U.S. reversal leaves settlers cheering, Palestinians fearful of next pro-Israel shift

The Trump administration on Monday reversed the decadeslong U.S. position that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal.

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By Saphora Smith, Lawahez Jabari and Paul Goldman

For Jewish settlers, it represented acceptance; for Palestinians betrayal; and for watchers of the conflict it was a precursor of what may come next — the annexation of parts of the West Bank.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week reversed decades of American policy when he announced that the United States will no longer consider Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank as necessarily violating international law.

But the decision did not come as a surprise for many of those living on the land.

For Jews living in the territories Israel occupied during the 1967 Six-Day War, key policy decisions, including moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and cutting aid to Palestinians, had already served as a sign that the Trump administration is firmly on their side.

The Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim in the West Bank is appealing to many seeking affordable housing near Jerusalem.Ronen Zvulun / Reuters file

Students at the Ariel University in the West Bank told NBC News that they already believed their settlement was part of Israel but the announcement showed that facts on the ground were finally being recognized.

“It makes me feel accepted,” Pesi Amir, 22, said. “It makes you feel a bit more safe, you don’t have to worry so much. We have more supporters.”

For Palestinians, however, this spells doom for the peace process.

“This is the end of a two-state solution, I think this is an introduction to an apartheid system in the West Bank,” restaurant worker Naser Abid Alhadi, 59, said in the bustling West Bank city of Ramallah.

“They’re killing the peace process,” he said, referring to intermittent negotiations held in an attempt to solve the decades-old conflict.

Hanan Ashwari, a veteran Palestinian politician, said Pompeo’s decision had “no legal validity.”

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“The announcement reaffirms Palestine’s assessment that the Trump administration is a threat to international peace and security,” she said in a statement.

For regional analysts, the moves indicated that similar policy decisions from the Trump White House were likely on the way.

“The dramatic reversal of U.S. policy on Israeli settlements in the West Bank by the Trump administration is part of its maximum pressure strategy on the Palestinians,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics.

“The only way to understand this move by the State Department is to appreciate what it means for the next step — they’ve been preparing the ground for the annexation of Israeli settlements on the Palestinian-occupied West Bank and in east Jerusalem,” he added.

Palestinians protest the Jewish settlements in Kofr Qadom in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Nov. 22, 2019.Mohamad Torokman / Reuters

Some 420,000 Jewish settlers currently live in the West Bank, according to Peace Now, an anti-settlement group. They are outnumbered by more than 2.6 million Palestinians.

The U.N. reported in September that the Palestinian economy was approaching collapse partly due to the “expansion and tightening grip of occupation.”

In the West Bank, nearly one in five people are unemployed and there were 705 permanent physical obstacles restricting the movement of Palestinian workers and goods — including checkpoints, gates, roadblocks and trenches.

Most of the international community considers the settlements to be illegal under international law and an impediment to a two-state solution — a peace deal that hinges on the establishment of a separate Palestinian state.

Pompeo said Monday that the Trump administration was not “prejudging” the ultimate status of the West Bank — that, he said, was up to the Israelis and the Palestinians to negotiate. But Gerges was not alone in his assessment that the move paved the way for U.S. recognition of parts of the territory as being Israeli.

Pompeo “just said the settlements are no longer illegal. What does that tell me? That tells me there’s a very strong possibility that the next things he’ll do is recognize Judea and Samaria,” said Mike Evans, a member of President Donald Trump's evangelical advisory team, referring to the West Bank by its biblical name.

“I believe it could happen and I believe the settlements may set the stage,” he added.

Plans for Israel to annex parts of the West Bank have already been floated.

In September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to begin annexing parts of the West Bank, extending sovereignty over the Jordan Valley, an agriculturally rich area that runs along the easternmost part of the territory.

Netanyahu was indicted Thursday on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, which comes while he is serving as caretaker prime minister after he failed to cobble together a government last month.

There is an appetite among Jewish Israelis for extending sovereignty to parts of the territory, with 48 percent supporting the annexation of Area C providing it would be sanctioned by the Trump administration, according to the Israel Democracy Institute. Area C is the roughly 60 percent of the West Bank where Israel exercises full control and where most Jewish settlements are located.

Chuck Freilich, former deputy national security advisor in Israel, said there was also a general consensus in the country that big settlement blocks such as Gush Etzion and Ma'ale Adumim would be part of Israel in the future and that even Palestinians had recognized that would happen as part of land swaps.

Where the consensus in Israel falls down, he said, is on how these areas should be annexed, whether unilaterally or as part of a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.

Gerges said the Trump administration’s reversal of U.S. policy on Israeli settlements, among other policy decisions, was hammering “a deadly nail into the coffin of the peace process.”

“They don’t believe in the Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with its capital in east Jerusalem,” he said.