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US policy shift on Israel shows it’s time for serious action on settlements

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Yet it was shocking to wake up this morning to hear the news that Donald Trump’s administration had changed decades of US foreign policy on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Declaring that Israeli settlements are legal is a very significant hardening of US support for aggressive Israeli policies on Palestinian land.

It is shocking because the UN, the EU, the International Court of Justice, and indeed the Irish government, have consistently made it clear that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law. What this means is the US is now tacitly supporting the theft of Palestinian land and the misery that it causes – loss of land, livelihoods, home demolitions and ultimately the right to self-determination.

Why shouldn’t we be surprised? This is the latest in a series of unprecedented moves over the last few years which have fundamentally changed US policies on the Israel-Palestine conflict. While the US has traditionally been a staunch ally of Israel, the decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, recognise Israel’s annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights, and now to recognise settlements in the Palestinian West Bank as legal, means that the US is purposefully sabotaging any chances of a meaningful peace process with the Palestinians.

This isn’t some obscure legal argument. It has real impact for communities in the West Bank. I’ve visited the settlements and I’ve met Palestinian families who have had their homes demolished, or are unable to access their olive groves, as settlements expand on Palestinian land.

In these illegal Israeli settlements, there are well developed neighbourhoods, subsidised by the Israeli government. There are shopping malls, cinemas and universities. Many houses have swimming pools, while some Palestinians communities close by are living in tents in the desert with little access to water. Two different peoples living in the same area, but with different privileges, rights and legal systems. It is hard not to think of this as anything other than apartheid.

Trócaire works on the ground through local Palestinian and Israeli partner organisations. Courageous organisations fighting to defend the human rights of Palestinians. Reacting to the US announcement, our partner B’Tselem, Israel’s leading human rights organisation said today that “the Trump Administration’s farcical announcement doesn’t just green-light Israel’s illegal settlement project, but also other human rights violations around the world by obliterating the principles of international law”.

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A young Palestinian activist shows a sign saying ‘Stolen Land’ beside an illegal Israeli settlement. Photo : Garry Walsh / Trócaire.

The timing of the announcement suggests political expediency. President Trump is facing impeachment proceedings at home, while Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu is struggling to form a government and may have to return to the polls. This announcement may be a gift to Netanyahu, who has campaigned for re-election stating that he would annex settlements in the West Bank to Israel. One of the reasons we have developed international law is so that states can no longer acquire territory by force. If Israel is tacitly allowed to do this, it undermines the whole international system.

The prospects for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians have never been so low. With the US showing it is unwilling to be an honest or neutral broker, and to stand firmly behind provocative Israeli policies, it is up to others now to stand for human rights and defend international law. The EU can step up it’s measures against settlements, and individual states with strong track records on human rights like Ireland can pave the way.

At present, there is a historic opportunity for Ireland to pass legislation that would make it illegal in Ireland to sell goods from Israeli settlements. The Occupied Territories Bill is currently under review and should be supported. A majority of the Seanad and the Dáil have voted in favour of the Occupied Territories Bill, but the Irish government continues to oppose it. Ending trade with settlements would be a practical measure that Ireland can take, and a moral action that would send a strong signal to Israel.

Ireland should stand on the right side of history. Passing this legislation would send a strong signal to other states that we can still take meaningful actions to defend human rights and to defend international law. I hope our government is listening.

Caoimhe de Barra is CEO of Trócaire

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