They can’t even agree on a name. The Israelis call the region Judea and Samaria, like in the Bible. The Palestinians speak of the "Occupied Palestinian Territory.” In English, it is called the West Bank.
Few regions of the world have been as contested in recent decades as this strip of land between Israel and Jordan. Despite the fact that it actually doesn’t really belong to any state, 3 million Palestinians live there -- along with at least 420,000 Jewish settlers. Both sides claim the area for themselves. Soon, one of them could make it so.
If the Knesset permits it, the Israeli government could annex parts of the West Bank starting July 1. This is in accordance with the coalition agreement signed between Israel’s former and current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition partner Benny Gantz in April. Netanyahu could soon declare individual settlements as Israeli territory, or immediately annex up to 30 percent of the West Bank, as the U.S. government allows in its so-called peace plan. It could also do nothing, and merely wait.
An annexation, no matter how large, would be considered a violation of international law, which forbids nation states from seizing foreign territory.
Why are Israelis and Palestinians fighting so fiercely over the land? What would an annexation change for the people in the region? The people best qualified to answer those questions are those who live there because they chose to -- or because they have no choice at all. Four people who live or have lived in the West Bank told DER SPIEGEL by phone about their lives at the center of the conflict.
Emmanuel Kushner, 44, tourist guide and settler
"For some, the Bible is a story. For me, it’s the word of God. When we Jews pray, we pray for a life in Israel. And Israel, that includes the settlements.”
I was born and raised in the United Kingdom. I was the only Jew in my school. I was bullied, the other kids threw things after me. I thought, that’s the way it is. I had accepted that I never really belonged.
Then I came to Israel. Suddenly I felt that here everybody is like me, here is my home. In 2010, I emigrated.
I live in Maale Adumim, a settlement outside Jerusalem with about 40,000 inhabitants. It feels like a totally normal city. I take the bus to work, the streets are so safe that my daughter can walk home at night. I’m religious, but most people live here because it’s more affordable. There are a lot of Russian and Ethiopian Jews who couldn’t afford to live anywhere else.
I used to be naïve. I thought, the settlements belong to Israel and Jews are allowed to live anywhere in Israel. Now I know it’s more complicated. The Palestinians in the area don’t have the same rights and I think that’s wrong. But the sites that are located in Judea and Samaria are important for my people .
I got married some time ago, the wedding ceremony took place near Hebron. Abraham was buried there; it is the second-holiest place in Judaism. To me, it felt like I was coming home.”
Jewish pioneers already lived near the Biblical sites in the early 20th century. The region was still under Ottoman rule, then became a British mandate. When the first Arab-Israeli war broke out in 1948, the Jews had to leave the territory. It wasn’t until 1967, when Israel conquered the area in the Six Day War, that many returned to the West Bank.
Both secular and religious Zionists began establishing communities on the occupied Palestinian territories. Israel tolerated the settlements -- partly for security reasons: Some settlements are still now considered outposts against possible Arab attacks.
Most of the settlements were built after 1977, when a conservative alliance named Likud, to which Netanyahu now belongs, took power in Israel. The settlement of Palestinian territories became a state goal. Many Israeli governments financially and logistically supported the construction of the settlements. Soon it became seen as a matter of course in the country that the area belongs to Israel.
At that time, in the early 1980s, about 700,000 Palestinians lived on the territory. The influx of Israelis changed their lives.
Nadim Khoury, 60, entrepreneur
"I have a brewery in Taybeh, near Ramallah. We produce 600,000 liters (160,000 gallons) of beer every year. It is hard to run a business in Palestine. And it is getting increasingly difficult.
The main ingredient for beer is water. We have a very good spring near Taybeh, Ain Samia. But the Israeli government has limited the water for us Palestinians. We only get water on Thursdays and Fridays. The settlements have priority. There are now many settlements near Taibeh.
Palestine also has no airport or seaport, so we have to bring our goods to Israel to ship them. This isn’t easy because there are so many checkpoints in the West Bank.
We recently wanted to send a shipment of wine by ship. Wine should be stored horizontally so the cork doesn’t dry out. But at the Israeli checkpoint, they refused to let the delivery through - because the wine bottles weren’t upright. We had to bring all the containers back to Taybeh and reorganize the bottles. Every day there is a new regulation. Every day, the Israeli customs wants something different.
It is even difficult to transport our beer within Palestine. It is actually only a 20-minute drive from Taybeh to Jericho. But because of the checkpoints it often takes half a day.
We want to sell our beer; we don’t want to stop. We will not give up.”
Driving from Israel to a settlement in the West Bank, one encounters wide streets, sandstone-colored houses and green gardens. Many Palestinians, however, see only fences and roadblocks. In most cases, they are not allowed to enter the settlements, and certain roads are reserved exclusively for the settlers. To protect the Israelis, there are many checkpoints where Israeli soldiers inspect every vehicle. Many Palestinians claim the military acts arbitrarily.
Many Palestinians know about the settlements’ prosperity only from afar. While many of the Jewish communities grow steadily, Palestinians are rarely allowed to expand their villages. Some sources of water once used by Palestinians now belong to the settlements.
"The settlers and the Palestinians live close to one another,” says Dov Waxman, professor of Israeli studies at the University of California. "But they live in different worlds.”
This is partly due to the complicated system dividing the West Bank. In about 18 percent of the territory, the Palestinian Authority alone is in charge. Israeli Jews are banned from entering those areas, as several soldiers were lynched by a mob there in 2000. In other areas, including those where the settlements are located, the Israeli army is in control.
Palestinians have been carrying out repeated attacks on Jews in the region for decades. The army has steadily increased its presence. Regular raids, arrests and interrogations take place in the Palestinian settlements.
Many settlers don’t notice this. Others pay the price.
Michael S., 25, former Israeli soldier
"I come from a left-wing family. We were always against Israel building settlements in the occupied territories. When I was drafted into the army, I nevertheless decided to join a unit in the West Bank. I thought: Better for me to be there than someone else.
I wanted to be nice to the Palestinians. I wanted to make a small contribution to improving their life.
I was stationed in various places, including along a road connecting Israeli settlements. At one point, it leads through a Palestinian village. We soldiers were to protect the vehicles on the road.
Every Friday, after the end of the Muslim prayer, the protests started. The Palestinian villagers threw stones and bottles at us. We fired tear gas -- but sometimes they just threw the cartridges back. I was standing there, in the fog, fully uniformed, thinking: What am I doing here?
Sometimes we were instructed by the domestic intelligence service to arrest Palestinians. This happens at night: You drive into the village in an armored vehicle, knock on the door of the person you are looking for and take them in. After the mission I sometimes sat in my car and thought: Damn, there were children in the house. I just took their father.
I’m sure there was a reason for it in most cases. The Palestinians hate the settlers -- if the army wasn’t there, they would slaughter the Jews. There is so much hatred, so much violence. But how could it be any different after 50 years of occupation?
Most Israelis have no idea what is going on in the occupied territories. They don’t know the sacrifices it takes for the settlers to live there. I think we have to get out of there. As fast as possible.”
There was a time when it seemed like Israel would largely withdraw from the West Bank. In the '90s, a two-state solution seemed within reach. But even today, both sides still blame each other for the failure of the negotiations.
The West Bank remains under martial law, and the military has control over hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in many places. These are people who have no state of their own, and no possibility for living elsewhere. Some of their ancestors lived in what is now Israel and cannot go back there. And the founding of their own state grows more distant with the creation of each new settlement.
Not all Israelis think this is a good thing -- but even the Israeli left-wing is increasingly struggling to denounce the settlements in the West Bank. Not only because Israel has gotten used to it and many Israeli children have grown up hearing that Judea and Samaria are Israeli territory. But also because Israel has had bad experiences in the past with the dismantling of settlements.
In 2005, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip evacuated. Since then, Hamas has been in charge of that territory. It has declared war on Israel and regularly fires rockets at the country. Even those Israelis who want the Palestinians to have their own state fear the same thing could happen in the West Bank if the settlements are abandoned and the military loses control of the area. This is another reason why some Israelis support the annexation.
Nasser Nawajah, 38, human rights activist
"I was born in 1983 in a cave in Susya, in the south of the West Bank. When I go to the place of my birth now, I run into a fence. Israel has turned the place into an archaeological site. I have to buy a ticket to get to the cave where I was born.
Our village of Khirbet Susya is now about 350 meters (1,100 feet) from the excavation site. We are 35 families, about 300 people. We used to live in the caves in the area. Today we live in simple brick houses or in tents. We raise goats, sheep and chickens. Several of us own olive trees. This feeds us.
We are surrounded by settlements. We see them when we lead our goats over the hills. My children sometimes ask me: Why do the Jews have swimming pools and toys, while we have nothing? I don’t know what to tell them.
Several settlers want for us to disappear. Some take the goats from the children or destroy olive trees. It is dry, just one spark is enough for everything to burn.
When annexation happens, this land will no longer officially be ours. But how can we be declared illegal on our own land? How can the international community let this happen?
Israel calls itself a democracy. But I fear that we will soon be expelled by force. Is that democracy?
I am afraid. We are going ever deeper into the darkness. We don’t see any light.”
"A Thousand Times, No, No, No"
It is unclear how many Palestinians live in the areas Israel could annex starting July 1. Although the land on which the people live may become Israeli, its inhabitants will probably not receive citizenship. Netanyahu has suggested as much.
"The Israeli government wants to annex the land, but not the people on it,” says Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard. He fears there will be dramatic consequences, especially for smaller Palestinian communities like Khirbet Suyja. "If the people don’t receive Israeli residency permits, they will be considered illegal intruders,” says Sfard. "They face fear of deportation.”
In the future, Netanyahu wants to turn larger Palestinian communities into "enclaves,” Palestinian city-states on Israeli territory. Cities like Jericho could be surrounded by state borders, more checkpoints and even more military. This would not only make the lives of Palestinians more difficult -- it would also cement their hopelessness. With each wall, it seems less and less likely that a Palestinian state will ever be established in the region.
The international community is trying to convince Israel to backtrack. But the country doesn’t have to fear any serious consequences. The EU’s foreign ministers recently rejected the idea of imposing sanctions, and the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump supports the annexation, even if contradictory signals have been coming from Washington in recent weeks.
In 2017, Trump commissioned his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to work out a solution to the Middle East conflict. The plan presented by the U.S. president in January provides for Israel to retain its settlements on the West Bank, while the Palestinians establish their own state around them. This would make Palestine look like Swiss cheese -- something the Palestinian leadership has rejected with a "a thousand times, no, no, no." Now Israel could simply implement the plan on its own.
"There is a general sense among Israelis that Israel has won,” says Waxman, the political scientist in the U.S, that "we can do this without paying a high price.” The annexation could begin next week.