US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s sudden and unexpected announcement regarding Israeli settlements in the occupied territories not only runs counter to the international consensus but also overturns a bi-partisan American policy since the June War of 1967. Arguing that American policy has been ‘inconsistent’, Mr. Pompeo declared: “The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law” and that the status of the settlements and that of the West Bank would be “for the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate.”
Settlements denote housing units that Israel built in the territories it had captured during the 1967 June War, in the Sinai Peninsula, Golan Heights, Gaza Strip, and the West Bank, including east Jerusalem. The activities began shortly after the war ended. First, Israel expanded its jurisdiction over the eastern part of Jerusalem, which was under Jordanian control before the war. Then, it began the construction of the first settlement on the Golan Heights, followed by similar moves in other parts of the occupied territories.
Presently there are about 130 legal settlements in the West Bank and another 100 unauthorised outposts where an estimated 400,000 Israelis live. Besides, about 200,000 Israelis live in 12 Jewish neighbourhoods in east Jerusalem beyond the June 1967 border. About 22,000 people live in the 32 settlements on the Golan Heights.
The settlements play an important role in Israel’s peace arrangements with its Arab neighbours. The Camp David Accords with Egypt led to the Israeli evacuation from the Sinai Peninsula and the demolition of the settlement of Yamit in 1982. The same was followed during the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in August 2005 when Israel pulled back about 8,000 settlers from 21 settlements. During the late 1990s, the Israel-Syrian negotiations faltered mainly over the settlement issue as Israel was not prepared to give up its strategic assets on Mount Hermon overlooking the Syrian capital.
Most Israeli political parties have contributed to the expansion of settlements in the occupied territories. Over the years, the settlement population has become the core support base of the right-wing parties in Israel.
Settlements are a major stumbling block in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. It means the expropriation of Palestinian lands and construction of a host of paraphernalia for the Israeli settler such as schools, hospitals, employment opportunities, malls, and above all, security arrangements and bypass roads. Initially, the settlements were built away from the Palestinian population centres, but gradually they were established closer to Palestinian towns and villages.
Contrary to Palestinian expectations, the Oslo process did not slow down the settlement drive and quarter of a century after the historic handshake on the White House Lawns, settlements, and settler population have only expanded. While Israel pulled out Palestinian towns, more lands are under Israeli control. The location of settlements closer to Palestinian population centres has broken the territorial continuity of a Palestinian state.
For long, the international community considers settlements to be a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. In a ruling issued in 2004, the International Court of Justice declared settlements to be illegal.
The Trump Administration’s policy shift on the settlements comes against the backdrop of its controversial decision concerning Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Golan Heights as sovereign Israeli territory and shoring up support for the beleaguered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Even after two rounds of Knesset elections in April and September, government formation has eluded Israel. Despite his indictment on corruption charges, Netanyahu is now arguing that he wants to form the next government only to annex the Jordan Valley.
Within days of the Trump Administration’s decision, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution reiterating Palestinian right to self-determination. With 165 countries, including India voting in favour, Israel was supported only by the US, Nauru, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands.
India is a strong proponent of an independent and viable Palestinian state that coexists with Israel in peace and security. President Trump’s new move on settlements have further undermined the viability of the Palestinian state and has the potential to heighten tensions.
Script: Prof. P R Kumaraswamy , Centre for West Asian Studies, JNU