WEST BANK: Palestinian protesters use slingshots to throw back tear gas canisters at Israeli security forces during clashes following a demonstration against Israel’s plan to annex parts of the occupied West Bank. – AFP

VATICAN: The Vatican, in a highly unusual move, summoned both the US and Israeli ambassadors to express the Holy See’s concern about Israel’s moves to extend its sovereignty to Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley in the West Bank. A Vatican statement on Wednesday said meetings with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, and US Ambassador Callista Gingrich and Israeli Ambassador Oren David, took place on Tuesday.

A senior diplomatic source told Reuters that Parolin met the two envoys separately, a detail which was not clear in the Vatican statement. It said Parolin, the Vatican’s top diplomat, expressed “the concern of the Holy See regarding possible unilateral actions that may further jeopardize the search for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the delicate situation in the Middle East”. Israeli leaders decided in May that cabinet and parliamentary deliberations on extending Israeli sovereignty to Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley in the West Bank, in coordination with Washington, could begin as of July 1.

But with no agreement with Washington yet on the modalities of the move under a peace proposal announced by US President Donald Trump in January, and talks with the White House still underway, no cabinet session was scheduled for Wednesday. The Vatican statement reiterated its position in support of a two state solution, saying “Israel and the State of Palestine have the right to exist and to live in peace and security, within internationally recognized borders.” The Vatican appealed to Israelis and Palestinians to do everything possible to reopen the process of direct negotiations on the basis of UN resolutions.

Palestinians rally
Thousands of Palestinians protested yesterday in Gaza against Israel’s West Bank annexation plans, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said talks were ongoing on the project, which faces intensifying international opposition. Netanyahu’s centre-right coalition government had set July 1 as the date from which it could begin implementing US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace proposal. While no major announcement was expected on Israel’s self-imposed kick-off date, Netanyahu’s office said talks with US officials “on the application of sovereignty” were ongoing. Netanyahu was also discussing annexation with his security chiefs, it added, saying “further discussions will be held in the coming days”.

In Gaza City, several thousand protesters gathered, some brandishing Palestinian flags and placards condemning Trump. “The resistance must be revived,” Gaza protester Rafeeq Inaiah told AFP. “Israel is afraid of force.” Smaller demonstrations were held in the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Jericho, attended by a handful of left-wing Israeli politicians opposed to annexation. “We want to affirm our support for peace,” former Labour party official Ophir Pines-Paz told AFP. The Trump plan, unveiled in January, offered a path for Israel to annex territory and Jewish West Bank settlements, considered illegal under international law.

Netanyahu supports the Trump plan, which has been roundly rejected by the Palestinians. But the veteran right-wing premier has not laid out how he intends to implement the US proposals. Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, fired some 20 rockets from the coastal Palestinian enclave into the Mediterranean Sea on Wednesday, a demonstration of force aimed at dissuading Israel from moving forward, Hamas sources told AFP. The militant movement, which has fought three wars with Israel since 2008, was scheduled to hold a joint press conference Thursday in Ramallah alongside the West Bank’s ruling party Fatah.

Growing global opposition
Writing in Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on Wednesday, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that although he was a “passionate defender of Israel,” he viewed annexation as “contrary to Israel’s own long-term interests.” “Annexation would represent a violation of international law,” he said. Australia, in a rare criticism of Israel, warned against “unilateral annexation or change in status of territory on the West Bank”.

France, Germany, several other European states and the United Nations all oppose annexation, as do the Gulf Arab states, with which Israel has increasingly sought warmer ties. Germany’s parliament, however, passed a motion Wednesday warning against “unilateral sanctions or threats of sanctions” on Israel over annexation. Such moves would “have no constructive effect” on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, it said. The EU cannot threaten sanctions against Israel without unanimous support among members. Jordan, one of only two Arab nations that has diplomatic ties with Israel, has repeatedly warned against the move, saying annexation could trigger a “massive conflict”.

Domestic opposition
Israel’s defense minister and alternate prime minister Benny Gantz has said annexation must wait until the coronavirus crisis has been contained, amid a sharp spike in new Israeli and Palestinian cases. Israel annexed east Jerusalem following the 1967 Six Day War and then the Golan Heights on the Syrian border in 1981, in moves never recognized by most of the international community. While some settlers have urged Netanyahu to take similar action in the West Bank, some hardliners oppose the Trump plan as it envisions the creation of a Palestinian state across roughly 70 percent of the West Bank. – Agencies