Israel’s Annexation of West Bank
An ill-conceived move that violates international law
As a fulfilment of the pledge he made during his election campaign, Benjamin Netanyahu, the incumbent Prime Minister of Israel, announced to kick-start the process to annex Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley in the West Bank on July 1. However, in the face of the scathing global criticism of the project mounted, and widening differences between Netanyahu and his coalition partner Benny Gantz became more conspicuous, Netanyahu backed down on the annexation plan. Moreover, US President Donald Trump, a staunch Israel supporter, has cooled its backing for the Israeli move amid what is believed to be troubles at home and fears that it might hurt the president’s chances of re-election besides international pressure. That is why Netanyahu’s office issued a statement on July 01 whereby it said that the prime minister would continue to discuss a possible West bank annexation with the US administration.
Israel’s ruling coalition, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had announced July 1 as the date to begin moving forward with the plan to impose Tel Aviv’s “sovereignty” over about a third of the West Bank, including settlements and the fertile Jordan Valley. This was all in line with US President Donald Trump’s so-called “Middle East plan,” which envisages a demilitarised Palestinian state on a patchwork of disjointed parts of the Palestinian territories. The regime, however, failed to launch the scheme on the set date amid widening differences between Netanyahu and his coalition partner, minister of military affairs, Benny Gantz. Mr Gantz, who is due to take over as prime minister in November 2021 under the terms of the coalition deal, opposed the timing of the move by saying that it must wait until the coronavirus crisis has been contained.
There has also been scathing criticism of Israel’s policies from around the globe as these are in clear contravention of international law and several UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions on sovereignty of Palestine. Several countries, including some of Israel’s staunch allies, have come out with public statements against the annexation.
The move has been delayed also due to lukewarm response from the United States as Israeli officials said the process would take place later this month in coordination with their American counterparts. In the words of Israeli cabinet minister Ofir Akunis, “Coordination with the American administration is not something that can be dismissed.”
A look at the dynamics of the region suggests that though the settlements have been steadily expanded over many decades, and the Jordan Valley is under effective Israeli military control, there are many reasons actual annexation is a bad idea.
The main reason is that the West Bank is regarded by international organizations and most of the world as occupied territory, and the Jewish settlements as illegal under the Geneva Convention. The move is also contrary to the fundamental rule affirmed many times by the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly that the acquisition of territory by war or force is inadmissible. The international community has prohibited annexation precisely because it incites wars, economic devastation, political instability, systematic human rights abuses and widespread human suffering.
Moreover, the United Nations has stated on many occasions that the 53-year-old Israeli occupation is the source of profound human rights violations against the Palestinian people. These violations include land confiscation, settler violence, discriminatory planning laws, the confiscation of natural resources, home demolitions, forcible population transfer, excessive use of force and torture, labour exploitation, extensive infringements of privacy rights, restrictions on the media and freedom of expression, the targeting of women activists and journalists, the detention of children, poisoning by exposure to toxic wastes, forced evictions and displacement, economic deprivation and extreme poverty, arbitrary detention, lack of freedom of movement, food insecurity, discriminatory law enforcement and the imposition of a two-tier system of disparate political, legal, social, cultural and economic rights based on ethnicity and nationality. Palestinian and Israeli human rights defenders, who peacefully bring public attention to these violations, are slandered, criminalised or labeled as terrorists. Above all, the Israeli occupation has meant the denial of the right of Palestinian self-determination.
Israel holds that the Geneva Convention does not apply because there had been no Palestinian state in the West Bank, and because none of the settlers were “deported or transferred” to the territory, in the language of the convention. Still, annexation move has been condemned as illegal by the United Nations and all major states, except for the United States. Last November, the Trump administration expressly declared that the United States considered the settlements not “inconsistent with international law,” effectively throwing the administration’s lot with Israeli nationalists. But while the Trump administration would give annexation its blessing, Joe Biden has declared that he would reverse that position if elected president.
The annexation would render the West Bank into a patchwork of simmering, unstable Bantustans, forever threatening a new intifada. It would further weaken Israel’s support in the Democratic Party and among American youth. It may destabilize Jordan, a country where Palestinians form the majority, and it could strain Israel’s new ties with Sunni Arab states.
It could also end what security cooperation still exists between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has declared that with the talk of annexation, he is “absolved” of all the agreements signed with Israel and the United States. And though this is not the first time he mooted a break, his tenure is nearing an end. His successor would most likely be more militant. And if the Palestinian Authority collapses altogether, whether in an eruption of violence or a nonviolent act of mass protest, Israel would be forced to confront the question of how to control a large population lacking the rights of citizens, an unsavory, dangerous and costly task that no Israeli would like to reclaim.
No doubt, Mr Netanyahu believes his reasons for annexation outweigh these dangers. Throughout his tenure as prime minister, he has expanded Jewish settlement in the West Bank, and the regions he would now annex, including the Jordan Valley, have become integral parts of Israel in all but name. There have been no negotiations for at least two years, and, in the eyes of Israeli conservatives, the two-state solution that has long been declared the goal is dead.
Having served longer than any prime minister in Israeli history, Mr Netanyahu probably believes the expansion of the Jewish state in the biblical Hebrew lands of Judea and Samaria would become his legacy, and the new baseline for any future negotiations. And he is keenly aware that the Trump administration, which has basically granted him and the Israeli right wing all their wishes — a United States Embassy in Jerusalem, an announcement that the United States will no longer regard Jewish settlements as illegal, and acceptance of Israeli control over the Golan Heights and expanded Jewish settlements on occupied territory — offers a particular opportunity to extend Israeli sovereignty with American approval.
On the more tawdry political level, where Mr Netanyahu thrives, annexation would cement for him the support of the Israeli right, and would cloak him with the mantle of a Jewish hero when he comes before the court in July to face corruption charges. The Israeli left opposes the annexation, but Mr Netanyahu’s erstwhile political challenger, Benny Gantz, is now allied with him—has just wants to delay, not abandon, annexation.
Mr Trump has his own considerations. One of them is the evangelical right, which for reasons of its own zealously supports Israeli expansion, and is a critical part of the president’s re-election arithmetic. Mr Trump would be most reluctant to buck this following by openly challenging Mr Netanyahu, even if he was so inclined.
But the administration has its own interest in slowing Mr Netanyahu down, and that’s the peace plan Mr Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, produced in January. It’s a one-sided plan that basically gives Israel all the lands Mr Netanyahu wants to annex, and it was rejected by the Palestinians, who had no part in its creation. But the plan at least envisions an Israeli expansion in the context of a peace agreement in which the Palestinians receive a huge amount of financial aid and the promise of connection routes among their enclaves. A unilateral Israeli move would be an embarrassing repudiation of Mr Trump’s boasts that he has the key to a peace deal.
And if Mr Netanyahu really is thinking of his legacy, he should take seriously that Mr Trump may not be president next year and he would be left holding a territorial claim nobody recognizes, not even Israel’s closest and most important friend. While Mr Biden, a strong supporter of Israel, has said he would not reduce America’s security support for Israel, breaking with Mr Netanyahu over the West Bank could seriously diminish America’s traditionally bipartisan support for Israel.
For what? For a symbolic gesture that would not make the settlements any more legitimate in international law than before, but would raise the threat of violence, undermine Israel’s standing in the world, harm Israel’s tentative alliances with Arab states, and further reduce the already thin chance of a peace settlement, which remains the only way to end this terrible conflict.
- United Kingdom
In an editorial in Israel’s largest selling newspaper on July 01, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for any annexation plans to be scrapped. He wrote:
“As a life-long friend, admirer and supporter of Israel, I am fearful that these proposals will fail in their objective of securing Israel’s borders and will be contrary to Israel’s own long-term interests … Annexation would represent a violation of international law … I profoundly hope that annexation does not go ahead. If it does, the UK will not recognise any changes to the 1967 lines, except those agreed between both parties.”
France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, told the French parliament that “an annexation decision could not be left without consequences” and that Paris was “examining different options at a national level and also in coordination with our main European partners.”
The German parliament called on Israel not to go ahead with the annexation of parts of the West Bank, describing the move as being in contradiction with international law. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the Israeli plan threatened the stability of the entire Middle East. “Peace cannot be achieved by unilateral steps,” he said.
In a rare criticism of Israel, Australia warned against “unilateral annexation or change in status of territory on the West Bank”.
Jordan has warned annexation could trigger a “massive conflict” and has not ruled out reviewing its 1994 peace treaty with Israel.
- The Vatican
The Vatican has summoned the US and Israeli envoys over Israel’s annexation plans.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state and the Vatican’s top diplomat, expressed “the concern of the Holy See regarding possible unilateral actions that may further jeopardise the search for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the delicate situation in the Middle East”.
- Amnesty International
Amnesty International’s deputy Middle East chief Saleh Hijazi said: “International law is crystal clear on this matter – annexation is unlawful,” adding if Israel moves forward it “points to the law of the jungle”.
- UN Human Rights Commissioner
UNHRC, Michelle Bachelet, has called Israel’s annexation drive ‘illegal’ called on Israel to immediately halt its expansionist drive and instead concentrate on working for a possible inclusive and long lasting Palestinian-Israel peace plan.
Where is the West Bank?
The West Bank is located on the west bank of the Jordan River and is bounded by Israel on the north, west and south. On the east of this river lies Jordan. Since the Six-Day War in 1967, also known as the Third Arab-Israeli War, the West Bank has been occupied by Israel. Both Israelis and Palestinians assert their rights to the territory of the West Bank and its disputed status and the conflict has not been resolved as yet.
The Palestinians who live in the West Bank live under Israeli military rule, as well as limited self-rule. Also present in the West Bank are some 132 Israeli settlements and 124 unauthorised settlements, along with military outposts. While the Israeli government and the US under the Trump presidency have insisted that these settlements are legal, the larger international community does not believe so and considers these settlements to be illegal under the provisions of international law.
What does this annexation mean?
Annexation is the term applied when a state unilaterally proclaims its sovereignty over other territory. It is forbidden by international law. A recent example was Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014.
Netanyahu has claimed that his plans do not involve an annexation of the West Bank. However, it would mean enforcing Israeli sovereignty over Israeli settlements and a significant chunk of land in the Jordan Valley, an area near the Jordanian border; approximately 30% of total land in the West Bank. The Palestinians believe that the annexation would prevent their access to essential water resources and key agricultural land, particularly in the Jordan Valley.
Although Netanyahu has said that Israeli sovereignty would not be enforced over Palestinians, it would mean that thousands of Palestinians would automatically fall under the annexed territory. The exact boundaries of this annexed territory is being discussed and charted by Israel and the US.
What effect will annexation have?
In the West Bank, Palestinians are only subject to Israeli military rules and their own Palestinian laws. Observers say the annexation will largely impact the establishment of settlements and other Israeli construction in the area that has been a long-standing bone of contention between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Annexation would make it easier for individuals to engage in construction in the West Bank, that has required approval by Israel’s defence ministry and the government prior to this because annexed territory would be considered to be a part of Israel by the Israeli government. Observers say that Israeli military control will continue, without any change.
How the move violates international law
Like all UN member states, Israel is obligated to adhere to UN Security Council resolutions. One of the most important is UNSC Resolution 242, unanimously adopted following the 1967 War between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria. It emphasizes “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” and calls on Israel to withdraw its troops from territory occupied during the war.
If Israel annexes all or portions of the West Bank, it will compound its existing violation of international law and commit a double illegality. As it is, Israeli settlements are illegal under international law. According to the International Court of Justice — and echoed in longstanding U.S. policy —, the West Bank is under “belligerent occupation.” According to the Fourth Geneva Convention, an occupier may not transfer its population to territory under occupation. Annexation of the settlements would double their existing illegality because a country cannot lawfully annex territory acquired by war. Discussions of the legal status of annexation usually begin with a reference to the Stimson Doctrine, named after the 1932 proclamation by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Stimson, according to which the United States refused to recognize Japan’s forceful annexation of Manchuria. Most recently, the international community condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and this resulted in the imposition of sanctions on Russia by the U.S. and the European Union.