Palestinians slam US policy reversal on Israeli settlements

US says it no longer considers Israeli settlements illegal, drawing sharp criticism from Palestinians, rights groups.

The Wider Image: Israel''s settlers and the Palestinians they live among
A general view shows Palestinian houses in the village of Wadi Fukin as the Israeli settlement of Beitar Illit is seen in the background, in the occupied West Bank [File: Nir Elias/Reuters]

Palestinians, rights groups, politicians and others have sharply criticised the Trump administration after it announced the United States was no longer considered Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank “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,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday when making the announcement. 

He said the administration of US President Donald Trump would no longer abide by a 1978 State Department legal opinion that said the settlements were “inconsistent with international law”.

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 US announcement, the latest in a series of moves by the Trump administration favouring Israel, drew immediate criticism from Palestinians, rights groups and politicians worldwide. 

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the US decision “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 represented another blow to “international law, justice & peace”.

Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, warned 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.

‘A gift to Netanyahu’

More than 600,000 Israelis currently live in settlements in the occupied West Bank, including occupied East Jerusalem. Some three million Palestinians live there. 

The settlements have long been considered a major stumbling blocks to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. 

Monitor groups have said Israel has conducted a settlement push since Trump took office.

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 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that prompted a sharp response from Syria, which once held the strategic land.

Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian rights, called Pompeo’s announcement “another gift to Netanyahu and a green light to Israeli leaders to put settlement building further into overdrive and advance formal annexation”. 

Noura Erakat, a Palestinian human rights lawyer, tweeted: “Pompeo’s settlement announcement is consistent w 5 decades of US Mideast Police. Making it about Trump is self-exculpatory and a continuation of violence. Trump is not the rupture, he’s the culmination of US policy.”

Huwaida Arraf, a Palestinian American lawyer and rights activist, said the announcement was “not surprising”.

“Trump administration once again shows its complete disdain for the law,” she tweeted.

“Sec. Pompeo, what has ‘not advanced the cause of peace’ is Israel’s building of illegal settlements on stolen Palestinian land, NOT calling out the settlements for what they are. #Justice101,” she added.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu on Monday welcomed the shift in policy, saying the US move “rights a historical wrong”.

Netanyahu is currently facing domestic pressure on two fronts after Israel held inconclusive elections earlier this year. His main political rival, former military chief of staff Benny Gantz, has two days to try and form a government to replace Netanyahu, who is also facing potential indictment in three corruption cases. 

In the last election campaign, Netanyahu pledged to annex large parts of the West Bank, a move that would further imperil a two-state solution.

Gantz also welcomed the US move, saying in a tweet that the “fate of the settlements should be determined by agreements that meet security requirements and promote peace”.

Pompeo denied a motivation to prop up Netanyahu, saying: “The timing of this was not tied to anything that had to do with domestic politics anywhere in Israel or otherwise.”

‘Trump pandering to his extremist base’

A spokesman for the UN’s human rights office (OHCHR) said that it “shares the UN long standing position on the issue that Israeli settlements are in breach of international law.”

Rupert Colville also said there are several UN resolutions as well as decisions by the International court of Justice (ICJ) relating to the issue.

“On 9 July 2004, the ICJ stated in its Advisory Opinion that Israel’s construction of the separation wall and expansion of the settlements are illegally altering the demographic composition of the OPT and thus severely impede the Palestinians’ ability to exercise their right to self-determination,” he told reporters on Tuesday.

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.

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted: “Pompeo’s fictional statement changes nothing. Trump can’t wipe away with this announcement decades of established international law that Israel’s settlements are a war crime.”

US Senator Bernie Sanders, a leading US Democratic presidential hopeful, also weighed in on Twitter, saying “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,” Sanders said.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies