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It’s Time for Britain to Reconsider its Position on Settlements

An FZY member, who has asked to remain anonymous, takes a look at the British opinion on Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Cast your mind back to January — when Sajid Javid was Chancellor, Prince Harry was carrying out royal duties, and there was yet to be the first case of coronavirus in the UK — and you may remember the release of the Trump administration’s Israeli Palestinian peace plan.


The plan drew immediate backing from the UK government, and for good reason; the ‘vision’ presented a bold framework for minimising the conflict, and a just basis for any future discussions. Boris Johnson expressed his support in Prime Minister’s Questions and Dominic Raab urged the Palestinians to give it “genuine and fair consideration”.


British support for the plan — which would extend Israeli sovereignty to all Jewish settlements in the West Bank — cannot, however, be easily reconciled with Britain’s long-standing insistence that these communities are illegal under international law. This contradiction has become particularly apparent over recent weeks, with Johnson using an opinion piece in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper to caution Israel against unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank. The confused British position is in need of reevaluation. Now would be a good time for Britain to follow America’s lead and reexamine its designation of the settlements as illegal.


See left, Johnson's article in the Israeli newspaper.


Israeli civilian settlement of the West Bank began shortly after its capture from Jordan in the Six Day War. Today, half a million Jews live in territory captured in 1967. These settlements are frequently charged as illegal under Article 49, Paragraph 6 of the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that an “Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies”. Interpreted contextually, however, the clause is a weak basis for designating settlements as illegal: it was written by Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and seeks to prevent a repeat of the Nazi attempt to use mass population transfer as a means to alter the demographic makeup of Poland. Contrast this with the voluntary movement of Israeli families to West Bank communities.


Regardless, discussion of this clause is largely beside the point, because the Fourth Geneva Convention is inapplicable in its entirety. The Convention, along with the 1907 Hague Regulations, is the international legal text intended to govern belligerent occupations — but Israel’s presence in the West Bank is not a belligerent occupation.


Firstly, there exists no legitimate sovereign power from whom Israel seized the territory. Britain was one of just two countries to have recognised Jordan’s annexation of the West Bank in 1950, a claim Jordan itself renounced in 1988. The Palestinians, too, have never held sovereignty over the West Bank. If no state is being occupied, then there is no occupation.


Secondly, Israel’s presence in the West Bank is defensive, not belligerent. During the Six Day War, it was Jordanian shelling of West Jerusalem which opened the fighting on Israel’s Eastern front, with Levi Eshkol having begged King Hussein to stay out of the war. Israel’s capture of the West Bank was therefore a necessary act of self defence rather than an act of belligerent occupation. [1]


Historically, the Fourth Geneva Convention has not been the only factor behind British opposition to settlement construction, with successive British governments having maintained a belief that settlements are an obstacle to peace. But this belief is misguided. The vast majority of Israeli homes in the West Bank are situated on territory adjacent to the pre-1967 border, with almost 80% of settlers living on the Israeli side of the security barrier. This territory would be annexed to Israel under any future peace agreement, so most settlements do not impede the establishment of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state. The Trump plan recognises this reality, and Johnson was right to express his support. This support should now be accompanied by a fresh exploration of the settlements’ legal status.

[1] It is worth mentioning that Israel chose, in the aftermath of the 1967 war, to apply some legal provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention and the 1907 Hague Regulations on a limited basis. For instance, Israel committed itself to applying the humanitarian provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention, as well as to upholding Article 55 of the Hague Regulations, which deals with property rights.

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