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US says Israeli West Bank settlements not illegal

What happened: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced yesterday that the US was changing its policy on Jewish settlements in the West Bank (known in Israel as Judea and Samaria) Pompeo said that ‘We will no longer recognise Israeli settlements as per se inconsistent with international law.’

  • Pompeo explained the move as ‘reversing the Obama administration’s approach towards Israeli settlements.’ He said: “Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law hasn’t worked. It hasn’t advanced the cause of peace. 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 between the Israelis and the Palestinians. We recognise that, as Israeli courts have, the legal conclusions relating to individual settlements must depend on an assessment of specific facts and circumstances on the ground. The United States Government is expressing no view on the legal status of any individual settlement….Israel and the Palestinians are the ones to discuss their final status…The conclusion that we will no longer recognise Israeli settlements as per se inconsistent with international law, is based on the unique facts, history, and circumstances presented by the establishment of civilian settlements in the West Bank.”

Context: Pompeo’s statement is a reversal of the US State Department’s position that has since 1978 described Israeli settlements as inconsistent with international law.

  • The announcement is part of a series of measures by the Trump administration that support Israeli policy and depart from the previously stated positions of the US, UN and the EU and other US allies. These include moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem and recognising Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights.
  • Pompeo’s announcement was reported to be driven by US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who coordinated the move with the Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer during the last three months. The move is also part of a wider pattern reversing decisions by President Obama. In this context Pompeo’s announcement is a specific repudiation of Security Council Resolution 2334, which was not vetoed by the Obama administration and specifically said Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem are illegal.
  • The US embassy immediately issued a travel advisory for Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank, warning: “Individuals and groups opposed to the secretary of state’s recent announcement may target US government facilities, US private interests and US citizens.”
  • Benjamin Netanyahu thanked the US, noting the decision, “rights a historical wrong,” adding, “This policy reflects an historical truth – that the Jewish people are not foreign colonialists in Judea and Samaria. In fact, we are called Jews because we are the people of Judea…Israel’s legal system, which has proven itself fully capable of addressing legal questions related to the settlements, is the appropriate place for these matters to be adjudicated – not biased international forums that pay no attention to history or facts.  Israel remains ready and willing to conduct peace negotiations with the Palestinians regarding all final status issues in an effort to achieve a durable peace but will continue to reject all arguments regarding the illegality of the settlements.”
  • Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said: “The fate of the settlements and the residents of Judea and Samaria should be determined by agreements that meet security requirements and that can promote peace.” Leader of the Joint List Ayman Odeh said: “No secretary of state will change the fact that the settlements were built on occupied land on which a Palestinian state will be established alongside the State of Israel.”
  • The move was also criticised by Palestinian leaders, Hanan Ashwari said: “It sends a clear signal that they have total disregard for international law, for what is right and just, and for the requirements of peace.”
  • The UK Government views all Israelis living beyond the pre-1967 lines as illegal settlers under international law, but believes that final borders must be agreed in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the EU position is “clear and remains unchanged…the EU calls on Israel to end all settlement activity, in line with its obligation as an occupying power.”
  • In past Israeli-Palestinian negotiations the US proposed a deal whereby Israel would retain the largest settlement blocs and would compensate the Palestinians with land swaps by transferring other territory from Israeli to Palestinian sovereignty in return. The majority of these so called settlement blocs are located West of the security barrier in the West Bank.
  • The total population of Israelis living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has increased from 490,583 in 2009 to 661,957 in 2018. The total population of Israelis living in settlements East of the security barrier increased from 70,078 in 2009 to 103,446 in 2018. Settlements and Solutions is an interactive reliable mapping tool from The Washington Institute for Near East Policy that shows Israeli settlements in the West Bank in depth, allowing its users to understand the importance and context by which the settlement activity occurs.
  • The West Bank is administered by the Israel Defence Forces but East Jerusalem is part of the wider Jerusalem municipality. Although Israeli courts have upheld the legality of Israeli settlements built on state land they have declared settlements illegal when built on private Palestinian land.​​​​​​​

Looking ahead: There is no expectation that the new US position will be adopted by the wider international community and it has been criticised by US Democrats hoping to be nominated for the 2020 Presidential election.

  • The new policy will however form part of the long awaited US plan for Israeli-Palestinian talks although there are doubts as to when, if ever, it will be published.
  • The announcement will bolster those in Israel who want to rapidly expand the number of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. During the last election campaign Benjamin Netanyahu stated his intention to annex the Jordan Valley, adding to his promise in the previous election campaign to apply Israeli sovereignty to all settlements in the West Bank.​​​​​​​