In the hundreds of tours of the West Bank that I’ve undertaken in the last few years for thousands of Israelis hailing from every corner of the political spectrum, one thing stood out as shared across the board. As opposed to the deep differences in opinion when it came to the conflict and how to solve it, when Israelis looked out at the view in front them, all of them, with few exceptions, paid attention only to the built-up areas of Israeli and Palestinian settlement; they were entirely blind to the orchards, vineyards, chicken coops, barns, cultivated fields, and greenhouses that filled the land right in front of them. These territories adjacent to Palestinian settlements, are outside of the Israeli gaze on Palestinian territory. Map #1 below displays this territory as it is perceived by the Israeli eye: the bright green territory shows the built-up areas of Palestinian settlements, and those colored in blue are the areas of built-up Israeli settlements.
One of most interesting insights I gleaned from the days when the interim agreement between Israel and the PLO was signed (when I served as head of the negotiating team) was how differently the two parties perceived the implications stemming from the character of the territory; from the question of who the legal owners were to what the function of the territory was in the fabric of the owners’ lives. Just as Palestinians, as farmers, see the village and the land as a single, indivisible unit, Israelis, as citizens of an urban society, distinguish between residential and agricultural types of land in almost every case, even more so if the distinction serves political motivations.
The distinction comes from, among other things, the different modes of employment prevalent in Israel and in the territories. In Israel, only two percent of the entire population makes a living in industrial agriculture; in the West Bank itself, only one percent of Israeli settlers depend on agriculture. Among Palestinians, in contrast, the number of those whose livelihood is based on traditional, family-based agriculture, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, is six times that size—12 percent. Israeli settlers in the West Bank work 50,000 dunams only, whereas Palestinians work more than a million—that is to say, 20 times more. additionally, the Israelis who live in the settlements raise only a few thousand head of cattle and sheep; Palestinians raise more than a million.
The different ways each side perceives what happens on the ground brings each to cultivate a fundamentally different approach to a number of core issues at the heart of the conflict. For example, the Israeli public has formed an incorrect perception (to say the least) of the reality on the ground. To illustrate this, I will present a number of maps of the region, chosen for demonstrative purposes only, showing the region extending from Qalqiliya in the north to Modi’in Illit in the south.
Map #2 displays the Israeli and Palestinian settlements as dots of equal size. Often these dots are presented on the maps of those who want to show an area where a similar number of Israeli and Palestinian communities can be found. In other words, a map like this would be used in talking about a living space where each side has a significant presence that lends legitimacy to its political claims.
However, if we go back to map #1, the physical reality of the region becomes a bit clearer. A consideration of the extent of the physical presence and ethnic dominance of the two sides through a comparison of the settlements by size and number of residents—not as a symbolic, identical dot on the map but rather representing their built-up areas—reveals that the Palestinian built-up area is fifteen times larger than the Israeli one, and that for every Israeli residing in the West Bank, there are nine Palestinians. The conclusion: clear Palestinian dominance.
The truth is fully exposed when we consider map #3. It depicts an area perceived by Palestinians and their leadership as a Palestinian “ocean”, comprised of adjacent built-up settlement and agricultural areas, which contains Israeli “islands”. This perception is supported by facts noted above. It is worth adding one more statistic: Palestinian land ownership outweighs Jewish-Israeli land ownership by twenty to 1. This is why the maps Palestinians placed on the table during the negotiations with the Barak and Olmert governments, both of which contained proposals for permanent borders and land swaps, clearly include what they consider Israeli territory—the areas of built-up Israeli settlement and their narrow access roads. This model merited the nickname “balloons and strings” from the Israeli side (Map #4).
In contrast, the Israelis and their leadership see the area as it appears in Map #5: Palestinian “islands” in “empty” areas—potential space for expanding existing Israeli settlements and building new, supplementary ones.
This perception explains map #6 quite well, which shows the division of territory in the interim agreement. Responsibility and authority over many Palestinian villages was only transferred to the Palestinian Authority when it came to their built-up areas, while the rest of the land remained in Israeli control. This means that in order to build an extension to his house, a Palestinian goes to the Palestinian Authority, but if he wants to build a new barn or greenhouse on land adjacent to his house, he has to go to the Civil Administration (where he will most likely face rejection). There is no doubt that this situation was shaped as a result of the fact that at the time of the signing of the Oslo Accords, it was clear to both sides that the agreements were meant only for the interim. But after close to 20 years in a temporary state, it is clear that the Israeli side is also taking advantage of that state for expanding its control, de facto annexation, and taking over private Palestinian land.
This perception is also the basis of the Israeli proposal in a negotiated final settlement. The territories Israel has requested to annex are the Israeli settlements, according to their location, size, and potential expansion. Simultaneously, there is no attention whatsoever paid to the fact that the requested borderline cuts through countless plots of Palestinian village and farmland and impinges onPalestinian contiguity and the potential for the development of a future state (Map #7).
It is interesting to point out that drawing the armistice lines between Israel, Jordan and Egypt in 1949 was done in similar fashion. Only then, the decisive considerations were Israel’s tactical military needs and not the future development plans of Israeli settlements. The result was similar, too—70 Palestinian villages in the West Bank left a third of their agricultural land in Israel (200,000 dunams), and seven villages in Israel left two percent of their land in the West Bank under Jordanian rule. It is important to remember that then, as in the process of signing the interim Oslo Accords in 1995, they believed that the armistice lines would soon be replaced with permanent borders that would address both of these distortions (Maps #8-9).
Many politicians, among them Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party, Dani Danon and Tzipi Hotovely from the Likud, and others, seek to make cynical use of the urban consciousness among Israelis. They present them with the territory of the West Bank through urban eyes and provide them with a partial and misleading view that fails to take the full picture into account. These politicians who demand the annexation of Area C, extending through 60% of the West Bank do so because, according to them, Area C is “empty”—with only 42,000 Palestinians living there (the actual number is double). Likewise, they claim that maintaining Palestinian contiguity and living space is possible by connecting Palestinian “islands” through a system of bridges and tunnels. Their plan in no way relates to the future development of Palestinian settlements and to the critical fact that their agricultural lands and infrastructures are in Area C.
A partial look at reality, any reality, and particularly one as complicated as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, is not only unjust, unserious, andunfair, but will also never be capable of providing a real solution. Therefore, we must first first and foremost cut Naftali Bennett’s outlandish suggestions from the agenda. Then, we must insist that one day, when the parties agree on final borders, experts from different disciplines be appointed to be responsible for the exacting exercise in draftsmanship the solution requires. This will ensure that infringement on individual property is kept to an absolute minimum. And we’ve still said nothing of what might come of a victors’ generosity, the wisdom of the strong, and the insight of neighbors.