The Logic Behind Israel’s Presence in Judea and Samaria
Fifty years ago, Israel faced a looming attack from Egypt, Jordan and Syria. But on the morning of June 5, 1967, Israel’s air force launched a pre-emptive strike against these enemies, and destroyed most of their aircraft in a matter of hours. During the next five days, Israel’s ground forces conquered the Sinai, the Gaza Strip, Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), the Old City of Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.
Israel eventually pulled back from the Sinai Peninsula and made peace with Egypt, thereby ending its regional isolation. It also made peace with Jordan in the early 1990s, and withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
In contrast, Israel annexed East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights because of the historical and religious value of the former, and the strategic importance of the latter.
No area, however, has impacted Israel more than Judea and Samaria. Because of its ongoing administration of large parts of this territory, Israel faces serious international criticism — and is often called an “occupier.” So, is maintaining a presence in Judea and Samaria actually worth it?
The Oslo Accords and international law
During the late 1980s, direct talks between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel led to the Oslo Accords (1993-95), which divided the West Bank into three parts: Area A, Area B and Area C.
Area A comprises 18 percent of today’s West Bank, and is under full control of the Palestinian Authority (PA). It contains all of the major Palestinian cities (Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus, etc.).
Area B (22 percent) is under the civil control of the PA, but Israel provides security there. Area C (60 percent) is administered by Israel. 2.8 million Arabs live in Areas A and B, and 350,000-400,000 Israelis live in Area C.
Israel’s critics say that its presence in Judea and Samaria violates international law. However, Israel claims that this perspective ignores the historical background of the West Bank.
Jordan had illegally occupied this territory during Israel’s War of Independence, and annexed it illegally in 1950. In 1988, Jordan abandoned its claims on the West Bank. On this basis, Israel does not regard the West Bank as occupied territory, because it did not rightfully belong to another state before it became part of Israel.
But why is Jerusalem so interested in Judea and Samaria? Clearly, the area’s religious significance to Judaism plays a role. However, the key reason for Israel’s prolonged presence in the West Bank is her need for defensible borders.
A brief look into Israel’s history is enough to explain why this is so.
Only three years after the Holocaust, the newly founded Jewish state fought for its existence against five Arab armies. In the following years, Israel faced a war on three fronts in 1967, and a surprise attack on two fronts in 1973. Since then, Israel has become the target of numerous terrorist attacks at home and abroad, and has existed in an exceptionally hostile environment.
Thus, defensible borders are of utter importance. Israel cannot afford a huge standing army. That is why the IDF has only a small core of full-time soldiers. Most of the army consists of conscripts and reservists. The latter have to be mobilized in times of war — and in case of an attack, the professional soldiers and conscripts must keep the aggressors at bay until the reserves are called up. By maintaining control of the West Bank, Israel’s borders are easier to defend in case of emergency.
Indeed, the West Bank improves Israel’s strategic situation tremendously, because it provides strategic depth. Keep in mind that at the narrowest point of Israel’s pre-1967 borders, the country is only 14 kilometers wide.
Controlling Judea and Samaria also protects Israel from Palestinian violence. If the PA took control of the area, it could become a second Gaza Strip, where rockets are fired at civilians and terror attacks are launched on a near-daily basis.
That is why Israel must retain a certain presence in Judea and Samaria, regardless of the international criticism.