Despite their hold on the world's attention, the Gaza Strip and West Bank territories, occupied by Israel since the Six Day War in June 1967, cover relatively tiny areas. Gaza, home to 1.1 million Palestinians and 7,000 Israeli settlers (who occupy 25 percent of the land), is only 26 miles (42 kilometers) long. A north-south drive through the center of the West Bank on Road 60, which connects the historic cities of Jenin, Nablus, Bethlehem, and Hebron, takes four hours. Traversing one of the modern east-west highways that cross between the Jordan River and the so-called Green Line, which marks the West Bank's border with Israel, should take 30 minutes.
But for most of the people who live here, time and distance are measured differently. The 2.2 million Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and East Jerusalem are effectively barred from most of Road 60 along with many other roads carefully engineered for the use of the 376,000 Israelis who have settled here over the past 35 years. Palestinians contemplating the 25-mile (40-kilometer) journey from Ramallah to Jericho, for example, must be prepared to spend an entire day, sometimes days, negotiating the various Israeli roadblocks and checkpoints along the way.
The many peoples who have lived on this land in past ages have not always been so much at odds. A cache of letters uncovered in a cave in the Judaean desert on the southern fringe of the West Bank 40 years ago chronicles the daily life of Babatha, a second-century Jewish woman. Babatha describes Jews and Arabs coexisting without friction. Just a hundred years ago Jews, Christians, and Muslims living in Jerusalem routinely attended each other's religious festivities. That kind of harmony eroded and disappeared in the 20th century with the rise of nationalism—Jewish and Arab—in the region.
Escalating hostilities led to intervention by the United Nations, which, in 1947, produced a plan for the partition of the area, named Palestine, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. The plan awarded slightly more than half the land to a Jewish state with the remainder allotted to the Palestinians. Although the Jews accepted the plan, Palestinians and the Arab states rejected it.
The following year, on May 14, Israel declared independence, offering itself as a haven from anti-Semitism for the world's Jews. An ongoing war between Jews and Palestinians was thereupon joined by neighboring Arab states. When the war ended in January 1949, Israel controlled 78 percent of Palestine, and 750,000 Palestinians became refugees.
The territory known as the West Bank—the hill country to the west of the Jordan River—had been designated under the stillborn UN scheme as the heart of the Palestinian state. During the war Jordan occupied this area while Israel focused on protecting early settlements and capturing Jerusalem. When the war was over, the West Bank and East Jerusalem were in the hands of the Jordanian forces; Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip; Israel controlled West Jerusalem.
Nineteen years later, in the 1967 Six Day War, Israeli forces speedily overran Gaza and swept across the West Bank, establishing a new frontier for Israel on the Jordan River. While the Israelis annexed East Jerusalem, they were less certain about what to do with the rest of the newly occupied West Bank and its million or so inhabitants. Although some Israeli leaders favored granting limited self-government to the more densely populated Palestinian areas, others were determined to settle Israelis amongst the Palestinians. Their aim was to make it impossible for any future Israeli government to pull out from what they proclaimed to be Israel's land by divine right.
Initially such Israeli settlements—then as now illegal under international law—were few and sparsely populated. By 1977 there were only 4,500 Israeli settlers in the West Bank (with another 50,000 in East Jerusalem). But following election of the conservative Likud Party government that year, the settlement drive went into high gear. Among other initiatives to clear land for this purpose, the new Israeli government declared that established landowners unable to produce legal title (which most Palestinians in the West Bank did not possess) could have their holdings seized as state land.
To encourage settlers to move from Israel or abroad to the settlements, successive Israeli governments offered generous subsidies, such as tax breaks and cut-rate mortgages. Even for those not drawn by visions of occupying the biblical land of Israel, these were attractive inducements. Living in cheap and commodious housing, inhabitants of the larger settlement blocs close to the Green Line could enjoy a comfortable suburban lifestyle within an easy commute to jobs inside Israel itself. According to the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem, 42 percent of the land in the West Bank is now controlled by the settlements.
By 1993 more than 115,000 Palestinians were commuting to jobs in Israel and earning higher wages than they would have in their traditional occupations as farmers, traders, or artisans. However, around the same time, the Israeli government, responding to Palestinian attacks on Israelis, began placing severe restrictions on these workers' mobility, to the detriment of the Palestinian economy.