Middle East

In Blessing West Bank Annexation, Trump Erodes an International Norm

The prohibition against seizing territory by force is a cornerstone of international law. But Israel, and now the U.S. administration, argue that this is a special case

Annexation, at its heart, is a byproduct of conflict. Almost never is it an act of peace, though it has been cast that way at times throughout human history.

Certainly not under international law, which describes it as the forcible acquisition of territory by one state at the expense of another. It often formalizes military occupation. The United Nations made it illegal after World War II.



Watch NBC10 Boston news for free, 24/7, wherever you are.


Get Boston local news, weather forecasts, lifestyle and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC Boston’s newsletters.

Israel is poised to annex a vast swath of the occupied West Bank with the blessing of President Donald Trump's Mideast plan, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hawkish supporters have hailed as a historic achievement. The initiative has infuriated the Palestinians, who see their aspirations for a viable independent state in danger of being bitterly extinguished.

The plan would allow Israel to keep all its Jewish settlements in the West Bank, where over 460,000 Israelis reside, as well as the strategic Jordan Valley. As for the rest of the West Bank, “the Israeli military will continue to control the entire territory," Netanyahu proudly announced at the White House when the plan was unveiled last month.

The Palestinians view the settlements in the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem — territories seized by Israel in the 1967 war — as a major obstacle to peace. That position is held by much of the international community, which views the settlements as illegal.

The Trump plan seems to brush aside international law, effectively saying Israel is a special case.

It adopts the Israeli position that the territories were seized in a “defensive war” in 1967 and that Israel has “valid legal and historical claims" to them, which is widely disputed.

Israeli law allows the government to extend sovereignty over any part of the British-ruled Palestine Mandate, which included what is now Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and where the British had promised to establish a home for the Jewish people, without specifying its boundaries.

In the 1948 war surrounding Israel's creation, Egyptian forces took control of the Gaza Strip and Jordan took over the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Israel captured the territories when it launched a surprise attack in 1967 at a time of soaring tensions with its Arab neighbors. Today most of the international community views the West Bank and east Jerusalem as occupied Palestinian territory.

Israel's claim that it has the right to territory in the West Bank because of the Palestine Mandate is “simply a way to try to avoid a confrontation with the international community," said Amichai Cohen, a legal expert at the Israel Democracy Institute, a non-partisan think tank.

“Annexation has a negative aura to it because it’s illegal," he said.

It wouldn't be the first time Israel has annexed territory over international objections. It annexed east Jerusalem shortly after seizing it, claiming the entire city as its unified capital. In 1981 it annexed the Golan Heights, which it had captured from Syria in the 1967 war. The Syrian leadership has vowed for more than 50 years that it will recapture the Golan, but is not in any position to do so militarily. The Trump administration has endorsed both annexations, breaking with decades of U.S. policy.

The Trump plan gives Israel permission to immediately annex territory, but Israel's race to act on it faces legal and political obstacles, including an apparent push for restraint from the White House.

Globally, opprobrium may rain down on Israel in varying degrees for defying accepted international laws if it proceeds with annexation. The International Criminal Court was already preparing to launch a war crimes probe of Israel’s settlement policies.

Here's a look at some of the most striking cases of annexation and how they have lasted or been reversed.


Russia's annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine in March 2014 marked the climax of President Vladimir Putin's quest to restore Moscow's influence over its neighbors and reverse decades of perceived humiliation at the hands of the West. The move bolstered Putin's approval ratings but triggered U.S. and European sanctions.

It came in response to the overthrow of a pro-Russian leader in popular protests, which Putin said were fomented by hostile Western nations. Pro-Russian activists staged rallies in Crimea's capital, Simferopol, and Russian special forces swept in to take control of strategic locations across the Black Sea peninsula. A referendum on joining Russia later passed with 97% support.

Two days later, Putin signed a document ratifying it, extolling Crimea’s role in Russian history and its importance as the home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.


The Iraqi leader's army rolled into his tiny Gulf neighbor in August 1990, deposed the Kuwaiti royal family, who fled to Saudi Arabia, and declared the country Iraq's 19th province. Saddam argued Kuwait had always been part of Iraq and had only been separated due to the vagaries of British imperialism. But he was really after Kuwait's vast oil reserves.

Kuwait had been pressuring Saddam to pay back loans taken out during Iraq's ruinous eight-year war with Iran, which he said was fought in part to protect his wealthy Gulf neighbors. He urged his countrymen to ransack the small kingdom, with family members leading much of the pillaging.

President George Bush launched Desert Storm in 1991, driving the Iraqis out of Kuwait and crushing Saddam's army while leaving him in power. Shiite and Kurdish uprisings were left unsupported after initial encouragement from Washington and ruthlessly put down by the dictator. The U.S.-led invasion in 2003 overthrew Saddam, who was tried and executed three years later.


In 1938, a year before the outbreak of the Second World War, Nazi Germany annexed large swaths of territory in central Europe with Western acquiescence — the now widely derided policy of appeasement. The Nazis annexed Austria in what was known as the Anschluss, or joining, and held a referendum that passed with 100% approval. They then annexed the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in the now-infamous Munich agreement negotiated with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

Adolf Hitler had justified annexation — which was forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I — by saying he was only interested in gathering German-speaking peoples into a single nation-state. That lie was soon exposed by his invasion of Poland the following year, which sparked World War II.

After the Nazis' defeat in 1945, the U.S., the Soviet Union, Britain and France occupied Austria until 1955. Czechoslovakia fell under Soviet domination as part of the eastern bloc until 1989.


Japan formally annexed Korea in 1910 and subjected it to brutal occupation until its defeat in World War II, a period Koreans still remember with deep acrimony. Japan subjugated the population and exploited the country as a colony. During World War II, the Japanese military forced tens of thousands of Korean women into sexual slavery in front-line brothels. The treatment of the euphemistically named “comfort women” remains a major source of tension between South Korea and Japan. Under a 2015 settlement, Japan apologized and agreed to pay some $8 million in compensation, but victims and their families have criticized the agreement.


The United States was in part brought into existence by the often violent conquest of lands that belonged to Native Americans, but it also formally annexed certain territories. The Republic of Texas was voluntarily annexed in 1845, nine years after it had seceded from Mexico. The U.S. annexed Hawaii in an 1898 treaty advanced by President William McKinley despite local opposition and mass protests. The Pacific archipelago was a U.S. territory until 1959, when Hawaii became the 50th state.

Associated Press writer Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
Contact Us