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New US policy on Israel’s settlements changes nothing

The Israeli settlement of Givat Ze’ev in the occupied West Bank. (Reuters)
The Israeli settlement of Givat Ze’ev in the occupied West Bank. (Reuters)
21 Nov 2019 04:11:52 GMT9
21 Nov 2019 04:11:52 GMT9

The world of the international rule of law and human rights went into shock this week, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the White House is reversing longstanding US policy by no longer considering Israel’s racist settlements to be illegal.

“The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law,” Pompeo announced on Monday.

Pompeo jumped through hoops to explain at his press conference how various administrations have treated the settlement issue differently. Democratic presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama said they are illegal, while Republicans Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and now Donald Trump have said they are not. Yet, despite the political back and forth, the truth is that these words mean nothing on the ground.

Since 1967, when Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, it has built and expanded settlements at a steady pace, which is now increasing significantly. With the backing of the US, Israel has ignored every denunciation of its settlement expansion, including all relevant UN General Assembly and Security Council resolutions.

These include Security Council resolution 446, which was adopted unanimously on March 22, 1979, and declared the settlements “have no legal validity and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”

The UN declarations have also not really changed anything on the ground. They have been empty words.

Israel’s settlements were there long before Trump became president and Pompeo was appointed to head the State Department. The people complaining about the settlements — from the Arab world to Democratic presidents and pro-peace activists — have not been able to do anything to stop them being built.

The settlements have been expanding, growing on lands stolen from Palestinian civilians since day one, when Israel captured the Occupied Territories. The frenzied pace of expansion today is as robust under this “new” policy as it was under the old policy, in which the US said the settlements were illegal but acted as if they were not.

Pompeo’s words could, however, become the spark that finally activates real change. The Arab world might now wake up from its acceptance of the settlements and start doing something about them. Or maybe the American politicians who claim the settlement policy change is wrong could use Pompeo’s words to do something about their expansion.

Several Democratic candidates for president, including Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders, have denounced the change. More are joining them. But that’s not enough. They need to put muscle behind a moral Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that targets Israel’s illegal conduct while not opposing peace based on the two-state solution. American lawmakers currently punish anyone who boycotts the settlements, and that started long before Trump.

The anti-settlement movement is led not by any government but by BDS activists. This movement has rightfully and legally challenged Israel’s illegal theft of occupied civilian lands and identified products made there. The BDS movement is built on a legal and moral premise that stolen land and assets cannot be exploited by an occupying force like Israel. Yet too many BDS activists have exposed the movement to criticism by expanding the boycott to everything Israeli, rather than only targeting Israel’s illegal actions. More than half of America’s 50 states have now adopted anti-BDS laws. Congress has done the same.

The US continues to indirectly pay for the expansion of settlements through its near-$4 billion annual military aid to Israel, which increased dramatically under Obama, the so-called “anti-settlement president.”

There are more than 600,000illegal settlers living in 400 settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. The number of settlers has risen steadily and consistently under every president, even though the US declared the settlements to be “illegal.”

While Pompeo’s words haven’t changed the reality of the settlements, they have created a challenge for the Arab world and governments who claim to oppose the Israeli government’s racism, apartheid policies and oppression, but have not done enough to stop them.

The US policy change may give some false sense of comfort to those who live on the stolen lands of the illegal settlements, but it can’t change one important point: Under international law, the settlements are illegal — even if Pompeo does not think so.

The settlement population and system will now become even more of a pariah around the globe, if not to the one country that has consistently closed its eyes to their illegality: The US.

So what is the truth about Pompeo’s declaration? What America thinks about the settlements is irrelevant to the reality of Israel’s racist settlement expansion policies. The settlements will continue to grow whether they are called racist and illegal or not. And Israel will continue to receive billions of dollars in aid from the US, with the money being used to free up funds to underwrite its settlement expansion plans.

The words are meaningless. What counts is what nations will do to enforce international law. So far, no one has tried to bring about an end to the racist and illegal Israeli settlements except for the BDS movement.

Ray Hanania is an award-winning former Chicago City Hall political reporter and columnist. He can be reached on his personal website at Twitter: @RayHanania

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