A number of people are astonished to hear people such as Melanie Phillips (British journalist and commentor) argue that Israel is not in “occupation” of “Palestinian land” and that the Jews alone are entitled in law to this territory. Their astonishment is not surprising, since these facts are never referred to in mainstream discourse. Yet Israel is entitled to this land—all of it—many times over in law, as well as according to history, truth, and morality. In this article, I will outline two reasons why the term “occupied Palestinian territories” is nonsense by delving into the historical geopolitical perspective.
The Origin of the Name Palestine: Historical Geopolitical Overview
For a moment, let us take a succinct and deep dive into history to understand why there has never been such a thing in law as “Palestinian land.” There was never a state of Palestine. Following the Roman conquest of the Jewish kingdom of Judea, which involved the destruction of the Jewish Temple and the exile of the Jews from Judea (circa 70 CE), the region was renamed Palaestina in an effort to erase its Jewish identity. Subsequently, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War (1918), the international community, in its division of the Middle East to establish new states, retained the name Palestine to denote the territory. This territory was then designated to be re-established as the homeland of the Jewish people.
Balfour Declaration and San Remo Conference: Foundations of Israel’s Legal Claim
This foundation was solidified through the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which expressed the commitment to establishing a “national home for the Jewish people.” The groundwork for this declaration was laid at the 1920 San Remo Conference, an international gathering of the post-World War I allied Supreme Council forces. During this conference, decisions were made regarding the future of the former Ottoman Empire, culminating in the establishment of the British Balfour Mandate for Palestine. This mandate gained the status of international treaty law through the League of Nations in 1920, which served as the precursor to the United Nations (established in 1945). The 1917 Mandate for Palestine designated Britain as the mandatory power, entrusting it with the responsibility to facilitate the settlement of Jews throughout Palestine.
Following the division of the land, where Britain allocated approximately 70 percent to establish (Trans) Jordan through an act of arbitrary realpolitik “acting out of national interests rather than ideological or moral principles”, the remaining territory constituted Palestine. This included what is presently recognised as Israel, the “West Bank,” and “Gaza”.
To emphasize, the legal right to settle in the land comprising present-day Israel, the “West Bank,” and “Gaza” was exclusively granted to the Jewish population. The right granted to the Jewish people to settle the land, as established in the 1922 League of Nations Mandate, has not been revoked. This mandate was incorporated into the UN Charter of 1945, and the United Nations pledged to uphold the agreements made by its predecessor. The legally binding principles affirming the entitlement of the Jewish people to settle the entire territory were further confirmed in the Vienna Convention of 1969. This convention explicitly included Judea and Samaria (referred to as the “West Bank”) and Gaza.
In 2013, French judges in the Court of Appeal of Versailles made a significant ruling stating that “Israel is the Legal Occupant of the West Bank,” (Melanie Phillips, 2023) providing additional legal acknowledgment of Israel’s status in the region.
Jordan the “Occupier” of the West Bank
The United Nations voted in 1947 for the partition of British-mandate Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. Clashes erupted immediately. Jamal Husseini, the Arab Higher Committee’s spokesman, had told the UN before the partition vote the Arabs would drench “the soil of our beloved country with the last drop of our blood.” (J.C. Hurewitz, The Struggle For Palestine, Shocken Books, 1976), p. 308.)
Husseini’s prediction began to come to pass. The Arabs declared a protest strike and instigated riots that claimed the lives of 62 Jews and 32 Arabs. By the end of the second week, 93 Arabs, 84 Jews, and 7 Englishmen had been killed and scores injured. From November 30-February 1, 427 Arabs, 381 Jews, and 46 British were killed, and 1,035 Arabs, 725 Jews, and 135 British were wounded. In March alone, 271 Jews and 257 Arabs died in Arab attacks and Jewish counterattacks. (Facts on File, Inc., 1948, p. 231.) The holy men of Al-Azhar University in Cairo called on the Muslim world to proclaim a jihad (holy war) against the Jews. Two days later after the chairman of the Arab Higher Committee said the Arabs would “fight for every inch of their country.” (New York Times, (December 1, 1947).
On the eve of the British forces’ May 15, 1948 withdrawal, Israel declared independence. The situation intensified immediately: five Arab armies (Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon, and Iraq) immediately invaded Israel. Their intentions were declared by Azzam Pasha, Secretary-General of the Arab League: “It will be a war of annihilation. It will be a momentous massacre in history that will be talked about like the massacres of the Mongols or the Crusades.” (New York Times, May 26, 1948).
Jordan’s Role in the 1948-1949 War
The leader of Jordan, King Abdulla I seized almost all of Judea and Samaria during the 1948-1949 war, renaming these territories “the West Bank” in 1950, that did not extinguish Israel’s claim to that territory. From 1949 to 1967, Jordan held the “West Bank” as a military occupier. When Israel took possession of that territory after the 1967 Six-Day War, this did not, as so many believe, create its claim to it. Israel’s victory freed it instead from illegal Jordanian occupation, and allowed the legal claim of the Jewish people to that territory finally to be acted upon.
To further comprehend the insanity, we can examine pivotal agreements like the 1993 Oslo Accords (a set of agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) that established a peace process for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) and proposals by leaders such as Ehud Barak (Prime Minister of Israel who made a significant peace offer at the Camp David Summit in 2000) and Ehud Olmert (Prime Minister of Israel and made a comprehensive peace proposal in 2008). The Oslo Accords and previous plans envisioned the dismantling of most “settlements”, retaining less than 10 percent of the West Bank. However, the Trump Peace Plan introduced a paradigm shift, proposing the inclusion of 30% of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, and all Jewish settlements into Israel, with a Palestinian State. With perpetual Palestinian rejection, Israel has no choice but to contemplate unilateral action to apply sovereignty to Jewish communities in the West Bank.
Understanding the Distinction Between “Occupied” and “Disputed” Territory”
So the first reason why the term “occupied Palestinian territories” is a nonsense is that the areas in question were never Palestinian land but were always legally designated for Jews alone to be entitled to settle.
The first reason the term “occupied Palestinian territories” is a nonsense is that the areas in question were never Palestinian land but were always legally designated for Jews alone to be entitled to settle.
The ongoing debate and protests by the international community surrounding the status of the West Bank revolves around the terminology used to describe it: is it “occupied” or “disputed” territory? While the majority of the international community labels it as “occupied,” a more precise characterisation would be “disputed” territory.
The term “occupation” implies foreign control over an area that was formerly under the sovereignty of another state. In the case of the West Bank, however, there was no legitimate sovereign, as the territory had been unlawfully occupied by Jordan from 1948 to 1967. This sums up the second reason, on the legal definition of “occupation” . The disputed territories of Judea (Gaza) and Samaria (West Bank) were never part of a sovereign state.
It becomes imperative to differentiate between the acquisition of territory in a war of conquest and a war of self-defence. A nation that attacks another and retains the conquered territory is considered an occupier. On the contrary, a nation that gains territory while defending itself does not fall into the same category. Israel exemplifies the latter scenario, having informed King Hussein that refraining from the 1967 War would preclude hostilities. Despite this warning, Hussein attacked Israel, leading to the Israeli defence that eventually resulted in the control of the West Bank.
UN Security Council Resolution 242, by refusing Arab demands for a complete Israeli withdrawal from the 1967-won territories, acknowledged Israel’s entitlement to claim at least a portion of these lands for new defensible borders. Israel’s legal claim to the land dates back to the Balfour Declaration in 1917, recognizing the Jewish right to a “national home” in Palestine. This position was reiterated in subsequent international agreements, including the San Remo Resolution, Treaty of Sevres, Mandate for Palestine, Anglo-American Treaty, and the UN Charter. Therefore, characterizing Israel’s plans as “annexation,” as critics often do, is inaccurate. Classifying the civilian and military presence of Israeli in the Westbank as “occupiers” is a false claim. As explained by Erielle Davidson,
“a nation cannot annex land over which it already has sovereign claims.”