Israeli settlements are no longer illegal under international law as a matter of US policy, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced.
Pompeo reversed a 1978 State Department legal opinion declaring that settlements violate international law. In his remarks, Pompeo said that the Carter administration ruling, after 40 years, failed to move the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward.
“Calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law has not advanced the cause of peace,” the secretary said on November 18. “The hard truth is that there will never be a judicial resolution to the conflict, and arguments about who is right and who is wrong as a matter of international law will not bring peace.”
Pompeo clarified that this decision was not intended to consent to the building of future settlements, recognizing that the US government defers to the jurisdiction of Israeli courts. To date, Israeli courts consider 132 settlements as legal and the rest as illegal.
The historic decision is not surprising. President Trump has continuously demonstrated strong support for Israel since he took office. Last year, the Trump administration cited the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 to recognize Jerusalem as the rightful capital of Israel. Earlier this year, the United States recognized Israel’s 1981 annexation of the strategic Golan Heights, supporting the Jewish state’s right to defend itself against military and terror attacks launched from the area when it was under Syrian control.
Opponents of Pompeo’s announcement fixated on the conclusions of a four-page 1978 State Department memo written by legal advisor Herbert Hansell. The memo labels Israel as an “occupier” in the West Bank and concludes any movement of civilian population past the Green Line of demarcation is illegal.
Occupation, according to established international law, is considered a form of armed conflict that arises when one country takes over the sovereign territory of another country. However, Jordan’s claims to the West Bank following its 1949 seizure were never internationally recognized, and Israel seized the land in a defensive war.
Using the same definition under international law, armed conflict or war is a necessary component in defining an “occupier.” In this case, Israel would need to be engaged in active war with the country it supposedly “occupied” or from which it wrested territory, in this case, Jordan. However, in 1994 – years after the Carter-era memo calling Israel an “occupier” – Jordan and Israel signed a joint peace treaty which settled relations between the two countries.
Opponents of the Trump administration’s decision also suggest that settlement construction is the key obstacle to peace between Israel and its neighboring Arab states. However, the results of the Gaza Strip situation prove otherwise. Israel’s withdrawal of all military personnel and settlers from Gaza in 2005 was succeeded by a Palestinian civil war, the rise of the terrorist group Hamas, and countless terror attacks and human rights abuses at the hands of the Palestinians’ own leadership.
Israel and its largest Arab neighbor, Egypt, share many concerns over the chaos in Palestinian-run Gaza, and have worked together closely to contain extremist activity there. Clearly, settlements alone do not qualify as hindrance to peace.