Annexation angst in the Middle East

Middle East

The Rev. Mitri Raheb has experienced firsthand the growing divide between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. Since 2019, a 26-foot-high, 3-mile-long wall along the major highway connecting the West Bank to Jerusalem has divided the Israeli and Palestinian sides of the territory. Israel welcomed the highway as an effort to ease congestion, but Palestinians saw it as a sign of oppression because they needed a permit to travel to the other side of the wall. A Palestinian Christian, Raheb expects Israel’s new plan to claim control over portions of the West Bank will only deepen the divisions in the region.

“If the annexation is done, we would have more roads not accessible to us,” he told me. “These are features of an apartheid system.”

Christians on both sides of the border between Israel and the disputed West Bank territory have expressed concerns about Israel’s annexation plan, a part of the roadmap to Middle East peace that the Trump administration unveiled in January. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initially planned to begin the process as early as Wednesday by introducing the plan to parliament. But Defense Minister Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White party shares governing authority with Netanyahu, said annexation “will wait” while officials focus on the coronavirus pandemic. Netanyahu likely will move forward with the proposal before the U.S. election in November to take advantage of the support offered by President Donald Trump.

Under the plan, Israel would assume permanent control of up to 30 percent of the West Bank, including more than 120 Israeli settlements and the strategic Jordan Valley region. A Palestinian state would govern the remaining West Bank territory and the Gaza Strip along the border with Egypt, along with additional territory that would double the area under Palestinian control. Netanyahu’s administration has described the West Bank, which stretches between East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley, as an inseparable part of Israel’s Biblical homeland and essential to the nation’s security. The Palestinians want the entire region as the capital of a future state and consider annexation a hindrance to independence.

Raheb, president of the Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture in Bethlehem, said the plan would leave Palestinians “resourceless” and shrink their living space. The Jordan Valley is a valuable agricultural area with important water supplies, he said. He expects the restrictions and limited resources to intensify crime and social unrest.

Last week, the Hamas Islamist group that rules Gaza warned it would escalate its attacks in response to Netanyahu’s proposal. The next day, it fired two rockets into southern Israel. Nickolay Mladenov, the UN special coordinator for the region, warned the economic and security fallout from Israel’s unilateral annexation could trigger “counter moves by the Palestinian Authority.”

On May 7, leaders of churches in the Holy Land released a statement saying annexation would “bring about the loss of any remaining hope for the success of the peace process.” The European Union and several key Arab nations said the plan would violate international law and dash hopes for a two-state solution.

Joel Rosenberg, an Israeli-American and co-founder of the Alliance for the Peace of Jerusalem, told Israel’s i24 News he agreed with the long-term strategic goals. But he took issue with the timing, citing the uncertainty over Trump’s second term. The move also could hinder ongoing peace progress with some Gulf nations, he said.

“[Palestinian leaders] rejected every peace offer for 75 years,” Rosenberg tweeted later. “Israel shouldn’t move unilaterally this summer—but Israel’s government is going to define its own borders before long.”

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