Even among people who recognize that Israeli-Palestinian peace is currently impossible, a growing number think that Israel must nevertheless quit the West Bank. Israel has a right to defend itself, their argument goes, but not by controlling another people for decades. Instead, it should withdraw to the “internationally recognized border” and protect itself from there, like other countries do.
Forget for a moment that the “internationally recognized border” is an arrant fiction. Forget as well that Israel remains in the West Bank precisely because defending itself from the 1949 armistice lines (the abovementioned fictional border) hasn’t worked very well in either the West Bank—from which Israel partially withdrew in the 1990s before returning the following decade—or the Gaza Strip.
That still leaves another uncomfortable fact: As long as genuine peace remains impossible, Israeli control of the West Bank, despite the undeniable hardships it causes Palestinians, remains the least bad alternative for the Palestinians themselves. As evidence, just compare the Israeli-controlled West Bank to Gaza, which has been free of both settlers and soldiers since August 2005. By almost any parameter, life in the former is far better.
Take, for instance, casualties. According to B’Tselem’s statistics, Israeli security forces killed 5,706 Palestinians in Gaza from September 2005 through August 2019. That’s almost eight times the 756 killed by Israeli security personnel and settlers combined in the West Bank during this period (no Gazans were killed by settlers since there are no settlers there).
Nor is this surprising. Israel’s control of the West Bank means that suspected terrorists can often be arrested rather than killed, though shootouts (with attendant collateral damage) do occur. But in Gaza, where Israel has no troops, it can’t arrest terrorists. Thus the only way to fight terror is through military action, which naturally produces many more casualties among both combatants and civilians.
Seemingly more surprising is that the number of Palestinians killed by other Palestinians is also much higher in Gaza. According to B’Tselem, there have been 520 such deaths in Gaza since September 2005, more than 20 times the number in the West Bank (25). But this isn’t surprising either because the same terrorists who kill Israelis often turn on Palestinians from rival organizations. Thus Israel’s arrest of terrorists in the West Bank has the side effect of reducing internecine Palestinian violence there.
No less dramatic is the economic difference between the territories. The first-quarter unemployment rate in Gaza was 46 percent, almost triple the West Bank’s rate of 16 percent. One contributing factor is that while one-sixth of employed West Bankers work in Israel or the settlements, almost no Gazans do. Moreover, Gaza’s median daily wage was just 42 shekels ($12), less than half the West Bank median of 100 shekels ($28) and less than a fifth of the median earned by Palestinians in Israel and the settlements at 250 shekels ($71.50). Thus it’s no surprise that fully three-quarters of Gazans wish Israel would provide them with more jobs.
These two factors, combined with fewer wars and greater access to the Israeli market, have also helped boost the West Bank’s per capita gross domestic product to three times Gaza’s ($1,025 versus $343 in the second quarter). And, of course, Gaza has astronomically higher poverty rates: In 2017, the last year for which the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics published poverty data, Gaza’s poverty rate of 53 percent was more than triple the West Bank’s 14 percent.
But while Israel is a major cause of these differences, it isn’t the only one. So would its departure really turn the West Bank into another Gaza? Unfortunately, the answer is yes—for many of the same reasons that Gaza looks like it does today.
First, the most likely scenario is that Hamas would take over the West Bank just as it took over Gaza. That’s the Israeli defense establishment’s assessment, and it’s also Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s assessment, which is precisely why he has continued security cooperation with Israel despite its unpopularity among the Palestinian public. Ever since Hamas ousted him from Gaza in a one-week civil war in 2007, Abbas has recognized both that the Islamist organization is the greatest threat to his rule and that the Israel Defense Forces are his main protection against it.
Yet even if Hamas didn’t take power, an Israeli pullout would almost certainly produce a significant upsurge of terror from the West Bank. First, as noted, the IDF does most of the counterterrorism work, and there’s no evidence that P.A. forces would be capable of suppressing Hamas without Israel’s help.
Second, while Abbas does fight Hamas and Islamic Jihad, he has shown little interest in fighting non-Islamist terrorists, including elements of his own Fatah party and smaller groups like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Moreover, many of his likely successors in Fatah are even more supportive of terror than the 83-year-old Abbas (who both funds and incites it). Thus without the IDF, terror from non-Islamist groups would also rise.
Israel would obviously treat escalating terror from the West Bank no differently than it treats terror from Gaza. That means periodic military operations, with all the attendant casualties. It also means restrictions on dual-use imports, exports to Israel, Palestinians working in Israel, use of Israeli ports and airports, etc., which would have the same devastating effect on the West Bank’s economy as they have had on Gaza.
Granted, a post-pullout West Bank could presumably develop greater economic ties with other countries. But its only other neighbor, Jordan, is a poor substitute for Israel, which currently buys 80 percent of the P.A.’s exports. With an economy one-ninth the size of Israel’s and an unemployment rate of 19 percent, Jordan simply lacks the capacity to absorb the quantity of Palestinian exports and workers that Israel does.
In short, an Israeli pullout from the West Bank under current conditions would lead to much higher Palestinian casualties and a devastated Palestinian economy, just as the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza did. As unsatisfying as the status quo is, it’s hard to see how turning the West Bank into a second Gaza would be an improvement.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator living in Israel.