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US says Israel's new settlements in West Bank are 'inconsistent' with international law

Published 02/23/2024, 12:23 PM
Updated 02/23/2024, 07:23 PM
© Reuters. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends a joint press conference with Argentina's Foreign Minister Diana Mondino, at the Casa Rosada Presidential Palace, in Buenos Aires, Argentina February 23, 2024. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian

By Simon Lewis and Humeyra Pamuk

(Reuters) -The Biden administration on Friday said Israel's expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank is inconsistent with international law, signaling a return to long-standing U.S. policy on the issue that had been reversed by the previous administration of Donald Trump.

Speaking at a news conference during a trip to Buenos Aires, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States was "disappointed" in Israel's announcement of plans for building new housing in the occupied West Bank, saying they were counterproductive to reaching an enduring peace.

"They're also inconsistent with international law. Our administration maintains a firm opposition to settlement expansion, and in our judgment this only weakens, doesn't strengthen, Israel's security," Blinken said.

In November 2019, Trump's Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Washington no longer viewed Israel's settlements on West Bank land it captured in the 1967 Middle East war as "inconsistent with international law," a reversal of four decades of U.S. policy.

Months later in January 2020, the Trump administration announced a peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was embraced by Israel and rejected by the Palestinians, partly because it awarded Israel most of what it has sought during decades of conflict, including nearly all the occupied land on which it has built settlements.

The administration of President Joe Biden has opposed further expansion of settlements, saying it was counterproductive to lasting peace, but Friday was the first time a U.S. official said the practice was inconsistent with international law.

The administration has recently imposed sanctions on four Israeli men accused of being involved in settler violence.

Most countries regard the settlements, which in many areas cut Palestinian communities off from each other, as a violation of international law. Israel claims a biblical birthright to the land.

Palestinians and the international community view the transfer of any country's civilians to occupied land as illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Little progress has been made on achieving Palestinian statehood since the signing of the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s. Among the obstacles impeding it are expanding Israeli settlements.

'FUNDAMENTAL CONCLUSION'

The move comes a day after Israel's far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other ministers had agreed to convene a planning council to approve some 3,300 homes to be built in settlements, following a deadly Palestinian shooting attack in the West Bank on Thursday.

Most of the units under discussion are in West Bank areas east of Jerusalem, with others south of the Palestinian town of Bethlehem, Smotrich said on Thursday.

The Palestinian foreign ministry condemned the Israeli settlement announcement, saying on social media that it undermined the chances of a two-state solution.

In a briefing with reporters, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby (NYSE:KEX) said the administration was "simply reaffirming the fundamental conclusion on the issue."

Kirby was asked why the administration waited three years to make this change. "We thought that at this moment, it was particularly important to reaffirm our commitment to a two-state solution," he responded. "And at this moment, we felt it was particularly important to reaffirm again our view of the inconsistency with international law that the settlements present."

This position, he added, is one that has been consistent over a range of Republican and Democratic administrations, and if there was an administration that was inconsistent on the issue, it was the previous one.

At the news conference, Blinken was also asked about Netanyahu's "day after" plan for the Gaza Strip, which envisions Israel keeping security control over all land west of Jordan, including the occupied West Bank and Gaza -- territories where Palestinians hope to establish an independent state.

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A view of the Israeli settlement Maale Mikhmas near Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank June 23, 2023. REUTERS/Ammar Awad.

Blinken said he had yet to see the plan's details, but reiterated U.S. position on what a post-war Gaza should look like, some of which clashes with Netanyahu's vision.

"There should be no Israeli reoccupation of Gaza. The size of Gaza's territory should not be reduced. So we want to make sure that any plan that emerges is consistent with those principles," Blinken said.

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Billions of money has been given to Palestine since the early 1990s.
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