Does Israel have a legitimate claim of sovereignty over the West Bank?

Two experts voice their opposing views on the status of Israel's annexation plans



Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” contains a conceptual map demarcating a small Palestinian state alongside a larger Israel gaining 30 per cent of the occupied West Bank.

Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, took this as a green light to propose a unilateral annexation of the area. In an effort to force his hand, some Knesset members introduced an annexation bill last week. Such an action would be unlawful under Israeli legal commitments and international law.

The West Bank is the area to the east of the Green Line, which marked the armistice agreements at the end of the War of Independence in 1948-9. This was land that the 1947 United Nations partition plan had allocated to the Arab Palestinian state. By 1949 it was occupied by Jordan which unlawfully annexed it a year later.

Israel, in its Declaration of Independence, made the commitment that the new state was “prepared to cooperate with the agencies and representatives of the United Nations in implementing the [partition] resolution”. Given the implacable opposition of the Arab world to the creation of the Jewish state, this aspiration went unfulfilled.

However, it indicates that Israel did not consider the West Bank as part of its territory and at no time during the Jordanian occupation did Israel make any claim to it — not even to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.

When Israel came into occupation of the West Bank following the 1967 Six Day War, it was effectively treated as occupied territory. For example, the existing civil law continued to operate as required by the law of occupation.

It has to be remembered the 1967 war was fought in self-defence and, although it is permissible to temporally enter another’s territory in order to militarily defeat an attack, you can only do so for the purpose of self-defence and for no ulterior motive, such as seizing territory.

This was underlined by Security Council resolution 242, adopted after the war, which “emphasises the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war”. Under the 1993 Oslo agreements, Israel pledged that a permanent settlement with the Palestinians would be based on the implementation of resolution 242. It would appear that Israel has accepted that it is “impermissible” for it to acquire the West Bank.

It’s true that in 1980 Israel annexed East Jerusalem (and some surrounding areas). This was declared “null and void” by the United Nations Security Council. However, even Israel has appeared to question the permanence of its annexation as it agreed to negotiate the status of Jerusalem as a result of its commitments in the Oslo Agreements.

While successive Israeli governments have claimed that the status of the West Bank is “disputed”, as can be seen, the legal obligations that Israel itself has accepted contradict that claim.

In 2004 the International Court of Justice issued its advisory opinion on the Wall making it clear that there was a distinction between the “territory of Israel itself” and the land to the east of the Green Line which “remain occupied territories and Israel has continued to have the status of the occupying power.” Advisory opinions are legally authoritative, and it is an error to think that the law on which they are based is optional.

Israel rejected the advisory opinion which called on it to dismantle the wall built in the West Bank and compensate Palestinians affected. The court did not object to Israel building a security fence on its own territory, but it could not treat Palestinian Occupied Territory as its own.

That court also reiterated the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and drew attention to the obligation of states not to take any “forcible action” to prevent the exercise of self-determination. The court reflected the international legal consensus and the will of the international community, certainly since 1947, for a two-state solution.

The original UN allocation of land for the two states was frustrated by Arab intransigence and British refusal to implement partition in the last months of mandate. As a result, Arab Palestine is left with half the area that it could have had in 1947. Despite its size the West Bank and Gaza would constitute a viable Palestinian state. Encroaching on that territory would undermine the Palestinian legal right to self-determination.

From 1897 the Zionist movement sought to achieve its aims through “Public Law”. Jewish national rights have been recognized by the League of Nations and the United Nations. International law has helped shape and secure the Jewish state; indeed the 2004 International Court’s Advisory Opinion contains a ringing endorsement of Israel’s legitimacy, sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The rule of international law has served Israel well and provides the best framework for its international relations.

The tradition of seeking Jewish emancipation through law has been wise and successful. Annexing Palestinian land would be unwise and unlawful.

John Strawson is Co-Director of the Centre on Human Rights in Conflict at the University of East London



The furore surrounding Israel’s proposals to apply civilian law to parts of Area C has been fuelled not just by the mischaracterisation of the proposed move, but also by the misapplication of international law to the territory. 

The move is consistently misrepresented as “annexation” and a “violation of international law”. Both of these allegations are false and yet they are widely propagated, even by some professors of international law. 

This ‘groupthink’ has been engendered by a raft of politicised UN resolutions, which have no binding legal effect. 

Indeed, the misnomers have even been adopted by the International Court of Justice, although notably again only in a non-binding Advisory Opinion, rather than a judgment with any legal force. 

This “received wisdom” must be challenged, principally because it relies upon the imposition of double standards against Israel, in breach of the fundamental principle of the equal application of international law. Such double standards also importantly prevent informed debate about the pros and the cons of the proposed move.

What the Israeli government is considering is a change to the internal administrative legal framework in certain parts of Area C of the West Bank, replacing the military law that currently applies in these areas with the civilian law that applies throughout Israel. 

There will be no change to sovereignty, borders or the status of the territory. The existing administrative framework, instituted by Israel in 1967, was intended to be temporary. It has now been dragged out for 53 years, through decades of failed negotiations. It is an inadequate and antiquated administration, comprising a confusing patchwork of Ottoman, British Mandate and Jordanian law and aspects of international humanitarian law.

Analysis of the status of the territory in international law takes us to the origins of the State of Israel. The universal rule for determining borders for emerging states, “uti possidetis juris”, dictates that such states are established with the same boundaries of the prior administrative entity in that land, unless otherwise agreed. 

This principle developed in international law in order to ensure stability and security for new states at their birth, to promote certainty and avoid disputes over frontiers. “Uti possidetis juris” has been universally applied upon the independence of new states, including to the emergence of states in Asia, Africa, South America and from the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. It has also been consistently applied to states emerging from mandates.  

Under this principle of international law, as the only state to emerge from the British Mandate, on 14 May 1948 Israel automatically inherited the mandatory boundaries as its own borders. The eastern border ran along the Jordan river all the way south to the Red Sea, originally dividing the British administrative units of ‘Palestine’ and ‘Transjordan’. 

Under this default rule of international law, the territory with which the current proposal is concerned has been under Israeli sovereignty since Israel’s independence, including during Jordan’s occupation of the territory between 1948 and 1967. 

While the territory is politically disputed, the correct legal principle to be applied is clear. The term “annexation” is fundamentally misconceived as a State cannot annex its own sovereign territory.

Since the application of this fundamental principle to determine Israel’s borders at the moment of independence in 1948, there has not been a single agreement to alter territory or borders.0

In fact, the peace agreements that Israel has achieved to date with its neighbours, Egypt and Jordan, ratify the previous boundaries of the mandate in keeping with the “uti possidetis juris” principle. When Israel applied its law, administration and jurisdiction to East Jerusalem at the conclusion of Jordan’s occupation in 1967, it was made clear by the then Foreign Minister Abba Eban that these acts did not constitute annexation. 

Israel’s jurisdiction over territory it recovered from Jordan has been mischaracterised principally due to the political decision in 1967 to adopt, as part of the temporary administrative regime in the West Bank, aspects of international humanitarian law from the framework of the law of occupation. But this has not impacted the question of sovereignty. 

Under the power-sharing arrangements of the Oslo Accords, agreed 25 years ago, Area C has remained under full Israeli jurisdiction. Since those agreements, which established the Palestinian Authority, Israel has continually sought to negotiate a political solution with Palestinian representatives. In the absence of a final settlement, sovereignty and borders have remained unchanged. 

Contrary to much of the rhetoric, the proposals with respect to Area C would not prejudice future negotiations. All proposals for a two-state solution have envisioned sovereign Israeli territory being transferred via land-swaps; most recently, the ‘Trump Plan’ envisages significant parts of undisputed Israeli sovereign territory in the Negev being transferred in that fashion. In previous negotiations, Israel has offered land to which its law applies in full, and it has shown every intention of continuing to do so. 

The public is being consistently misinformed on the proposal to apply Israeli civilian law to parts of Area C in the West Bank. The spread of disinformation, both on the facts and the law, has already done significant damage to the UK and Europe’s diplomatic relations with Israel. 

Israel’s international standing has been harmed, not by the realities of the proposals, but by the application of double standards and the continuing misrepresentations of international law. 

Natasha Hausdorff is a barrister and a director of ‘UK Lawyers for Israel’. She previously clerked for the President of the Israeli Supreme Court, Chief Justice Miriam Naor, and was a Fellow in the National Security Law Programme at Columbia Law School in New York.

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