The US Stance on Israeli Settlements: The Law of Force Trumps the Force of Law

Palestine Center Brief No. 334 (November 19, 2019)

By Mohamed Mohamed

President Donald Trump’s administration has once again upended decades of the official US position on Israeli settlements, which until now has maintained that they are “illegitimate” and “inconsistent” with international law.

On Monday, November 18, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that “after carefully studying all sides of the legal debate,” the Trump administration has concluded that the “establishment of Israeli civilian settlements is not, per se, inconsistent with international law.” One has to wonder what legal revelation has come upon him to make this 180-degree reversal of longstanding US policy.

It is very obvious that the current US administration has no regard for international law, especially when it comes to Israel. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 clearly and unambiguously states that, “the Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”

In 1967, Israel initiated a war of aggression and invaded the West Bank, Gaza, Egypt, and Syria. This resulted in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, and the Syrian Golan Heights. Consequently, the UN Security Council issued Resolution 242, which called on Israel to fully withdraw from these territories. Israel, of course, did not comply and ignored many UN resolutions about the matter since then.

So, Israel forcefully seized territory that does not belong to it. Except for the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza, Israel remains in these territories. This undoubtedly makes it an occupying power. Since 1967, more than 600,000 Israeli settlers have colonized major parts of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Therefore, Israel is indisputably in violation of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. There is literally no room to argue otherwise. Any party that needs to “carefully study” this issue is either completely incompetent or completely biased.

In his announcement, Pompeo also added that the status of the occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank is “for the Israelis and the Palestinians to negotiate.” What is left to negotiate? Hasn’t this protracted the peace process and provided cover for further Israel settlements?

If that is truly the administration’s position, then why would it issue this declaration, which is so blatantly biased in favor of Israel? Why is the US bending over backward to appease Israel, yet another time?

Israel claims to be a strategic ally of the US. Not long ago, President Trump indicated that Middle East wars cost the US taxpayer trillions and thousands of American lives. As John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt explain in their 2006 book about the Israel lobby, some of these wars, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, were meant to protect Israeli and not US interests.

To gauge the effects of the current move regarding the settlements, one must listen to people in the Arab, Islamic, and free world, where disappointment, disgust, and often rage are rampant and expected in response to such decisions. The autocratic governments may make statements for public consumption, but as always, are unwilling or unable to act in response. The US continues to lose in the public arena and will have to work very hard to restore any credibility, if it ever tries.

But perhaps the most outrageous reaction to this news was, unsurprisingly, from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He said that the US announcement was a huge achievement that “rights a historical wrong.” The level of deception, hypocrisy, and arrogance here is truly remarkable. Imagine a thief feeling persecuted and playing the victim when criticized for stealing someone else’s property. This is exactly what Netanyahu is doing, and what the state of Israel has done for decades.

Despite this open shift in official policy, it is clear that the current US administration is unwilling to confront Israel about its illegal settlement activity, in order to curry favor with Israel and its AIPAC lobby, for political reasons. In his press conference, Pompeo said, “The Trump administration is reversing the Obama administration’s approach to Israeli settlements.” In fact, all US administrations have been against the settlements since the occupation took place.

The truth is, despite its occasional rhetorical criticism of Israeli settlements, the US has never taken meaningful action to hold Israel accountable for its flagrant violations of international law and has provided diplomatic and political cover for the same. One exception is when, in 1991, President George H. W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker tried to condition loan guarantees to Israel on the cessation of settlement activity. President Bush’s decision may have cost him his election in 1992, when he saw a sharp drop in donations for his campaign. It must be remembered that the US is capable of enforcing international human rights law, as it did with South Africa’s apartheid regime in 1986. Also, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the US sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers and rallied the world to liberate Kuwait. 

There is no doubt that the Trump administration has made a series of destructive tangible and symbolic moves against the Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom, justice, and their human rights. This comes as another major blow to their legitimate aspirations. President Trump did not even hesitate to withhold humanitarian aid to refugees and to hospitals. Canada on the other hand, which often follows US policy in the Middle East, has just voted against Israel at the UN and rejected the idea that Israeli settlements are legal, which indicates the absurd level of incompatibility the Trump administration’s decision is with international law.

If a new American administration reversed course regarding the settlements, it would be too late to make that meaningful, as the damage has already been made far more irreversible. The cost of that is huge in terms of the interests of the occupied Palestinian people, the national interests of the US, and the issues of justice, human rights, and the supremacy of international law.

Mohamed Mohamed is the Executive Director of the Palestine Center. 

The views in this brief are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.

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