Israel is Intensifying its Expansion into the West Bank

Is Israel moving towards the complete annexation of the West Bank? While there has certainly been no admission or declaration by the Israeli government that this is its ultimate aim, recent months have witnessed increasing signs of its desire to control more of the landlocked territory between Jordan and Israel. But even if such signs have often been met with international condemnation (particularly from the UN), Israel continues to move ahead with its expansionist policy, largely thanks to staunch US approval. At the same time, the rising frequency of moves into non-Israeli territory is becoming almost self-reinforcing, serving to normalize what is otherwise in violation of international law.

Most recently, Israeli forces and settlers entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem during the final days of Ramadan. It was the first time they had done this in 30 years. Omar al-Kiswani, the mosque’s director, accused Israel of violating an agreement not to permit such visits during the end of the Muslim holy month. While the compound isn’t located in the West Bank, the unexpected entrance signals an increased willingness of Israeli authorities to push pre-determined boundaries in its relationship with Palestine.

These boundaries have been under growing strain in recent months. In early April, Benjamin Netanyahu revealed plans to formally annex existing Israeli settlements in the West Bank, assuming his reelection as Israel’s Prime Minister. “You are asking whether we are moving on to the next stage – the answer is yes, we will move to the next stage,” he told Channel 12 News. “I am going to extend [Israeli] sovereignty and I don’t distinguish between settlement blocs and the isolated settlements.”

Netanyahu’s statements came barely a week after the Israeli Broadcasting Authority (IBA) reported on governmental plans to approve the construction of 4,500 new settlement units in the West Bank. Around 650,000 Israeli settlers already live in the territory. While these units haven’t yet been constructed, they fit neatly into declared aims to settle as many as one million Israelis in the West Bank long term, although ministers and other right-wing members of the Knesset recently signed a petition calling for as many as two million settlers.

The gradual expansion of the Israeli presence in the occupied West Bank has repeatedly faced criticism from the international community. In December 2016, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution affirming that “Israel’s establishment of settlements in Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, had no legal validity,” and constituted a “flagrant violation under international law.”

One important detail of this resolution was that, despite being unanimously approved by 14 votes to zero, the United States abstained from voting on it. In fact, then-President elect Donald Trump urged the outgoing Barack Obama to use the US’ veto. Obama didn’t, yet since the 45th President of the USA was sworn in on January 20th 2017, it has become noticeable that the Israeli government’s expansionist tendencies have only become more overt and emboldened.

This is evident in the aforementioned plans to annex existing Israeli settlements, and the settling of more people in the West Bank. It’s also manifesting in Israel policy more generally. This March, Trump signed a proclamation to recognise the Golan Heights as part of the state of Israel. Ths was a result of sustained diplomatic pressure from the Netanyahu government. The US also supports ongoing Israeli airstrikes and activity in Syria, which was made clear in December when Benjamin Netanyahu asserted, “We do not plan to reduce our efforts. We will increase them, and I know that we will do this with the full support and backing from the United States of America.”

There is, then, little doubt that the right-wing, expansionist element in Israeli politics has benefitted from the Trump administration. It would seem that this administration believes that strengthening its ally’s position in the Middle East will serve American interests. To a large extent, it is this belief that has provided Israel with the diplomatic immunity to ramp up its activities in Palestinian territory and beyond.

But aside from the possibility that such policies will end up only increasing hostility towards Israel, there will also be an inevitable human cost. Not only will Israeli-Palestinian inequality be exacerbated if Israel proceeds with annexation, but the likelihood of conflict will grow. Palestinians protesting their increasingly miserable conditions will increasingly come into contact with Israeli forces, “with potentially catastrophic consequences,” as Nickolay Mladenov, the UN’s Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, warned earlier this year. Mladenov sounded this alarm in March, amid a fresh wave of protests and violence in Gaza, but it could just as well serve as a warning for the months and years ahead, particularly if Israel’s government continues down its current, hawkish path.