As Israeli annexation plans loom over thirty percent of the Palestinian occupied West Bank, international reactions continue to oppose it, deeming it as illegal. But what exactly does the illegality of this annexation mean and what is it based on? Here are five things you should know about the Israeli annexation plans of the West Bank:
Why is annexation illegal?
When European countries and the UN condemn ‘Israel’s’ annexation plans, they often say they undermine the two-state solution and the chances for peace. However, that is a political statement, not a legal one. The annexation of over a third of the West Bank does kill chances of creating a Palestinian state on the borders of 1967, and thus puts an end to the two-states-solution-based peace process. But that’s not what makes it illegal. Even if there was no peace process or any UN resolutions specifically related to the territory in question, annexation is still illegal.
International law expert Maha Abdallah clarifies that “the act of annexation means a unilateral imposition of sovereignty over a territory by a foreign state, which means an unlawful acquisition of territory”. In fact, international law hasn’t made occupation illegal in and of itself, as it could be an outcome of armed conflict. But it has put a lot of limitations to it, specifically to prevent it from turning into annexation, which is illegal. Maha Abdallah explains that “as a foundational principle of the laws of occupation, the occupying power does not acquire sovereignty in any way over the territory it occupies, which is why annexation is strictly forbidden under the UN charter and the fourth Geneva convention.”
Among other things, international law forbids the occupying force from moving its own civilian citizens into the occupied territory or forcibly driving the civil population out of the territory. It also forbids exploiting the natural resources of the occupied territory, unless it’s in the benefit of the occupied population, changing the laws, and confiscating private property. All of which have been systematically done by the state of ‘Israel’, throughout all of its governments since 1967, leading to what is today a de-facto annexation of the West Bank.
Why is it a violation of human rights?
The imposition of foreign sovereignty over a territory prevents the occupied population from self-determination, which is itself a fundamental human right. But in the case of the Palestinian territory, Israeli annexation goes beyond preventing Palestinians from self-determination, affecting the most basic, individual, every-day human rights.
Around 63 Palestinian communities in the Jordan valley, counting up to 100.000 inhabitants live under full Israeli control, surrounded by some 36 Israeli settlements, counting up to 11.000 Israeli settlers. Fares Fuqaha, legal researcher in the Jordan valley and resident of the Palestinian village of Ain Al Beidah, in the Northern Jordan valley, explains that “most of the land is exploited by the Israeli occupation in profit of Israeli settlers”. In fact, the Jordan valley contains the largest and most important natural water reservoir in the Palestinian territory. This makes it the most important agricultural land, source for half of the fruits and vegetables that Palestinians consume in the West Bank.
Thousands of Palestinian families depend on working these lands for a living. But as Fares Fuqaha points out; “the Israeli occupation controls all-natural water wells through pumps that have dried out natural springs”. As Palestinians in the Jordan valley have to buy water in tanks at expensive prices from the Israeli water company, settlements near-by enjoy this same resource without shortage.
This discrimination is not limited to access to water. While settlements expand, Palestinian communities aren’t allowed to have new buildings. “The occupation sends out regular patrols to register every single building in every community. If they find any new building, it is demolished within 24 hours” explains Fares Fuqaha. This prevents Palestinian communities from growing. “Many communities can’t even have a school” he highlights.
Meanwhile, Israeli settlements expand over confiscated land, provided with infrastructure, services and security. “Not only does this reality reflect clear discrimination”, insists Fuqaha, “but it also creates a coercive environment that is aimed at forcing the Palestinian population to leave, clearing the way for more settlement activity”.
All these forms of discrimination constitute racial segregation which international law recognizes as ‘apartheid’. A serious violation of human rights under international law. Legal and human rights researcher Rania Muhareb notes that “annexation doesn’t mean apartheid. It doesn’t even create apartheid. It only entrenches an apartheid regime that already exists and that is continuously maintained”.
What’s the international responsibility towards it?
Being outlawed by the adoption of the UN charter of 1945, annexation generates responsibilities on the other states who adhere to the UN charter, or ‘third states’. As Rania Muhareb points out; “third states have the obligation not to recognize the illegal situation, not to render aid or assistance in its maintenance, and to cooperate to bring the illegality to an end. Yet, in the Palestinian context, third States have only ever lived up to their responsibility of non-recognition, while tacitly continuing to maintain the illegal situation”.
But in the case of Palestine, these ‘third states’ have limited themselves to the responsibility of ‘non-recognition’ as most of the member states in the UN have not recognized Israeli annexation of any part of the West Bank. However, they haven’t gone any further. “continuing to maintain the illegal situation, including through corporate complicity, and failing to adopt effective coercive measures, including sanctions, to bring the illegal situation to an end” as explains Rania Muhareb.
But these responsibilities did not start with the recent Israeli annexation plans. Simply put, everything that makes this annexation illegal has been a reality for decades, just as the international responsibility towards it. Rania Muhareb highlights that “Annexation means the embodiment of the ongoing Nakba that has plagued Palestinians since 1948”.
Why isn’t it working?
Human rights worker Nada Awad indicates that “International law is clear on the illegality of annexation, but the international legal system has no mechanisms for enforcing the principles of international humanitarian law. This is why its implementation by third states is based on political will”.
The fact that political motivation is the only way to stop one particular state of violating international law, makes the respect of human rights subject to political and economic calculations, based on interest. “Political and economic countermeasures, including sanctions, have been taken by the EU to counter the annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol by Russia” says Nada Awad, “In contrast, on Palestine, the EU is only making statements on the illegality of annexation”.
This contrast can be easily understood by examining EU’s relations with Israel. According to the European Commission’s official website, trade between Israel and the EU reached 36.2 billion euros in 2017. The figure might be small compared to the 232 billion euros worth trade between the EU and Russia, but it is the nature of this trade that gives it its importance.
The EU’s trade relations with the occupation state are regulated by an association agreement since 2000. The EU had signed an association agreement with the PLO in 1997, on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, treating the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a separate trade partner, distinct from Israel. However, Israel’s exports to the EU countries, as well as Israelí markets receiving imports from the EU have always, in reality, included Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In 2015, the EU made it obligatory to label Israeli goods coming from settlements in Palestinian territory, while continuing to allow the importation of these goods into European markets.
Will it really happen?
From a practical perspective, it is already happening and has been for years. Settlements are effectively treated by Israel as parts of its own territory, connected to the heart of the Israeli state, completely separated from their Palestinian surrounding. The Israeli wall, built since 2002, has chopped off extensive parts of the West Bank, separating them completely from the rest of the Palestinian territory. In addition, Palestinian natural resources in the West Bank are being exploited by Israeli firms or privatized by Israel to international companies.
But most importantly, annexation has already happened in the past. In 1980, following 13 years of occupation of Eastern Jerusalem, Israel passed the ‘Jerusalem fundamental law’, annexing the Eastern part of the city against international law. The decision was internationally condemned, never recognized by any country, before the US Trump administration actually did in 2019, but Jerusalem has been increasingly colonized anyway. Palestinians in the city are treated as ‘residents’, allowed to stay under strict conditions, stripped from their residency rights at any moment. Their property is confiscated to the benefit of Israeli settlers and the very identity and heritage of the city, like historical places, street names and even cemeteries are erased on a daily basis.
Not only will annexation happen, but it is already happening and has happened in the past. But Annexation is not the end of the story. Despite the occupation and all its colonial practices, and despite the ineffectiveness of the international system to stop it, Palestinians hold to their land against all odds. Their steadfastness is the first line of resistance and the only fact on the ground that the occupation has not been able to change. This steadfastness could eventually turn the tide, but Palestinians can not make it happen alone. Today more than ever, their resistance needs to have the support of all the peoples of the world, especially when states have failed them in their efforts to regain their rights. After all, our world is made of people, not of states.