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The UN Stumbles on Israeli Settlements


On December 19, the US was saved from having to whip out its veto to defend Israel. The UN Security Council (UNSC) debated the issue of settlement building by Israel on the occupied Palestinian Territories. The bloc of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) hoped for a vote that would condemn Israeli action, with the NAM statement calling for Israel “to put a stop to settlement construction and to provocative announcements about building the settlements.” “Settlement activities and illegal actions by extremist Israeli settlers,” the NAM bloc underscored, “are also causing extensive physical, economic and social devastation throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” India’s Ambassador to the UN, Hardeep Singh Puri read out the NAM statement. Puri’s India was one of the parties of the IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa) statement which called settlement building a violation of international law and “a major obstacle to peace efforts.”

Even the British, otherwise yoked to the side of the US, pointed out that this new settlement activity, in the E-1 area between the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim and Jerusalem, goes far beyond the pale. “The construction of settlements threatens the two-state solution,” said UK Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, a Middle Temple lawyer who knows more than a thing or two about international law. Actually you don’t even need to be a lawyer to know that international law is being violated brazenly. The 1949 Geneva Conventions (article 49) says quite plainly, “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” No one doubts that Israeli seized the West Bank in the 1967 war and has occupied it since then. No doubt either that it is article 49 of Geneva that has motivated the UN to keep track of this settlement issue (it was what framed Resolution 446 of the UNSC, which affirmed “once more that the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 12 August 1949 1/ is applicable to the Arab territories occupied by Israel since 1967, including Jerusalem” and so “determines that the policy and practices of Israel in establishing settlements in the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967 have no legal validity and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East”).

Settlement activity picked up over the course of these two year, and so too has UN unease. In February 2011, at the high point of the Arab Spring, fourteen members of the UNSC were prepared to vote on a resolution that condemned Israel’s settlement activity. The US vetoed the resolution. Ambassador Susan Rice played a delicate game. The veto, she said, must “not be misunderstood to mean we support settlement activity. For more than four decades, Israeli settlement activity in territories occupied in 1967 has undermined Israel’s security and corroded hopes for peace and stability in the region. Continued settlement activity violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties and threatens the prospects for peace.” The US, in other words, was on the side of the majority but could not possibly vote with them. Too much was at risk.

Such high-stakes cynicism returned once more this summer. The UN Human Right Council empaneled a fact-finding mission (FFM) led by the respected French jurist Christine Chanet, with Pakistani lawyer Asma Jahangir and Botswana judge Unity Dow as the other two members. The US voted against the creation of this FFM, but could not stop it (there is no veto in the UN-HRC). The FFM tried several times to enter Israel, and via Israeli permission, the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Israel refused. A week before the most recent attack on Gaza, the FFM wound up its work. Judge Chanet noted, “We continue to regret that we were not granted access to the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel in order to carry out further work.” The FFM’s work has been stalled. Meanwhile, Israeli settlers went to work attacking Palestinian olive groves at harvest time. The UN’s envoy Robert Serry told the press: “Israel must live up to its commitments under international law to protect Palestinians and their property in the occupied territory so that the olive harvest—a crucial component of Palestinian livelihoods and the Palestinian economy—can proceed unhindered and in peace.” His comment went unheeded.

Shortly after the UN General Assembly vote to grant Palestine non-member observer status, Israel announced that it would begin to build on E-1, thereby slicing the West Bank into two parts. This was intolerable to the majority in the UN, which then pushed for UNSC condemnation. The Palestinians, in their new position, pushed for a presidential statement (which has to be unanimous) to condemn Israel’s actions or else a council vote (where the veto might be wielded). The US refused to allow either action. It would not sign onto the unanimous presidential statement – the other fourteen members, including the four Europeans (Britain, France, Portugal and Germany), had signed the statement that condemned settlement activity. It would not allow a council vote – that would have been too embarrassing. The President of the UNSC for this month, Morocco’s Mohammed Loulichiki, I am told, did not insist.

The State Department’s Victoria Nuland said that the US was “deeply disappointed that Israel insists on continuing their pattern of provocative action,” but the US nonetheless would not allow the UN to vote on the resolution to condemn Israeli settlement construction.

A whisper outside the UN suggested that it is time for Palestine to take the UN documentation around Operation Cast Lead (2009) to the International Criminal Court and ask for action on it. Ehud Olmert would be brought into the dock if the ICC decided to act. Beaten up by the Israeli courts (and perhaps by his left-wing wife Aliza), Olmert might betray a few confidences held fast by the Israeli elite. He has always been an untrustworthy figure for the hardline, who prefers their people not to be as idiosyncratic (he had, after all, supported the UN bid by the Palestinians).

Such a move is not inconceivable. Palestine’s UN envoy, Riyad Mansour, said after the non-vote, “If the Israelis continue to ignore the wishes of all of us, and if they continue to decide to destroy the two-state solution then we will be able to resort to all possible options available to us to defend ourselves and our people in a better way.” All possible options shall include a trip to the ICC with a big binder.

Pressure has begun to mount on the Palestinians to drop this potential maneuver. A letter has begun to circulate in the US Congress to revoke the license of the General Delegation of the PLO in Washington, DC. Maen Rashid Areikat, the PLO’s chief representative in DC, sent members of Congress a letter in response on December 14, asking them to consider what it might mean to expel the PLO from the US. “History has shown time and again that the language of threats, financial pressure, and punitive measures simply does not work. Withholding our Economic Support Funds (the majority of which goes towards humanitarian assistance and development work) as Congress has been doing over the past year, or threatening to shut down our office will not lead to changes in the Palestinian position.” These are as strong words as one can expect from a generally pliable Palestinian leadership. Whether it shall make sense to the ulcerated US Congress is another matter.

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press). 

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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