Photo: Almon Roth/Wikimedia Commons

2020-2021 University of Pittsburgh CAMERA Fellow Joshua Beylinson

When organizations or activists report on the Arab-Israeli conflict, instead of relying on the facts, many choose to construct a false narrative that casts Israel in a poor light. J Street, a self-proclaimed pro-Israel and pro-peace organization, resorts to this tactic as well.

On April 18th-19th, 2021, they hosted their national conference. In an April 18th session, titled “From Occupation to De Facto Annexation,” Michael Sfard, an Israeli lawyer who specializes in international human rights law, accused the state of Israel of “creeping annexation,” a term synonymous with “de-facto annexation.”

Sfard says this is a “political description of a reality” of life in the West Bank, and is used by some political commentators to describe what they view as Israel’s increasing political control within certain areas of the West Bank. In the session, he points to four policies to illustrate how Israel engages in “creeping annexation.”

Sfard asserts that Israel engages in demographic engineering. He believes that Israel is purposefully manipulating the demographics in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) to favor Jews. But this is clearly false. Since 1997, the Arab Palestinian Arab population in the disputed territories has increased from 2.7 million to 5 million people, while the non-Jewish population of Israel, composed of mostly Muslim Arabs, has grown from around 156,000 in 1948 to about 1.4 million now.

He also mentions cases of home demolitions in the West Bank as examples of demographic engineering. However, this is out of context. In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, demolitions occur because the residents are terrorists, members of groups such as Hamas, or they are built illegally.

Sfard also claims that Israeli infrastructure construction in the West Bank, such as roads, is an example of “creeping annexation.” He asserts that because the roads are supposedly only used by Israelis, Israel is slowly expanding its power over the West Bank and incorporating it into Israel proper. However, Sfard completely ignores that these “bypass roads” are created out of necessity so that Israelis drive within areas under Israeli civil and military control in accordance with Oslo II. Israeli West Bank roads are open to Jewish and Arab Israelis alike.

He also omits the various infrastructure projects that Israel undertakes to benefit Palestinians, such as supplying them with water, which is codified under the “Water Agreement” in 1995.

As of now, “the Palestinian Authority consumes approximately 200 MCM of water every year. Israel supplies the Palestinians with 50 MCM of water, which is far beyond its obligation in the Water Agreement (31 MCM).”

Sfard also points out that “settlers” are tried in Israeli civil courts while Palestinians are tried in Israeli military courts. He believes that this is another example of Israel’s slow annexation of the West Bank, as applying Israeli law to the settlers is supposedly meant to integrate their territory into Israel proper.

However, this is not an example of annexation, but rather it is because of the Oslo Accords, which the Palestine Liberation Organization signed. Palestinian leaders agreed to Israeli civil and security authority in Area C, which means that the military is the law enforcement in this area. Since Palestinians living in the West Bank are not citizens of Israel, they are not tried in Israeli civil courts, which are meant for Israeli citizens. Sfard’s argument, then, is disingenuous.

Not only does Sfard misconstrue the situation in the disputed territories, but he misinterprets international law.

According to Rainer Hofman, a professor in international law, “annexation means the forcible acquisition of territory by one State at the expense of another State.” To apply this definition to the West Bank is not accurate, because there has never been a Palestinian state.

Israel gained control of the area after winning a war of self-defense against neighboring Arab countries in 1967. From Israeli independence in 1948 to 1967, the West Bank was controlled by Jordan — a country with no claim to that territory whatsoever.

Because Israel gained control of the West Bank after the war in 1967, it is responsible for its security until negotiations resolve the issue of permanent sovereignty. Until negotiations conclude, the territory in question is claimed by two different peoples. Thus, the territory is most accurately referred to as “disputed territory.”

The only time Palestinians achieved any sovereignty was after the Oslo Accords were signed, granting Israeli civil and security authority in Area C and security authority in Area B, while the PA gained civil and military control over Area A.

Because the term “annexation” can’t be used to accurately describe the situation in the West Bank, terms such as “de facto annexation” or “creeping annexation” are used instead. Since they are vague terms with no established definition in any international treaty or law, activists such as Michael Sfard invoke them to construct a damning narrative about Israel. A quick Google search of the terms “creeping annexation” or “de facto annexation” demonstrates that they are only used in the Israeli-Palestinian context — solely to criticize Israel. Sfard doesn’t use these terms for any other conflict – he only applies it to Israel.

Pro-Israel groups shouldn’t manipulate terms like “annexation” to justify their criticism of Israel. By hosting Sfard, J Street harms the pro-Israel cause. Instead of promoting discussion around the truth, J Street simply gives more ammunition to anti-Zionist groups like BDS by confirming what they already think about Israel and they spread more falsehoods about the conflict.

Click here to read this article on our Medium blog.

Contributed by 2020-2021 University of Pittsburgh CAMERA Fellow Joshua Beylinson.

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