In a story that made waves this week, Adam Entous reported in the New Yorker on the State Department maps showing the status of Israeli settlement activity that made such a big impression on President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry in 2015 and 2016. Along with quotes from Obama administration officials talking about how effective the maps were in laying out the obstacles that settlements represent to a two-state solution, the New Yorker also reproduced a number of the maps themselves, which show the extent of settlements and outposts along with growth since Prime Minister Netanyahu took office in 2009 and the way in which Palestinian territorial contiguity in the West Bank is largely non-existent. The maps paint a grim picture, and while some of that grimness is real, some of it relies on an artful spinning of a narrative that does not actually tell the story that it purports to tell.
There’s no question from looking at the maps that settlements are growing at a rapid pace. The State Department data list 385,900 settlers through 2015, with 104,000 of those settlers coming since 2009. More striking is the growth not of settlements or the uptick in settlers, but the explosion of illegal outposts, and in particular what the Israeli government is doing about them. The maps detail over 100 illegal (according to Israeli law) outposts, with 32 having been legalized or in the process of legalization since 2011, and construction in the outposts up 30 percent since that year. In contrast, the map of demolitions of illegal Palestinian homes – which by definition are always illegally built since the Israeli government only granted one permit for a Palestinian structure in 2014-16 – is overwhelming, with data showing over 4,000 demolitions between 2009 and 2016 and over 13,000 pending demolition orders with 77 percent applying to structures built on private Palestinian land.
What these maps and data demonstrate is that any notion of a singular rule of law in the West Bank is farcical, and why the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is corrosive and damaging not only to the Palestinians who live under it but to Israel itself. Area C, which is under Israeli security and administrative control, is intended to be a zone where both Israelis and Palestinians are able to live and build homes, yet this process is encouraged and facilitated for the former while the latter are obstructed at every turn and every stage of the process. When Israelis build illegally, the default position is to try and figure out a way to let them stay where they are and retroactively legalize their actions. When Palestinians build illegally, the default position is to send in the bulldozers.
The argument on the right that points to evacuation and demolition of illegal settlements such as Amona and the Elazar neighborhood of Netiv Ha’avot and demands that Palestinian homes also be demolished in the name of fairness and consistency seems right on its face, but is not so straightforward with the necessary added context. Aside from the inconceivable disparity in the relative ease with which Israelis are able to build versus the complete shutdown of building permits for Palestinians, the reasons for demolitions do not match up either. When settlements such as Amona are dismantled, it is because they were built on private Palestinian land and not because they were built without permits. One glance at the over one hundred illegal outposts that were built without permits, not to mention the expenditure of million of shekels by the Binyamin Regional Council(the largest one in the West Bank) and the Transportation, Interior, and Agriculture Ministries on illegal outposts, makes this clear. The tens of thousands of demolitions and demolition orders for Palestinian structures are issued and carried out because they were built without permits. It is preposterous to argue that illegal Israeli construction and illegal Palestinian construction are two sides of the same coin.
But the central theme of the New Yorker piece is a narrative that is nearly as preposterous in its own right, and shows that even those in the highest reaches of government do not have a full grasp of the settlement project’s implications. The article is titled “The Maps of Israeli Settlements That Shocked Barack Obama” and opens with a story about Israeli-Palestinian envoy Frank Lowenstein seeing a new map that required his team to do the math in tallying areas controlled by Israel in the West Bank and realizing that it added up to 60 percent of the territory. This particular map was then given to Kerry, who showed it to Obama, and it was all so shocking that it inexorably led to the infamous U.S. abstention on United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 in December 2016.
The problem with this story is that nothing about this should have been shocking, or even new information. The reason the alleged detailed number crunching came up with the 60 percent figure is because the area under full Israeli control, Area C – as formalized in the Oslo II Accord signed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 1995 – is 60 percent of the West Bank. That has been the case for the past twenty three years. The most shocking maps that show how much of the West Bank Israel has supposedly taken over in recent years and reveal the way in which a contiguous Palestinian state is currently unachievable are literally nothing more than Oslo-era diagrams of Areas A, B, and C.
Either Entous and the New Yorker have taken inexcusable creative license in their relaying of State Department officials’ shock to learn that Area C constitutes 60 percent of the West Bank, or the death of government expertise predated the current administration in ways that are unfathomable to Obama supporters. Not only is nothing about this central plank of the story new, it is the most basic common knowledge about the administrative division of the West Bank.
Furthermore, a deeper dive into some of the more unsettling maps – the ones that show growth of actual settlements and the settler population over the past decade – expose a counterintuitively less depressing picture. The settlement growth taking place is overwhelmingly west of the security barrier and in the blocs that will be retained by Israel in a final agreement.
Every single increase of over 1,000 settlers since 2009 is in one of the five major blocs along the Green Line that will be part of future land swaps, and does not include Ariel, which is the one bloc that cuts deep into the West Bank. 80 percent of the increased settler population since 2009 is living west of the security barrier, which is in line with the overall numbers of settlers in the West Bank and not just the growth in the past decade. In other words, the acceleration of the settler population is happening, but it is happening in the places that present the smallest problem for a two-state solution.
None of this is to blow off the alarms that these maps should raise. The extent and circumstances of Palestinian home demolitions are horrifying. The expansion of illegal outposts and Israel’s aiding and abetting them are scandalous and outrageous. The general map of settlements and just how spread out they are through the West Bank shows why Netanyahu’s preferred option to just leave them where they are as sovereign Israeli territory is the ultimate poison pill to a permanent status agreement that will result in an independent and viable Palestinian state. But the proper way to read the New Yorker piece is not as a story about unrestrained settlement activity to which the U.S. government was blind until 2015. It is a story about how an arrangement that was originally conceived to be a temporary one under Oslo II looked reasonable at the time, but looks brutally nightmarish when cast as a permanent arrangement a quarter century later. The problem is not that things have drastically changed; it is that they need to, but haven’t.