Middle East Eye / November 19, 2020
In final weeks of Trump presidency, US secretary of state issues decrees that blur line between Israel and Palestinian territories it occupies.
With just two months left before the Biden administration takes office, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a slew of announcements on Thursday that blur the line between the state of Israel and the Palestinian territories that it occupies.
After a visit to an illegal West Bank settlement, the top US diplomat issued a directive to identify organisations that boycott companies doing “business in Israel or in any territory controlled by Israel”.
He said the State Department would ensure that no government funds went to such groups – a move that would disadvantage NGOs that do not operate in the settlements, in accordance with international law.
In a separate decree, Pompeo said exported products from parts of the occupied West Bank must be labelled as ‘Made in Israel’.
The latest effort, critics say, is a push to dissolve the Palestinian quest for statehood and cement the reality of total Israeli rule over the lands and peoples between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River – regardless of Israel’s plans to officially annex parts of the West Bank.
Here are three key takeaways from Pompeo’s announcements:
Penalising boycott of settlements
The outgoing administration of President Donald Trump has long voiced opposition to the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and tried to conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism.
On Thursday, Pompeo issued an actionable order to that effect – one that will not only punish groups that boycott Israel, but also those that discourage business with settlements.
Pompeo directed the State Department’s special envoy to combat antisemitism to identify organisations that oppose trade “with Israel or persons doing business in Israel or in any territory controlled by Israel”.
“To ensure that Department funds are not spent in a manner that is inconsistent with our government’s commitment to combat anti-Semitism, the State Department will review the use of its funds to confirm that they are not supporting the Global BDS Campaign,” read a statement by the State Department.
“Further, the State Department will conduct a review of options consistent with applicable law to ensure that its foreign assistance funding is not provided to foreign organizations engaged in anti-Semitic BDS activities.”
Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP), said the move was unprecedented in US policy. “This is brand new ground. There’s nothing comparable to it.”
Friedman told MEE that most organisations would not be able to certify that they don’t distinguish between settlements and Israel.
“There are global NGOs that work around the world – and consistent with international law, with EU policy, with the values of human rights and civil rights, they differentiate between Israel and settlements,” she said.
“If this policy is implemented as it’s articulated by the State Department, it means that those organisations will not be able to be partners with the US anywhere in the world.”
Jonathan Kuttab, a Palestinian-American attorney specialising in international law, called the push a “deliberate effort” to prevent non-violent opposition to the occupation.
“They want to make the occupation so standard, so legal, so legitimate that those who question the legality of the settlements become themselves under attack; they become themselves criminal; they’re called antisemitic; their activity is called hate speech,” Kuttab told MEE. “It’s a way of turning international law on its head.”
‘Made in Israel’
In keeping with the effort to obscure the distinction between Israel and the Palestinian territories that it controls, Pompeo said the labelling of exports from the West Bank will adhere to the US administration’s “reality-based foreign policy approach”.
Not all settlement products will be made in Israel, but all exports from the West Bank’s Area C – whether made by Palestinians or Israelis – will be branded as such.
The Oslo Accords split the West Bank into three parts, with Area C – which makes up about 60 percent of the territory – being under almost total Israeli control, with the promise of gradual transfer of power to the Palestinian Authority.
But in the years since the pact was signed in 1995, Israel only tightened its grip on the area and transferred greater numbers of its civilian population to the occupied territory in violation of international law.
Kuttab said choosing Area C was not accidental – it is the section with the most land and the fewest Palestinians, whereas Areas A and B have “too many non-Jews” in them according to US and Israeli rationale.
“Labelling the products of Area C as being part of Israel is almost the last nail in the coffin of the opposition to annexation,” Kuttab added.
He stressed that the annexation efforts are a major threat to the post World War II global order, which was founded partly on the principle that states cannot acquire others’ land by force.
“Iraq cannot annex Kuwait; Russia cannot annex parts of Ukraine. The only exception seems to be that Israel and the United States want to be above international law.”
Friedman said Pompeo’s statement, in effect, annexes both the land and the people who live in Area C. “This is essentially the US recognising Israeli sovereignty and Area C – all of it.”
She added that the move exposes the two competing positions of pro-Israel advocates in the US who don’t meaningfully oppose annexation as they hold on to the two-state solution and vehemently push back against the idea of a single state with equal rights.
“Palestinians living in Area C do not enjoy the same rights as Jewish Israelis in Area C – let alone Israelis inside Israel. Full stop. They live under a different legal regime. That is apartheid,” Friedman said.
“I mean it’s the strangest thing: We actually have unprecedented clarity from the US administration in terms of seeing the West Bank as permanently part of Israel and saying it.
“At the same time, we still have a position which says: If you are someone who believes in one state from the river to the sea with equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians, you’re an antisemite and you’re anti-Israel.”
Separating the West Bank from Gaza
In the same statement about labelling exports from Israel-Palestine, Pompeo ordered that Palestinian products from Areas A and B must be labelled separately from Palestinian products from Gaza.
“Goods in areas of the West Bank where the Palestinian Authority maintains relevant authorities shall be marked as products of ’West Bank’ and goods produced in Gaza will be marked as products of ’Gaza’,” the State Department said.
“Under the new approach, we will no longer accept ’West Bank/Gaza’ or similar markings, in recognition that Gaza and the West Bank are politically and administratively separate and should be treated accordingly.”
Kuttab said the move aims to dismiss the idea of distinguishable Palestinian territories in the land in order to push for “the total erasure of the Palestinian identity”.
The international law expert faulted Palestinian leadership for reaching that point by focusing on the West Bank and Gaza instead of a national struggle that includes Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinian refugees across the world.
“And because of our divisions, we also separated Gaza and the West Bank,” he said, referring to the feud between Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
“We have participated in this process of fragmentation and elimination of our identities.”
For her part, Friedman said the effort to treat the West Bank and Gaza as two separate entities has been ongoing for years, noting that the right to movement between the two Palestinian areas is non-existent, even for humanitarian purposes.
“Under Oslo, Israel agreed that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would be considered one integral territory,” she said. “In the years since Oslo – and particularly in the years since the Second Intifada and then the various Gaza wars – Israel has effectively cut Gaza off completely from the West Bank.”
Ali Harb is a writer based in Washington, DC; he reports on US foreign policy, Arab-American issues, civil rights and politics