As preparations were being made in Washington for the Gulf War, a group of Palestinian intellectuals gathered in a Manhattan apartment to discuss how the Palestine Liberation Organization should respond to Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, was among those in attendance. He has confirmed to us that – after much debate – the conclusion was clear: occupation is occupation, no matter who was responsible and even if the impending American war was equally illegitimate.
It was a moral and political miscalculation which led to approximately 400,000 Palestinians being expelled or fleeing from Kuwait after Iraqi forces were dislodged in 1991.
The consequences of that decision to defy international law created a heavy burden for the affected families.
Sadly, it was not the last time the Palestinian leadership would opt for political expediency over international law. This year, the Palestinian Authority has supported China in its territorial claim over the South China Sea.
This was a misguided decision for Palestinian representatives, whose moral and political case rests entirely on the pillars of international humanitarian and human rights law.
Indeed, international instruments have proven important to the Palestinian struggle and have the potential to do so again. In 2004, the International Court of Justice stated that Israel’s wall inside the West Bank was illegal.
Last year – after Israel had pummeled the Gaza Strip in three major attacks since 2008 – the PA acceded to the International Criminal Court with a view to prosecuting senior Israeli officers for war crimes.
Israel and its supporters are clearly perturbed by efforts to prosecute Israel. The pro-Israel lobby has complained that such efforts are occurring. Holding Israel accountable for violating international law is viewed as intolerable by the state’s supporters.
In comparison, the case against China was brought to the Permanent Court of Arbitration – an international body based in The Hague – by the Philippines. The Philippines wanted to challenge the Chinese claim for exclusive control over almost all of the South China Sea – as far as the so-called Nine Dash Line.
The journalist Howard French has detailed Chinese efforts to take control by building habitation on previously uninhabitable islands close to its neighbors. China hopes these “facts on the ground” will make it harder for governments around the world to deny its de facto control of the islands and, thus, the waters around them.
To strengthen its claim to the South China Sea, China has declared Sansha, a “city” with a population of 1,500 civilians, to be of high administrative status within its own governmental structures.
China uses spurious historical backing for its claim to own the islands in the South China Sea, while referring to its “sacred rights” over the sea in official propaganda.
French describes the historical claims made by Chinese institutions that Chinese control over the sea dates back to the Tang Dynasty in the ninth century. Such claims, he notes, lack historical evidence to support them.
Indeed, the names that the Chinese have given to the disputed shoals belie these claims. The names are phoneticized versions of the titles given by westerners in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Chinese development of the tiny islands and reefs is highly reminiscent of the Israeli practice of settlement-building in the occupied West Bank.
Israel has also drawn extensively on “sacred” historical rights to justify a moral claim over territory which international law does not permit.
In media statements, Abbas Zaki, a PA diplomat handling relations with Beijing, fully endorsed all of China’s claims.
In one startling statement, he argued that it was unacceptable for the PA that the Philippines should “push hard” for a binding resolution to the dispute, preferring to allow a negotiated resolution based on Chinese “wisdom.” This is the kind of argument that the US has made, when efforts have been made to hold Israel accountable.
The PA’s statements amount to the endorsement of a maritime occupation by China, a country that is seeking a free trade deal with Israel.
In recent years, Israel has also been a key supplier of weapons to China. Although Israel halted a major arms deal with China under US pressure in 2000, military cooperation between Israel and China appears to have continued.
One Chinese arms manufacturer has even noted in a catalogue that its advanced fire control radar is identical to the ELM-2052 manufactured by Elta, an Israeli weapons company.
Strikingly, China has behaved in a manner similar to Israel in pursuing occupation policies. In 1950, China invaded Tibet. That was just two years after the Nakba, the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians by Zionist forces.
Resistance to the invasion of Tibet has been brutally repressed and the Chinese occupation of the territory continues today.
Palestinian representatives surely have a moral duty to demonstrate solidarity with other oppressed and occupied peoples – including the Tibetans.
Of course, international law is as much about politics as it is about the rule of law. There is no global police and the powers of the various international courts are limited.
International law is vital, however, in preventing crimes of aggression. If states undermine or ignore international law because of political expediency, then the system itself will always be subject to the whims of power politics.
Instead, states should support international law even when it is not in their interest. That way the system will become stronger at a time when we need more effective global decision-making structures.
To be sure, the PA leadership needs to be smart at the political game. China backed the Palestinian bid for statehood, which led to Palestinian accession to the International Criminal Court.
But to openly support Chinese violations of international law harms the system and the credibility of any Palestine-led claims through that system.
One option might have been for the PA to abstain from any comment on the matter.
And should there be any uncertainty about the impact of choosing political expediency over international law, then the PA leadership need only ask their fellow Palestinians which side to choose.
The experience of Palestinian refugees expelled from Kuwait or, indeed, forced to live in the shadow of Israeli settlements in the West Bank illustrates why military occupations must always be opposed.
Eoin Murray is a journalist based in Edmonton, Alberta. Since 2004 he has worked for a variety of local and international organizations in the Middle East region. James Mehigan is a lecturer in criminology at the Open University and a barrister specializing in human rights. They are currently co-editing a book of essays by Palestinian and Israeli human rights defenders.