Amid Gaza Strikes, Netanyahu Rules Out West Bank Withdrawals

The Israeli leader says he is not prepared “to create another twenty Gazas” on the West Bank.

Israeli and American military chiefs Lieutenant General Benny Gantz and General Martin Dempsey speak with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, August 13, 2013
Israeli and American military chiefs Lieutenant General Benny Gantz and General Martin Dempsey speak with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, August 13, 2013 (DoD/D. Myles Cullen)

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday ruled out withdrawing forces from the West Bank, a key demand by Palestinians who hope to establish the core of their own state there.

“At present we have a problem with the territory called Gaza,” Netanyahu said. The West Bank is twenty times the size of Gaza. Israel, he added, is not prepared “to create another twenty Gazas.”

In remarks that were made in Hebrew and translated by The Times of Israel, the Israeli leader did not rule out territorial concessions altogether but underlined the danger of giving up what he described as “adjacent territory.”

The priority, said Netanyahu, who leads Israel’s conservative Likud party, is to “take care of Hamas,” the militant Palestinian organization Israel accuses of firing hundreds of rockets into the country since hostilities escalated last week. Netanyahu ordered airstrikes to dismantle the group’s ability to menace Israel which, according to Palestinian officials, have killed at least 160 Gaza residents. Tens of thousands of reservists have also been mobilized in anticipation of a possible ground assault.

The wider lesson Netanyahu said he drew from the violence is that Israel must make sure it doesn’t “get another Gaza in Judea and Samaria” — the historical names many Israelis use for the area the outside world refers to as the “West Bank.”

I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.

Israel took Gaza and the West Bank from Egypt and Jordan during its 1967 war with neighboring Arab states. It withdrew from the former in 2005. The following year, Hamas, a radical Islamist group that seeks Israel’s destruction, won a Palestinian election, leading to a split with the secular Fatah party of President Mahmoud Abbas who clung to power in the West Bank.

Under a 1995 treaty with the Palestinians, Israel maintains civil and security control of much of the West Bank, including the border region with Jordan and Jewish settlements that are scattered across the west of the territory. Israel failed to follow up on a promise to withdraw from parts of the area while the Palestinians later rejected Israel’s offer to give up most of the West Bank, except major settlements and East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu suggested on Friday that even such concessions were now impossible. “If we were to pull out of Judea and Samaria,” he said, “there’d be a possibility of thousands of tunnels” being dug by terrorists to attack Israel.

More than a thousand such tunnels were dug under the border between Egypt and Gaza to smuggle weapons into the coastal strip — despite Egyptian and Israeli blockades.

Netanyahu warned that the region surrounding Israel “is being seized by Islamic extremism. It is bringing down countries, many countries. It is knocking on our door, in the north and south.”

In Syria, radical Islamists have taken the initiative in the rebellion against the regime of President Bashar Assad, even extending into Iraq to the east where one group last month proclaimed an independent “caliphate.” Lebanon’s most powerful Islamic group, Hezbollah, supports Assad.

To the south of Israel, in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt’s security forces are struggling to put down a shimmering insurgency by militants believed to be linked to Hamas — which is itself an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood that took power in the country following an uprising against President Hosni Mubarak in early 2011. The group was toppled in an army coup last year.

Tension between the Israelis and Palestinians intensified last month when Israeli soldiers arrested hundreds of suspected Hamas activists in the West Bank while searching for three missing Jewish teenagers. After they had been found dead, a Palestinian youth was murdered in Jerusalem. Believed to be a revenge killing, the news sparked riots in Israel and the Palestinian territories and led to an increase in rocket attacks from Gaza.

While rocket fire has forced hundreds of thousands of Israelis to seek shelter several times per day, none has yet killed a resident of the Jewish state — but that is largely because Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system has proven so effective at intercepting projectiles that are headed for populated areas.