A newcomer to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict might ask: What is the West Bank? Where is it? Where are Judea and Samaria? Are they on the same land? If so, why do they have different names? Does history provide answers?
According to the biblical narrative, as far back as one can go in Jewish history, Judea defined the land south of Jerusalem and Samaria the land to the north. It was in Judea that Abraham purchased the Machpelah cave in Hebron—the first Jewish-owned property in the Promised Land—as the burial site for Sarah. In time, King David ruled from Hebron before relocating his throne to Jerusalem. Although Samaria, captured from the Canaanites, defined the northern Kingdom of Israel during the ninth and eighth centuries BCE, its place in Jewish history became less consequential over time.
Fast-forward to 1917, during World War I, when British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour proclaimed support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” But according to the Churchill White Paper five years later, the Balfour Declaration did “not contemplate that Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home, but that such a Home should be founded ‘in Palestine.’ ” The unanswered question was: Where was “Palestine”?
Geographical boundaries were drawn in 1922 when the League of Nations issued a mandate recognizing “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine” and “the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.” Jews were granted the legal right to “close settlement” west of the Jordan River. Land east of the river, identified as Transjordan, was gifted to Hashemite Emir Abdullah, who ruled the territory for the next 30 years. “Palestinians,” who did not yet exist as a distinct people, were not mentioned.
Twenty-six years later, on May 14, 1948, the Jewish State of Israel was born, and five Arab nations—Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq—launched a war to annihilate it. Israel survived, but its eastern boundary was significantly narrowed. Jordan’s newly conquered territory became known as its “West Bank.” Comprising biblical Judea and Samaria, it included the Old City of Jerusalem, location of the First and Second Temples; and Hebron. The fledgling Jewish state was deprived of its holiest ancient sites and capital cities.
Within two decades, history was reversed. In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel retrieved its ancient land—Judea and Samaria—west of the Jordan River. Jordan’s “West Bank” now existed in memory only, although the label has continued to be applied by those, especially The New York Times, which demands that Israel return to its precarious (and history-denying) pre-1967 boundaries. Otherwise, according to the paper, it remains guilty of the illegal “occupation” of “Palestinian” land.
But demography and geography reinforce historical Jewish claims to this land. By now, nearly 500,000 Israelis live in Judea and Samaria. Nearly 60 percent inhabit five settlement blocs comprising less than 2 percent of the land east of Israel’s pre-1967 border. Ironically, the smallest number (800) live where Jewish historical claims are the oldest and deepest: Hebron.
International pressure has not deterred Israel from expanding the settler population. The tenacity of these despised Israelis fulfills the yearning of Jews to return to their biblical homeland. That, after all, defines Zionism. Why, under any circumstances, should Israel relinquish it?
Amid the unrelenting criticism of Israel, especially in the United Nations, it is seldom noticed that Palestinians already have their own state east of the Jordan River, in Palestine. It is the Kingdom of Jordan, where they comprise more than half the population. There is no reason for biblical Judea and Samaria to become another Palestinian state.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of 12 books, including “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel (1896-2016).”