US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Monday that the United States was softening its position on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, the latest in a series of moves by the Trump administration that reversed decades of US policy.
Pompeo said the administration of President Donald Trump will no longer abide by a 1978 State Department legal opinion that the settlements were “inconsistent with international law”.
“After carefully studying all sides of the legal debate, this administration agrees… (the) establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law,” Pompeo said.
The move was immediately slammed by Palestinians and rights groups.
A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the US move “contradicts totally with international law”.
Washington is “not qualified or authorised to cancel the resolutions of international law, and has no right to grant legality to any Israeli settlement,” Palestinian presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeinah said in a statement.
Hanan Ashrawi, a veteran Palestinian negotiator and member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee, said on Twitter before Pompeo’s statement, that the move was “another blow to international law, justice & peace”.
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the US announcement “rights a historical wrong”.
According to several United Nations Security Council resolutions, the most recent in 2016, Israeli settlements are illegal under international law as they violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits an occupying power from transferring its population to the area it occupies.
The settlements are also considered a major stumbling blocks to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
More than 600,000 Israelis currently live in settlements in the occupied West Bank, including occupied East Jerusalem. Some three million Palestinians live there.
Monitor groups have said that Israel has conducted a settlement push since Trump took office.
Israel has occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza since the six-day Arab-Israeli war in 1967.
Palestinians want the territories to comprise their future state, with East Jerusalem as its future capital, while Israel considers the entire city of Jerusalem to be its capital.
Monday’s announcement marked another significant instance in which the Trump administration has sided with Israel and against stances taken by the Palestinians and Arab states even before unveiling its long-delayed Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
In 2017 Trump recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and, in 2018, the US formally opened an embassy in the city. US policy had previously been that the status of Jerusalem was to be decided by the parties to the conflict.
In 2018, the US also announced it was cutting its contributions to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.
And in March, Trump recognised Israel’s 1981 annexation of the occupied Golan Heights in a boost for Netanyahu that prompted a sharp response from Syria, which once held the strategic land.
Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, warned on Monday that the US change of position would have “dangerous consequences” on the prospects of reviving the Middle East peace process.
Safadi said in a tweet that Israeli settlements in the territory were illegal and killed prospects of a two-state solution in which a Palestinian state would exist side-by-side with Israel, which Arab countries say is the only way to resolve the decades-old Arab-Israeli conflict.
The European Union said that it continued to believe that Israeli settlement activity in occupied Palestinian territory was illegal under international law and eroded prospects for lasting peace.
“The EU calls on Israel to end all settlement activity, in line with its obligations as an occupying power,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement following the US move.