Over the past 40 years Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip has aggressively targeted both the land and the people of the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). Not simply haphazard structures of concrete, steel and tarmac, Israel’s settlements and their accompanying maze of bypass roads, hundreds of checkpoints, other movement restrictions and the Annexation Wall, are ever-increasing monuments to the dispossession and subjugation of the Palestinian people, at the expense of their fundamental rights guaranteed under international law. Supporting the physical infrastructure of the occupation is an invisible system of administrative restrictions and military dictates. Military orders serve as the arbitrary basis for land expropriation, property destruction and the exclusion of Palestinians from vast tracts of land, while a permit regime further restricts movement and stifles social, economic and cultural existence. Since the beginning of the occupation, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been arbitrarily arrested and detained, thousands more killed in extra-judicial executions, and an estimated 115,000 forcibly displaced internally, while over six million Palestinians remain refugees, unable to return to their homeland. The occupation is not benign. It is aggressive. It is an accumulation of 40 years of violations of international law through which Israel has advanced a policy of control, isolation and annexation of Palestinian land, and the dispossession of the Palestinian people. Ultimately, the occupation eviscerates not only their rights as individuals, but also their most fundamental right as a people — the right to self-determination.
On this, the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, the international community must not only clearly renounce its tacit acquiescence to Israel’s violations of international law, but also commit to concrete action to end these violations, and in doing so, end the occupation itself.
Transforming the land, targeting the people
Israel’s intention to annex Palestinian land became evident in the immediate aftermath of the June 1967 war. Approximately 30 settlements were established in the first 18 months of the occupation; 40 years later, there are some 149 settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, housing more than 450,000 settlers. These settlements, including built-up areas, land reserves and non-developed areas within the settlements’ boundaries control approximately 40 percent of the total land area of the occupied West Bank, the vast majority of which is off-limits to Palestinians.
In parallel to Israel’s settlement enterprise, the annexation of territory is further enabled by Israeli policies which isolate Palestinians from their land and each other, in particular through physical and administrative restrictions on their freedom of movement. Checkpoints, roadblocks, trenches, road gates, and other physical barriers prevent Palestinians from traveling freely within the West Bank. In July 2007, the UN recorded a total of 545 physical obstacles to Palestinian movement; they are accompanied by a pervasive permit system that limits the movement of Palestinians through certain checkpoints, and confines them to specific roads and areas of the OPT.
The most recent tool in Israel’s policy of territorial acquisition is the construction of the Annexation Wall in the West Bank. Begun in June 2002, the route of the Wall encroaches deep into the West Bank to surround major settlements housing over 80 percent of the settler population. Stretching over twice the length of the Green Line (the de facto border between Israel and the OPT), some 80 percent of the Wall will be built inside the West Bank. Already over 56 percent complete, once the structure is finished, approximately 10 percent of the West Bank will be isolated between the Green Line and the Wall, including both East Jerusalem and some of the most arable land in the northern West Bank, as well as some of the OPT’s most essential water resources.
The system effectively serves to fragment the West Bank and its population into isolated geographical units, an archipelago of land-locked Palestinian islands in a sea of Israeli control, with movement between them heavily restricted. In recent years a number of these checkpoints, deep within the West Bank and along the route of the Wall, have developed into terminals similar to international border crossings, testifying to their intended permanence.
The interaction of Israel’s settlements, movement restrictions, Wall and permit system as harbingers of annexation has been most blatant in occupied East Jerusalem. Approximately two weeks after the end of the June 1967 war, the Israeli authorities announced the extension of their jurisdiction over East Jerusalem as well as a sizable amount of the land of surrounding Palestinian villages. The Israeli-defined municipal borders of Jerusalem more than doubled through this de facto annexation. Approximately one-third of the illegally annexed land was expropriated to build 12 settlements, currently home to over 250,000 Israeli settlers. The majority of the remaining land was re-zoned so as to prevent Palestinian use, and in effect serves as a land reserve for further settlement construction and expansion. While Palestinians constitute over 50 percent of the population of East Jerusalem, through a complex intersection of physical and administrative measures, only 7.3 percent of the land therein is available for Palestinian construction, most of which is already built-up. Palestinian movement to and from the city is massively restricted, and further limited by the route of the Wall which encloses all settlements in and surrounding East Jerusalem, permanently sealing the city off from the rest of the West Bank.
A similar pattern of annexation is apparent in other areas of the West Bank, most notably in the Jordan Valley. This area, one of the most fertile in the OPT and thus a critical part of the fragile (and agricultural-dependent) Palestinian economy, forms approximately 25 percent of the West Bank. Israeli authorities established settlements in the region from the early days of the occupation, declaring it a closed military area, which enabled the effective confiscation and expropriation of much of the land in the area. At present, Israel controls an estimated 90 percent of the land, to which Palestinians are denied access and use. This denial has been implemented through an invisible Wall of permits, checkpoints and restricted access roads that allow Israel to exert total control over the movement of Palestinians to and from the Jordan Valley.
The consistent policy of the Israeli government has been that control over East Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley, and the settlement “blocs” will be retained by Israel in any negotiated solution. The current Israeli prime minister has himself stated that the Jordan Valley constitutes Israel’s “eastern border,” and that the route of the Wall, which incorporates the settlement “blocs” and East Jerusalem, will be the basis of the future border of the state of Israel.
Despite its lack of contiguity with the West Bank, the Gaza Strip with its population of 1.5 million Palestinians is an integral part of the OPT. On 15 September 2005, Israel completed its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, removing some 8,000 Israeli settlers and its military forces from the Gaza Strip. The stated objective of the Disengagement Plan was, in its initial formulation, the removal of the “basis for claiming that the Gaza Strip is occupied territory,” seeking to “dispel claims regarding Israel’s responsibility for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.” Further, trying to negate its occupation, the Israeli government has recently declared the Gaza Strip “hostile territory” and used this designation as the basis for the overt and indiscriminate punishment of the Palestinian civilian population therein. Despite these legal gymnastics, as long as Israel remains in effective control of the Gaza Strip — requiring only that it has the ability to make its authority felt within a reasonable time — it remains an occupying power. Israel’s exclusive border control, maintenance of authority over the Palestinian population registry, and repeated and ongoing military operations in Gaza, ranging from shelling to large-scale ground invasions, clearly demonstrate that this remains the case.
An unlawful occupation
The sustained patterns of abuse perpetrated for the last 40 years against the Palestinian people, lead to the inevitable conclusion that the practices inherent in Israel’s prolonged occupation of the OPT are in violation of international human rights and humanitarian law. The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits, inter alia, an Occupying Power from transferring part of its civilian population into the occupied territory, and the confiscation or destruction of property except where required by imperative military necessity. The restrictions on Palestinian movement, and by extension on access to healthcare, education and employment, constitute clear violations of human rights, as do ill-treatment at checkpoints, arbitrary detentions and extra-judicial executions. These violations are not separate from the occupation but are at its core, intrinsic to its everyday existence in the lives of the Palestinian people. While these pervasive and systematic individual violations committed against Palestinian civilians through the occupation are enough to assert that the occupation itself is illegal, Israel’s policy in the OPT goes beyond disregarding binding human rights and humanitarian protections and extends to total contempt for general principles of international law, namely, the prohibition on the acquisition of territory by force and the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.
The illegality of the acquisition of territory by force is a foundation of international law that finds expression in the UN Charter and resolutions Security Council and General Assembly. It is recognized by the international community as a prohibition from which no derogation is permitted. As already noted, Israel intends to retain its settlements in the OPT in any negotiations, amounting to a declared intention to acquire territory by force in violation of international law.
Further, the retention of settlements and their associated infrastructure by Israel would not only amount to the illegal annexation of territory, but would also fragment the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, into isolated geographical units. When this is considered in parallel with the total isolation of the Gaza Strip, this makes a mockery of the idea of territorial contiguity in the OPT, and severely undermines any possibility of the meaningful exercise by the Palestinian people of their inalienable right to self-determination. In stifling the ability of the Palestinian people to exercise their right to self-determination, and other fundamental rights, Israel denies them the ability to shape their own future and live in dignity, further fueling instability.
The role of the international community
The sustained denial by Israel of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, with the tacit acquiescence of the international community, fails not only to recognize the legitimate right of the Palestinian people to free themselves of oppressive occupation but further suggests such an aspiration is not worthy of international support. With the acquiescence of the international community, the meaningful exercise of the right to self-determination has been all but decimated by four decades of Israeli occupation. Rather than affirming the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people, the international community has opted to seek to mitigate the disastrous effects of Israel’s illegal policies and practices in the OPT. In doing so, it has failed to meaningfully address the root causes of the conflict, voicing at best timid criticism devoid of concrete action and thereby serving only to feed despair and isolation, further removing international law as a reference point in the Palestinian struggle.
In 2006, in the wake of the democratic election of the Palestinian Legislative Council, this sense of isolation was heightened by the role that the international community played in actively undermining the Palestinian national institutions they championed only a decade before as key elements of the realization of the Palestinian right to self-determination. The financial boycott of the Palestinian National Authority, already exercising substantially limited governance responsibilities, has rendered these institutions all but destitute. In such an atmosphere it is little surprise that disarray has become common currency. It is also notable that this is the first time in history that sanctions have been imposed on the victims of an oppressive regime rather than on the regime itself.
Now the international community has stumbled into another peace process, that similar to all past efforts, be they formal or informal, gives international legal norms little import, blindly assuming that peace can be realized without justice and accountability. In the context of a current global environment in which “security” concerns trump the rule of law, reason and democratic dissent, the Israeli authorities have increasing latitude to continue their unlawful practices in the OPT. Despite this ongoing pattern of violations, few remedies have been made available to Palestinians. This is compounded by the fact that those officials responsible enjoy undisputed immunity, in both Israel and abroad.
This systematic denial of justice is enabled by a deficit of enforcement from a seemingly indifferent international community. Rather, international leaders make diplomatic overtures which seek to realize a more benevolent occupation, without addressing the core of the problem — the occupation itself. In this respect the full implementation of international law must be taken as the unalterable core of any negotiated solution, and not simply treated as a disposable political afterthought.
The occupation was built by action, not words, at the expense of the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people. Action, and not only words, is therefore required to reaffirm these rights and in doing so end the occupation. The international community has the economic and diplomatic tools at its disposal to ensure Israel’s respect of international law, whether as the individual member states, regional organizations or as the United Nations. It is essential that these tools now be used, effectively and in accordance with international law. It is time to place, at this critical point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the imperatives of respect for the rule of law, human dignity and justice as the central narrative for achieving any negotiated solution. If any hope of a peace that is not devoid of meaning it to be achieved, the international community must stir from its complacency and rise to the defense of international law and the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people.