US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has announced that the current administration does not view Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank as “inconsistent with international law”, breaking with a long-standing US policy and global consensus.
“Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law hasn’t worked. It hasn’t advanced the cause of peace,” he told reporters 18 November 2019.
The statement triggered condemnation from the Palestinian Authority. Nabil Abu Rudeinah, spokesperson for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said, “The United States is neither qualified nor authorized to negate international legitimacy resolutions, and it has no right to give any legitimacy to Israeli settlement.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, welcomed the statement, saying it “rights a historical wrong”, adding that Israeli courts were the place to determine the legality of the settlements, “not biased international forums that pay no attention to history or facts”.
On the other side of the political aisle, one of the 2020 Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders tweeted, ‘Israeli settlements in occupied territory are illegal. This is clear from international law and multiple United Nations resolutions. Once again, Mr Trump is isolating the United States and undermining diplomacy by pandering to his extremist base.’
Other Democrats, while confirming support for a strong US-Israel relationship, have drawn a line under settlement expansion. Elizabeth Warren stated last month she was open to making aid to Israel dependent on halting the building of settlements in the occupied West Bank, saying it did not “move us in the direction of a two-state solution”.
Pete Buttigieg, also a presidential candidate, pledged that his presidency would not support Israel’s annexation of the West Bank through further settlement building.
The expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories has been a sticking point in negotiations between Israel and Palestine where around 600,000 Israelis live in some 140 settlements that have been built since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Palestinians have argued the settlements make it impossible to ensure a future independent Palestinian state, while the international community largely regards them as illegal and in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention that prohibits an occupying power from transferring its population to the area it occupies.
From 1978, this was also consistent with America’s perspective, with President Jimmy Carter saying settlements were “inconsistent with international law”, although President Ronald Reagan backtracked on that determination in 1981, arguing that he did not believe them to be inherently illegal. They have since been labelled ‘illegitimate’ rather than ‘illegal’.
At the end of 2016, under President Barack Obama, the US allowed a United Nations resolution to pass calling for an end to illegal Israeli settlements. Conversely, the Trump administration has taken a more relaxed approach to condemning settlement expansion, and President Donald Trump has marked his first term by sanctioning a series of moves that critics say have given Israel the green light to further encroach on the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
For instance, Trump announced in 2017 that the US recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the US embassy there the following year, breaking with US policy that it is for the parties to the conflict to decide on final status issues for Jerusalem when both sides lay claim to it as their capital.
The same year, he announced the end of US contributions to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, a move that could jeopardize Palestinians in the diaspora’s right of return and the continuation of UNRWA’s mandate. The US also recognized Israel’s annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights earlier in 2019.
The European Union responded to Pompeo’s announcement by reaffirming its position that the bloc considers Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank to be illegal.
The announcement also follows a ruling by the European Court of Justice stating, ‘Foodstuffs originating in the territories occupied by the state of Israel must bear the indication of their territory of origin.’
The court noted that settlements ‘give concrete expression to a policy of population transfer conducted by that state outside its territory, in violation of the rules of general international humanitarian law’.
The ruling has irritated Israel, which says labelling is unfair and discriminatory as other territories under dispute are not liable to the same rules.
Meanwhile, other players have warned that the new US position could have dangerous consequences, with Ayman Safadi, Jordan’s foreign minister, saying it could inhibit the Middle East peace process.
In the wake of the announcement, the Yesha Settlements Council, a right-wing settlers group, applauded the Trump administration, saying, “After the American recognition, we must move to the next stage – applying sovereignty to Israeli settlements.”
According to civil society groups, the relocation of the US embassy has allowed the change to Jerusalem’s demography to gain pace, including unprecedented demolition in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Sur Baher that involved the levelling of ten residential buildings and a general uptick in evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. These actions, activists said, would enable the reconfiguration of Greater Jerusalem as well.
In June, independent think tank the International Crisis Group (ICG) reported Israel was putting in place policies that would help entrench its annexation of parts of occupied East Jerusalem.
ICG’s Senior Middle East Analyst Ofer Zalzberg told French press agency AFP that with the latest move, the US was trying to ease pressure on Israel, stating, “It adds to a deepening politicization of international law, making it appear to be malleable to political opinions.”
Independent political analyst Sam Bahour, who is based in the West Bank, told Fanack that the timing of Pompeo’s announcement is not coincidental. “I think the timing comes to try to divert attention away from [Trump’s] impeachment hearings, which are gaining momentum.”
He added that it also bolsters Netanyahu’s political chances in Israel, where he has been struggling to form a coalition government before the 20 November deadline.
Speaking to Fanack, Angela Godfrey-Goldstein, an Israeli peace activist, said the US’ reversal on the settlements issue “underlines yet again the dangerous nature of the current Trump administration, in its alliance with the Christian evangelicals, and will create problems for many years to come”.
However, she said the issue is easier to address now. “I hope it goes to the Security Council, even if the US veto is yet again invoked. Hopefully, this issue will now be easier for the international community to address, since it has such urgent repercussions for international law generally and how it applies worldwide.”
Bahour, however, warns that Trump and the US have zero jurisdiction to make their declaration and are systematically pushing Palestinians to drop their bid for statehood and turn this conflict into a civil rights struggle between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, which would be detrimental to Israel’s future and peace in the region.
“This is no longer an Israeli military occupation. This is clearly identifiable today as an Israeli-American military occupation,” he said.