordan annexed the West Bank, demonstrating the responsibility of Arab states in the denial of a Palestinian state.

The 1956 Suez Crisis, where Israel, Britain and France invaded Egypt after their nationalisation of the Suez Canal, presents a critical development. Though they were humbled by the US and USSR diplomatically and forced to withdraw, the Sues Crisis provided Israel with the military confidence to expand their territory and control in later decades. Furthermore, British presence in the Middle East was weakened, leaving the US to represent Western interests in the region, leading the eventual consolidation of an American-Israeli alliance striving to support Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories and reinforce American hegemony in the region, inflicting tremendous consequences upon Palestinians.

In 1967, after escalated antagonism from both sides, the Six Day War erupted between Israel and its Arab neighbours. Possessing smaller but superior military forces, Israel achieved swift victory by eliminating Arab air forces. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), founded in 1964 with the aim of liberating the Palestinian people through violent struggle but eventually becoming a more legitimate political entity, were forced to flee Palestine. Israeli victory resulted in their occupation of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Syria’s Golan Heights, and the Palestinian Territories of the West Bank and Gaza. It is the actions of the Israeli government in the occupied Palestinian Territories thereafter are deserving of the greatest condemnation.

The conflict after 1967 is characterised by the continued Israeli control and illegal occupation, growth of Israeli settlements, increased control of land and water resources, and limitations over Palestinian access to Jerusalem’s holy sites. Crucially, these are the actions successive post-1967 Israeli governments, rather than purely a specific administration, though Netanyahu’s government is certainly complicit in accelerating this process, particularly through his support for continued settlement building. These actions have been permitted by the aforementioned almost unilateral support from American authorities in the region, particularly after becoming the sole superpower in 1991, further emphasising the role of imperialism in the conflict.

It is simultaneously characterised by perpetuated violence from both sides. While another war with Egypt and Syria materialized in 1973, the conflict now primarily became the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rather than the wider Arab-Israeli conflict. This included the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon in response to attacks from the PLO from southern Lebanon, along with the growth of Palestinian terrorist activity, particularly during the First Intifada of 1987-93, a period of protest and violence against Israeli occupation.

A peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979 returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, while peace with Jordan was achieved in 1994. This demonstrated the trend of Arab states being significantly less hostile towards Israeli, though it resulted in them being complicit in the oppression of the Palestinians. There is a lack of political will and capability from Arab states to purposefully support the Palestinian cause, especially though an increased Arab-Israel understanding in response to hostile Iranian influence in the region.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process was implemented in the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995. These established mutual recognition between the Israel and the PLO, allowed the PLO to return to Palestine, and formed the Palestinian Authority (PA) to govern the Palestinian Territories, where jurisdiction was split between Palestinian and Israeli authorities on a temporary basis before complete Israeli withdrawal. Netanyahu publicly indicated displeasure at the peace process, which suffered a degeneration during his first term between 1996-99. Consequently, Israeli withdrawal did not materialise, at the denial of a Palestinian state. Israel retains authority over Area C of the West Bank, much of which Netanyahu intends to annex, exemplifying how the Oslo Accords provided an opportunity to legitimise Israeli occupation, not terminate it.

Resultingly, violence by various Palestinian groups and the IDF persists, particularly during Second Intifada of 2000-05. In 2006, conflict within the PA erupted between Fatah and Hamas. In the aftermath, Hamas has control of Gaza, while Fatah controls the West Bank. In the wake of increased Israeli aggression, the two parties have begun to reconcile in recent years. Despite this, the PA is tarnished with violence and corruption, though they are hindered by Israeli exploitation of Palestinian resources.

While Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, a pattern of increased Israeli control over the West Bank and oppression of the Palestinians continues. Egypt and Israel continue to blockade Gaza, and amidst a rightwards shift in Israeli politics, checkpoints and walls limiting the movement of Palestinians increases. Once more, this dynamic represents a result of continued efforts by the State of Israel to diminish the possibility of a Palestinian State. Regardless of Netanyahu’s annexation aspirations, occupation already resembles permanent control.  

This, ultimately, is the perspective that Netanyahu’s annexation plans need to be viewed in. Trump’s support for annexation reveals the continued pattern of imperialist involvement, whereby foreign actors have condemned all ethnicities and religions of Palestine to conflict for a century. This historical narrative also places annexation within the perpetual ambition of Zionist extremists to control the entirety of Palestine. When viewed through this perspective, annexation appears as the natural development of Israel political and military control, rather than the indefensible action of a single government.

The State of Israel is a justifiable response to antisemitism and aspirations for nationhood, yet the aspiration to escape oppression does not justify the oppression of others. There was never justification for an Israeli state while denying a Palestinian state. Fundamentally therefore, the State of Israel should be condemned for it actions. Ultimately, through this history, the current situation dictates the infeasibility of a Palestinian state. However, what remains feasible, is the establishment of a single, multi-ethnic, multi-religious state. While there are implanted divisions between the two groups that must be addressed, it is perfectly possible to create a state to act as a homeland for both.

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