Settlements in Judea Samaria - Legal or Illegal?

The recent declaration by Secretary of State Pompeo that the US will no longer consider Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria to be incompatible with international law, brought back the old argument of the status of the West Bank, controlled by Jordan from 1949 to 1967 and by Israel since. The answer is not easy.

By the terms of the British Mandate in 1920, all the territory considered at that point "Palestine" was to be controlled by Great Britain as a Mandatory power. This role was assigned by the League of Nations based on the Balfour Declaration and the military occupation of the area in World War I. By 1921, Great Britain separated the Eastern bank of the Jordan river and constituted it as an independent Emirate, rules by one of the children of their war ally Sheriff Hussein of Mecca. The Emir designated was Abdullah Ibn Hussein and the area was renamed the "Hashemite Emirate of Trans Jordan", kept under British protection.

In 1947, the UN General Assembly voted to implement the recommendations of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) and partition the remaining territory west of the Jordan River between a Jewish State, an Arab State, and an independent international zone around Jerusalem.

By the end of the 1948-1949 War, the area that came to be known as the West Bank was occupied and later annexed by Jordan while the Gaza strip remained under Egyptian military occupation. The Jordanian occupation of the West Bank was never recognized by the international community. In other words, the West Bank was never part of a sovereign entity of any kind. Many claim that the 1967 war which gave Israel control over the area was in fact a continuation of the civil war of 1948-1949, and therefore the Palestinian areas (as opposed to the Golan and the Sinai) occupied by Israel in 1967 could be seen as "liberated" territories. Since anything related to the Middle East becomes controversial very soon, eventually the international community settled for the term "Administered territories".

In 1979, in an effort to push for an Israeli-Arab settlement, the US Carter Administration issued a statement in which it defined the Jewish communities in the West Bank as "incompatible with International law". This was reversed in 1981 by the Reagan Administration, and Reagan's move was reversed during the Obama Administration back to the Carter-era position. This has been the US position(s) over time. Pompeo's declaration again changed the policy, generating - of course - controversy. Up to here are the facts.

What becomes another issue altogether is how this declaration is deepening the political divide in the American Jewish community. Some organizations (Orthodox Union, AJC, etc) have come out in support of the change. Others (URJ, JStreet, etc) against, and most notably AIPAC declared that they don't have a position on the settlements which they consider an issue to be resolved between Israel and the Palestinians in direct negotiations, urging the Palestinians to come to the table to negotiate and stop boycotting Israeli and US envoys.

This latest confrontation between Jewish groups is just the latest in a long list. At a time when American Jews are facing a steep rise in the number of Antisemitic incidents and an increase in their virulence, the situation begs the question of what we are doing.

We can agree or disagree with Pompeo's declaration; we can even agree or disagree on the importance of Israel in Jewish history and on contemporary Jewish Identity (for the record, personally I consider it central and essential), but we also have an obligation to work together on the issues that affect our community - Antisemitism is, today, at the top of the agenda. Can we set aside our differences, reach across the divide, and work together to get antisemitism in America under control, into the trashbin of history? Future generations of American Jews will not judge current community leaders by how they felt about Jewish communities in the West Bank. We will be judged by how we ensure that Jewish life in America can continue to thrive.

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