Israel’s Settlements Pose Challenge for New Administration

Dina Rosin (CMC ’20)

Within days of Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States, Israel announced the construction of about 5,500 new housing units. Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, wrote on Twitter: “We are building – and we will continue to build.” This plan of settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is in violation of international law. The new settlements appear to be in response to the shift in American leadership, as this is Israel’s largest settlement growth since 2013. The United Nations Security Council Resolution has called the settlements a “flagrant violation under international law.” Israel’s continued violation of international law creates a predicament for the United States as both a member of the UN Security Council and a strong ally of Israel.

Israel began building settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip after the Six-Day War in 1967 against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Israel claimed the right to these lands after the war, which had previously not been part of Israeli territory.  There were multiple motivations behind building settlements in these lands. One was the Jewish people’s religious connection to the lands. Another was economic incentives, as the cost of living is typically lower in the Palestinian territory than in Israel proper. This Six-Day War, along with the resulting practice of settlement building, effectively kickstarted the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinian government and citizens rejected the Israeli occupation of the lands, and have continued to do so until the present day.

The growing presence of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is largely seen as an impediment to a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A proposal for the resolution of this conflict is the two-state solution. This solution would create a Palestinian state from what is currently Israeli-occupied territory. Settlements make the creation of a Palestinian state difficult, since it is unclear what would happen to Jewish settlements within a Palestinian state. The two-state solution is the official policy endorsed by many parties, including the United Nations, Israel, Palestine, and the United States in recent presidential administrations. The two-state solution has yet to be adopted because of disputes between Israel and Palestine over which land belongs to whom.

In 1979, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 446. Resolution 446 determined that “policy and practices of Israel in establishing settlements in the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967 have no legal validity and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.” In the forty years that have passed since, settlements have continued to expand in geographic size and population, despite being considered illegal under international law.  As of January 2015, there are an estimated 389,250 Israeli citizens living in the West Bank as well as 375,000 Israeli citizens living in East Jerusalem.

Donald Trump, throughout his campaign for the White House, continually expressed strong support for Israel. However, after Prime Minister Netanyahu announced the increase in housing units, the Trump administration spoke up. A White House official urged “all parties to refrain from taking unilateral actions that could undermine our ability to make progress, including settlement announcements.” Further, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer stated that “the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.” In the next few months, the current administration will likely need to make a choice between wholly supporting Israeli actions and remaining critical.

While the UN has condemned Israel’s actions, the UN Security Council would need U.S. consent to enforce this international law. Though the U.S. has expressed criticism of Israel, America remains a strong ally. It is unclear if the U.S. will back its dissent with action, as America is not eager to jeopardize its relationship with Israel. The Trump administration will need to navigate this contentious situation, as it does not appear that Israel will stop settlement growth in the near future.

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