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The ABCs of ‘annexation:’ Why Israel and its critics use different words to say the same thing

Israeli leaders have said that the country will begin annexing parts of the West Bank on July 1— and also that they won’t. That’s confusing enough, but the whole issue is made much more complicated by the fact that the different sides often use different words or phrases to refer to the same thing.

Here’s your annexation lexicon. Lesson number one: not everyone calls it “annexation.”

Annexation vs. application of sovereignty

One of the first things that causes confusion is that the Israeli government and its supporters don’t use the word annexation at all – instead, they say it’s an application of sovereignty. “It is inaccurate to refer to Israel’s plans – as critics do – as annexation,” the Jewish Virtual Library wrote. “As Erielle Davidson has explained, ‘A nation cannot annex land over which it already has sovereign claims.’”

The reason behind the discrepancy: Annexation is the process of applying a country’s laws onto territory that belongs to another country, like when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Supporters of the Israeli government say that this doesn’t apply to the West Bank, since they claim the region is not definitively in “another country” – the lands in question either belong to the Palestinian Authority (which they don’t recognize as a full country) or belong by right to Israel itself (and a country can’t annex territory from itself), or that the whole question is “disputed” and therefore unresolved.

In general, the United Nations and most member states say that annexation is illegal, because approving of annexation could be construed as giving countries the green light to declare war in order to violently conquer other territories and then annex them.

In this case, annexation (or applying sovereignty) would mean applying Israel’s system of laws to the West Bank, or whatever parts of it they end up annexing. Currently, even though Israel controls much of the West Bank, it does not use Israeli law there: Instead, it utilizes a separate set of military laws that is mostly similar to civilian Israeli law, but with a few key differences, especially related to Palestinian rights. That would change under annexation, and Israeli civilian law would become the law of those areas.

Disputed vs. occupied

Whether it can truly be considered annexation at all depends on whether you consider the area occupied or disputed. Nearly every country except for Israel and the United States considers the West Bank to be occupied Palestinian land – that is, it’s the location of the State of Palestine, which has been prevented from fully forming due to Israel’s military occupation of the territory.

If that’s the case, then applying sovereignty would be illegally annexing Palestinian territory. But current Israeli and American leaders consider the land “disputed” – a term that’s by definition vague as to whether the land rightfully “belongs” to Israel, the Palestinian Authority (a non-state entity) or even Jordan, which controlled the territory before the 1967 Six-Day War – so therefore “annexation” wouldn’t apply.

Judea and Samaria vs. West Bank

The different interpretations of the situation even extend to what people call the land itself. While most of the world refers to the area as the West Bank, many Israeli Jews refer to it as Judea and Samaria. Both of those terms essentially mean the same thing.

It’s very common for different countries to use different names for the same place because of historic or geopolitical reasons. For example, Japan refers to the body of water between it and Korea as the “Sea of Japan,” while South Koreans, wanting to emphasize their geographic relation to it and not their rival country, call it the “East Sea.” The two countries have been squabbling for decades over which name gets put on official United Nations maps.

The West Bank has that name because the area includes the western bank of the Jordan River. The kingdom of Jordan started calling the area that when when it annexed it after Israel’s War of Independence, to contrast it with the eastern bank region that it already controlled.

While the name stuck with most of the rest of the world, Israeli Jews and their allies often refer to it as Judea and Samaria, two regions mentioned in the Bible that roughly correspond with the area in question. Calling it Judea and Samaria reinforces Jewish Israelis’ historic ties (and therefore implied rights) to the land. For example, right-wing Christian Zionist pundit Glenn Beck once claimed that people who call the area the West Bank “are trying to erase the well-known documented Jewish claims to that area.”

Settlements vs. communities vs. outposts

Few of the proposals that are seriously being considered involve annexing — or applying sovereignty to — the entire West Bank. Instead, reports indicate that the annexation plan only includes certain West Bank cities where Jews are the majority, the strategically-important Jordan Valley on the border with the kingdom of Jordan, and strips of land that connect those places. Opponents say that even taking those steps would make it impossible to form a Palestinian state, since the leftover territory would be discontiguous – dozens of Palestinian “islands” separated by Israeli land.

But what to call these Jewish areas in the West Bank? Most people call them settlements. That’s because according to most countries’ interpretations of international law, it is illegal for citizens of an occupying country to settle permanently in the area it is occupying.

News organizations including The Guardian in Britain, The New York Times and The Forward call West Bank cities like Ma’ale Adumim “settlements” and describes them as illegal – though many Israelis would likely just think of the city as a suburb of Jerusalem. The most likely annexation plan involves applying Israeli sovereignty to a few such major settlements, or clusters of settlements, close to Israel proper.

Most of the world considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal. Perhaps for that reason, Jewish residents of those areas and their international allies prefer to refer to them using terms like “communities” or “cities.” A right-wing rabbinical group, the Coalition for Jewish Values,, for example, said in a news release on Tuesday that it supports “the extension of sovereignty over Judean communities.”

Of course, Ma’ale Adumim can both be a community and a settlement. The issue is the presence of Israelis living in areas that the international community considers to be occupied Palestinian territory, not what term they use to describe groups of houses.

However, there are some West Bank settlements that even the Israeli government does not recognize as legitimate, usually because they were established in rural areas under the radar by people in RVs and tents without asking permission from the Israeli government (and certainly not from the Palestinian Authority). Those are usually referred to as outposts, by both international observers and Israeli activist groups like Peace Now. The Israeli Defense Forces periodically tears them down and expels the Jewish residents from the area.

Aiden Pink is the deputy news editor of the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aidenpink


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