Obama’s Confusion about the ‘Occupation’ of Palestinian Land

By Moshe Arens


October 5, 2016


“Israel cannot permanently occupy Palestinian land,” said Barack Obama in his speech at the United Nations last month. By Palestinian land he presumably meant Judea and Samaria, the territory between the Jordan River and the lines delineated by Israel and Jordan in April 1949, in an armistice that followed Jordan’s participation in the combined Arab attack on Israel in 1948. Maybe he was also referring to the Gaza Strip, although that region is now under the rule of Hamas, a Palestinian terrorist organization, and there is no Israeli presence there.

Was it Palestinian land that Jordan annexed after the conclusion of the armistice with Israel? Nobody made that claim at the time, nor during the following 18 years when Jordan held that area.

Did it suddenly become Palestinian land only after Jordan joined Egypt and Syria in their war against Israel in 1967 and was forced to withdraw from the area? Or was it Palestinian land all along, while the Palestinian claim was left in abeyance as long as Jordan ruled the area and sprang to life only after the Jordanian army was defeated?

There is clearly some ambiguity about the Palestinian title to this area. Many Palestinians say Israeli “occupation” is not limited to Judea and Samaria, but also includes the State of Israel itself.

The Palestinian claim is obviously not consistent with the terms of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine of 1922, which recognized the historical connection between the Jewish people and Palestine and called for close settlement of Jews on the land. So maybe the fact that the majority of the population living in the area east of the 1949 armistice lines is Palestinian is sufficient to claim title to the land, a claim that was not pressed during Jordan’s tenure?

Actually, this isn’t the only area on the globe whose ownership is in dispute. Obama would probably be aghast if he were told by someone that “the United States cannot permanently occupy Mexican land.” Yes, much of the United States – California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Texas – is territory captured during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, in a war of aggression. It was a war waged under the banner of “Manifest Destiny” – America’s destiny to extend its possessions to the Pacific Ocean.

“This is my land, from California to the New York Island,” sang Woody Guthrie, with the war against Mexico long forgotten, except maybe by the Mexicans.

Obama surely knows that his birthplace of Hawaii, once an independent nation, had been taken over by the United States in an 1893 coup, becoming the 50th state more than 60 years later in 1959. So who is the “occupier”? Can “occupation” lead in time to a peaceful accommodation as it did in California and Hawaii?

Obama himself was the commander in chief of an occupying army when he inherited the American occupation in Iraq. He decided to pull out and damn the consequences. The victims of the American exit from Iraq were the people of Iraq and the rest of the region, not the American people.

Some would suggest that Israel follow the same path. Get out of the West Bank, end the “occupation” and damn the consequences. But Israel cannot exit the region like America; Israel is here to stay. And the first victims of an Israeli withdrawal from Judea and Samaria would be the Israeli people, who could expect rockets to rain down on their cities.

The prospect for the Palestinian population after such a move also leaves little room for optimism. The exit option that was available to Obama in Iraq isn’t really available to Israel. The “occupation” of what Obama called Palestinian land may last a while yet.