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Palestine, Israel, and the stalled annexation of the West Bank

ByAron Rosenthal

Aug 4, 2020

As July 1st has come and gone, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has yet to take any unilateral action on the West Bank annexation plan. With the Prime Minister’s long history of unfulfilled election promises, many commentators were unsurprised.

The proposal was announced back in September 2019, when Netanyahu was battling for an election victory amidst multiple allegations of corruption. His hard-line voters felt cheated, with one former advisor to the Prime Minister suggesting, “this time, the right-wing will not forget”. Meanwhile, Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank are concerned that annexation may still go ahead. At a protest in Ramallah, a Palestinian human rights advocate noted that “annexation has been ongoing for a long time.”

The government’s annexation plan would, if implemented, formally annex around thirty per cent of the West Bank. This would include large swathes of the Jordan Valley, known to Palestinians as the “breadbasket” due to the fertility of the land. The West Bank is a hotly contested region situated to the west of the Jordan river, east of Israel. Following the war of 1948, the West Bank was officially annexed by Jordan, until Israel took over its administration following the Six-Day War of 1967.

While Palestinians say the West Bank would constitute a large part of any future Palestinian state, some Israelis refer to the area as Judea and Samaria, asserting their right to the land on the basis of religious and historical claims, alongside security concerns.

However, the land is home to 2.5 million Palestinians, as well as approximately 400,000 Jewish people living in settlements within the West Bank.

According to the United Nations Security Council, Jewish West Bank settlements are illegal. This is because the Fourth Geneva Convention declares that states cannot “deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”

Yet, this view is not shared by Netanyahu or, in a marked shift from former government policy, the Trump administration. Netanyahu does not perceive that Israel is an occupier since Palestine is not considered a foreign sovereign power. Rather, Netanyahu considers the territory neither occupied nor Palestinian but in dispute, since the Israeli government took over administration of the West Bank from the Jordanians in 1967.

Donald Trump has already acted decisively in the region by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, slashing American aid to the Palestinians and recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Bill Schneider, a political analyst and professor, referred to Trump as the most pro-Israel president since Harry Truman. As such, it may come as no surprise that certain right-wing elements in Israeli politics are keen to capitalise on Trump’s endorsement of annexation. Indeed, under Netanyahu and Benny Gantz’s unity government deal, Netanyahu was given the green light to begin annexation at the beginning of July.

Gantz, who is set to become prime minister in November 2021, has publicly stated that annexation should be postponed until the Coronavirus pandemic is brought under control. Although he couched his reservations in the language of security, the alternate Prime Minister has expressed his reluctance to “apply sovereignty to areas with a Palestinian population in order to prevent friction.”

Alon Schuster, Israel’s Minister of Agriculture, who is also a member of Gantz’s Blue and White party, has said he is working to achieve “cultivation and not annexation, now” for West Bank farmers.

Joe Biden is another potential impediment to annexation. He has publicly stated before, “I do not support annexation. The fact is, I will reverse Trump’s undercutting of peace.”

Whether or not that is a genuine commitment if annexation goes ahead, Trump’s support could prove redundant. Whilst hardliners push for a swift implementation of the plan, Palestinians fear the implications.

As Oliver Holmes elucidated in an article for The Guardian, annexation could see some West Bank Palestinians (approximately 4.5 per cent) living on Israeli territory, but crucially without Israeli citizenship. Whilst annexation would primarily target the settlements, and not areas with a Palestinian majority, the ramifications could still be drastic.

Palestinian farmers fear that they will lose access to their land. To examine the post-annexation map is to view what many have described as “Swiss cheese”, with multiple non-contiguous zones under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian authority. During recent years, some commentators have become increasingly disillusioned with the idea of a two-state solution.

Nevertheless, many agree with Palestinian minister, Walid Assaf, that “the plan will be the final nail in the coffin”, ending “any chance for a future Palestinian state and our right to self-determination.”

Referring to the wars of 1948 and 1967, one Palestinian student at the Ramallah protests said, “The annexation plan is another Nakba [catastrophe] and Naksa [day of setback].”

In other terms, the primary effect of annexation would probably be increased settlement building. Rather than requiring the authorisation of the Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, attaining planning permission would become a local affair. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced that if Israel proceeds, the Palestinian Authority will unilaterally declare a Palestinian state according to pre-1967 borders.

As Palestinians are so clearly dismayed by the prospect of annexation, one would assume that Israelis are strongly in favour.

In fact, polls have suggested that only thirty per cent of Israelis favour annexation, half of whom would retract their support if some kind of Palestinian state were established in the process. Dalia Scheindlin, an Israeli public opinion expert, said, “You can say definitively there was never a majority among the Israeli public.”

International opinion is overwhelmingly united in its condemnation of annexation. Close to a thousand European parliamentarians have signed a letter condemning the plan while fifty UN experts have said the move would violate international law. Boris Johnson has appealed to the Netanyahu government in an open letter for the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz. Echoing the concerns of many British Jews, he said that annexation “would be a gift to those who want to perpetuate the old stories about Israel.” Many British Jews are just as baffled by the proposal.

In a letter to Israel’s former UK Ambassador, Mark Regev, forty-two eminent British Jews, including Luciana Berger, Simon Schama and Anthony Julius, denounced annexation. They recognised how difficult it would become for them to argue Israel’s case in the UK, suggesting that “if asked to make the case for West Bank annexations […] we will not be able to do so.”

Whilst a two-state solution is widely perceived as unlikely in the short-term, the letter explains that annexation “will be perceived as evidence of Israel’s rejection of negotiated peace and a two-state solution.”

Anshel Pfeffer, author of Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu, thinks the whole proposal may have been an electoral ploy to gain the support of hard-line voters. Whilst accepting that Netanyahu may once have seen annexation as a chance to forge his legacy, that is “only possible if the move is blessed by the Americans, and right now he doesn’t have the green light, and the administration doesn’t have the interest.”

If support from the international community is indispensable, waning American enthusiasm could defer annexation and might obstruct Netanyahu’s proposal completely.

Image: Justin McIntosh via Wikimedia Commons