Today the world watches as the latest round of violent escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unfolds. It is incumbent upon me as the General Director of Al-Haq, the first Palestinian human rights organization, to once again raise the root cause of this violence, whether it is in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank, and whether it is Palestinians or Israelis being killed by missiles or through abductions.
This underlying cause is the violation of international law, specifically international humanitarian law (IHL), which has been committed since 1967 through Israel’s illegal settlement policy; a policy that has brought over 500,000 Israeli civilians into occupied Palestinian territory.
There is a reason why the transfer of civilians into occupied territory is prohibited under the Fourth Geneva Convention. There is a reason why the transfer of civilians into occupied territory is a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. While death and destruction are a part of any armed conflict, international humanitarian law regulates the conduct of these conflicts in large part to ensure that civilian lives are spared. Israel’s disregard for these international norms governing armed conflict is directly responsible for creating a hostile environment that puts civilians, both Palestinian and Israeli, in harm’s way.
Former Israeli legal advisor, Dr. Theodore Meron, advised the Israeli government in 1967, immediately after it occupied Arab territories, that such a policy of creating civilian settlements would be in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Every Israeli government since then, however, has chosen to ignore the law and instead directly and indirectly facilitated the transfer of hundreds of thousands of Israeli civilians into occupied territory. The Israeli judicial system has played a central role in legitimizing the settlement enterprise by manipulating the law in a way to facilitate this policy.
Despite the consensus of the international community as to its illegality, the lack of political will from many states, especially the United States, has also played a significant role in appeasement, allowing Israel to operate with impunity. While Dr. Meron’s advice did not foretell the consequences of Israel’s settlement enterprise, those consequences continue to be played out in the vicious cycle of violence we see today.
Why was this advice ignored? It was not due to a fear of overpopulation within Israel. While religion, dynamics of political ideology and security are all justifications that have been used over the years to frame the discourse around the issue, Al-Haq’s work in recent years has revealed a much stronger driving force; the benefits to be reaped from the exploitation of Palestinian natural resources.
A recent World Bank report noted that the Palestinians could derive over $3bn annually from the resources in Area C of the West Bank. With most settlements strategically located in the West Bank in order to allow for control over water, land and mineral resources, the Israeli economic benefit reaped at the expense of pushing Israeli and Palestinian civilians toward more frequent confrontation is exposed.
And while Israel withdrew its settlers and military from the Gaza Strip in 2005, it continues to occupy the territory in a manner that still allows for exploitation and control of gas reserves off the coast of the territory. The illegal naval blockade imposed by Israel has not only prevented the development of the Gaza Marine Zone, depriving the Palestinian economy of billions in much needed gas revenues, but also forces the Occupied Palestinian Territory to maintain its dependency on Israel for gas supplies, thus bolstering the Israeli economy.
The exploitation of natural resources by a foreign power is the hallmark of colonial history; a history which is being repeated today in occupied Palestinian territory. While IHL was not as developed during the scramble for Africa or during WWII as it is today, the colonial goals of the past are now pre-empted in modern IHL with the prohibition of pillage in addition to population transfer. These prohibitions, however, require political will for enforcement.
The lack of political will from the Israeli side is understandable from a business sense, as it would require the wealth of this part of the Fertile Crescent to be shared. This conflict is not just measured by casualties and destruction, but by dollars and cents as well. The natural resources being taken today are scarce, finite and non-replenishable, which explains their value relative to the cost of lives lost. Unfortunately, these are the kind of cold-hearted calculations made with a business mentality that helps to explain why these crimes are allowed to continue with impunity.
In order for a just peace to be achieved that stops this vicious cycle of violence, the international community must act to end Israel’s illegal activities, because Israel will never willingly give up such a profitable enterprise. The framework for achieving this just peace is found in international law and only through its respect and enforcement can such a peace be achieved. Until then, casualties on both sides will continue to be collateral damage to overarching colonial ambitions.
Shawan Jabarin is General Director of Al-Haq, an independent Palestinian non-governmental human rights organization based in Ramallah, Palestine
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