Analysis 23 Jun 2020

Breaking the silence on annexation

Yehuda Shaul

In June 1967, just weeks after the Six Day War ended, Israel annexed an area of about 70 square kilometers, with East Jerusalem at its center. This sweeping move to annex part of the West Bank was carried out in the aftermath of the war and served as its epilogue of sorts. Although Israel has continued de facto annexation of the West Bank since then via settlement expansion and other permanent changes on the ground, no additional land in the West Bank has been formally annexed since East Jerusalem. 

Today, more than half a century later, Israel is closer than ever to the de jure annexation of territory seized in that same war. Except that we are no longer in 1967, and the current catalyst is distinctly different. The possible upcoming annexation would occur as part of the implementation of the Trump Plan – the plan put forth by the American president who means to draw the final map of the Middle East, who wants to bask in the glory of being the one who succeeded where everyone else has failed, and who needs to appease his Evangelical base.

Annexation, of course, defies the basic tenets of international law, which prohibits the acquisition of territory by force. These laws, drafted in the wake of the horrors of two world wars, have guided the international community ever since. For this reason, western countries, led by the EU and the UK, placed sanctions on Russia after it annexed Crimea. 

Our objection to this move should be guided not only by the implications it would have for international rules-based order but also by the concrete impact it would have on the basic human rights of Palestinian residents of the West Bank.

It is important to note that annexation is not just a declarative move. It could drastically and negatively impact people’s lives, primarily Palestinian residents of the occupied land, defined in international law as “protected persons.” Annexation could have many far-reaching implications for Palestinian land ownership; for those who live on the land; and for long-term political change, including the possibility of reaching a peace agreement.

First, annexation of parts of the West Bank would allow for increased theft and transfer of Palestinian land to Israeli settlers. The application of Israeli law in the annexed territory would mean that the Absentees’ Property Law would come into effect. This law was enacted in 1950 and intended to shape the reality of land and property in the newly established State of Israel. According to the law, the State can take over property that belonged to individuals who moved to enemy states or “in the Land of Israel that is not the State of Israel” (that is, unannexed territory) during the War of Independence and until today. If applied to the West Bank, it could have a dramatic effect: 44% of Area C and 27% of the entire West Bank could become the property of Israel overnight. 

This would not be the only new tool for seizing land suddenly at the disposal of the Israeli government. The extension of Israeli law to parts of the West Bank would mean that the settlers would be included in the definition of “the public,” in whose interests privately owned land may be expropriated. Until now, the Supreme Court has ruled that “the public” for the purposes of land expropriation in the West Bank means Palestinians, and so land expropriation cannot generally be carried out for the purpose of settlement expansion. With the post-annexation definition of “the public,” however, Palestinian land, including land that is private and registered, could be expropriated for the sake of building new settlements or expanding existing ones. We know that this is both possible and likely because following the annexation of East Jerusalem, a third of the land was expropriated in exactly this way. 

While annexed land would become “Israel,” the fate of Palestinian landowners and whether or not they would be able to continue living and working on their land would be thrown into uncertainty. Once these areas are considered part of the State of Israel, the Entry into Israel Law, which requires Palestinian residents of the West Bank to have a permit to enter into Israel proper, would apply to these areas as well. Thus, Palestinians who have farmlands in the annexed area but live outside in unannexed territory might be cut off from their lands and denied access to them, severely impacting Palestinian agricultural and economic viability. 

Annexation would formalize the permanent nature of occupation and seek to normalize settlements, while perpetuating Israeli control over Palestinians. Politically, this would not just make it difficult to continue differentiating between the democratic State of Israel and the military regime in the territories under its control, but it would also intensify the barriers to a future agreement and two-state solution. Once the settlements turn into full-fledged Israeli communities, the government’s ability to order their evacuation at a later stage will be greatly diminished. This would serve a fatal blow to the possibility of ending the occupation and reaching an agreement based on UN Security Council resolutions and international law, as well as Israel’s ability to find a political solution that would allow it to remain a Jewish and democratic state.

These words are written at a time when the size of the annexed area is still unknown, although this makes little difference to the facts and arguments listed here. We have to assume that even if the upcoming annexation is significantly smaller in scale than the 30% currently on the agenda, it would only be a first step, a precedent and a preview of more annexation to come. We are no longer in the year 1967, when it was clear that Jerusalem was a unique case. Unlike then, annexation of much larger amounts of territory is now discussed and supported openly in the Knesset. We thus must all make it clear to the Israeli government that the days of mild condemnations are over and that the international community, and the UK in particular, are considering further steps with due gravity. Only a clear message may be able to help save the country that is so dear to us all from sliding down a new, ruinous path.  


This article is part of CMEC's "Annexation: Britannia Waives The Rules?" Opinion Series. The views expressed are those of the author alone. 

Yehuda Shaul was born and raised in Jerusalem in an ultra-Orthodox family and graduated from a Yeshiva high school in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. He served in the IDF as a commander and platoon sergeant in the 50th battalion of the Nahal Brigade from 2001 to 2004, in the West Bank towns of Bethlehem and Hebron. Yehuda founded Breaking the Silence in 2004 with a group of fellow former soldiers, an organization of veterans who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada and who highlight the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories. He currently serves as the organization’s Co-Director.