‘Law of the jungle’ as US backs settlements

Tinderbox: A Jewish settlement (left) and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (right). © Getty

Is the liberal international order collapsing? The Trump administration just smashed years of legal history by declaring that Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank are now acceptable.

Yesterday, the US Secretary of State stood at a podium and reversed more than 40 years of global law.

Israeli settlements in the West Bank are “not per se inconsistent with international law”, said Mike Pompeo.

The move flew in the face of international agreements, United Nations policy, and rulings by international courts.

Palestinian leaders responded to the news with horror.

Saeb Erekat, the Secretary General of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, called it an attempt “to replace international law with the law of the jungle”.

Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing a fight for his political life, said that the new policy “rights a historic wrong”.

The conflict between Israel and Palestine has a painful and complicated history. More than 10,000 people have died as a result of it, in the past 20 years alone.

Israel regards Jerusalem as its “eternal and undivided” capital, while Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

Since the present map of of Israel and Palestine was decided 52 years ago, more than 700,000 Israeli settlers have streamed into the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Many say that the settlements violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states an occupying power “shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies”.

But Israel argues that the West Bank has been the ancestral home of Jews for thousand of years.

The liberal world, led by Europe and America, has desperately tried to patch together a delicate peace, using the full force of international law (the set of rules, norms, and standards generally accepted in relations between nations).

Now, many fear that international law itself is a victim of Monday’s abrupt US decision.

It was just “the latest in a series of recent moves that has undermined the rules-based international order”, said the respected Michael Lynk, the United Nations expert monitoring developments in the West Bank.

Recently, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set the doomsday clock (a symbol which represents the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe) to the closest point to midnight it has ever been.

This was justified by the threats of nuclear war, the climate crisis and the decline of democracy.

Today, many experts add a fourth threat: the collapse of the liberal international order following the election of Donald Trump.

Wild West

We should not despair, says one camp. The US policy shift on Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank makes no difference from a legal point of view. Americans do not make international law: that is up to bodies such as the United Nations and treaties such as the Fourth Geneva Convention. These will last long after Donald Trump is gone.

Sorry, but the law of nations has been on the skids for 20 years — long before Trump, says another camp. In the 1990s, it was widely believed that there was no viable alternative to liberal democracy and that almost every nation in the world was bound to become one. During the past decade, the number of liberal democracies has actually been declining, reversing a seemingly unstoppable trend. The idea of rules-based international order is a myth.

You Decide

  1. Is Donald Trump a good deal-maker?
  2. Should other countries interfere in the Israel-Palestine conflict?


  1. Draw a map of Israel and Palestine. Label the disputed regions of Gaza and the West Bank.
  2. Write a short news report explaining the political crisis facing Benjamin Netanyahu.

Some People Say...

“We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013), anti-apartheid revolutionary and president of South Africa 1994-1999

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Israel is the world’s only Jewish state, created in the wake of the horrors of World War Two. Palestinians are the Arab population who come from the land now controlled by Israel. They want to establish a state on part or all of the land. In name, the West Bank is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, but it is under Israeli occupation.
What do we not know?
When, if ever, Trump’s plan to bring peace to the region will be revealed. “Certainly, the administration can’t move forward until there is a new Israeli government in place. Then it will have to brief the new PM (presumably Gantz) about what’s in the plan and get his approval to publish it,” said international expert Jake Walles in October.

Word Watch

Per se
By or in itself; as such.
United Nations
The UN has called the settlements “a flagrant violation under international law”.
On 9 July 2004, the International Court of Justice ruled that the settlements are illegal, and that Arabs in the region should be compensated by Israel.
Political life
Israeli politics has been deadlocked for seven months following an inconclusive election. Netanyahu’s rival Benny Gantz has less than two days left to form a government. Adding to the high drama, Netanyahu could be arrested for corruption in weeks, if not days.
Fourth Geneva Convention
According to Cornell University, the Geneva Conventions “are a series of treaties on the treatment of civilians and prisoners of war (POWs) during conflict”.
On the skids
In the process of decline or deterioration.


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