A Jewish settler hangs and Israeli flag in the unauthorized West Bank Jewish settlement of Migron. Sunday, Aug. 26, 2012. (Photo: Sebastian Scheiner/AP)
Earlier this week the Electronic Intifada (EI) published two articles on Israel’s “creeping annexation” of the West Bank supported by pictures of an entry visa on a passport that read “Judea and Samaria only,” which EI argued re-classified the West Bank as part of Israel. For travelers entering through Jordan since 2009 Ali Abunimah noted some have received restricted visas that only permit entry to the West Bank, barring visitors from Jerusalem and Israel. Before this week those visas were known to have stamps that stated, “Palestinian Authority only.” By using the language of “Judea and Samaria,” a reference to the biblical heartland of Eretz Yisrael and the name of the current Israeli administrative district in the West Bank that serves the settlements, the Jewish state is de facto claiming sovereignty over occupied Palestinian land. This change in status is accompanied by increasing calls from within the government to formalize Greater Israel, and it just may indicate that Israel is finally planning to formally annex the West Bank.
While the idea of annexation has floated through the Israeli government since 1969, after last year’s Palestinian UN bid the call to pass legislation to absorb the West Bank jumped from whispers to policy. In September 2011 Knesset party leaders from Likud, Shas and the National Union sent a letter to Netanyahu demanding he annex the West Bank as a punitive measure for the Palestinian “unilateral” statehood bid, as well as cut aid the Palestinian Authority (PA), cancel PA visa privileges and prohibit any Palestinian construction in areas under Israeli security control. “The PA’s UN bid on unilateral recognition is a blunt breach of those agreements, which have, in the last 18 years, taken their severe toll on us,” said the letter. Continuing, if Israel does not annex the West Bank it will “completely lose its deterrence, thus stimulating the Palestinians to continue their actions against it in the international arena,” and:
In fact, the international damage that Israel could suffer in the wake of the UN vote is significantly smaller than that it would suffer if it doesn’t follow up on the principle you set a decade ago – ‘If they give, they’ll get; if they don’t give, they get nothing.’
That same month Danny Danon (Likud) introduced a Knesset bill to officially annex the West Bank and cut Israeli funding to the PA. “If the Palestinian Authority wishes to proceed on this reckless path and bring further instability to the region, Israel cannot continue to pour funds into this sinking ship of failed leadership,” said Danon in September 2011 after proposing the bill. For Israeli officials, the 2011 bid was viewed as a breach of the Oslo Accords, which bars any change in the legal status of the West Bank until final status negotiations are reached. In light of what Israel considered to be the Palestinians sandbagging the negotiations process, a block of hard-liners then in turn backed Danon’s proposal, however the Knesset did not pass the resolution.
In addition to acquiring new territory, annexation would also relieve Israel of its financial obligations as an occupying power under international law. In Danon’s bill, the fiscal benefits of annexation were listed as a major coup. “The funding agreements with the PA were reached with the hope that their leaders would work to create an environment of lasting peace and security with Israel. Given that it is clear that the Palestinians have no such desire, Israel must no longer be required to stand by these arrangements,” said Danon again in September 2011 as reported by Haaretz. This same logic was then echoed in the United States when Tea Party representative Joe Walsh (R-Ill) introduced a resolution endorsing annexation also in 2011. Aptly titled, “Supporting Israel’s right to annex Judea and Samaria in the event that the Palestinian Authority continues to press for unilateral recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations,” HR 394 mimicked Danon’s rhetoric. It argued that because the Palestinian leadership is abandoning the peace process, Israel is no longer required to abide by its tenets. In essence, Walsh pitched that because the Palestinians were the first to drop Oslo, Israel now had a legal window to annexation.
But because the Oslo accords prohibit either party from initiating “any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,” Israel is also guilty of abandoning the interim agreement. Apart from the continual expansion of existing settlements, earlier this year Israel effectively annexed new territory in the West Bank by retroactively legalizing three new outposts, an outright change in the status of three West Bank localities and a flagrant breach of the Oslo Accords. At the time Mondoweiss‘s Annie Robbins reported in April 2012, “The outposts, Sansana, Rechelim and Bruchin, were never formally authorized when founded in the 1990s and are still considered illegal under international law,” yet the Israeli government still re-classified them—unilaterally—ending a ten-year freeze on new settlement construction. Concurrent to regularizing the outposts, Robbins also noted inside of Knesset, ministers overrode a high court ruling on a different illegal settlement, Ulpana, which was slotted for demolition in May 2012. But right-wing Knesset members reached an agreement with the government to stay the eviction and in turn extrajudicially reversed a High Court ruling. Around the same time, while Knesset was out of session a group of 25 ministers met and drafted a series of pro-settlement legislation that allowed for the legalization of another illegal outpost, Migron. The resolution did not pass, but like Ulpana, the ministers flexed their power and made agreements with the government on behalf of the settlers that were in direct contradication to the High Court’s orders. Ulpana and Migron therefore marked the pro-settlement bloc’s ability to strong arm the Israeli government into annexing swaths of the West Bank.
A few weeks later both Ulpana and Migron were evicted, but right-wing Knesset ministers re-grouped that July, meeting in Hebron to map out the practical steps to reach a “one-state” solution during the second annual Conference for the Application of Sovereignty over Judea and Samaria, organized by the “Women in Green,” a settler group founded by a mother and daughter originating from Belgium. From the group’s website, the conference debated the details of a future Knesset bill for annexation, or “an application of sovereignty”:
[A] number of people spoke, including the Chairman of Habayit Hayehudi (the New National Religious Party), the government minister, Rabbi Prof. Daniel Hershkowitz, who called for the application of sovereignty over the entire territory, and not only over the communities or over Area C. According to Minister Hershkowitz, the application of sovereignty over a part of the territory will be interpreted by the other side as the beginning of a surrender of the rest of the area; accordingly, things must be made crystal-clear, and action must be taken for the comprehensive application of sovereignty.
MK Uri Ariel also participated in the Conference, and set forth his political philosophy regarding the future of the area, as he presented a political program that also includes changing the structure of Knesset elections, so that even if the Arabs of Judea and Samaria were to receive citizenship, they could not bring about a dramatic change in the Israeli political map.
The speakers also included Adv. Yitzhak Bam of the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, who analyzed the legal reality in Judea and Samaria, and stated that the issue of the application of sovereignty is not a legal question, but purely political, since there is no other sovereign authority that demands the return of the territory to it, and, in practice, there is a sort of ‘sovereignty vacuum’ in Judea and Samaria.
Cumulatively, the Hebron “one-state” conference, combined with Israel’s legalization of new outposts and policies like the one EI uncovered suggest that, similar to the Palestinians, Israel is exploring new options outside of the Oslo framework. Although unlike the Palestinians who put their UN bid to an international vote, Israel is taking actions that are truly unilateral on the ground, and may again attempt to annex the West Bank through a Knesset bill. While Israeli calls for annexation can be scoffed off as the agenda of a rogue hard-right coalition, when taking into consideration that this group already managed to legalize three new settlements, the plans they outlined in the Hebron one-state conference should not be ignored. Just this past September “the Land of Israel Lobby,” an assembly of 40-50 Knesset members “toured the West Bank and called on the government of Israel to adopt the Levy (‘Israel is not an occupying power’) Report,” as Robbins reported.
While on the tour MK Aryeh Eldad linked the loss of Ulpana and Migron to his plight for annexation. Arutz Sheva reported, “Recently we witnessed the destruction of the Ulpana [neighborhood in Beit El] and we saw the Israeli government destroying Migron and we understand that if the Netanyahu government would adopt the legal recommendations of the Levy Report, all these obstacles that prevented the preservation of Migron and the Ulpana could be prevented. We could have saved these settlements,” said Eldad.
Palestinian human rights activist Omar Barghouti often says in lectures, “our South Africa moment has arrived,” referencing the sea change in international grassroots support for the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. But at the same time there is a quiet, yet public directive from high-ranking members of Israel’s ruling coalition outright stating they want to annex the West Bank, and they are building support and strategic plans to make it happen. And so although the Israeli visa stamps that now read “Judea and Samaria only,” may not indicate actual Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, it does demonstrate that for Israel, it’s annexation moment has arrived.