U.S. declares Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land are now ‘legal’

The declaration puts the United States at odds with virtually all countries and UN Security Council resolutions

The United States no longer believes that Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories are illegal, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Monday, in the latest pro-Israel shift by Washington.

The statement puts the United States at odds with virtually all countries and UN Security Council resolutions and comes just as centrist Benny Gantz races to form a government to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close ally of President Donald Trump.

“After carefully studying all sides of the legal debate,” Pompeo told reporters, the United States has concluded that “the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law.”

“Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law hasn’t worked. It hasn’t advanced the cause of peace,” Pompeo said.

Until now, US policy was based, at least in theory, on a legal opinion issued by the State Department in 1978 which said that establishing of settlements in the Palestinian territories captured a decade earlier by Israel went against international law.

The Fourth Geneva Convention on the laws of war explicitly forbids moving civilians into occupied territories.

While the United States has generally vetoed Security Council measures critical of Israel, previous president Barack Obama, exasperated with Netanyahu, in his final weeks in office allowed the passage of Resolution 2334 that called Israel’s settlements a “flagrant violation” of international law.

Pompeo said that the United States was rejecting the Obama administration’s approach, although he denied that the move was giving a green light to Israel to build more settlements.

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

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday said a US statement deeming Israeli settlement not to be illegal “rights a historical wrong”.

But the Palestinian Authority decried the US policy shift as “completely against international law”.

Both sides were responding to an announcement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying that Washington “no longer considers Israeli settlements to be “inconsistent with international law”.

“This policy reflects an historical truth — that the Jewish people are not foreign colonialists in Judea and Samaria,” Netanyahu said in a statement, using the biblical term for the West Bank.

“In fact, we are called Jews because we are the people of Judea,” he said.

Until now, US policy was based, at least in theory, on a legal opinion issued by the State Department in 1978, which said that establishing of settlements in the Palestinian territories went against international law.

The spokesman for Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas said that was still the position under 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,” presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeinah said in a statement.

Pompeo’s statement comes as Netanyahu struggles to hold on to power after two inconclusive elections this year and with the prospect of a third looming.

Ahead of April polls in Israel, Trump made controversial moves seen as backing Netanyahu, including recognising Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights.

Israeli settlers, part of Netanyahu’s right-wing constituency, said the US policy change paved the way for Israeli annexation of the settlements.

“We applaud the Trump administration for revealing the truth about the standing of Israeli communities in Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley,” the Yesha settlements council wrote in a Hebrew language statement.

“After the American recognition, we must move to the next stage – applying sovereignty to Israeli settlement.”

Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz joined the congratulations. “The right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is indisputable,” he said.

Senior PLO official damns Trump’s decision to declare Israeli settlements ‘legal’

A senior member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization blasted a controversial decision by the US on Monday to declare Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank as “legal”, saying that Washington has no right to “rewrite international law”.

Hanan Ashrawi lashed out at the major US policy change – which flies in the face of international law – saying it is yet another blow to legitimate Palestinian rights for freedom.

“The announcement made by US Secretary of State has no legal validity,” she said, adding “the US neither has the right nor agency to rewrite international law and deface the rules-based international order based on its perverse ideological leanings”.

Pompeo’s announcement “reaffirms Palestine’s assessment that the Trump administration is a threat to international peace and security because it is a partner in Israeli crimes and provides political cover for its pervasive violations,” she said.

“This administration is a threat the international community must confront with consistency and moral clarity.”

Ashrawi affirmed the illegal status of Israel’s settlements in the occupied West Bank: “Israeli settlements are a grave violation of international law, including international humanitarian law. They also constitute a war crime according to the Rome Statute. These are solid facts that the Trump administration cannot alter or unravel”.

She said the Palestinian Authority “will continue to pursue justice and redress through all available legal and political avenues. Palestine remains solidly committed to international law and at the forefront of defending the values and principles for which it stands. It is time for responsible states to take collective action that rises to the level of threat this administration’s lawlessness presents to the world”.

The Trump administration is notorious for siding with Israel with major foreign policy shifts that often go against international law.

Ahead of Israel’s first election of 2019 in April, Trump has recognised Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.

In later 2017, Trump caused outrage across the world after recognising the contested city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city.

Half-a-century of illegal occupation

Israel has occupied the West Bank illegally since 1967, and commits various abuses against Palestinian civilians, human rights groups say.

More than 600,000 Israeli Jews live in settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, in constructions considered illegal under international law.

The Oslo agreement of 1995 divided the occupied West Bank into three: Area A, Area B and Area C.

Area A is under the administrative and security control of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Area B’s administration is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, with Israel controlling security. Area C is under full administrative and security control of Israel.

Along with stealing land, Israeli soldiers and settlers routinely harass Palestinians in the occupied territories in various ways.

Israeli forces and settlers routinely harass Palestinians in the occupied territories through harming and killing civilians, demolishing homes, poisoning livestock, vandalising property and other forms of violence.

Israel often forces Palestinians to demolish their own homes under the pretext of not having a building permits.

Applications for building permits often take years to be processed, giving Israeli courts a loophole to increase Palestinian home demolitions by branding structures as “illegal”.

Palestinians react to US endorsement of Israeli settlements

Palestinians across the globe vented anger but little shock over the Trump administration’s latest pro-Israel turn that effectively green-lights illegal settlement expansion and annexation.

Palestinians living across the globe have voiced their anger and opposition to the bombshell US announcement on Monday that it would no longer consider Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank illegal, as they are considered under international law.

Many were quick to point out the Trump administration’s latest pro-Israel move does not change how the occupation is viewed internationally.

“No matter what the US says, Palestine is still occupied, settlements are still illegal and Palestinians continue to live under brutal Israeli occupation,” tweeted Diana Buttu, a Palestinian-Canadian lawyer and a former spokesperson for the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

Palestinian-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib also shared a similar sentiment: “Israel’s settlements in the West Bank violate international law. No matter what this corrupt and immoral Trump regime (yeah he is a lawless king-like dictator) [says], it doesn’t change that fact,” she tweeted.

Others addressed the bleak implications that Secretary of State Pompeo’s remarks mean for the future of the occupation, in other words, large-scale settlement expansion and annexation.

“This is another Trump gift to Netanyahu and a green light to Israeli leaders to put settlement building further into overdrive and advance formal annexation,” said Palestinian-American analyst Yousef Munayyer on Twitter.

Gaza-based activist Omar Ghraieb half-joked, half-lamented: “So the US decided to rewrite international law? What’s next? Rape becomes legal? The world should be scared.”

Despite the gravity of the statement, other Palestinian analysts lamented the fact it came as no surprise, following the string of pro-occupation policies taken by the Trump administration since the beginning of his presidency less than three years ago.

“We all saw this coming, not for years, but for decades. Each US administration has pandered to Israel on settlements and delivered the message that ‘might is right’,” tweeted Buttu.

Palestinian-American lawyer and activist Noura Erakat claimed Pompeo’s announcement was consistent with five decades of US policy.

“Making it about Trump is self-exculpatory and a continuation of violence. Trump is not the rupture, he’s the culmination of US policy,” she argued.

Some struck a more positive note, using the statement to galvanise resistance to the move and the occupation more widely.

“The reaction of the International community must be proportional to the danger of Trump decision,” tweeted Hebron-based activist Issa Amro. “We must go to the ICC, Ban the settlements from all countries, describe what is happening as a apartheid.” “We should not give up,” he added.