In 1967, the Israeli army defeated its Arab neighbors in a bloodshed combat that is widely known as the Six-Day War. Suddenly, Israel’s territory had significantly expanded, capturing territories such as the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights as well as the territories that today make up the occupied Palestinian territories, namely the Gaza strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the latter having been (illegally) annexed in 1980. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank have been under Israeli occupation ever since, despite being governed by the Palestinian authorities.
One would imagine that the Israeli government would be satisfied with this development and that it would settle on these new-drawn boundaries. However, history has shown this interpretation to be an illusion. Israel continues to enforce its expansion policy by setting up one Israeli settlement after the other. As of 2019, around 650’000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Some of these settlers are known to be extremely radical, which results in a widespread phenomenon called “settler violence” towards Palestinian residents nearby. Especially in recent months, settler attacks against Palestinians have been increasing rapidly.
Undermining international law
In order to build these settlements, Israel continuously relies on methods such as the demolition and confiscation of Palestinian homes, and therefore also on the forced transfer or eviction of Palestinian residents. These actions clearly violate international law, as the Fourth Geneva Convention clearly states that “Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory” are illegal.
However, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not seem to respect these international norms. In fact, he went one step further in breaking international law by proposing his own annexation plans for the Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory that make up around 30% of the West Bank. The implementation of the project was supposed to begin in July 2020, but Netanyahu’s coalition partner Benny Gantz demanded to postpone the annexation due to the government’s responsibility to set its focus on combatting Covid-19. Though fading into the background, it is plausible that Netanyahu will resume his annexation plans once the pandemic is under control.
Netanyahu has benefited from a Trump Administration that does not criticize Israel’s illegal settlement-expansion. On the contrary, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared in November 2019 that the United States do not consider Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory to be violations of international law. The administration’s Middle East Peace Plan also pushed for the illegal annexation of these settlements as well as that of the Jordan Valley, an important economic area for Palestinians. The plan also stated that the remaining 70% of the Palestinian territory would be subject for discussion to form a future Palestinian state. This is an unrealistic promise that would, if indeed implemented, be tied to strict constraints. Handing over the Jordan Valley to Israel or giving up the dream of having East Jerusalem as their capital city are only a few of the sacrifices Palestinians would have to make if they were to accept the US plan. It is to no surprise that this peace proposal, which clearly aims to justify the illegal annexation of Israeli settlements, does not include a plan for the return of the 300’000 Palestinian refugees that were forced to leave the Palestinian territory in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War.
US elections as a driver of change?
Israel’s Prime Minister cannot expect the same amount of support for his illegal activities from the next US Administration – Joe Biden has stated that he does not approve of Netanyahu’s annexation plans. Not surprisingly, Israel accelerated the construction of settlements after it was clear that Trump would be leaving office in the beginning of 2021. It remains to be seen whether the Biden Administration will oppose the Israeli settlement expansion, but at least it can be expected that the annexation of the existing settlements will be met with resistance by the Oval Office.
A Palestinian-Israeli two-state solution is far from reachable. A first step in the right direction, however, is to put an end to the expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, which does not conform with international law and leads to a severe fragmentation of the Palestinian territory. Without this necessary condition the hopes for a peaceful settlement of the conflict will remain an illusion.
The European Union has taken a leading role in opposing Israel’s settlement politics, but its influence on Israeli politics remains limited. The United States, however, have had close political and economic ties to Israel for decades and are most likely Israel’s closest ally. It is, therefore, of great importance that the Biden Administration “exploits” this privilege and pushes Netanyahu to finally abandon the illegal settlements. This is the only way to create the foundation for a peaceful two-state solution.