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The Israeli colony of Revava seen from the Palestinian village of Kifl Hares on November 19, 2019. Image Credit: AFP

When United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week proclaimed that the US government now no longer considered Israel’s colonies in the Occupied Palestinian Territory to be “inconsistent with international law”, a wave of dismay swept through the region. It was seen as another setback to peace.

On the issue of legality, perhaps Pompeo needs to be reminded that Israel’s colonies in the Palestinian West Bank, including occupied East Jerusalem, are illegal. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which both the US and Israel are signatories, clearly states that “the Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies”. In addition to that, the charter of the International Criminal Court makes this illegal colonisation of Occupied Territory a “war crime”.

Now, these had been agreed to in principle by all parties. However, the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world have witnessed a continuous disregard and flouting of international law under the present Israeli government.

The US is now invalidating its own legal opinions, and backtracking on the thorny issue of illegal colonies that will not bode well for a final peace settlement.

- Tariq A. Al Maeena, Saudi commentator

Since 1967, when Israel occupied the Palestinian West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip in 1967, the US had officially opposed Israel’s construction and expansion of colonies there in deference to international law. A legal opinion by the US State Department issued in 1978, determined that “while Israel may undertake, in the Occupied Territories, actions necessary to meet its military needs and to provide for orderly government during the occupation, for reasons indicated above, the establishment of the civilian settlements [colonies] in those territories is inconsistent with international law”.

The then US president Ronald Reagan’s administration had ruled that the US viewed colonies on Palestinian lands as illegal. However, the stance of the government rarely translated into action against Israel’s illegal land usurpation policies, as the US continued to increase unconditional military and diplomatic support for Israel.

In justifying the overturning of the legal opinion issued by the State Department in 1978, Pompeo made reference to statements by Reagan on the Middle East. Thus, the US is now invalidating its own legal opinions, and backtracking on the thorny issue of illegal colonies that will not bode well for a final peace settlement.

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Pompeo also threw the final disposition of colonies to the Israeli courts perhaps not realising that Israel’s judicial system has often worked hand-in-glove with the Israeli government to promote Israel’s illegal colonisation of Palestinian land. To perhaps appease the rest of the Arab world, Pompeo hoped that “this move by the United States would not prejudge final status issues between Israel and Palestinians”. Unfortunately, the Arabs have heard similar claims before the administration’s moving of the US embassy to occupied Jerusalem. It does not bode well to Palestinian claims with the US firmly siding with Israeli positions.

Saudi Arabia reacted swiftly to Pompeo’s statement saying that “it completely rejected Washington’s statement on Israeli colonies in the West Bank”. An official communique declared that “the ongoing construction of colonies in the West Bank contravenes international resolutions that guarantee the historical and inalienable rights of the Palestinian people to East Jerusalem and the West Bank”. Saudi King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz has been keen on ensuring that the rights of the Palestinian people are not usurped by Israelis. The UAE, too, affirmed its strong opposition to the US move. Similar statements of protests were lodged in other parts of the Arab world.

‘Two-state solution’

This rejection of US turnaround of policy was not simply confined to the region. The United Kingdom confirmed that its position towards the Israeli colonies was plain and clear. A statement released by the British Foreign Office said that those Israeli colonies “are illegal according to international law, constitute an obstacle before achieving peace in the region and threaten the possibility of reaching the two-state solution”.

In the US, various NGOs for promoting peace between Israelis and Palestinians joined the chorus of condemnation. A director of one such NGO bluntly declared: “This administration has not only contravened decades of US foreign policy and demonstrated a total disregard for the plight of Palestinians, but it has also embraced the role of being a conduit for the policies of the right-wing government in Israel.”

Coming from a country that was founded on brave and just principles, and which helped it become the greatest country on earth, has the US administration lost touch with the message of its founding fathers? Where is the justice? Peace without justice is forever an illusion.

— Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena