The Occupation’s Universe of Alternative Facts

By Gershon Shafir, author of A Half Century of Occupation: Israel, Palestine, and the World’s Most Intractable Conflict

This guest post is published in observance of the fiftieth anniversary of the Six-Day War, fought from June 5-10, 1967 by Israel and the neighboring states of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. During this time, Israeli forces captured east Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories — the West Bank and Gaza — as well as the Golan Heights and Sinai. For Palestinians, this year marks fifty years of military occupation.

In A Half Century of Occupation, Gershon Shafir asks three questions—What is the occupation, why has it lasted so long, and how has it transformed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? His cogent answers illuminate how we got here, what here is, and where we are likely to go. 


In the last essay of this book’s three essays, I examine the ways in which a half century of occupation has transformed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this short blog post I can only ask one big question: Is Israeli colonization irreversible? Has the implan­tation of Israeli settlers closed off the possibility of the territorial partition of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, so that, as many now believe, the crea­tion of one state for both Israelis and Palestinians has become the only non­violent alternative to continued conflict?

Mine is not a philosophical discussion of the merits and demerits of these political outcomes, but rather a much more modestly conceived feasibility study from the perspective of the social sciences. (In the rest of the essay I also evaluate the feasibility of shared state in either its binational or civic, that is, one-person-one vote, versions.)

When the Likud government put forth the Drobless Plan in 1981, it projected that by 2010, 1.3 million Jews would live alongside 1.8 million Arabs in the West Bank. In fact, in mid-2016 (according to the Civilian Administration), among the close to three million West Bank Palestinians 405,158 Jewish settlers resided in 126 settlements, making up 13.8 percent of the region’s population. Palestinians, in short, still maintain a crushing demographic dominance.

Furthermore, the annual growth rate of the settler population shows a long-term decline from about 10% in the 1990s, to 5.3% in 2009 and to 3.9% in 2016. In the second half of 2016, the settlements grew by only 7,053 new Israelis. One quarter of the settlements shrunk in 2016. Most damningly, almost 80% of the Jewish population increase in the West Bank comes from natural growth, since Israelis from across the Green Line are staying away, and half of these births occur in just two Haredi towns.

The rest of the colonization picture is equally unimpressive. The geographical impact of Israeli colonization remains limited. The built-up area of the colonies takes up 2 percent of the West Bank. The settlements in the heartland of the West Bank frequently consists of small clusters of houses that are transformed into Potemkin villages by being allotted generously expansive municipal boundaries. Neither have the settlers sunk economic roots in the West Bank. Most settlers commute to Israel for their employment. Many are employed by inflated educational and security services. The few hundred who engage in agriculture employ Palestinians to do the actual work.

The exceptions are the ring cities of East Jerusalem and the Gush Etzion, Givat Ze’ev, and Modi’in Ilit blocks of settlements in which the majority of the settlers live. These lie alongside the Green Line and territorial exchange talks as part of which they would be annexed to Israel were at an advanced stage during the Olmert-Abbas negotiations.

What appears to be fifty years of solid accomplishments of sustained colonization is an opportu­nistic project that uses one method of land acquisition and now another, establishes now one type of settlement and now another, settles one group in one part of the West Bank and another in a different part. Each segment—the Allon Plan settlers on the security frontier, those in search of a suburban lifestyle, religious Zionist and messianic groups, haredim—settled on its own terms and in areas of its own choice. “Settlement” carries within its struc­ture all the diverse and conflicting interests of Israeli society and in many respects remains a hollow undertaking. The mosaic-like geography, the legal contortions, the administrative maze, even the blatant illegality of a considerable part of settlement construction all demonstrate that Israeli col­onization is not a single or single-minded project and is vulnerable to chal­lenges and pressures.

The counterpoint to the remarkable diversity and occasional chaos of the Israeli colonization project is the stringent Israeli planning process for settle­ments and new housing. Altogether there are some ten planning steps for each new colony or housing unit. Since all stages of plan­ning must receive prior authorization from the minister of defense, who at times has used his authority to stop the issuing of politically sensitive tenders, many colonization projects are stuck in the planning pipeline, some for decades. Consequently, the mistaken impression is often created that many more housing units, neighborhoods, or settlements are being built than in fact is the case. Though the clamor against new settlement construction visits international opprobrium on Israel, ironically, the dual tracks of chaotic construction and orderly planning serve to project the impression that the colonization project is more massive than it is.

Nor do the settlers form a powerful blocking mass. While the religious-Zionist settlers, about a quarter of the overall settler population, can easily mobilize throngs of supporters to oppose the occasional eviction of individual settlements or neighborhoods, their religious cohort did not mobilize en masse to help stop the evacuation from Gush Katif in Gaza. More recently, in the March 2015, Knesset elections, of the 4,210,884 Israelis who voted, a mere 1.9 live in settlements outside the settlement blocks (including Ariel). In total numbers, they cast 81,381 votes, of these only 48,861 for the Jewish Home and Likud parties that are fully committed to continued colonization. There is no strength in these numbers.

The removal of 27,000 settler households (including the town of Ariel) would enable a 4% territorial exchange between the two sides. Such an exchange would allow Israel to retain these blocks as part of a territorial partition which would simultaneously create a contiguous State of Palestine.

In sum, the settlement project has not created the conditions for the annexation of the West Bank to Israel nor made it inevitable. To compensate for the limited inroads of fifty years of colonization the Knesset deploys the blunt tools of politics. The settler lobby’s bravado gives off the odor of desperation. If things were going well, and colonization was humming, then why would the Knesset invest so much energy on shutting the eyes that see and padlocking the mouths that speak of the occupation?

With the methodical precision of a dumb machine, the Knesset had passed each month for the past two years a new law or amendment to make it harder to talk about the occupation or openly oppose the colonization. The most draconian among these is the amendment to the Entry to Israel Law which authorizes the prohibition of entry of foreign nationals, not excluding Jews, if they call for a boycott even of settlements alone. The aim of this legal steamroller is to construct a legal and mental separation wall between an artificial entity that lumps the State of Israel together with the West Bank and the rest of the world. If the Israeli public can be bludgeoned into a homogenized mash any alternative view can be denounced as foreign or foreign-influenced and hence as anti-Israeli. The Likud and Jewish Home Parties and the settlers want to suppress the facts, offer alt-facts, and change the conversation, but facts, well facts, are obstinate.


Gershon Shafir is Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego, and the founding director of its Human Rights Program. He has served as President of the Association for Israel Studies and is the author or editor of ten books, among them Land, Labor, and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882–1914. He is also the coauthor, with Yoav Peled, of Being Israeli: The Dynamics of Multiple Citizenship, which won the Middle Eastern Studies Association’s Albert Hourani Award in 2002, and the coeditor, with Mark Levine, of Struggle and Survival in Palestine/Israel.

Read the introduction to A Half Century of Occupation here