Common Grounds

Opinion | Israel's Million-dollar Question: What to Do With the West Bank and Gaza Strip

Opinion | Israel's Million-dollar Question: What to Do With the West Bank and Gaza Strip

Settlers marching to the evacuated West Bank outpost of Homesh last May.Credit: Moti Milrod


This column isn’t about Hamas. It doesn’t address the question of what Hamas wants and doesn’t try to put the events of October 7 into their historical context, much less into their moral context. What’s theirs is theirs.


This column also isn’t about the more general question of what the Palestinians want and where their struggle is leading them. Nor does it try to ask where they plan to go after October 7, even though if I were a Palestinian, I would be talking about this and only this – what do we want? Where are we heading? What life and what world do we want for our children?


This column is strictly about Israel, and its million-dollar question – what does Israel want to do with the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the millions of stateless Palestinians who live in them?


Anyone who says it’s impossible to completely separate the questions this column isn’t asking from the ones it is would be correct. After all, the desires of both peoples influence and are influenced by each other.


Nor is the reciprocal influence of both people’s desires the only thing that makes it hard to answer this question. There’s also the question of whether there even is such a thing as “Israel’s desire,” and if it is a single desire rather than being as fractured as its people. And that was true even before the deep incisions left by October 7, which, for many people, still hasn’t ended 40 days later, like a nightmare from which you can’t wake up.


Israel, its representatives and all Israelis see themselves, and depict themselves, as seeking peace. Our hand is extended in peace. But ever since 1967, the occupied territories have put our desire for peace to the test.


From the moment we captured these territories, a tension was born between our desire for peace and our desire for land. From the moment the territories were in our hands, it was impossible to sever the question of our aspirations for peace from the question of ownership over the territories.


The slogan “peace for peace” is irrelevant with regard to the Palestinians, because our conflict with them is territorial. If peace with them is possible at all, it will only be in exchange for the territories.


For years, our attitude toward the territories has expressed our desire for peace. And that is true regardless of the question of our Palestinian partner.


The settlement enterprise always undermined Israel’s willingness to seek peace with the Palestinians. Everything Israel has built for civilian purposes beyond its pre-1967 borders has undermined its desire for peace, and even more so its international image as a peace-seeker. Every settler living in the territories under the state’s aegis is a message to the Palestinians and the world that Israel is not headed toward peace.


The settlers know that the settlements sabotage any possibility of territorial compromise, without which there will be no peace. From the very first day, they have striven to expand this enterprise, and the more they were fed, the more their appetite grew. They now aspire to settle a million Israelis in the settlements (and in an interview with the New Yorker last week, veteran settlement leader Daniella Weiss laid out the next target – two million settlers, and then three million).


The settlers are proud of the fact that they have created a situation that negates any possibility of dividing the land. The settlers don’t want peace.


If Israel wanted peace, it should have overcome its desire for the territories and kept them as a deposit to be traded for peace, without using them, taking them over or building on them. Israeli recognition of the pre-1967 borders while maintaining a strong guard on those borders would have sent a message to the Palestinians, and to the entire world, that peace was just waiting for the Palestinians.


Look, Israel could have said, this is ours, and everything on the other side of the border is yours – in exchange for peace. Then Israel could have said wholeheartedly that it sought peace.


This column therefore demands that we ask ourselves the following – are “we” actually “the settlers”?


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