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Middle East

Annex or retain: Terms to understand when talking about the West Bank

A general view shows the Israeli settlement of Beitar Illit in the Israeli-occupied West Bank April 7, 2019.
A general view shows the Israeli settlement of Beitar Illit in the Israeli-occupied West Bank April 7, 2019. REUTERS / Ronen Zvulun

The head of the Arab League warned on Monday that any attempts to solve the 70- year plus conflict between Israel and Palestine would be in vain without the establishment of a Palestinian state on all territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 war.


The comments, made by Arab League head Ahmed Aboul Gheit, come just before the unveiling of the US peace plan, dubbed by US President Donald Trump as ‘the deal of the century’

It  also comes ahead of a US-led conference in Bahrain next week that aims to increase investment into the Palestinian economy, an official phase of the peace plan.

Palestinian officials are refusing to attend the meeting  despite the fact that the White House has not invited Israel in order to avoid a focus on "political issues".

Instead, the US along with Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates will attend.

The Palestinians have already rejected the conference over what they interpret as a pro-Israeli bias from Washington in recent years, especially following recent remarks by the US ambassador to Israel David Friedman which were later supported by the US special envoy, Jason Greenblatt.

The row follows an interview Ambassador Friedman did with the New York Times.

In it he said:  “Under certain circumstances . . . I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.”

But the headline of the article reads “US Ambassador says Israel has right to annex parts of West Bank”.

'Retain' or 'annex'

There has been, as a result, growing confusion since its publication over the use of the words ‘retain’ and ‘annex’.

“There’s a huge difference both legally and politically between annexation and retaining” says Alan Baker, the former Israeli ambassador to Canada, the former legal advisor to Israel’s foreign minister and currently head of the international law division at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

He says because the word 'annex' was not used then the issues that have emerged since this interview are in fact "artificial".

Under certain circumstances . . . I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.

Ambassador David Friedman

But Suhad Bishara, the director of the Land and Planning unit at Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, says whatever term is used doesn’t reallly matter as the actual situation is still illegal.

“Any occupation should be temporary. And any attempt to annex/retain territory based on the occupation - and some might even say illegal occupation of the Palestinian territory – and imposing your sovereignty on that would be illegal under the framework of international law, whether you call that annexation, whether you call that retainment or any other terminology in that sense.”

She adds that 'retain' still refers to “keeping this land under [the] sovereignty of Israel” a fact that she stresses is illegal.

Retaining territory

But what does 'retaining territory' mean under international law?

It depends on how and who is interpreting it.

Both Bishara and Baker focus on what defining 'occupation' and who is occupying what land.

Baker argues that the West Bank territories, often referred to as Judea and Samaria by Israelis, are disputed territories since the six-day war of 1967.

To understand this better, one should remember that during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Jordan had captured the area referred to as the West Bank and by 1950, Amman officially annexed this area claiming it as its own.

It was only in 1967 when this West Bank territory was captured again, but this time by Israel.

“Occupation in international law is defined as: country A occupying the sovereign territory of country B. In the situation between Israel and its neighbours, country B which in our case is Jordan, was never formally accepted as a sovereign in the areas of the West Bank, of Judea and Samaria.

"They occupied it in 1948, during the war. And they annexed it in 1950, and the annexation was never recognized by anyone. Especially not by the Arab states. Only Pakistan actually recognized it” explains Baker.

“So . . .this territory [is] not occupied if you use the definition of international law which is occupation of the territory of another sovereign state. So in other words, it's unclear what is the status of this territory.”

He adds that because of this definition, the territories remain in dispute.

“They are not occupied Palestinian territories, because the Palestinians and the Israelis have agreed that the negotiations on the permanent status will determine the future status.

"So they can't be described as Palestinian territories until they become Palestinian territories, if they ever become Palestinian territories.”

But Bishara points to the growing collection of UN resolutions and International Court of Justice advisories that explicitly say the “West Bank, including East Jerusalem and [the] Golan Heights are occupied territories.”

So referring to the occupied Palestinian territories by any other term is “basically an attempt to annex [and] to reframe the dispute and attempt to reframe the occupation in order to bring to further illegal annexations or retainments, if you want to speak to that wording, in that manner” stresses Bishara.

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