The Israelis have built so many settlements in the West Bank and Gaza that the process will soon be irreversible." This argument has been repeated so often that no one even stops to question it. The Israeli settlers use this claim to tout their own permanence, and the Israeli left has used the same claim to alarm people into taking action against further settlement construction. The notion that the settlement process is irreversible has passed into conventional wisdom. No one raises the specter of irreversibility more often than the settlers themselves. Dina Shalit, spokeswoman for the Ariel settlement, told The Jerusalem Report, "There are more Jews living today in Ariel alone than lived in all of Sinai before the [Israeli] withdrawal in 1982. The Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria is a fait accompli."
In its October 28 issue Newsweek stated, "The settlements . . . now make it impossible to draw a conventional border between Israelis and Palestinians. In effect, the settlers have won." But, are these settlements, as Newsweek claims, "set in stone"? Or is irreversibility simply a political fiction, a euphemism for the absence of political will?
Since the beginning of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli policy has been to build Jewish settlements in order to create what Moshe Dayan termed "facts on the ground." The clear implication is that these "facts" are permanent, blocking any moves toward trading land for peace and thus creating a situation of de facto annexation.
Now that peace talks are under way, it is important to look carefully at the facts. Estimates of the total amount of land in the West Bank currently under direct Israeli control range from 50 percent to 70 percent (the government does not publish an official figure, although it has carefully mapped and categorized every inch of the West Bank). Even the 50 percent figure, put forth in the mid-1980s by Meron Benvenisti, a much-quoted expert on the West Bank, was high enough to help convince Benvenisti that the process was already irreversible.
Since the beginning of the intifada in 1987 the Israelis have dramatically increased the pace of land confiscation. Although no other researcher has been able to obtain the type of detailed government documents Benvenisti used to reach his figures, Israeli press reports based on leaked government documents indicate that "the State of Israel already owns [sic] about two-thirds of the West Bank land" (Yizhar Be'er, Ha'aretz, April 17). Some Palestinian researchers put that figure as high as 70 percent. Benvenisti recently told The Jerusalem Report, "In 1983, I said that the settlement process had become irreversible. If I thought so then, what do you suppose I think now?"
Whether the figure is still 50 percent or has climbed to 70 percent, these high numbers obscure a basic reality: Most of this land remains unsettled. While it is true that confiscated land is off-limits to Palestinians, most of it has been allocated for future settlement or is being used for roads, security belts around existing settlements, industrial zones and various military purposes. Without access to government maps an exact calculation is difficult; however, the actual percentage of Israeli-controlled West Bank land now used for settlement housing, according to both Palestinian researchers and Israeli Civil Administration officials, is probably less than 5 percent.
The Jerusalem Post, which takes a pro-settlement editorial position, recently reported that annexing "just" 13 percent of the West Bank would bring 70 percent of the settlers within Israel's borders. This figure, however, includes massive amounts of Palestinian land surrounding and linking settlements, and incorporates several Palestinian population centers, including the city of Qalqilya. Annexing this 13 percent would also give Israel permanent control over the main West Bank aquifers. But even in outlining a …