Questions emerge on Israel's West Bank annexation plans
Questions surfaced on Thursday over whether Israel would immediately seek to annex parts of the West Bank, after U.S. President Donald Trump's controversial peace plan called for extending Israeli sovereignty into the area.
The plan, seen as overwhelmingly supportive of Israeli goals, has been firmly rejected by the Palestinians and triggered protests in Gaza and the West Bank, including isolated clashes with Israeli forces.
Trump's proposal gives the Jewish state a U.S. green light to annex key parts of the occupied West Bank, including in the strategic Jordan Valley. But uncertainty mounted on Thursday over Israel's next moves.
After Trump unveiled his long-awaited plan in Washington on Tuesday, his ambassador to Israel David Friedman said the Jewish state "does not have to wait at all".
Israeli officials said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a staunch Trump ally, would seek cabinet approval on Sunday to annex settlements and territory that would become part of Israel under the US plan.
Scars on Middle East landscape bear witness to past peace failures
As the first phase of President Donald Trumpʹs peace plan gets underway, talk of Middle East peace is in the air again. Bearing witness to the difficulty of the task are the scars left by wars past across the landscape of Israel, the Palestinian Territories and the Golan Heights. By Stephen Farrell
The Golan is strewn with reminders of the 1967 and 1973 wars between Israel and Syria: minefields, foxholes and abandoned armour
Buildings constructed during the British Mandate era to serve as jails and fortified positions are seen in Al-Jiftlik village near Jericho, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Long abandoned, sheep now wander through the empty buildings, searching for vegetation in the scorching heat of the Jordan Valley. The Israeli military sometimes uses them for training, Palestinian residents say
Huge amounts of money were spent creating the institutions of the Palestinian Authority under its first president, Yasser Arafat, who used Gaza's airport to fly abroad on official visits. Yet, following 9/11, the airport was an early casualty of the ʹwar on terrorʹ: Israeli air strikes and bulldozers destroyed its runway during the second Palestinian Intifada, a few months after the atttacks on the World Trade Center
An abandoned mosque on a rainy morning in the Golan Heights, in territory that Israel captured from Syria and occupied in the 1967 Middle East war: until 1967 a Syrian village inhabited by Circassians stood near the site, which now lies just 5km on the Israeli side of the United Nations-monitored 'Area of Separation' that divides Israeli and Syrian military forces under a 1974 ceasefire agreement
Part of a trench visible in a former Jordanian military post known as Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem, now preserved as a memorial: originally built by the British, the site was captured by Jordan in the 1948-1949 war and held by them until Israeli troops took it in the 1967 Six Day War
Arafat’s helicopter – the presidential transport of a long-dead president – is now a rotorless relic on public display in Gaza City, while the skeletal remains of Gaza Airport lie gutted and abandoned close to the southern border with Egypt
An upturned Syrian tank lies in the Hermon Stream in the Banias Nature Reserve on the western edge of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Israel captured the moutainous plateau, a former demilitarized zone, from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War. Today, Israeli tourists carve graffiti into the metal of the tank while dangling their feet in the foaming water below
The wall of a structure in a former Syrian outpost in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the territory that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war. In stark contrast to the beauty of the surrounding countryside, it is now crumbling and covered in graffiti, one Arabic message reading: "The Syrian army passed by here"
A house in Lifta, a ruined Palestinian Arab village whose inhabitants left or were forced from their homes in the conflict that accompanied the end of British rule and the founding of Israel in 1948. The abandoned ruins are visible to travellers arriving at the western entrance of Jerusalem
Part of a structure at a former Jordanian military base near the Dead Sea in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The building has stood deserted since the 1967 Middle East war when Israel captured the area from the Jordanians
A sign warning of landmines is seen on a fence in the Golan Heights, the territory that Israel captured from Syria and occupied in the 1967 Middle East war. Many Israeli and foreign tourists drive past the site on their way to popular holiday spots
British soldiers depicted in a mural on an old pillbox in Jerusalem: dating back to the era of British Mandatory rule before 1948, the pillbox stands abandoned at a busy intersection in Jerusalem. The mural was added in recent years
Concrete blast walls in an open area once used by the Israeli military near Rahat, southern Israel. Once part of a facility for training in urban warfare, the barriers are now an isolated scar on the landscape
But Jared Kushner – Trump's adviser and son-in-law, who spearheaded the Middle East initiative – said that Washington does not want any moves made before Israel's March 2 election. Asked about the timing of any annexations in an interview with Gzero media, Kushner said: "The hope is they will wait until after the election."
"We'll start working on the technical stuff now, but I think we'd need an Israeli government in place in order to move forward," he added.
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat on Thursday called the plan "historic madness". He told journalists in Ramallah that president Mahmud Abbas had written to Netanyahu threatening to cut off security coordination if Trump's plan goes ahead. "We've told the Israelis the consequences of such an idea and they know it," he said.
The Palestinians have made such threats multiple times before, without following through.
Netanyahu heads a caretaker government after failing to form a majority in coalition talks following two elections over the past year.
Likud is again neck-and-neck in the polls with the centrist Blue and White alliance led by ex-military chief Benny Gantz and it remains unclear if either bloc will be able to form a government following a new election scheduled for March. The Israeli premier also faces graft charges as he battles for re-election.
Netanyahu's office declined to comment on whether the annexation issue was on the agenda for a Sunday cabinet meeting.
The international community views Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank as illegal. An attempt to formally place them under Israeli sovereignty would likely trigger further global uproar.
Netanyahu was however facing calls from the Israeli right to act.
"Whatever will be delayed until after the election won't ever happen. Everyone understands that," Defence Minister Naftali Bennett said Wednesday. "If we delay or diminish applying sovereignty, the opportunity of the century will become the miss of the century."
Netanyahu was in Moscow earlier on Thursday seeking to broaden international support for Israel's ambitions. Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who was travelling with him, told army radio that the government wanted to move on annexation "as quickly as possible, in a number of days".
Netanyahu again praised Trump's initiative at the start of his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader did not mention the peace plan in his public remarks.
But Russian foreign spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told journalists that Moscow had only "begun to study" Trump's 180-page plan, stressing that "the decision on issues of a long-term and fair peace agreement must belong to the Palestinians and Israelis themselves."
Israel's army announced on Wednesday it was deploying extra troops to the West Bank and around the Gaza Strip ahead of any further Palestinian demonstrations against the Trump plan.
An Israeli military official told journalists the deployment aimed "to minimise the risk of a flareup". But protests against the plan have been relatively muted.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said a total of 18 people were injured in the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Hebron on Thursday during demonstrations.
In Ramallah, Israeli troops fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse demonstrators. According to the Ramallah-based Palestinian Prisoners Club, 33 protesters have been arrested over the last 24 hours.
Police said they had decided to boost their forces in and around Jerusalem ahead of Friday Muslim prayers on the volatile Al-Aqsa mosque compound. (AFP)