Israeli settlements are still illegal despite Trump backing them, says UN

Samuel Osborne
A general view of the Israeli settlement of Efrat near the Palestinian city of Bethlehem south of Jerusalem, in the occupied West Bank: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images

Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory remain illegal despite the US saying it no longer considers them inconsistent with international law, the United Nations human rights office has said.

The Trump administration abandoned its four-decade policy on Monday by saying it was “reversing the Obama administration’s approach towards Israeli settlements”.

“We continue to follow the long-standing position of the UN that Israeli settlements are in breach of international law,” UN human rights spokesperson Rupert Colville told a news briefing.

“A change in the policy position of one state does not modify existing international law nor its interpretation by the International Court of Justice and the Security Council,” he said.

The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 – which both the US and Israel have ratified – lays down that an occupying power shall not transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies, he added.

The International Court of Justice, in an advisory opinion issued in 2004, said Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, were established in breach of international law.

Non-governmental activist groups also rejected the Trump administration’s new stance, which was announced by Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, called Mr Pompeo’s declaration a “huge achievement” that “fixed a historic wrong”.

Palestinians, who claim the West Bank as part of a future state, have condemned the decision, along with human rights experts.

“This changes nothing. President Trump can’t wipe away decades of established international law that settlements are a war crime,” Andrea Prasow, acting Washington director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

Philippe Nassif of Amnesty International said the construction and maintenance of the settlements breached international law and amounted to war crimes.

“Today, the United States government announced to the rest of the world that it believes the US and Israel are above the law: that Israel can continue to violate international law and Palestinians’ human rights and the US will firmly support it in doing so,” he said in a statement.

Ryvka Barnard, senior militarism and security campaigner at War on Want, said: ”Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory are a clear and unequivocal violation of international law, whatever the Trump administration claims. This is an attempt by a far-right government to legitimise the war crimes committed by another far-right government.

“Settlement building entrenches Israel’s illegal military occupation of the West Bank. It’s a part of the dispossession of Palestinians, the theft of their land, and forcible transfer of the 3 million Palestinians living in the West Bank, a war crime under international law.”

She added: ”Now is the time for the UK government to be on the right side of history. It must condemn this move in the strongest terms, reaffirm its opposition to Israeli settlements, and end its own complicity by suspending trade with Israel – including the deadly arms trade.”

Additional reporting by agencies

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