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Why is Israel allowed to annex occupied land, but Russia isn't?

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during their meeting, in Sochi, Russia on 22 October 2021 [YEVGENY BIYATOV/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images]
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during their meeting, in Sochi, Russia on 22 October 2021 [YEVGENY BIYATOV/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images]

Russian President Vladimir Putin formally announced last Friday that his country is to annex four regions in Ukraine. He referred to them as "new regions" of Russia.

"I want to say this to the Kyiv regime and its masters in the West: people living in the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia [regions] are becoming our citizens forever," said Putin. He also called on Ukraine to sit down with him for talks to end the ongoing war.

Responding to Putin's announcement, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the annexation as a "violation" of international law; a "dangerous escalation" in the seven-month war between Russia and Ukraine. "The Charter is clear," explained Guterres. "Any annexation of a State's territory by another State resulting from the threat or use of force is a violation of the Principles of the UN Charter."

In Washington, US President Joe Biden condemned Russia's move as "fraudulent" and a contravention of international law. "Russia is violating international law, trampling on the United Nations Charter, and showing its contempt for peaceful nations everywhere." The United States, he added, will always honour Ukraine's internationally-recognised borders. "We will continue to support Ukraine's efforts to regain control of its territory by strengthening its hand militarily and diplomatically, including through the $1.1 billion in additional security assistance the United States announced this week."

As a result of this measure, Russian officials and their families were subjected to US sanctions.

The EU followed suit: "We firmly reject and unequivocally condemn the illegal annexation by Russia of Ukraine's Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions." By carrying out this measure, the EU member states claimed, Russia is putting global security at risk. They accused Moscow of "wilfully undermining the rules-based international order and blatantly violating the fundamental rights of Ukraine to independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, core principles as enshrined in the UN Charter and international law."

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The Head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, added that, "All territories illegally occupied by Russian invaders are Ukrainian land and will always be part of this sovereign nation [Ukraine]."

I am happy to see the international community united against an oppressive state or action that harms the interests of others, and undermines their sovereignty, security, safety, independence and other fundamental rights. However, it is both sad and hypocritical that the international community condemns such violations by one state but celebrates and protects those carried out by another. Why is Israel allowed to annex occupied land, but Russia isn't?

In 1967, Israel occupied Palestinian East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip; the Syrian Golan Heights; and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. "In June 1967, immediately upon occupying the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Israel annexed some 70,000 dunams of West Bank land to the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem and applied Israeli law there, in breach of international law," Israeli rights group B'Tselem has pointed out.

The only thing that the international community did in response to this occupation and annexation was get the UN to issued several resolutions calling the measures "invalid" and calling for Israel to rescind them. "All legislative and administrative measures and actions taken by Israel," concluded the UN Security Council at the time, "including expropriation of land and properties thereon, which tend to change the legal status of Jerusalem, are invalid." They "cannot change" the status of the city.

No practical measures have ever been taken against Israel to end its occupation and annexation of the Palestinian territories. Such a weak response by the international community encouraged the Israeli parliament to annex occupied East Jerusalem on 29 July 1980 and the occupied Golan Heights in 1981.

The UN Security Council condemned the annexation of the Golan Heights, but again did nothing on the ground to push Israel to rescind the move. Israel's annexation did trigger international responses, but they were only temporary. The real position, I believe, was agreed behind closed doors, and backed the annexation. The US under Donald Trump, of course, infamously gave public recognition to Israel's annexation of Syrian and Palestinian land in 2018, and he duly moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to "Israel's eternal and united capital", Jerusalem.

Even when the then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his intention to annex the occupied West Bank and Jordan Valley, where Israeli laws are already applied to illegal Jewish settlers, the international community simply warned that such a step would trigger a wave of violence, nothing more. No threats of sanctions and suchlike. Nothing.

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The EU, which is Israel's biggest commercial partner, claimed that it would have likely used diplomatic means to "discourage" Israel from carrying out its annexation, but we have never seen anything more concrete and practical to "discourage" the occupation state's daily violations of international law, even though the volume and nature of EU-Israel links give Brussels the leverage to do something more than spout mere words.

Has any country imposed sanctions on Israel, or cut diplomatic relations until it ends its occupation and annexation of Palestinian land? On the contrary, the West continues to give the apartheid state unconditional diplomatic, political, economic and military support. The peaceful Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel has even been criminalised in some states.

While Russia apparently gave the Russian-speaking residents of the areas that it has annexed a choice about the move — and in referendums they opted for Russia, it seems — Israel has gone the other way, making every effort to clear the occupied land of the indigenous Palestinian population by demolishing their homes, withdrawing residence permits and, when all else fails, simply killing them. Alone among all UN member states, Israel has never declared where its borders lie, and it is allowed to expand through annexation with impunity.

Ever since its illegal annexation of Jerusalem, Israel "has treated the Palestinian residents of the city as unwanted immigrants and worked systematically to drive them out of the area." However, there are no sanctions imposed against Israel and no millions of dollars and weapons being poured in to help the Palestinian victims free themselves from Israeli colonialism. Is it not paradoxical that the international community is supporting, funding and arming the state which violates international law on a daily basis, while cutting real support for the victims of annexation and colonialism? And that when the victims offer up legitimate resistance to the occupation and colonisation of their land they are described as terrorists by the same people now declaring pompously that Russia has broken international law? The biggest irony is that Israel is also condemning Russia's annexation of Ukrainian territory. You couldn't make this stuff up.

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I am convinced that Putin was right to say that the West does not have the moral high ground in such matters, and certainly no moral right to speak about democracy. And that Western states are simply acting as the imperialists that they "always have been".

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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