The US declaration that it considers Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank to be legal under international law is a “green light” for annexation and a “licence to kill” Palestinian hopes of statehood, a senior Palestinian official says.
Hanan Ashrawi, a veteran negotiator and member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation Executive Committee, told The National that US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were "trying to reshape the world" by allowing Israel to accelerate construction of illegal outposts.
“This is a licence to kill," Ms Ashrawi said. "Clearly it is a green light, and an active encouragement. I don’t think they can do any more. They have attacked every single component of the Palestinians.
“Not only does it defy international law, but it is attempting to rewrite international law unilaterally.
“It is an attempt to legalise war crimes and it is emboldening Israel to continue its policies of expansionism and destroying all chances of peace.”
The US decision goes against the stance of almost the entire international community and UN Security Council resolutions that have condemned Israeli settlement building as illegal.
The Palestinians seek East Jerusalem as the capital of any future state and the occupied West Bank to be part of a sovereign Palestinian nation.
But Israel has developed a network of outposts across the territories it captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, effectively killing off hopes of a contiguous Palestinian state.
The announcement on Monday was a major victory for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing corruption charges and close to losing the premiership of the country he has led for more than a decade.
His main rival, Benny Gantz, has two days to form a coalition government after a second election in a year produced an inconclusive result.
Mr Netanyahu travelled to the occupied West Bank on Tuesday to celebrate the US backing the actions of the Israeli far-right. He called it a “huge achievement” that “fixed a historic wrong”.
"I think it is a great day for the state of Israel and an achievement that will remain for decades," he said.
Mr Netanyahu spoke on Tuesday at a gathering of supporters and settler leaders in Efrat, a large settlement outside Jerusalem.
Palestinians have expressed increasing anger with the Trump administration in the past three years for its bias towards Israel’s hard-right government.
Mr Trump has relocated the US embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognised the city as Israel’s capital, ended funding to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, and now given its approval to the most extreme elements of Israel.
Ms Ashrawi said the US administration was now a “partner in crime with Israel” and if any negotiations took place, the Trump administration would be present “as an adversary”.
“It lets criminality win. They are trying to destroy the Palestinians and the Palestinian issue,” she said.
Ms Ashrawi said it would also harm the region and could fuel more extremism in the Middle East.
She appealed to the international community, particularly Europe and Arab states, to do more than deliver “formulaic” statements of condemnation.
“Lip service is not enough to international law or to Palestinian rights," Ms Ashrawi said. "Those who have the ability to act should act.
"We will stay here. We will be resilient. We will resist.
"There is a global consensus. But the question is, how do we go beyond that?"
Israeli settlements in the West Bank from the air
Until now, US policy was based on a legal opinion from the State Department in 1978, which said settlements in the Palestinian territories captured a decade earlier by Israel went against international law.
The Fourth Geneva Convention on the laws of war explicitly forbids moving civilians into occupied territories.
The US has long stood by Israel at the UN on settlements, until Barack Obama abstained on a resolution that called Israeli outposts a “flagrant violation” of international law.
But US Democratic politicians and human rights groups decried the decision as a bid to destroy any remaining hope of peace in a conflict that has raged for decades.
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren said she would reverse Mr Pompeo's "blatantly ideological" shift on settlements.
"Not only do these settlements violate international law, they make peace harder to achieve," Ms Warren tweeted.
A fellow Democratic senator, Chris Murphy, said the "monumentally bad" decision "could obliterate the chances of Palestinian-Israeli peace".
"And it puts Israel further down a path that has a terrible choice at the end: become a non-Jewish state or become a permanent apartheid state," Mr Murphy said.
Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said the decision would only increase the damage to Palestinians in the occupied territories.
“The US administration is wrong," Mr Egeland said. "Illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land continue to result in dispossession, forcible transfer and impoverishment of Palestinians."
The move also puts Washington at odds with leaders in Europe. The EU’s top court last week ruled that goods from Israeli settlements must be labelled as such.
But Mr Netanyahu had already pledged to annex large areas of the West Bank in his latest election gambit to swing voters in the September polls. The move would effectively kill any hopes of a two-state solution.
Observers have suggested that Mr Trump’s moves in favour of Israel are with next year’s presidential election in mind.
His base of Evangelical supporters are largely for Israel controlling all of Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank, which ultra-religious Christians and Jews refer to by the biblical name of “Judea and Samaria”.
They believe that those lands were once the homeland of the Jewish people.
Palestinians will not be drawn on the Democratic candidate they want to secure victory in that vote. But Ms Ashrawi says there is no Palestinian who wants a Trump victory in November 2020.
“There has to be change,” she said. “The world, not just Palestine, cannot afford four more years of this administration.”