Wednesday

21st Feb 2024

US and EU go separate ways on Israeli settlers

  • Some 700,000 Israeli settlers have come to live in the West Bank since 1967 (Photo: breakingthesilence.org.il)

The US has said Israeli settlements in Palestine are not illegal, aggravating its split on international norms with Europe.

"The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per say, inconsistent with international law," US secretary of state Mike Pompeo told press in Washington on Monday (18 November).

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"The hard truth is that there will never be a judicial resolution to the conflict," he added, and the final status of the West Bank was "for the Israelis and the Palestinians to negotiate," he added.

His statement ended 40 years of joint US and EU policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

It followed a legal review of a 1978 legal opinion by the state department, the so called 'Hansell Memorandum'.

And it came on top of earlier EU-US clashes on the Middle East peace process.

The US unilaterally recognised Israel's 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights from Syria earlier this year and endorsed its 1967 annexation of Jerusalem in the West Bank some two years ago.

The EU called it a legal disgrace on each occasion.

And it continued in the same vein shortly after Pompeo spoke.

"The European Union's position on Israeli settlement policy in the occupied Palestinian territory is clear and remains unchanged: all settlement activity is illegal under international law and it erodes the viability of the two-state solution and the prospects for a lasting peace," the EU foreign service said.

It cited a UN Security Council resolution from 2016, which called settlements a "flagrant violation" of international laws, such as the 1949 Geneva Convention on the rules of war.

A recent EU court ruling on how to label settler food imports also cited UN resolutions, charters, and opinions by the International Court of Justice on the illegality of settlements.

"The West Bank is a territory whose people, namely the Palestinian people, enjoy the right to self-determination", the EU court said.

War and truth

Israel conquered the West Bank from Jordan in a 1967 war and more than 700,000 Jewish settlers have come to live there since.

The US statement "reflects an historical truth - that the Jewish people are not foreign colonialists in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]," Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday.

But the decision boded ill for Middle East peace, it critics warned.

The US embassy in Jerusalem issued a travel warning the same day, which said "individuals and groups opposed to the secretary of state's recent announcement may target US government facilities, US private interests, and US citizens".

And Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian official, said the White House, under US president Donald Trump, was "demonstrating the extent to which it's threatening the international system with its unceasing attempts to replace international law with the law of the jungle".

The EU-US split on Israel also comes amid other divisions on conflict resolution in the region.

Trump recently shocked the EU by letting Turkey invade Syria and previously demolished an EU-backed nuclear non-proliferation pact with Iran.

Global ripple

But the Israeli settlement decision might have even wider implications, B'Tselem, an Israeli NGO noted.

It was "not only a green light for the illegal settlement enterprise, but for wide-ranging violations of human rights across the globe", the NGO said.

In a sign of what that meant, Pompeo, earlier on Friday, had been asked why Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 was illegal if Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights was not.

"We were simply recognising that reality on the ground and the history that existed in that particular space," Pompeo said, echoing Russian president Vladimir Putin's justification for seizing Crimea.

Germany has also voiced concern that US backing for a land-swap deal between Kosovo and Serbia in the Western Balkans on the same principles could cause instability in that region.

Sour grapes

But for its part, Psagot, an Israeli winery in a West Bank settlement, delighted in its schadenfreude over the EU court ruling on food.

The EU court had said its wine must be labelled a "settlement" product so that European consumers could avoid buying it for "ethical" reasons.

"We believe the European Court of Justice ruling to label settlement products had a significant impact on the US administration's decision to … change its policy," Yaakov Berg, Psagot's CEO said, after the firm lost its case in the EU tribunal.

And the Israeli foreign minister, Yisrael Katz, corroborated his account.

"This important announcement is an appropriate response to the European Court of Justice's decision against Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria and attempts to boycott the state of Israel," Katz said.

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