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Demonstrations erupted in the West Bank on Tuesday, in a direct response to the declaration by the United States that they no longer believe Israeli settlements to be in violation of international law. The Palestinian Red Crescent has recorded injuries to as many as 77 demonstrators inflicted by Israeli forces responding to the protests.
The violence occurred on a so-called “day of rage” – a demonstration organised by the Palestinian Legislative Council’s (PLC) second-largest party, Fatah, which saw around 2,000 people gather in Ramallah around midday, according to Al Jazeera. Government offices, universities and schools were shut down as rallies took hold of city centres in the West Bank in protest of the U.S. decision. The protests were met with a strong response from Israeli forces, who used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds.
The conflagration comes in the wake of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement on Monday that the State Department would reverse its 41-year-old policy of considering the settlements “inconsistent with international law.” The original legal opinion of 1978, authored by the State Department’s Legal Advisor Mr. Herbert J. Hansell, established Israel’s position in relation to the territories of Gaza, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula as that of a “belligerent occupant” under international law. As such, Hansell asserted that the civilian settlements in these territories were inconsistent with limits imposed by law on such an occupant, on the basis that “they do not seem intended to be of limited duration or established to provide orderly government of the territories” and neither are they “required to meet military needs during the occupation.” This assessment was, and remains, bolstered by Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, paragraph 6, which states that an “Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”
Notwithstanding the above, Pompeo claimed that “[t]he establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not per se inconsistent with international law.” This announcement further clarifies the shift in U.S. policy regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict since Trump took office, which has seen a buttressing of Israeli belligerence vis-à-vis the Palestinians. In 2017, the Trump administration recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and, the following year, opened an embassy in the city. In the same year, the U.S. announced it would cut its contributions to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) – the UN agency responsible for helping Palestinian refugees. The latest change of policy direction has been met with criticism from many quarters, with the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini, calling on Israel “to end all settlement activity” and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas threatening to cut ties with the U.S.
Ultimately, Pompeo’s statement has more symbolic than practical significance. Despite official pronouncements about the illegality of Israeli settlements in the West Bank since the 1967 war, the U.S. – and, indeed, the wider international community – has never taken any significant steps against the continuance of these actions. Even in circumstances where settlements are considered illegal under Israeli law – such as in the case of Ofra, on the Jerusalem-Nablus road – no action has been taken against their continued existence. The unfortunate reality is that such settlement activity is built into the foundations of the state.
In the wake of the 1948 Nakba, a new Absentee Property Law appointed a custodian of absentee property with near absolute powers to dispose of lands left vacant by the recent war. Any Palestinian who had left his usual residence on or after 29 November, 1947, was considered an ‘absentee’ regardless of whether or not they returned to it shortly afterwards. This law created the ideal conditions to precipitate the absorption of new waves of immigration to fortify the state, to the detriment of Palestinian Arabs. Given the long history of such an approach to the rights of the Palestinian people, and its tacit endorsement by persistent international diffidence, the recent announcement by the Trump administration is unlikely to change much on the ground.