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Israeli rights group says shelving West Bank annexation plans mean little

B'tselem said continued construction and seizing of land meant 'de-facto' annexation already exists in West Bank
Palestinian villagers scuffle with Israeli security forces as an Israeli bulldozer demolishes a Palestinian farm in the village of al-Fikheet within area C in the occupied West Bank (AFP)

An Israeli monitoring group has said that the dropping of plans to annex the occupied West Bank will have little effect on the lives of Palestinians who already live under a "de facto" annexation.

In a new report titled The Annexation That Was and Still Is, B'tselem said the Israeli government has continued to expand control over the occupied Palestinian territories with little or no consequences from the international community.

It said that Israel's actions indicated that the occupation was far from "temporary" and were aimed at increasing the construction of illegal settlements and seizing more territory from an area that has long been seen as needed for a future Palestinian state.

More than 400,000 Israelis now live in nearly 250 settlements built in the West Bank, the report said, while the construction of roads and infrastructure to service these settlements - which cut across Palestinian territory - made the "fact that settlers live on occupied land not formally annexed to Israel practically meaningless".

An agreement made between US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - the so-called "Deal of the Century" - in January, gave Israel the green light to formally annex much of the West Bank, which has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 war.

Since the signing of normalisation deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain last month, however, Israel has said it would delay the planned annexation to a later date.

"The possibility of formal annexation shook the international community, which took the rare step of threatening consideration of concrete measures against Israel. Now it seems we are back to 'business as usual' - the intolerable reality euphemistically known as 'the status quo'," said the B'tselem report.

"Israel has chosen to take formal annexation off the table for the time being, in return for a let off of international pressure. The global community has welcomed Israel back with open arms - legitimising its continued policy of dispossession with no price."

Hebron construction

The B'tselem report comes as Israel is set to approve construction of Jewish settler homes in a flashpoint area of the West Bank city of Hebron for the first time since 2002.

Peace Now, which tracks settlement construction in the occupied territory, said Israeli military authorities had given the green light to the construction of 31 settler housing units "in the heart of Hebron".

Hebron is considered a West Bank powder-keg where around 800 Jewish settlers live under hefty Israeli army security, surrounded by around 200,000 Palestinians.

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The city includes the site known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque and to Jews as the Cave of the Patriarchs, which is revered by both faiths.

The anti-occupation group Peace Now on Tuesday said the Israeli government was trying to "squeeze in" the approvals before next week's US presidential election when Donald Trump faces Democratic challenger Joe Biden, who views such settlements as illegal.

Peace Now linked the timing of the approvals to next week's US presidential election.

Trump has not criticised Israel's settlement construction in the West Bank. 

Biden was the vice president in the Barack Obama administration that considered settlement building in the West Bank illegal, a position in line with international consensus.

B'tselem said it was time for the international community to step up and not allow the status quo in the occupied territories to reassert itself.

"Once again, polite requests and statements of concern have proven ineffective compared to real leverage. That is why temporarily shelving the idea of formal annexation must not become a licence to carry on as usual," it said.

"The international community must recognise its responsibility, power and capacity to take steps right now against the occupation and de facto annexation - to create a future of liberty and equality for everyone living between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river."