It is widely expected that Vladimir Putin’s announced annexation of large sections of eastern and southern Ukraine will lead to still more death and or misery for Ukrainians, for millions around the world dependent on food supplies from the region, and for the Russian people.
The celebrated Russian pop music star Alla Pugacheva addressed the issue when she told her 3.4 million Instagram followers recently about the “illusory goals” of Putin’s war “turning our country into a pariah and worsening the lives of our citizens.” Hundreds of thousands of ordinary Russians, now facing a new military draft, have voted with their feet by leaving their country wherever they could. The United Nations Security Council condemned the declared annexation by a vote of 10 to one and called on Russia to “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all its military forces” from Ukrainian territory. Major powers that Putin has counted on to prevent his diplomatic isolation – China and India – chose to abstain on that vote instead. Only the Russian institutional veto power prevented further U.N. action on the resolution, and only Putin’s veiled and not-so-veiled threats of using nuclear weapons seem to be keeping his occupation of his neighbor’s land alive.
Unfortunately, Ukraine is not the only part of the world where annexation — or in this case the more insidious de facto annexation — is taking place. I’m speaking of the Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Israeli human rights attorney Michael Sfard explains de facto annexation as follows: (1) Demographic engineering — illegal under international law — has already brought some 600 thousand Israeli Jews into the zone of occupation in more than 120 official state-sponsored settlements and another hundred or so “outposts” that receive covert support from the state, pushing Palestinians off more and more land by arbitrary and brutal acts. This is ongoing. (2) A profusion of highways and electric and water infrastructure continue to be built linking in the Jews-only settlements to Israel while denying any use to the Palestinians. Israeli institutions like the national education and health system are being extended to the Jews-only settlements. (3) Israeli Jewish settlements in the territories and the people who have taken up residence there now come under Israeli civil law, while Palestinians are saddled with military rule that controls every aspect of their lives. And (4) in a patchwork of incremental steps, Israel’s Knesset, in which West Bank Palestinians have no vote, has increasingly presumed to “legislate” all manner of activities for the zone of occupation, progressively erasing the “green line” border that has constituted Israel’s internationally recognized boundary since before 1967.
The legal status of Israel as a nation created to be a refuge for the world’s persecuted Jews – which Jewish Americans and others of good will continue to fervently support – was derived in the first instance from the1947 United Nations vote to partition historic Palestine into two side-by-side countries, one Jewish and one Arab. But of course only one state, Israel, has been realized. Notwithstanding the tragic and disastrous rejection of the U.N. partition by Arab regimes and the invasion of Israel at that time and again during the 1967 war — which gave rise to the now 55-year-old military occupation — this remains fundamental to the applicable international law. As attorney Sfard points out, a military occupation, while not prohibited as the result of war, is meant to be temporary, and the inhabitants of any occupied territory are protected persons. According to applicable Geneva Conventions, under no circumstances is the occupying power — in this case Israel — permitted to alter the status of such a territory by replacing the inhabitants with its own citizens, such as by sponsoring settlements, or taking other measures for its own benefit within that territory.
De facto annexation of Palestinian lands has become a matter of the greatest urgency now for several reasons. Decades of being powerless to realize the promise of its own state has meant that the Palestinian Authority – which for many years has recognized Israel – has been weakened to the point of possible imminent collapse. The unending proliferation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and the related evictions of Palestinians and demolitions of their homes in places like Massafer Yata in the South Hebron Hills, has engendered a loss of hope among many Palestinians in a peaceful diplomatic solution with Israel and led to greater willingness to engage in terrorism – the recourse of the weak – with its own dreadful consequences.
In the upcoming Israeli elections, it is a distinct likelihood that Benjamin Netanyahu, in a coalition with the political heirs of the terrorist Meir Kahane and other parts of Israel’s far right, may form the next government. Since Netanyahu was the only prime minister of Israel who already advanced the notion of explicit annexation of West Bank lands by Israeli parliamentary act, and because his electoral efforts rely on suppressing the votes of the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, it has to be assumed that de facto annexation may only continue with unprecedented vehemence, and the intensity of the conflict with Palestinians will grow accordingly.
Mass carnage is the current status of the Russia-Ukraine war, with the conflict now further inflamed by Putin’s declaration of annexation. Continued de facto annexation in the Holy Land is only slightly less dreadful for the world, and much more so for Israelis and Palestinians. Americans who care about Israel and who love peace should be outspoken for an urgent halt to this reckless and self-destructive policy by Israelis. We also need the Biden administration to step up meaningfully against annexationism, in Israel/Palestine no less than in Ukraine.
Mark Lurinsky of Montclair is recently retired from a career in public accounting. He is an activist in local politics and a member of the steering committee of J Street’s New Jersey chapter.