By Ramzy Baroud
Wednesday, July 1, was meant to be the day on which the Israeli government officially annexed 30 percent of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley. This date, however, has been and gone and annexation has still not been actualized.
“I reckon there will be nothing today, regarding (the extension of Israeli) sovereignty,” said Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi with reference to the self-imposed deadline declared by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. An alternative date was not immediately announced.
But does it really matter? Whether Israel’s illegal appropriation of Palestinian land takes place with massive media fanfare and a declaration of sovereignty, or whether it happens incrementally over the course of the coming days, weeks and months, Israel has, in reality, already annexed the West Bank — not just 30 percent of it but the whole area.
It is critical that we understand such terms as “annexation,” “illegal,” “military occupation” and so on in their proper contexts. For example, international law deems all of Israel’s Jewish settlements, constructed anywhere on Palestinian land occupied during the 1967 war, to be illegal.
Interestingly, Israel also uses the term illegal with reference to settlements, but only the “outposts” that have been erected in the Occupied Territories without the permission of the Israeli government. In other words, while in the Israeli lexicon the vast majority of all settlement activities in occupied Palestine are “legal,” the rest can only be legalized through official channels. Indeed, many of today’s 132 “legal” settlements in the West Bank — which house more than half a million Israeli Jewish settlers — were founded as illegal outposts.
Though this logic may satisfy the desire of the Israeli government to ensure its relentless colonial project in Palestine follows a centralized blueprint, none of this matters in international law. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Conventions states that: “Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the occupying power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive.” It adds that: “The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”
Israel has violated its commitment to international law as an occupying power on numerous occasions, with its occupation of Palestine violating the rules on how military occupations are conducted. They are also meant to be temporary.
Military occupation is different from annexation. The former is a temporary transition, at the end of which the occupying power must relinquish its military hold on the occupied territory. Annexation, on the other hand, is a stark violation of the Geneva Conventions and the Hague Conventions. It is tantamount to a war crime, for the occupier is strictly prohibited from proclaiming unilateral sovereignty over occupied land.
The international uproar generated by Netanyahu’s plan to annex a third of the West Bank is fully understandable. But the bigger issue at stake is that, in practice, Israel’s violations of the terms of occupation have granted it a de facto annexation of the whole of the West Bank. So, when the EU, for example, demands that Israel abandons its annexation plans, it is merely asking Israel to re-embrace the status quo — that of de facto annexation. Both abhorrent scenarios should be rejected.
Israel began utilizing the Occupied Territories as if they are contiguous and permanent parts of so-called Israel proper immediately following the June 1967 war. Within a few years, it had erected illegal settlements, now thriving cities, and moved hundreds of thousands of its own citizens to populate the newly acquired areas.
This exploitation became more sophisticated with time, as Palestinians were subjected to slow but irreversible ethnic cleansing. As Palestinian homes were destroyed, farms confiscated and entire regions depopulated, Jewish settlers moved in to take their place. The post-1967 scenario was a repeat of the post-1948 situation, which led to the establishment of the state of Israel on the ruins of historic Palestine.
The same colonial approach was applied to East Jerusalem and the West Bank after the war. While East Jerusalem was formally annexed in 1980, the West Bank was annexed in practice, but not through a clear legal Israeli proclamation. Why? In one word: Demographics. When Israel first occupied East Jerusalem, it went on a population transfer frenzy — moving its own population to the Palestinian city, while strategically expanding the municipal boundaries to include as many Jews and as few Palestinians as possible. The city’s Palestinian population was slowly reduced through numerous tactics, including the use of the revocation of residency and outright ethnic cleansing. Thus, Jerusalem’s Palestinian population, which had once constituted an absolute majority, has now been reduced to a dwindling minority.
The same process was initiated in parts of the West Bank but, due to the relatively large size of the area and population, it was not possible to follow a similar annexation stratagem without jeopardizing Israel’s drive to maintain Jewish majority. Dividing the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C as a result of the disastrous Oslo Accords has given Israel a lifeline, for it allowed it to increase settlement activities in Area C — which covers nearly 60 percent of the territory — without stressing too much about demographic imbalances. Area C, where the current annexation plan is set to take place, is ideal for Israeli colonialism, for it includes most of Palestine’s arable, resource-rich and sparsely populated lands.
It matters little whether the annexation has a set date or takes place progressively through Israeli declarations of sovereignty over smaller chunks of the West Bank. Annexation is not a new ploy dictated by the political circumstances in Tel Aviv and Washington; rather it has been the ultimate Israeli colonial objective from the outset.
Let us not get entangled in Israel’s bizarre definitions. The truth is that Israel rarely behaves as an occupying power, but instead as a sovereign in a country where racial discrimination and apartheid are not only tolerated or acceptable, but are in fact “legal.”