Israel and Palestine: annexation in the shadows of SARS-CoV-2?

Background

The world's attention is fully focused on tackling the Covid-19 pandemic. But in the shadows of this crisis, Israel is quietly planning to annex parts of the Westbank. The coalition treaty of the ‘national emergency agreement’ signed by Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz allows the Cabinet and/or Knesset to make decisions on such moves from 1 July. The forthcoming US elections in November of this year could further increase the momentum. While the question of annexation is discussed mainly from a power-politics point of view in Israel, for the Palestinian people it is the culmination of years of occupation. How likely is annexation and what will its consequences be?

Israeli emergency government: a coalition with exceptions 

Benjamin Netanyahu has skilfully used the COVID-19 emergency to declare an end to the political deadlock that followed three elections with no clear winner and claim victory for himself. Opposition leader Benny Gantz became unable to continue to oppose calls for a 'national emergency government' and declared himself ready for talks with Netanyahu – despite an unprecedented attack on the institutions of Israeli democracy.[1] After some tough negotiations, Netanyahu and Gantz presented an agreement at the end of April to set in place a joint government for three years, with the position of Prime Minister to rotate halfway through. The first six months will be devoted solely to bringing the coronavirus crisis under control; additionally, Gantz and Netanyahu will have a veto in all political areas, so as to stall any unpopular initiatives.

There is, however, one notable exception to this principle. Right from 1 July, Prime Minister Netanyahu will be able to present plans to annex the occupied territories to the Cabinet and/or Parliament for a resolution. This annexation clause is, admittedly, dressed up in flowery platitudes pledging commitment to the existing peace agreements, coordination with international partners and a willingness to bring about peace. The annexation decision lies, however, with Netanyahu, as Gantz has agreed to waive his veto in this matter, despite his misgivings. If there is no agreement within the government, the Likud can bring the annexation bill pushed forward by Netanyahu before the Knesset. If that happens, a majority in favour of the plan, which has the support of some elements of the opposition, seems likely, even if the Blue and White faction does not vote for it collectively.

Annexation – from de facto to de jure 

This means that the coalition agreement paves the way for parts of the West Bank to be annexed this summer. It is subject of controversial discussion whether Netanyahu will actually take this step. In power since 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu is now Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister. Ideologically, his position has changed little during this time. Netanyahu is absolutely consistent on Israel’s claims to the occupied territories, distrusts the Palestinians and is fundamentally opposed to a Palestinian State. At the same time, he has shown himself during his time in office to date as a politician who avoids taking major political risks and would rather move incrementally within the framework of the status quo. The situation in the occupied territories nowadays can be described as “creeping annexation” intensified and deepened by the building of settlements, in other words a de facto annexation not based on an official decision. The Israeli army controls the occupied territories and the border with Jordan, the settlers are subject to Israeli law (albeit based on military decisions), the Green Line has virtually disappeared from the consciousness of the Israeli public and the international community  is tired of negotiating, in view of the stalemate and Netanyahu’s resistance to conflict resolution. 

Given this situation critical voices from the security establishment in particular, such as the Commanders for Israel's Security – a group of 220 senior former members of the military and security services – are calling the security policy reasoning behind the annexation into question: the annexation of areas that are already completely under Israeli security control is a pointless exercise. Moreover, it may lead to a deterioration of Israel's security. Benny Gantz has adopted this line of argument: he places full emphasis on the significance of the Jordan Valley to Israel’s security and absolutely does not wish to see all settlements evacuated, but he warns of the negative consequences of a unilateral annexation. For instance, Jordan could terminate the peace treaty with Israel, the Palestinian Authority could suspend security coordination with the Israeli security forces or dissolve entirely, which would force Israel to take over responsibility for n the entire Palestinian population. 

The Trump Plan – a historic opportunity

So, what purposes would be served by going ahead with the annexation? Netanyahu has repeatedly described the Middle East plan presented by US president Donald Trump on 28 January as a unique opportunity that Israel cannot afford to miss. In many regards, the American plan reflects Netanyahu’s own position: the historical claims to the West Bank as well as the Israeli security needs are explicitly recognised, from which the claim to the annexation of, initially, 30% of the occupied territories, including all settlements and the Jordan Valley, is derived. The most important factor for Netanyahu is the fact that the Trump plan sets new parameters and departs from the principles of international law that have so far, also from the point of view of the US, applied to any negotiated resolution of the conflict. This would give Israel a legitimate claim to the territories that were captured in a “defensive war”, as the Trump plan refers to the war of 1967.[2] Accordingly, the US Secretary of State, Michael R. Pompeo, declared that America no longer considered the settlements illegal – contrary to Security Council resolution 2334 and to the position of the EU.[3] And although the Trump plan talks of creating a Palestinian State, the conditions for this are worded in such a way that they would be almost impossible to achieve, particularly as Israel  can decide whether the Palestinians fulfilled them. The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, therefore roundly rejected Trump’s plan, a move denounced by Jared Kushner, who warned that the Palestinians were gambling away their last chance to have their own State.  Netanyahu is counting on such an attitude by the United States and Palestinian rejection, which would ultimately allow him to declare the end of Palestinian claims to a state of its own. This would give Netanyahu a long-desired victory and earn him his place in history.

Time is of the essence 

Ultimately, Netanyahu will calculate risks and opportunities. But annexation has become a realistic option signifying a shift in Israeli politics. For many years, only the far right was calling for annexation. But in recent years annexation was mainstreamed, also by Netanyahu's Likud party and is perceived by many as an achievable option. Although Prime Minister of a large coalition, Netanyahu can hardly go back on his rhetoric of a “unique opportunity”. Furthermore, time is of the essence. As it is by no means certain that Trump will be re-elected in November, the corresponding law needs to be pushed through as quickly as possible. As far as Netanyahu is concerned, the effects of Covid-19 could be used to manage the risks entailed by such a move: Jordan is economically and politically weakened and reliant on cooperation with Israel, for instance in the energy sector, the EU is seen as a paper tiger, not least because of its internal disagreement, and the world’s attention has moved away from the conflict in the Middle East. Moreover, incremental steps with a limited scope of annexation may mitigate criticism.

The annexation decision then lies with Netanyahu and Trump. The latter’s special envoy, Jared Kushner, dashed Netanyahu’s hopes of carrying out the annexation even before the elections of 2 March. It would have to be coordinated by a joint mapping committee and be part of the overall US plan; Israel would not be permitted to forge ahead on its own. In the meantime, the battle for the positioning of the US has already begun. In discussions with evangelical groups, an important source of Trump voters, Netanyahu has already expressed his firm belief that Donald Trump will keep his promise and recognise Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank. Recent statements by U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo and Ambassador Friedman were widely interpreted as a green light for Israeli moves. However, there are also warning voices trying to make themselves heard by the Trump administration, from Israel as well as the Arabic countries. It will ultimately depend on the dynamic of the American election campaign – Trump will have his election prospects in mind when he weighs up the pros and cons of giving his blessing. He may even push Netanyahu to go forward with annexation in order to appease his evangelical base.

Political consequences 

What annexation would mean and how much support it would get also depends on what territory is annexed, and how much. If the government initially limits itself to large settlement blocks, it could win broad support, including from Blue and White and the Labour Party, while the settlers are calling for Israeli sovereignty to be extended as far and wide as possible. However, the political consequences of annexation will be momentous whatever the scope, as the status quo will be shaken and with it the fiction of a purely temporary occupation and a distinction between Israel and the occupied territories.

Instead, the processes of de facto annexation will come to light and force Israeli society into a discussion on future borders and the character of the State. 56 former members of the Israeli parliament have warned of the consequences of annexation: "Annexation would mean a fatal blow to the possibility of peace and would be the establishment of an Apartheid State. Democracy, equality and social justice all depend on a just peace and an end to the Occupation."

Severe limitations in Palestine

When the Palestinian Authority decided on measures to contain the coronavirus in Ramallah in early March, this was linked to severe limitations on the Palestinian people, further restricting their freedom of movement, which is already constrained as a result of occupation. For the people of the West Bank, the outbreak of the pandemic also brought extra concerns, as Israel has stepped up its occupation and settlement policy unhindered, in the shadows cast by the coronavirus crisis. In the villages around Jerusalem, land to build and extend settlements and roads has been confiscated in recent months, almost unnoticed by the outside world.[4] While observers from human rights organisations were in lockdown, settlers attacked Palestinian villages, destroyed olive groves and laid agricultural land to waste. In the northern West Bank, the army tore down a tent hospital for the local Bedouin population [5]  and continued to demolish buildings that had allegedly been constructed illegally, despite promising to suspend this practice for the duration of the pandemic. Even water supply installations have been damaged or destroyed [6]. In Jerusalem itself, plans were pushed forward in Palestinian neighbourhoods of the city to displace the residents and erase their history [7] , the Israeli human rights organisation Emek Shaveh reports. 

Precursors of the annexation 

As far as the Palestinians are concerned, all of these events are precursors to the imminent annexation of parts of the West Bank. They consider it beyond question that this step will be taken sooner or later, now Netanyahu and Gantz have sealed their coalition deal, although around half of the Israeli population disagrees with the annexation plans [8]. In April, however, US Secretary of State Pompeo gave the plan his greenlight once again. Previously, President Trump had granted Israel the right to appropriate parts of the occupied territories in his “peace plan”.

In early March, many Palestinians expressed their fears that “once the coronavirus lockdown is over, we will come out of our houses and see that we no longer have a country”. 

It is not yet clear exactly which parts of the West Bank stand to be annexed, but there is no doubt at all as to the devastating effects on the rights of Palestinians and the future of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Human rights experts and diplomatic observers assume that the annexation will lead to the appropriation of more Palestinian land and, with it, the expansion of the settlements and displacement of the local Palestinian population.[9]

In the fertile Jordan Valley in particular, which covers 30% of the occupied West Bank and is the breadbasket of Palestine, this trend has been very much in evidence for years. Today, only 65,000 Palestinians live in this region (down from 250,000 before the Six-Day War in 1967), but most of them are crowded into just 5% of the land with restricted access to water and resources. The 12,000 settlers in the Jordan Valley, on the other hand, farm large areas given to them by the State. They can move freely, have unrestricted access to water and electricity and their settlements are growing constantly. Should Israel annex the Jordan Valley and other parts of the occupied territories, the fate of the Palestinians living there would appear to be sealed. They will lose the little bit of land they have managed to hold onto and even if they are not displaced, they will be living in the new, enlarged Israeli State as subjects stripped of their rights and tolerated at best. 

The example of Jerusalem

The city of Jerusalem is a useful example of what annexation will mean to the 3 million or so Palestinians who live in the West Bank. During the Six-Day War, Israeli troops seized and occupied the eastern part of the city. On the very last day of the short war, the troops began preparations to bulldoze the Moroccan Quarter, an almost 800-year-old neighbourhood in the heart of the old city. Three days later, 135 houses had been razed to the ground and their inhabitants displaced. The ancient quarter was then replaced by the Western Wall Plaza. But it was not only the inhabitants of the old city, but also Palestinians from surrounding villages who suffered from the effects of occupation immediately after the war, when the Israeli government redefined the city boundaries and expanded from 6.5 km² to 71 km². The surrounding Palestinian villages thus came under the city administration of Jerusalem, large tracts of their land or appropriated and used to construct Jewish neighbourhoods. 11 settlements were built on Palestinian land, which are now mostly inhabited by Jewish Israelis. In 1980, “Jerusalem, complete and united” was declared the capital of Israel by means of a Basic Law[10] and thus formally annexed, a move that was not recognised by the international community of states. 

Palestinian inhabitants of Jerusalem with no nationality 

However, the annexation of east Jerusalem did not extend to its Palestinian inhabitants. Instead of becoming Israeli citizens, they were granted only the status of a tolerated temporary inhabitant, which they could lose at any time, as it was and is subject to strict conditions. In this way, according to figures provided by Human Rights Watch, 14,595 Palestinians lost their status and rights as inhabitants of Jerusalem between 1967 and 2016 [11]. Even after the outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 crisis, a Palestinian from Jerusalem holding an Israeli travel document who returned from abroad was turned away at Ben Gurion Airport on the grounds that he was not an Israeli citizen. 

In practice, most Palestinian inhabitants of Jerusalem are effectively stateless persons. They may be allowed to vote in local elections, but they cannot vote in the Israeli parliamentary elections. This means that they have no influence on the committees of the Knesset and of the government in which decisions concerning Jerusalem are made. But the Palestinian Authority is not responsible for them, either. Its representatives are not permitted to intervene in the city, even in the areas which were banished behind the wall built by Israel in 2003. Around 140,000 Palestinians live there, largely cut off from their lives in Jerusalem and without any access to municipal or government services. This has been thrown into sharp relief by the coronavirus crisis, as these areas had no test centres, hospitals or quarantine facilities until mid-April [12], while estimated numbers of sufferers grew and grew.

The end of the two-state solution 

The Palestinians are well aware of what the fate of these neglected, impoverished and completely overpopulated areas will be if the Israeli government declares its determination to extend “its sovereignty” over parts of the occupied territories. For the Palestinians in the West Bank, annexation means losing all their land, rights and their future in free self-determination. 

Annexation will therefore also mean the end of a two-state solution – the solution officially given the support of the Palestinians when, in 1988, the PLO recognised Israel as per the borders of 1967 and with the start of the Oslo peace process in 1993. It is the solution, which the international community, including Germany and the EU, supports and has been working towards.

Bleak prospects 

The annexation of parts of the West Bank runs counter to the declared objectives, interests and values of German and European foreign policy. Not only does it undermine the declared objective of the two-state solution and calls into question the European policy of differentiation, unilateral annexation is also against international law and would be a (further) threat to the rules-based international order, and thus a fundamental pillar of German and European foreign policy. It would also set a dangerous precedent for other territorial conflicts. It should therefore be an objective of German and European policy to block this move. The High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, has already expressed his criticism of the plan, as have many member states. But this is not enough on its own, particularly as the EU failed to speak with a single voice in its reaction to Donald Trump’s Middle East plan.

The article has first been published in German on eu.boell.org. Translation by Alsion Frankland.


[1] See also https://eu.boell.org/en/2020/04/10/coronavirus-crisis-israel-lifeline-netanyahu
[2] https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Peace-to-Prosperity-0120.pdf 
[3] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/18/us-israeli-settlements-no-longer-considered-illegal-palestinian-land-mike-pompeo
[4] https://www.972mag.com/coronavirus-israel-human-rights-work/
[5] https://www.btselem.org/press_release/20200326_israel_confiscates_clinic_tents_during_coronavirus_crisis​​​​​​​
[6] https://www.nrc.no/news/2020/april/israels-destruction-of-palestinian-property-undermines-efforts-to-curb-covid-19/​​​​​​​
[7] https://alt-arch.org/en/coronavirus-gardenind-orders/
[8] https://www.timesofisrael.com/nearly-half-of-jewish-israelis-oppose-unilateral-west-bank-annexation-poll/​​​​​​​
[9] https://www.yesh-din.org/en/the-potential-impact-of-west-bank-annexation-by-israel-on-the-human-rights-of-palestinian-residents/​​​​​​​
[10] https://www.knesset.gov.il/laws/special/eng/basic10_eng.htm
[11] https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/08/08/israel-jerusalem-palestinians-stripped-status
[12] https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200414-israel-to-open-coronavirus-testing-centres-in-occupied-east-jerusalem/