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The landmark deal was met with frustration from residents of the West Bank
The Israeli government has agreed to suspend its plans to annex parts of the West Bank this year. The deal was hailed as an achievement by both governments, but has been criticized for different reasons by both Israelis and Palestinians living in the West Bank.
The news came as a part of a joint US-UAE-Israeli announcement on August 13th, which stated that Israel and the United Arab Emirates will establish normal diplomatic ties.The move makes the United Arab Emirates (UAE) the third Arab country, and the first in over two decades, to establish diplomatic ties with Israel.
“The freeze on annexation of Palestinian territories will open new horizons for peace and stability,” H.H. Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Emirati Minister of Foreign Affairs, said in a press release.
Legally, the term annexation refers to the “extension of sovereignty.” It is when a nation formally adds new territory to its legal jurisdiction.
Those who live in the disputed West Bank territory are so far generally opposed to the deal. Palestinians, who were largely opposed to annexation, still feel betrayed by their longtime Emirati allies establishing ties with Israel while their own conflict with Israel stays unresolved.
“This is against our will, against our freedom, and against our land,” said Said Talib, mayor of the Palestinian West Bank town of Turmus Ayya. “[The UAE] recognized the land of the [Israeli] settlers as belonging to them, and this land is Palestinian land.”
Palestinians in the West Bank have publicly demonstrated against the deal. The Palestinian Authority announced it is recalling its ambassador from the UAE.
Israeli settlers living in the West Bank, who were largely in support of annexation, feel betrayed by Netanyahu’s suspension of the plan.
The Yesha Council, the civilian government body which represents Israeli settlers living inside the West Bank, published an official statement in response to the Israeli-UAE deal.
“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly promised to apply Israeli sovereignty in Judea, Samaria, and the Jordan Valley…He deceived us,” Yesha Council Chairman David Elhayani said in an official statement, referring to the land by its traditional Biblical names. “Do not tell us that in a few months there will be sovereignty, because the trust in you has expired.”
The deal represents a significant reversal on the topic of annexation for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who campaigned on annexing land which Israel controls with its military in the West Bank. He had pledged to carry out this plan as recently as June and set a target date of July 1st.
“This is the greatest advancement toward peace between Israel and the Arab world in the last 26 years,” said Netanyahu of the UAE deal in a press release. He did not mention annexation in the statement.
Annexation was a politically divisive topic inside Israel. It would likely have also jeopardized Israeli relations with Arab and European nations as well as the US, according to the Congressional Research Service.
This deal may have been the intended result for Netanyahu all along, says Professor Ron Hassner, who specializes in international relations. Hassner is the Chair of Israel Studies at UC Berkeley.
Even before the announcement, Hassner believed Israel was only pretending to contemplate annexation, possibly for diplomatic gain or to bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table. “It’s a bargaining tool,” he said.
Had annexation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank occurred, it could have presented issues for Palestinian property rights and freedom of movement, according to a report released by Israeli-based human rights organization Yesh Din. The group is still worried about the current state of affairs.
“De-facto annexation is already in place,” says Sharona Weiss, Head of International Advocacy at Yesh Din. The group has published legal opinions defining the present situation in the West Bank as “apartheid.”
Miri Maoz-Ovadia, 33, an Israeli woman who lives in the Orthodox Jewish settlement community Neve Tzuf, was generally happy to see Israel gain a new ally, but disappointed in the delay of annexation. “I believe it will happen. It’s just a question of how and when,” said the mother of three, who works at the international desk of the Binyamin Regional Council, part of the Yesha Council.
“We see this area as part of Israel,” she said, explaining that it is described in the Bible as the homeland of Jewish people. “It’s always been a part of Jewish history.”
Israeli communities in the West Bank are officially under the administration of the Israeli military. Annexation would put them under civilian Israeli government control. “Our lives could be much better,” said Maoz-Ovadia, who described issues related to bad cellphone reception, water access, and medical services. “We would have equal opportunities to live our lives,” she said of annexation.
The presence of Israeli “settlements” in the West Bank has been a major point of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and their Arab allies. The territory came under Israeli military control after the 1967 Six-Day War but has never been formally incorporated into Israel.
Since then, the Israeli government has supported the construction of Israeli towns and cities like Neve Tzuf in parts of the West Bank. This population transfer is considered illegal by most of the international community, but the Israeli government disputes this.
Mayor Talib is more focused on the day-to-day challenges of running Turmus Ayya, which is surrounded by five Israeli settlements, than he is with geopolitics. “Every day we’re seeing issues against humans, animals, and land,” Talib says.
Talib says that he personally owns farmland which is now occupied by Israelis. He is allowed to visit his land twice a year, for three days at a time, which makes agriculture difficult. On August 7th, Talib led a protest march against new settlement construction which was dispersed by the Israeli military with rubber bullets and tear gas.
Talib says that the only path to peace is the creation of an independent Palestinian state based on the original, pre-1967 borders. “We are human beings and we know our rights,” he says. “We want our state, our freedom, and our rights.”
The Yesha Council wants full annexation of Israeli communities in the West Bank and opposes the creation of an independent Palestinian state for security reasons, especially one that would require giving back land. “We’re not giving up territory for some dream of peace,” said Maoz-Ovadia.
Despite the breakthrough between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, the conflict in the West Bank seems as intractable as ever.
“I cannot envision a future in which there is not an Israeli state next to a Palestinian state,” says Professor Hassner, who says some of the larger Israeli settlements would still likely have to be annexed as part of a peace deal. “What both sides lack for a peace agreement is a courageous leadership.”
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