The United States no longer thinks Israeli settlements in the West Bank violate international law, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday. The new US view is different from that of most countries’ on this issue.
What are the West Bank settlements?
The West Bank, a patch of land about one and a half times the size of Goa, was captured by Jordan after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Israel snatched it back during the Six Day War of 1967, and has occupied it ever since. It has built some 130 formal settlements in the West Bank, and a similar number of smaller, informal settlements have mushroomed over the last 20-25 years. Over 4 lakh Israeli settlers — many of them religious Zionists who claim a Biblical birthright over this land — now live here, along with some 26 lakh Palestinians.
Are these Israeli settlements illegal?
To the vast majority of the world’s nations, yes. The United Nations General Assembly, the UN Security Council, and the International Court of Justice have said that the West Bank settlements are violative of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Under the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949), an occupying power “shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies”. Under the Rome Statute that set up the International Criminal Court in 1998, such transfers constitute war crimes, as does the “extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly”.
Under the Oslo Accords of the 1990s, both Israel and the Palestinians agreed that the status of settlements would be decided by negotiations. But the negotiations process has been all but dead for several years now.
Israel walked into East Jerusalem in 1967, and subsequently annexed it. For Israel, Jerusalem is non-negotiable. The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. Most of the world’s nations look at it as occupied territory.
What was the American stand earlier?
In 1978, when Jimmy Carter was President, the State Department concluded that the Israeli settlements were “inconsistent with international law”. Soon after taking office in 1981, President Ronald Reagan said he did not agree — even though the establishment of new Israeli communities in Palestinian territory was indeed “unnecessarily provocative”. Thereafter, the United States took the line that the settlements were “illegitimate”, not “illegal”, and repeatedly blocked UN resolutions condemning Israel for them. In 2016, President Barack Obama broke with this policy — and the US did not veto a resolution that called for an end to Israeli settlements.
On Monday, Pompeo said: “After carefully studying all sides of the legal debate, this administration agrees with President Reagan. The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not per se inconsistent with international law.”
What impact will the change have?
Those who support the right of Israelis to settle in the West Bank are likely to see the decision as an endorsement. It will boost Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has promised sweeping annexations in the West Bank.
However, Pompeo did not come out as directly backing the settlers. “The hard truth is there will never be a judicial resolution to the conflict, and arguments about who is right and wrong as a matter of international law will not bring peace. This is a complex political problem that can only be solved by negotiations…,” he said.
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