The Sahrawi people of Western Sahara, Palestinians, and human rights defenders around the world expressed outrage Thursday after President Donald Trump announced an agreement in which the U.S. will recognize as legitimate the illegal occupation of that territory by Morocco in exchange for the North African kingdom’s establishing full diplomatic ties with Israel.
Trump’s announcement—which came on Human Rights Day—means the United States now officially recognizes as legitimate the occupations of both Palestine and Western Sahara. Such acts are illegal under the Hague Regulations, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that an “occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”
The agreement did not come as a surprise to many observers. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had reportedly been lobbying the U.S. for months to recognize Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara in exchange for the regime of King Mohammed VI establishing official diplomatic relations with Israel. Morocco and Israel have for decades closely—but secretly—cooperated on issues ranging from intelligence sharing, antiterrorism operations, and the emigration of Moroccan Jews to Israel.
Morocco now joins Bahrain, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates in normalizing relations with Israel via U.S.-brokered deals in recent months. Numerous international relations experts, however, say the agreements between Israel and the dynastic dictatorships in Bahrain and the UAE look less like peace pacts and more like unofficial military alliances targeting Iran.
In late 1975, Moroccan troops entered Western Sahara after Spanish forces withdrew from their former colony in what were literally the dying days of Generalissimo Francisco Franco and his fascist regime. Moroccan warplanes bombed the indigenous Sahrawi people with weapons including napalm and white phosphorus (pdf), fueling a mass exodus of about half the population into neighboring Algeria as the government under King Hassan II orchestrated a “Green March” of hundreds of thousands of Moroccan civilians into the phosphate- and fishery-rich territory in order to gain control over it.
Morocco has occupied the vast desert territory ever since, annexing what it calls Moroccan Sahara in 1976, with additional land annexed after forces from neighboring Mauritania withdrew in 1979. Moroccan occupation forces built a 1,700-mile mostly sand wall to keep Algerian-backed Sahrawi militants out of the territory, while denying Sahrawis inside their occupied homeland the U.N.-backed referendum they’ve been awaiting for decades.
Western Sahara is today known among locals and human rights advocates as “Africa’s last colony.”
Sahrawi militants—known as the Polisario Front—have resisted Morrocan occupation for 45 years, and today control some 20-25% of Western Sahara. They call the territory under their control the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which scores of United Nations member states have recognized since it was proclaimed in 1976. However, more than half of these countries have since either withdrawn or suspended their recognition.
Until Trump’s announcement virtually no country had officially accepted Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara.
Relations between the U.S. and Morocco—which in 1777 was the first nation to recognize the nascent United States—havebeen close throughout the decades of occupation in Western Sahara. In 1975 Secretrary of State Henry Kissinger told President Gerald Ford that he hoped for “a rigged U.N. vote” (pdf) affirming Moroccan sovereignty over the territory. Successive administrations of both parties have supported the royal regime, which has purchased hundreds of millions of dollars worth of American weapons to use against the Sahrawis.
Today, Moroccan settlers make up more than two-thirds of Western Sahara’s population of approximately 600,000. A shaky U.N.-backed ceasefire between the government and the Polisario front lasted from 1991 until last month, when SADR President Brahim Ghali declared it over after he said that Moroccan troops opened fire on peaceful protesters.
As renewed hostilities erupt between the government and the resistance, at least 173,600 Sahrawi refugees still reside in five camps in Algeria’s western Tindouf province in one of the world’s most protracted—yet least noticed—refugee crises.
Inside occupied Western Sahara, Moroccan forces have brutally oppressed the Sahrawi people under their rule, severely restricting freedom of expression, movement, association, and the press, and utilizing arbitrary arrest and torture as tools of repression, according to a 2015 report (pdf) by Amnesty International, as well as documentation by other human rights groups.
Sahrawis—men, women, young, and old—who peacefully protest the occupation are often brutally beaten and arrested by Moroccan occupation forces. Former prisoners, some of whom have been forcibly disappeared for years or even decades, have described torture by electrocution, waterboarding, caustic chemicals, and attack dogs.
One Sahrawi woman, Sultana Khaya, described to Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman—who was incessantly surveilled and sometimes harassed when she reported from the territory without Moroccan authorization in 2018—how she lost an eye when she was brutally attacked by state security forces while peacefully protesting in 2007.
[An officer] recognized me. And he jabbed right at my eye with his baton. When he did that, I bent over, and I could feel my eyeball in my hand. I was yelling at him, “Hey, you Moroccan! You pulled out my eye!”
Khaya told Goodman she knows Sahrawis will one day be free.
“The determination of the people is invincible,” she defiantly declared.
In the fall of 2010, a peaceful Sahrawi protest camp at Gdeim Izik was violently dispersed by Moroccan security forces, with local activists claiming dozens of deaths. American academic Noam Chomsky has argued that the Arab Spring revolutions—widely credited as starting when Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself to death on December 17, 2010—actually began at Gdeim Izik.
Pro-independence Sahrawis and their international allies reacted with disappointment and defiance to the news of Thursday’s agreement, with many accusing the U.S. of trading away their freedom. In a statement, the Polisario Front condemned the deal “in the strongest terms,” adding that “Trump’s decision does not change the legal nature of the Sahara issue because the international community does not recognise Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.”
“Only the people of Western Sahara can decide their own future as they have an inalienable right to self-determination recognized by the U.N. since 1963,” tweeted Kamal Fadel, the Polisario representative to Australia and New Zealand. “Let’s remind President Trump that this is a decolonization issue and cannot be used as a bargaining chip in other deals.”
“We were shocked when we saw Trump’s tweet,” Ahmed Ettanji, a journalist and activist in the Western Saharan capital city of Laayoune, told Middle East Eye. “At the same time, it’s not something new. As a Sahrawi, I’ve seen the U.S. back Morocco for many decades.”
“But there is some hope that the next administration will be different,” Ettanji added, referring to President-elect Joe Biden.
Palestinian leaders also condemned the agreement.
“Any Arab retreat from the  Arab Peace Initiative, which stipulates that normalization comes only after Israel ends its occupation of Palestinian and Arab lands, is unacceptable and increases Israel’s belligerence and its denial of the Palestinian people’s rights,” Bassam al-Salhi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee, told Al Jazeera.
Palestinian diplomat and scholar Hanan Ashrawi told Democracy Now! on Friday that the “Trump administration… has been acting as the errand boy for Israel in order to try to get as many victories, as many benefits, as many privileges for Israel.”
“And right now it’s rushing like mad in a race against time before [leaving] office, in order to reposition Israel, to normalize relations with the Arab world, and to deliver Palestine to Israel and to legalize or legitimize the occupation of Palestine and the land theft of Palestine.”
Very few elected U.S. officials have spoken out against the Trump administration’s endorsement of the crimes of occupation and population transfer in either Palestine or Western Sahara.
Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.)—one of the rare outspoken critics of U.S. foreign policy in both Palestine and Western Sahara—condemned Trump’s move.
Perhaps the harshest criticism of Trump’s move came from a close Republican ally not normally known for championing human rights. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a longtime vocal advocate for Sahrawi independence, called the president’s decision “shocking and deeply disappointing.”
“I am saddened that the rights of the Western Saharan people have been traded away,” Inhofe said in a statement. “The president has been poorly advised by his team; he could have made this deal without trading the rights of a voiceless people.”
Vowing he “won’t stop fighting” for the Sahrawis, Inhofe added that “today’s announcement does not change the United Nations or [European Union] positions, nor the charter of the African Union, nor the opinion of the [International Court of Justice]—a referendum must still happen.”
“I urge these organizations to stand strong to support Western Sahara’s right to self-determination and am confident the U.S. will be able to return to the policy we’ve held since 1966,” he said.
Inhofe’s advocacy of Sahrawi independence stands in stark contrast with his unwaveringly staunch support for Israeli policies and actions condemned by international human rights officials and organizations as apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and even genocide (pdf).