Judea and Samaria: A Primer on Israel’s Biblical Heartland

The terms Judea and Samaria date back to biblical times and appear numerous times in the Jewish Bible and the New Testament.

The 1922 League of Nations’ decision to create the Mandate for Palestine allocated the entire region of Judea and Samaria for Jewish settlement. From 1949-1967, the region was illegally occupied by Jordan which cleansed the region of Jews, prohibiting them from returning. The term ‘West Bank’ was introduced by the Kingdom of Jordan to refer to Israel’s occupation of the land on the West Bank of the Jordan River from 1948-1950.

The region was liberated by Israel in its 1967 defensive war against Arab aggression. Judea and Samaria includes approximately 21% of all territory west of the Jordan River, which is a land mass of 3,438 square miles. Its North-South length is approximately 79 miles and varies from 19-34 miles wide (East-West).

International law does not recognize any country’s sovereignty over Judea and Samaria. Many experts maintain that Israel has the most valid claim to the area being the only national entity to populate, develop, and administer the area for the last 3000 years. However, Israel has withheld annexing Judea and Samaria, recognizing that the international community considers the region ‘disputed’.

1995 OSLO: AREAS A, B, AND C

In 1995, the Oslo II Accord Interim Agreement between the Israeli government and the Palestinians established Palestinian interim self-government in Judea and Samaria as a basis for subsequent negotiations and the preliminary of an eventual comprehensive peace agreement. Negotiations did not produce a final peace agreement and the agreement was officially abandoned by all sides in 2002. 

The Oslo agreement divided the region into three categories of administrative jurisdiction: Areas A, B, and C. The Palestinian Authority (PA) was given some limited powers and responsibilities in Areas A and B and a prospect of negotiations on a final settlement based on Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. Area A, approximately 18% of the total territory, is exclusively administered by the Palestinian National Authority; Area B, about 22% of the territory, is administered by both the Palestinian Authority and Israel.

Area C, which contains the Israeli settlements, is administered by Israel. 70% of the land in Area C is, by agreement, off-limits for Palestinian development. However, the Palestinians have not honored this agreement and build profusely in contravention of Oslo. 

In July 1980, the Knesset passed the Jerusalem Law as part of the country’s Basic Law, which declared unified Jerusalem the capital of Israel, formalizing its effective annexation. No territory in Jerusalem was included in the Oslo Accords. 

The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics reported that  2.8 million Palestinians live in Areas A and B, though that number is disputed. The Israeli government places that figure at 1.5-2.5 million. At the beginning of 2020, the number of  Israeli residents of Judea and Samaria reached 463,901 and this number has passed half a million. Most estimates put the Arab population of Area C at around 150,000.

Israelis who live in Judea and Samaria are citizens of Israel. The 98% of Palestinians in Judea and Samaria are governed by the PA, pay taxes to the PA, and vote in PA-administered elections, if elections were to be held. The other 2% of the Arabs in Judea and Samaria reside in Area C, administered by the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT).

The roads in the entire region are open to both Israeli and Arab-Palestinian traffic, though the PA issues its own license plates. Some roads are occasionally restricted depending on the security situation that alternates. In the approximately 40% of Judea and Samaria that is under the control of the Palestinian Authority, it is illegal for Jewish Israeli citizens to enter or use those roads.

Approximately 17% of Judea and Samaria has been developed including all Israeli and Palestinian-Arab development. The built-up areas of Israeli settlements cover around 2% percent of all the land in Judea and Samaria.

THE CURRENT STATUS

Naomi Kahn, the International Division Director for Regavim, an NGO that monitors construction in Judea and Samaria, explained the logic behind these divisions.

“The places where there were concentrations of an Arab population were given to the Palestinian Authority as an autonomous region,” Kahn explained. “This includes large Arab population centers that include Jericho, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Kalkilya, and Jenin. Those areas were Area A. Area B was composed of rural areas of the Arab population.”

This division required some level of security cooperation between Israel and the PA, Kahn explained.  

“Those are areas in which the Palestinian police are responsible for law and order but the IDF maintains perimeter security authority because areas exist as a sort of bubble within the larger area,” she said.

The PA also took on governmental responsibilities.

“The Palestinian Authority is responsible for all civilian affairs inside both areas A and B regarding building permits, sewage, garbage removal, education, and health,” she explained.”

The situation is made complicated as the divisions are ambiguous.

“While there are no Jews living in Areas A and B, there are Arabs living in Area C,” Kahn explained. “When this system of ABC was implemented, there was no data on how many Arabs were living in any of the areas. The UN and the Palestinian Authority have vested interests in inflating their numbers. The PA does not take censuses and they do not hold elections so it is impossible to know. UNRWA data classifies descendants of refugees as residents of the region even if they have never been there.”

Jewish settlement is less than 1% of the territory of Judea and Samaria, less than 2% of Area C.

“The Palestinian Authority openly encourages their citizens to move to Area C and the European Union funds illegal Arab construction,” she added. “There is essentially no Arab construction being carried out in Areas A and B. By not taking a census, the Israeli government is allowing this to continue.”

The division of the region was also carried out regardless of private ownership.

“There were Jews who owned land in Areas A and B who were forced to forfeit their property,” Kahn said. “And even in Area C, Jews were forced to comply with the government divisions, even if they had to forfeit their land.”

She added that the Oslo Accords explicitly required free access to holy sites in all areas.

“Unfortunately, we see that this is not the case,” she said. “The agreement did not specify ensuring free travel but it did specify that there would be no construction adjacent to existing roads. This has not been enforced.”

“Some of these structures have been used as a launching point for terror attacks, or hiding places for terrorists after they commit a terrorist attack,” she added. “And some of them are simply hazards. But little is done.”

Kahn said that ironically, according to the Oslo Accords, Israel has complete rights to build in Area C with no restrictions.

“It is only a political concession for Israel to put a freeze on construction,” she said.

THE FUTURE

She emphasized that the interim agreement did not explicitly establish areas A and B as a future Palestinian State.

“The agreement never used the term ‘Palestinian state’,” she said. “That was left for future bilateral negotiations. It may not be in the best interests of the Palestinians to establish an independent state. Perhaps it won’t be viable, it won’t be able to have its own economy. They’re better off as a confederation or as a federation of Jordan or as autonomous zones within Israel.” 

“No Israeli government ever agreed that a Palestinian state should be created,” she said.

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