Military Rule in the West Bank

Diana B. Greenwald, City College of New York


“Those who have weaponized the term ‘occupation’ in order to criticize Israel are doing nothing to promote a resolution to this conflict…I prefer the term ‘neighborhoods and cities’ to describe what others call ‘settlements’. Use of the term ‘settlements’ is purely political and ignores the reality of what they actually are.”

Jason Greenblatt, outgoing U.S. Special Representative for International Negotiations, October 13, 2019.[1]


On June 10, 1967, Israel, a state of 2.7 million citizens, roughly 2.5 million of whom were Jewish, suddenly found itself ruling over nearly 1 million Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (Perlmann 2012).[2] The Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza now approaches 5 million. Much has changed for the generations of Palestinians who have grown up in the occupied territories since 1967, but at least one thing has remained constant: For over half of a century, they have never been offered citizenship by the state under whose authority they live.

This memo focuses on the situation in the West Bank, which, at the time of writing, is home to nearly 3 million Palestinians and some 450,000 Israeli settlers. If, in an academic context, a defining feature of occupation is that its “intended duration…must be temporary and finite” (Edelstein 2008, 3), then perhaps social scientists, if not international legal scholars, can agree with former U.S. Special Representative Greenblatt on one thing: The West Bank is not under occupation. It is under military rule.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu – with the support of his Likud party and others from both the secular and religious right – has pledged to begin the process of annexing settlements in the West Bank. The United States, under the Trump administration, has supported this effort, declaring that it no longer considers settlements a violation of international law and releasing its own glossy proposal that endorses Israeli annexation of large swaths of territory. While various annexation scenarios are discussed toward the end of this memo, the most important outcome of annexation may be that it strips the window dressing from what has been there, plainly, for all to see, since 1967. Annexation would represent an indefinite commitment to Israeli military rule over Palestinians.

Military rule – deprived of the connotation of impermanence that accompanies the word “occupation” – brings to mind the wanton violation of basic civil rights, authoritarian repression, restrictions on movement, and a constant environment of fear and insecurity. Indeed, military rule in the West Bank is no exception in any of these areas. Furthermore, because it is paired with a massive settlement project, its sole purpose is to protect one ethnonational community over – and, as it is argued by the regime’s proponents, from – another. While the Israeli state has attempted to draw ever sharper legal distinctions between the Israeli and Palestinian populations in the West Bank, the geographic proximity of these populations has grown ever closer, and the possible paths between population centers more intertwined. Instead of bringing the troops home, Israel has, steadily, since 1967, brought the home front to the troops. Today, a constellation of coercive authorities – namely, the Israeli Defense Forces, the Israeli Border Police, private Israeli contractors, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) police, security, and intelligence apparatuses – are deployed to define and defend hyper-local boundaries between Jewish and Palestinian communities.

Settlements might, one day, be called neighborhoods, and military rule might, one day, be called policing, but the planting of flags and the building of walls cannot hide the unavoidable truth: Geographic borders in the West Bank have dissolved and the only border left to police is an ethnonational one. Given this context, this memo focuses on the central issues of state violence, coercion, and existential security. It argues that Israel’s disproportionate ability to define and restrict Palestinian autonomy, since the earliest days of the occupation, have ensured that state-directed coercion is always pointed inward, toward Palestinians, rather than outward, to defend them. I also address one of many possible normative goals for the West Bank: Namely, ending military rule and constructing coercive institutions that provide existential security for Palestinians and Israelis alike. I argue that official annexation would make this an even more distant possibility.

A History of Palestinian Autonomy Without Security

The idea of Israeli annexation of the West Bank has always coexisted with some version of “autonomy” for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, dating back to some of the earliest proposals after the 1967 war. Both the Israeli left and right were instrumental in setting the functional bounds on what Palestinian autonomy would look like.

Annexationists on the right of Israel’s political spectrum were insistent on eliminating any sense of difference between pre-1967 Israel and the post-1967 occupied territories (see, e.g. Lustick 1993, 32–37), but it was clear that aggressive territorial expansion would not mean the extension of political rights to Palestinians. In some cases, territorial maximalists did suggest a willingness to delineate a limited set of rights for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Hannan Porat of the ultranationalist Tehiya party proposed citizenship for Palestinians, but only under the admitted assumption that it would never be accepted (Rubin 1983). Sometimes, surprising criticisms of such proposals came from the left. As Shelef (2010) notes, even Prime Minister Begin’s “autonomy plan” that gained traction in Israel-Egypt peace talks was “castigated as fostering a binational state because it opened the door for the naturalization of Arabs living in the territories and therefore undermined Israel’s Jewish majority,” (161). However, even if an abstract idea of citizenship was floated, the right carefully avoided articulating a plan wherein Israeli political institutions would play a central role in serving the Palestinian population. Thus, one red line for Palestinian partial self-rule was established: The Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza would not have access to Israeli institutions of civil governance.

A second constraint on Palestinian self-rule was solidified by the discourse on the center-left. Early references to Palestinian autonomy came from leaders that later united to form the Labor party. Just one day after the war, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan declared his support for keeping the occupied territories under Israeli control with some form of “autonomy” for West Bank Palestinians, a position to which Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was also sympathetic (Gorenberg 2006; Skolnik 2017). Ultimately, the left coalesced around the rival “land for peace” formula, advocating for eventual separation and the creation of an independent Palestinian state. However, the potential for a Palestinian state to develop its own coercive institutions – specifically, outward-facing military capacity – was always an Achilles’ heel. Security-focused Israelis could not countenance an armed Palestinian state on their borders. Coercive capacity in the hands of Palestinians, with whom Israel had not yet made peace, was not something to be seriously contemplated. Another red line was established.

Given these positions, it is unsurprising that the version of Palestinian autonomy produced in the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was situated safely between these red lines. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were given no political rights or representation within the state that controlled their lives and the semi-autonomous PA was created with no outward-facing coercive capacity. Instead, coercive force – concentrated in both the Israeli military and security apparatus and the new PA – was to be focused inward. Singer (2019), legal adviser to Israel’s negotiating team, reveals that Prime Minister Rabin instructed him to propose language on internal security to the PLO, who then accepted. This was then incorporated into the Declaration of Principles (“Oslo I”), Article VIII, wherein the new Palestinian Authority would “establish a strong police force, while Israel will continue to carry the responsibility for defending against external threats, as well as the responsibility for overall security of Israelis for the purpose of safeguarding their internal security and public order.”

How was this very specific form of autonomy territorialized? The Interim Agreement (“Oslo II”) map divided the West Bank into enclaves that fell into one of three zones of authority. The new Palestinian police could only freely operate in a set of disconnected areas that make up 18 percent of the West Bank and include the major Palestinian cities (“Area A”). In 22 percent of the West Bank (“Area B”), containing many large- and medium-sized Palestinian towns as well as villages, the Palestinian police were required to coordinate movement in advance with Israel. Oslo II enumerated the number and location of Area B police stations, and the number of personnel, vehicles, rifles, and pistols permitted at each. In the remaining 60 percent of the West Bank (“Area C”), containing nearly all of the Israeli settlements but also small Palestinian villages and Bedouin encampments, the PA was granted no authority.

The Oslo Accords guaranteed that all Palestinian governing institutions in Areas A and B – whether at the level of the central government, the governorates, or the municipalities – would be inward-facing. On the other hand, Israeli coercive institutions could penetrate the internal and external: For example, the Israeli military would defend settler communities from “external” threats, yet could also intervene in Palestinian towns and cities at will. Palestinian authority is practiced within geographically defined enclaves, but the PA has no role in governing relationships between these enclaves and what surrounds them.

The Palestinian Police

In the West Bank, Israeli coercive institutions are specifically tasked with protecting Israeli populations, often at the expense of Palestinian bodies, homes, land, and livelihoods. The PA security apparatus, on the other hand, might be described in one of three ways, depending on one’s perspective. First, some view the primary purpose of the PA as providing security benefits to the Israeli population. This interpretation is prevalent among both those who disparage the PA as a client of Israel and those who applaud Israeli-PA security cooperation. Recently, a majority of Palestinians in a recent PCPSR poll expressed support for ending security coordination with Israel in response to annexation (PCPSR 2020). However, because, as Baconi (2020) writes, “Palestinian lives… are tied to security coordination, which itself is focused on the goal of ending any form of resistance to Israeli control,” it is understandable that Palestinians have felt conflicted by these decisions. The trade-offs were made painfully evident in June, when an eight-month-old baby from Gaza died awaiting life-saving treatment in Israel (Boxerman 2020). The delay was attributed to PA ceasing coordination on humanitarian permits with Israel, which is ultimately responsible for approving such permit requests from Palestinians.

A second view holds that the PA’s coercive institutions are primarily engaged in repressing rivals of the ruling Fatah party. For example, El Kurd (2019) finds that international support has enabled the PA coercive apparatus to buttress Fatah’s one-party rule while polarizing and demobilizing Palestinian society. This second interpretation’s implications are often observationally equivalent to those of the first – the PA police surveil and repress groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) who oppose Fatah and also resist Israel – but the motivations for this repression may be distinct.

A third, controversial view, is that the functional purpose of the Palestinian police is to provide security, law, and order for Palestinians. As evidenced by the general environment of insecurity facing Palestinians in the West Bank, this interpretation of PA coercive institutions has perhaps the least empirical support. Nonetheless, in a series of 2016 polls conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), Palestinians living in areas of less PA control felt significantly less safe than those living under PA jurisdiction (PCPSR 2016). Further, after the recent outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the Palestinian Territories, a June 30 poll found that majorities approved of the PA response, including 77 percent supporting the response of the security services in the West Bank (PCPSR 2020). Finally, there are sometimes instances of constructive police engagement in Palestinian towns and cities that do not make news headlines. Notably, in a recent series of interviews that I conducted with staunchly anti-Fatah local politicians in the West Bank, some disparaged the police as political pawns of Fatah and Israel, while others, surprisingly, said they faced no problems cooperating with their local police forces.

Widespread perceptions among Palestinians seem to support the first and second interpretations over the third. This is a central reason why the PA is unpopular. However, interactions within communities often complicate such blanket conclusions; individual police officers and Palestinian residents from diverse political perspectives often work together to address problems in their community, all, of course, under the shadow of military rule and statelessness. To provide Palestinians with more security, not less, would future security institutions in the West Bank build on these local relationships with the rank-and-file or dismantle them and begin from scratch?

Annexation, Subjects, and Citizens

Because the geographic extent and possible sequence of annexation policies that Israel will pursue is still unknown, it is difficult to predict what implications they will have for the military regime. If Israel attempts to first annex some of the large, urban settlement “blocs” (i.e. Gush Etzion, Ma’ale Adumim, or Ariel), then Palestinians living, commuting, or farming near these settlements should expect more militarization and surveillance. Israel could accelerate new home construction in these settlements and designate additional land for expansion, drawing more intensively on water and natural resources that are already disproportionately consumed by settlers, or building in highly strategic areas that sever Palestinian access to Jerusalem. The meandering separation barrier – whether in its towering concrete form, as barbed wire, or surveillance fencing – already surrounds many of these settlements, cutting Palestinians off from farm land and each other. Without new bypass highways, existing roads that wind circuitous routes around these settlements to connect Palestinian villages and towns might see a proliferation of checkpoints or other modes of surveillance. If, instead, annexation begins with far-flung Israeli outposts deep in Palestinian territory, Israel’s defensive posture will not be able to depend on the wall and will likely involve even more manpower, surveillance infrastructure, and weaponry.

Finally, if annexation proceeds first in the Jordan Valley, then it is likely that the tens of thousands of Palestinians who live in newly annexed areas will no longer simply be stateless in practice; they will be officially and unambiguously denied citizenship from the state that has controlled them for generations. Israeli denial of Palestinian building permits in areas under Israeli control (Area C) may become law rather than following the pretense of case-by-case evaluation. Expropriation of Palestinian land and demolitions of Palestinian homes may increase in frequency. Confiscation of critical farming equipment and existing restrictions on Palestinians’ water supply might find new, codified justification. Laws with the veneer of democratic legitimacy may replace existing military orders.

Even if official annexation does not occur, it is unlikely to imagine a future where Jewish Israelis and Palestinians do not live in ever-closer proximity in the West Bank. This presents especially daunting challenges in considering the future of coercive institutions – institutions which are meant to secure communities from internal and external threats. The settlement enterprise, military rule in the West Bank, and the mapping of these realities in the Oslo Accords have created irreconcilable barriers to true Palestinian self-determination. Future iterations of Palestinian autonomy amid ongoing military rule will only feed continued conflict.

Instead, is it possible to envision dramatic reform to coercive institutions in the West Bank that would provide existential security for all who reside in the West Bank, operating around shared threats to lives and livelihoods? In an environment of decades of violence and mistrust, this is a thought experiment that is difficult to imagine. Is it possible to envision a West Bank where coercive institutions – those institutions most vividly associated with the violence of occupation and conflict – could be shrunk, dismantled, or reformed? Could any marginal changes in these violence-wielding organizations occur – and would it be desirable for such changes to occur – before Palestinians obtain comprehensive political rights? To the extent that ending military rule is a sequence of policies, we may ask which policies should come first, but we also must ask which policies, if any, are more likely to be achieved first.

My preliminary conclusion is that the coercive practices of official Israeli and Palestinian institutions in the West Bank are epiphenomenal of laws and rights. As long as dual legal regimes exist in the West Bank, reform to coercive institutions seems unlikely to be effective.  To understand why, we can turn to East Jerusalem, where the majority of Palestinians are classified not as Israeli citizens but as permanent residents with no national political representation, and where the Israeli annexation project has had a 53-year head start.

Unfortunately, Palestinians in East Jerusalem are subject to coercive institutions that differ more in name than in practice from those in the occupied West Bank. This includes places like Issawiyya, an East Jerusalem neighborhood which has been subjected to campaigns of mass arrests and raids since late 2019, and where, in a story like so many others, a nine-year-old boy was recently shot in the eye while walking in the street with his sisters and cousin (Sudilovsky 2020). Five days after the murder of George Floyd, Eyad Hallaq, a 32-year-old Palestinian from East Jerusalem, on his way to a special needs school where he worked, ran unarmed, fleeing police who chased him on foot. While his caregiver yelled desperately at them that he was disabled, he was shot at least seven times, reportedly while lying on the ground, hiding, in a garbage room (Levy and Levac 2020). Amir Ohana, the government minister overseeing the police investigation, was careful to qualify his condolences by noting the killing occurred “in an area that has been inundated with terror attacks,” (Magid 2020). Thus, he insinuates, it was reasonable for the ambiguously named Border Police to consider Eyad a potential terrorist.

Last year, Israel began demolishing newly constructed homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Wadi al-Humos.[3] Israel demolished the homes because, it was claimed, they were too close to the separation barrier. Not only are Israeli citizens defended from Palestinians, but the barrier itself is now defended, as if part of a desperate effort to maintain the increasingly fraught distinction between Palestinians who are policed and those who are military subjects.

On the other hand, when thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel – those who managed to maintain their residency in the wake of the 1948 war (al-Nakba) and their descendants – recently mobilized to protest the prevalence of gun violence and crime in their communities, they called for more, not less, law enforcement (Mhajne 2019). In reading accounts of these protests, we catch a glimpse of what policing in the West Bank could look like in the future: Unrepresentative, likely discriminatory, questionably effective, and, perhaps, untrusted by many, but, at least in theory, responsible to all of its citizens and, thus, a target for reform. This could be a first step. However, we need only look to the re-militarization of American policing in the years since the civil rights movement to know that the road ahead – even with political rights – would be a long one.



Baconi, Tareq. “Israel’s Annexation Plan, a New Era in Palestinian Resistance.” New York Review of Books. 2 July 2020.

Boxerman, Aaron. “Gaza baby’s death blamed on PA’s halting of coordination with Israel.” The Times of Israel. 25 June 2020.

Edelstein, David M. 2008. Occupational Hazards: Success and Failure in Military Occupation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

El Kurd, Dana. 2019. Polarized and Demobilized: Legacies of Authoritarianism in Palestine. London: Hurst & Company.

Gorenberg, Gershom. 2006. The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977. New York: Times Books.

Israel Central Bureau of Statistics. n.d. “Media Release: Israel’s Independence Day 2019.”

Levy, Gideon and Alex Levac. “’He’s Disabled,’ the Caregiver Screamed. ‘I’m With Her,’ Eyad Cried. The Cop Opened Fire Anyway.” Haaretz. 5 June 2020.

Lustick, Ian S. 1993. Unsettled States, Disputed Lands: Britain and Ireland, France and Algeria, Israel and the West Bank and Gaza. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Magid, Jacob. “Police seemingly working to block release of video from shooting of autistic man.” The Times of Israel. 6 June 2020.

Mhajne, Anwar. 2019. “Gun Violence in Israel’s Palestinian Community.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. 2016. “Who Needs Security?” Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

— 2020. “Public Opinion Poll No (76).” June 30, 2020.

Perlmann, Joel. 2012. “The 1967 Census of the West Bank and Gaza Strip: A Digitized Version.” Levy Economic Institute of Bard College.

Rubin, Trudy. 1983. “West Bank Tactics May Erode Israeli Democracy.” Christian Science Monitor.

Shelef, Nadav G. 2010. Evolving Nationalism: Homeland, Identity, and Religion in Israel, 1925-2005. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Singer, Joel. 2019. “Developing the Concept of Palestinian Autonomy.” The Cairo Review of Global Affairs 32.

Skolnik, Ron. 2017. “Fifty Years, and No End in Sight.” Jewish Currents.

Sudilovsky, Judith. “Israel is trying to ‘break’ this East Jerusalem village – with brutal results.” +972 Magazine. 25 February 2020.

[1] Kempinski, Yoni. “Greenblatt to Arutz Sheva: Peace plan is realistic.” Arutz Sheva. 13 October 2019.

[2] Since most of this essay will focus on the situation for West Bank Palestinians who do not have Jerusalem residency, the “West Bank” hereafter should be understood to exclude East Jerusalem, unless otherwise noted. East Jerusalem is also part of the territories occupied since 1967, but the discussion that follows focuses primarily on the coercive and institutional framework that applies to Palestinians in the rest of the West Bank. The East Jerusalem population in 1967 was approximately 66,000 (Perlmann 2012). Today, there are about 370,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, most of whom have the status of “permanent residents”, not citizens, of Israel.

[3] See: “WATCH: A dark night in Wadi al-Hummus.” +972 Magazine. 25 July 2019.