The year 2020 is set to mark yet another reverse for Palestinian hopes of self-determination and freedom from oppression.
From a US “Vision for Peace” in January offering Israel large parts of the occupied West Bank to an Israeli unity government in May promising to proceed with the illegal annexation of exactly such territory, a new catastrophe is at the door.
But why has Israel waited for more than half a century to pursue formal annexation?
After all, the facts on the ground already constitute a de facto annexation of the West Bank, which has been undertaken at no great cost to Israel’s carefully constructed image as the “only democracy in the Middle East,” along with the formal annexations of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights (in Syria) all captured during the 1967 war.
The answer lies in systematic Israeli settler-colonial designs that date back to 1948 and which seek the replacement of the indigenous population by an imported one. The delay in annexation should be understood as a reflection of the West Bank’s demography, which, with its large Palestinian population, had to be properly prepared before any more formal move could be made.
That preparation is now complete in significant parts of the West Bank.
Annexation of East Jerusalem
After its capture of the West Bank in 1967, Israel immediately and illegally extended its jurisdiction and administration to East Jerusalem and 28 surrounding villages. In 1980, it formally annexed East Jerusalem, by passing the Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital of Israel.
Such rapid annexation came as a result of the demographic balance in Jerusalem, which in 1967 was 74 percent Jewish to 26 percent Palestinian.
Indeed, the demographic balance is fundamental to Israeli policy. Until the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, there was never a Jewish majority in Palestine and it was only with the dislodgement of more than half of all Palestinians from their homes and lands that such a majority was secured.
Israel carefully controlled its population ratio between Jews and non-Jews in the years between 1948 and 1967. By not allowing refugees to return, destroying their villages and confiscating their homes (with the 1950 Absentee Property Law – which even resulted in the absurd “present absentee” category in order to confiscate the homes of those who had been internally displaced) Israel worked hard to maintain this Jewish majority.
As a result, the Jewish-Palestinian ratio was already in place in Jerusalem by 1967.
Since 1967, Israel has been working on maintaining this ratio in a number of ways in the city: through discriminatory planning laws, land expropriation and house demolitions, alongside ever-expanding settlements.
One of the tools it has deployed – in the name of security – is the construction of a massive wall in the West Bank.
The route of the wall is instructive.
It has, in effect, been wrapped around 80 percent of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, including all East Jerusalem settlers. It has, therefore, paved the way for the annexation of the largest settlements.
Michael Lynk, the UN’s special rapporteur on the occupied West Bank and Gaza, has noted that in Jerusalem large Palestinian neighborhoods were deliberately located outside the wall. That obviated any obligation to provide municipal services and cut off one third of Palestinian Jerusalemites from the remainder of the West Bank.
Israel has also targeted those who remain.
Palestinians in East Jerusalem are generally granted permanent residency status. They can apply for citizenship, but that involves pledging loyalty to Israel.
Compelling Palestinians to swear allegiance to their occupiers is illegal under international law and would imply that Palestinian Jerusalemites recognize Israel’s annexation, something they have always refused to do.
Since 1967, however, residency revocation has been one of many policies aiming at forcibly transferring Palestinians out of the city.
Since 1995, such revocation can be imposed on any Palestinian who cannot prove their “center of life” is in the city. In essence, if a Palestinian Jerusalemite spends too much time away from the city, they can lose their residency rights.
Since 2006, revocation can also be imposed punitively on the basis of a “breach of allegiance,” defined loosely as a lack of loyalty to the State of Israel.
More than 14,500 Palestinians from Jerusalem have lost their legal status since 1967.
From de facto to de jure annexation
That Israel has decided it is time to turn de facto annexation into de jure annexation at this moment should be read as signaling the successful realization of Israel’s longstanding policy to annex the land with the least Palestinian population.
It has taken half a century to create irreversible facts on the ground that flipped the demographic reality in areas Israel did not want in the West Bank.
As early as the fourth day of the 1967 war, Israel initiated its planning for settlements. As of 2019, there were just over 240 settlements in the West Bank with more than 620,000 settlers.
Settler colonialism begins with settlement and proceeds by replacing the original population.
An illustrative model of how Israel has effectively replaced the Palestinian population is the Jordan Valley, which is part of the area that the new Israeli government is reportedly seeking to annex, amounting to almost 30 percent of the West Bank.
According to the Oslo accords, almost 90 percent of the Jordan Valley was designated as being under full Israeli military and civilian control. It is part of a zone known as Area C.
Despite the fact that the area was supposed to be transferred to the Palestinian Authority’s jurisdiction within two years of the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993, Israel maintained its control over security, planning and construction. The Oslo accords and the ‘’legal regime of segregation” have enabled Israel to consolidate its sovereignty there.
Israeli settlers and Palestinians living in Area C are, therefore, subject to separate legal systems. Settlers enjoy the protections afforded by Israeli civilian law but Palestinians will be hauled before military courts with a conviction rate of almost 100 percent.
Policies such as land appropriation, settlement building, exploitation of the rich natural resources of the area for the benefit of settlers, impediments to movement, and nearly-impossible-to-obtain building permits allowing Israel’s military a wide remit to demolish houses, have all combined to create a hostile and coercive environment for indigenous Palestinians in the Jordan Valley.
The result has been the forcible transfer of the Palestinian population from the area.
Before 1967, there were some 250,000 Palestinians in the area. By 2016, that number had shrunk to less than 54,000.
The Jordan Valley is not a unique case. Israel has prepared the West Bank generally for formal annexation by creating a physical infrastructure – with settlements, the wall and roads reserved for Israelis – that leaves what Michael Lynk has called “a Palestinian bantustan, an archipelago of disconnected islands of territory, completely surrounded and divided up by Israel and unconnected to the outside world.”
The lesson should have been long learned from Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem. Israel is not hiding its designs.
And yet the world cannot even agree on how to respond to such patently illegal behavior.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell confirmed that the EU is “far away” from sanctioning Israel on its recent annexation plans of the West Bank.
This is the last chance for the world’s most powerful governments and institutions to reconsider how they treat Israel. Third states need to fulfill their obligations to bring to an end a situation that is in clear transgression of international law, and not to render aid or assistance to Israel.
It is not only Palestinians who will bear the consequences should the world fail them now. The foundation of the entire post-Second World War legal framework is in danger of collapse should Israel’s expansionism be allowed to continue without serious repercussions.
Aseel AlBajeh is a former advocacy and communication officer at Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights organization. She is now a postgraduate student in international human rights law in Ireland.