Since the January 21 inauguration of US President Donald Trump, Israel has approved the construction of 8000 new homes for Jewish Israeli settlers in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel in 1967. This represents a significant rise in the rate of illegal settlement building.
There has also been a rise in the rate of demolitions of Palestinian homes and land confiscations, both in the territories occupied in 1967 and in those that have been within the Israeli state since 1948.
The surge in settlement building reflects hopes by the right-wing Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the new US government will be more enthusiastic than its predecessors in its support.
While all Israel exists on occupied Palestinian territory, international law — as interpreted by the United Nations and other international bodies — makes a distinction between the 78% of Palestine occupied in 1948, recognised as “Israel proper”, and that occupied in 1967, officially the “Occupied Palestinian Territories” (OPT). Settlement building in the latter is illegal under international law.
Three quarters of the Palestinian population was ethnically cleansed from “Israel proper” when it was occupied in 1948. The population of OPT remains predominantly Palestinians and includes the descendants of the refugees from 1948.
This distinction is the basis of what has been the cornerstone of the Western-led international consensus since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993: the so-called two-state solution. The official goal of the intermittent peace process that has spluttered along since the Oslo Accords is the creation of two states in historical Palestine: the Israeli state confined to its pre-1967 borders and a Palestinian state in the remaining 22% of Palestine.
Making two states impossible
In reality, since the outset this two-state solution has been an illusion. This is not because the Palestinians refuse to accept just 22% of their homeland — all the major Palestinian political parties have accepted it, at least as the basis for a permanent ceasefire.
It is illusory because while Israeli leaders may pay lip service to the idea, their policies have been aimed at making it impossible. Key policies in this regard include the building of Jewish Israeli settlements in the OPT and annexation of land to create buffers around them; the building of a wall entirely inside the OPT (which the Israelis call the “Separation Barrier” and Palestinians call the “Apartheid wall”); and Jewish-only roads to link the settlements to each other and to “Israel proper”.
This process has left Palestinian communities as a scattering of impoverished ghettos isolated geographically and by checkpoints and sometimes the wall. Half a million Jewish Israelis now live in settlements in the OPT — mostly affluent communities resembling suburbs in any Western country and linked to major Israeli cities by the Jewish-only roads that allow them to function as suburbs.
Water is given freely to, and squandered by, the settlements. Yet public taps that only work some of the day provide the water supply in many of the Palestinian ghettos.
Legally, the settlers are Israeli citizens. They can vote in Israeli elections and live under Israeli civilian law. Alongside them, Palestinians in the OPT are Palestinian citizens living under the regulations of the Israeli military administration with some powers devolved to the Palestinian Authority. Palestinians from “Israel proper” are Israeli citizens, but second class ones.
Palestinians in both “Israel proper” and the OPT are subjected to extreme harassment and violence, including extrajudicial executions, by the Israeli military and security forces. Palestinian citizens in the OPT are treated more harshly than Palestinians with Israeli citizenship.
There is violent resistance from both Palestinian organisations and individuals, but the comparative death toll is 30 Palestinians killed for every Israeli. Most Israeli fatalities are soldiers or police while most Palestinian casualties are civilians.
These Israeli policies are possible because Western, and in particular US, opposition to them has remained purely theoretical. Settlement expansion has been condemned by Western leaders, including US presidents, but this has never been backed by action. The billions of dollars with which the US underwrites the Israeli state and its oversized military has never been under threat.
Pledging to continue supporting Israel regardless of how recklessly it violates international law is a standard part of the campaign of any serious contender for the US presidency. But the Netanyahu government has good reason to believe that the new US administration will drop even token opposition to Israel’s de facto annexation of the OPT.
In his election tweets and speeches, Trump did more than pledge continued support: he pledged to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which effectively recognises Jerusalem as Israel’s capital despite such claims being condemned by the United Nations, and questioned the two-state solution.
This differs from the public stance of former US presidents and the Western-led international consensus. When Israel was created in 1948, it occupied West Jerusalem but East Jerusalem was only occupied in 1967.
Under international law, therefore, only West Jerusalem is in “Israel proper”. An assumption in the Oslo peace process is that East Jerusalem will be the capital of the future Palestinian state.
However, under Israeli law East Jerusalem is part of “Israel proper” and Jerusalem as a whole is indivisible capital of Israel. East Jerusalem is a major site of Jewish settlement building, Palestinian house demolitions and the expropriation of Palestinian homes for Jewish Israelis.
No Western government has taken practical measures to oppose this flouting of international law other than the largely symbolic measure of maintaining embassies in Tel Aviv not Jerusalem — until now the policy of all the world's governments. Trump’s pledge to move the embassy is a clear signal.
Trump’s support for the Israeli right-wing led by Netanyahu is also demonstrated by some of his key appointments. The most noted thing about the appointment of Jared Kushner as senior advisor is the nepotism – he is Trump's son-in-law.
Kushner is not only an outspoken supporter of Israel, but has been a generous donor to religious extremist organisations in the “settler movement”. These groups are best known for violently establishing outposts on Palestinian-owned land in the OPT (sometimes stealing Palestinian homes).
Despite these outposts being illegal under Israeli, as well international, law, they are often accorded military protection from the civilians they dispossessed and sometimes incorporated into the established settlement blocks.
The religious fundamentalist settler movement is also responsible for organised racist violence in Israel proper and forms the right-wing extreme of Netanyahu’s coalition.
Trump’s choice for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is also a donor to religious right-wing settler groups. Hard-line US supporters of Zionism are a key part of Trumps coalition, including the powerful Christian fundamentalist bloc represented by Vice-President Mike Pence.
Furthermore Trump’s political style, aggressive nationalism and brash disregard for international law, human rights and “political correctness” has clear similarities to the Israeli right wing. The Apartheid Wall, and the racist rhetoric justifying it, is an obvious inspiration for Trump’s wall-building plans on the US’s border with Mexico.
What is alarming for both the Israeli mainstream opposition and the US Democrats is that verbal commitment to a two-state solution serves a purpose. It is the framework for indefinite negotiations continue while Israel de facto annexes the OPT. It has allowed Israel to take territory without giving citizenship to Palestinians, while still insisting Israel is a democracy.
Mainstream Israeli opposition parties, when they were in power, built settlements at a rate as fast as right-wing governments have. However, they always maintained they were committed to allowing the Palestinians to have a state at an unspecified point in the future.
Even Netanyahu paid lip service to the two-state solution, at least when speaking to a foreign audience. Trump’s material and ideological support might tempt the Netanyahu government to give up the pretence.
But such a one state solution that maintains Jewish Israeli dominance, in a country where half the population are Palestinian, would involve explicitly acknowledging that half the population are non-citizen subjects without rights.
Taking this path of nationalist bravado with applause from the Trump regime might boost Netanyahu’s short term domestic support. But stripping away what remains of Israel’s democratic facade is a path future Israeli governments may come to regret.