UN Security Council Members Slam U.S. Policy Shift on Israeli Settlements

Israel envoy vindicated by Washington's decision tells Europeans to back off ■ Israeli human rights activist argues there can be no peace without advocating for Palestinian and Israeli well-being equally

German, French, British, Polish and Belgian representatives at the UN speak to the press at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, November 20, 2019.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP

UN Security Council members have rebuked the U.S. announcement that it no longer considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be a violation of international law. They’re stressing that the settlements are illegal and undermine a potential two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The council’s monthly Mideast meeting, just two days after the U.S. announcement, was dominated by negative reaction to the new American policy.

Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, came out against European countries, who, at the beginning of the session, reiterated the EU position that “all settlement activity is illegal under international law and it erodes the viability of the two-state solution and the prospects for a lasting peace.”

"We call on Israel to end all settlement activity, in line with its obligations as an occupying power," a joint statement against the U.S. policy shift issued by Germany, Belgium, France, Poland and the U.K. said. Russia similarly said the State Department's decision could lead to regional escalation.

"When Palestinians see that their battles are being fought for them, why would they agree to come to the negotiating table where they would have to compromise?" the ambassador said, adding it was one of two obstacles to peace - together with "the Palestinian Authority’s incitement against Israel and the Jewish people."

Danon, who is known as a staunch supporter of annexation, and hawkish in his views of the conflict with the Palestinians, saluted the Trump administration's decision to revise the illegal character of the West Bank settlements.

"This policy rights a historical wrong," Danon told the Council. "Judea and Samaria are inseparable parts of the Jewish people’s homeland," he said, using the Biblical name for the West Bank, which is widely used in Israel.

"This is not a recent development or claim, but a historical truth that will never again be denied," Danon added.

Truth seems to have played a large part in the process leading to Mike Pompeo's Monday announcement. "President Trump has made it clear that truth must be the foundation of any resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," a U.S. Embassy official in Israel told Haaretz on Tuesday.

'The well-being of Israelis and Palestinians is interlinked'

Tanya Hary, the Executive Director of Gisha, a human rights group devoted to protecting the freedom of movement of Palestinians, offered a radically opposed view.

Invited to speak by Britain’s ambassador, who is the current council’s president, Hary argued against the sweeping restrictions Israel imposes on the movement of people and goods to and from the Gaza Strip - particularly between the Strip and the West Bank - as part of an Israeli policy striving to keep these two Palestinian entities apart.

The Kerem Shalom border crossing with Gaza, July 22, 2018.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

"Israel still believes that it can 'manage' the humanitarian situation in Gaza," Hary said, "and it has an interest in maintaining the physical and political fragmentation of Palestinians, which allows it to pursue annexation in the West Bank."

Recounting several stories illustrating the situation of Palestinians living under blockade in the coastal enclave, the activist implored the Security Council to take action. 

"The international community must confront the de facto annexation of the West Bank and Gaza's isolation together," Hary said, "taking action to reverse these trends by abiding by its obligations to protect civilians."

"Many people in Israel may see my appearance here today as an act of disloyalty," she concluded, in a nod to an Israeli political landscape in turmoil and generally pulling to the right. "In fact, it's just the opposite. The well-being of Israelis and Palestinians is interlinked and we should address Palestinian security just as much as we address Israeli security."

Violence in Gaza, West Bank, and trouble in UNRWA

If the U.S. decision took pride of place, other matters pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were also discussed, with the Special Coordinator for the Middle-East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov  condemning all parties for the "indiscriminate launching of rockets at civilian population centers." 

Mladenov expressed sadness and unease over the "tragic and heinous incident" leading to the death of eight members of a family "mistakenly targeted" by the IDF, as Haaretz exposed, as well as a string of violent incidents in the West Bank. He called for thorough and impartial inquiries.

The envoy welcome the extension of the UNRWA mandate, but said the agency was still facing major financial issues, and urged "the swift mobilization of support" from member states. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.