PALESTINIANS in the occupied West Bank are still anxiously waiting to hear when the Israeli government will proceed with its plan to annex about 30 per cent of the territory (News, 15 May; Comment, 29 May). Under President Trump’s peace plan, announced in January, about one third of the West Bank would be placed under Israeli sovereignty.
The Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, when he formed a coalition with his rival, Benny Gantz, in May, said that preparations for annexation could begin on 1 July. But that date passed, and, up to now, the Israeli government has not provided a timetable for annexation.
“Among Palestinians there is confusion, apathy, and concern about the future,” a Christian Palestinian commentator, Daoud Kuttab, said on Tuesday. “The concern is very high. The big danger is the absence of hope, which tends to produce explosions.”
The indications are that no movement towards annexation is imminent, and there are some suggestions that there could be a long delay — with, perhaps, an eventual trimming or even scrapping of the plan. A poll of Israelis shows that more than half see only a low chance that anything will happen in the coming year.
Several factors are contributing to uncertainty. First, there are differences of opinion between Mr Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Mr Gantz’s Blue and White Party. The latter argues that annexation preparations should await the eradication of Covid-19 from Israel and the Palestinian territories, and economic recovery.
That aside, details of the planned annexation are still under discussion with the Trump administration. The White House, with its focus increasingly on the November presidential election and coping with the effects of Covid-19, has little space to think about the West Bank.
Another factor is strong opposition from politicians and religious leaders around the world. On Tuesday, Boris Johnson spoke to Mr Netanyahu, setting out his concerns. Mr Johnson said that unilateral annexation would “set back the prospects for peace in the region”. He urged Mr Netanyahu to return to negotiations with the Palestinians.
Opposition is also coming from Jews in the United States; this is a matter of concern to Mr Netanyahu, and also President Trump, before the November elections. The Reform rabbi Eric H. Yoffie wrote in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz that American Jews “are not happy. The monumental stupidity of the entire annexation episode has left them shocked and pained. . . Above all they are angry.”
The Israeli Foreign Minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, a member of Blue and White, said that Israel was listening to the comments from around the world, “and I think it’s clear what we are facing. We’ll take it into consideration when we make decisions.”
Some Israeli analysts suggest that Mr Netanyahu might use Covid-19 and the economy as a pretext for scaling back on the original annexation plan. But for him to swallow his words completely and do nothing would be out of character. So, he might target initially just a limited area of land to appease his supporters. But, for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, size is not the issue: “Annexation is illegal. Period.”
All this leaves three million Palestinians in the West Bank facing more weeks — possibly months — of confusion and concern.
Bethlehem feels like an open prison, priests write. A GROUP of priests from Bethlehem and the surrounding area have appealed to world leaders to stop the annexation of the West Bank by the Israeli government, writes a staff reporter.
In an open letter issued last week, they list areas near by that are under threat, and write: “This is land theft! We are talking about land that is largely privately owned and that our families have owned, inherited and farmed for hundreds of years. Most of our parishioners have lost hope in earthly powers. They feel hopeless and helpless.”
The signatories, from the Melkite, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Evangelical Lutheran Churches, say that the town of Bethlehem, surrounded by walls and settlements, “already feels like an open prison. Annexation means the prison becomes even smaller, with no hopes for a better future.”
And they warn: “In practice, annexation could be the final straw when it comes to a viable Christian presence in Palestine.”
Comment: Annexation is bad for Israel, too