There is much talk these days about Israel’s “creeping annexation” of the occupied West Bank, from both critics and proponents alike.
Critics say Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s government, dominated by right-wing nationalists in both the Likud and Jewish Home parties, has been advancing various laws designed to prepare the ground for Israel to annex portions of the occupied territory.
The Knesset passed legislation on February 12 that applies Israeli law to settler academic institutions in the occupied West Bank, such as Ariel University, founded in an Israeli settlement of the same name near the Palestinian town of Salfit.
Simultaneously, the justice ministry is advancing a law that would expand the jurisdiction of Israeli courts over Area C, which comprises 60 percent of the West Bank.
On the ground, however, there is a familiar story, one just as important as the Knesset manoeuvres and legal initiatives – and one without which “creeping annexation” would not even be possible.
Settlements ‘legal’ and ‘unauthorised’
While there are 132 official settlements in the West Bank – not including occupied East Jerusalem – there are some 100 additional, technically unauthorised, settlement outposts.
Increasingly, these “unauthorised” outposts are being “legalised”.
Although Israeli law differentiates between the two, “there is no serious factual question with regard to Israel’s responsibility for the construction and expansion of settlements, whether they are described as ‘legal settlements’ or ‘outposts,'” Hagai El-Ad, director of Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem, told Al Jazeera.
“One way or another, this is all part of a state-led project.”
On January 31, the Israeli government approved the retroactive legalisation of the Havat Gilad settlement outpost near Nablus, which will now become an official settlement.
The outpost was first established in 2002 and is found roughly a kilometre from the Kedumim settlement.
The outpost expanded, over the years, on privately-owned Palestinian land, and now boasts some 75 buildings, mostly residential.
The expansion took place with the full knowledge of Israeli authorities, B’Tselem noted.
The story of Havat Gilad is not unusual. As B’Tselem observed, this method has been applied across the West Bank, “enabling the state to establish and expand dozens of settlements while claiming internationally that it is not”.
In addition to helping minimise international criticism, Israel’s strategy of colonising the West Bank through settlements of, in El-Ad’s words, “various formal flavours”, also helps create “facts on the ground” to take into negotiations.
Outposts become “legalised” settlements, and settlements expand and become so-called blocs – areas that Israel then insists must be retained in any peace deal with the Palestinians.
Displacement as policy
A similar and parallel process is evident with respect to displacement, Palestinians say.
Hazem Jamjoum, an Al-Shabaka policy member and doctoral candidate in Middle Eastern history at NYU, told Al Jazeera that in the West Bank, many Palestinians “constantly live under the threat of displacement, or are already dealing with the consequences of being on the long list of those who are next for such treatment”.
Jamjoum clarified that this displacement is carried out not just through home demolitions, but “by making life outside the areas of concentrated Palestinian population unliveable, by cutting access to the fundamentals of life such as water, electricity and mobility”.
Edward Said described this pace of displacement as “punishment by detail”, Jamjoum noted – the “obliteration of an entire people by slow, systematic methods of suffocation”.
Suhail Khalilieh, political analyst and expert on Israeli settlements at The Applied Research Institute, Jerusalem, agreed.
“Israel has made sure that the Palestinian communities exist without any infrastructure, or even the ability to have any in the future,” Khalilieh told Al Jazeera, “including education, health, roads, water, and electricity”.
The regular demolitions, he adds, are “a reminder of who is in charge”.
Israel’s strategy of incremental colonisation and displacement prompts difficult questions for Palestinians, with respect to options or strategies for both resistance and mobilising international opposition to Israeli moves.
“There is no straightforward answer to this question,” Khalilieh told Al Jazeera.
Khalileh listed various options facing Palestinians such as “going to the United Nations Security Council”, as well as “non-violent resistance” or “armed resistance.
“The fact is that none of these options is guaranteed to present the Palestinians with the outcomes they look for without sustaining considerable losses,” he said.
Jamjoum pointed to how “Palestinian political organizers in the early 1980s developed the concept of ‘resistance steadfastness’ – a ‘social infrastructure’ that gives a Palestinian family the support it needs ‘to remain in its home and on its land.'”
This can include “food and healthcare provision, physical obstruction of Israeli demolition and eviction attempts, international campaigning on particularly egregious cases”.
But the regional and international balance of power has meant that Palestinians on the ground “must now hold the line with far less realistic hope of external support”, and without any “effective and systematic action” from international powers to prevent Israeli displacement of Palestinians, Jamjoum said.
For El-Ad, that urgently-needed action from the international community to “reject the occupation” should not be dependent on developments around any specific outpost or act of displacement.
“The broad picture of the reality of the occupation is well-established and documented: There is no need for any additional step to cross a threshold demanding international action, for that threshold has been already crossed a long time ago,” El-Ad concluded.