It’s Time to Call Israel’s Bluff

Photograph Source: Marc Venezia – CC BY-SA 3.0

For 55 years, Israel has cherry-picked the Geneva Convention which governs the laws of occupation. Throughout this whole period, the international community has been complicit in this deception by doing nothing about it. This has to end if progress is ever to be made in resolving the tragic conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

The situation on the ground is in danger of spinning violently out of control, which will lead inexorably to many more dead and critically maimed Palestinians and Israelis, fomenting ever more misery, bitterness and calls for revenge. The toxins will continue to spill over into other countries.

At the UN General Assembly debate later this month, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, will probably request, once again, full membership for Palestine in the UN which will attract the support of most nations. Already, Palestine is recognized by 138 of the 193 member states, not far short of the 165 for Israel. In line with Israel’s bidding, the main obstacle is the US veto at the Security Council, the UN body which has the final say. As before, Abbas might set a deadline for full recognition and the end of the Israeli occupation but, without a coherent strategy and a sting in the tail, it will again be of no consequence.  This would be another lost opportunity.

A single question to Israel could make all the difference: “Is your rule over Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip a military occupation, or not?” Israel’s answer, including a refusal to answer, would dictate the next actions. They could be a game changer. Key to the success of this strategy is the willingness of other states, individually and collectively, to own this simple but compelling question and back it up with effective pressure.

Recognize the state of Palestine

The question matters because Israeli governments have been allowed to have it both ways for more than 55 years and will probably be quite content to continue having it both ways for a further 55 years unless its stance is robustly challenged. Israel’s claim – supported by no other country — that, on technical grounds, it is not an occupation, has been used by successive governments to defy the Geneva Convention’s prohibition on expropriating or settling parts of the captured territory by an occupying power. But, when it suits its purpose, Israel shields behind other provisions of the Convention. Probably the most egregious example is the justification for withholding from the occupied Palestinians the political, civil and legal rights enjoyed by Israeli citizens on the grounds that an occupying power is prohibited from altering the legal status of an occupied territory’s inhabitants. This selectivity has been a colossal bluff.

It’s time to call the bluff.  We hold that there is no justification for further delay in pressing Israel into making a definitive choice — one way or the other. If Israel deems its rule over the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip to be an occupation, with its connotation of temporariness, then it is way beyond time for its provisional custodianship to be brought to a swift end by announcing its intention to withdraw, and then withdrawing. If it deems it not to be an occupation, then there is no justification in international law for not granting full and equal rights to every inhabitant of the whole space under Israel’s control, regardless of ethnicity.

In the first case–where it is deemed to be an occupation–the Israeli government should be called upon to publish plans for promptly ending its occupation by a designated date. In the second case–where Israel denies its rule is an occupation–the international community is entitled to hold the Israeli government accountable to the equality standard, meaning that, pending a final resolution of the conflict–whenever and whatever that might be–equal treatment for everyone under Israel’s jurisdiction should replace ethnic discrimination as the default position. In either case, the very unequal status quo would no longer be an acceptable option.

Smart pressure

Concerted external pressure would of course be needed–maybe starting with civil societies on their own governments to adopt this stance–but pressure would be required for any scenario that attempted to alter the status quo and create a new momentum. What is important is that the aim should be clear, focused and capable of attracting support at the highest levels, and that the pressure should be smart, systematic and strategically targeted, not scattergun or blunderbuss. It should include not just prospective penalties but incentives too, such as the promise of involving Israel in regional programmes and broadening diplomatic recognition. The pressure may spark new political currents within Israel that may hasten the return to the national agenda of the recklessly neglected debate to end the occupation.When Israel gets the message that maintaining a military occupation is no longer in its interest, things will change.

An interim option, if necessary, could be to replace Israeli governance with a temporary international trusteeship or protectorate for a limited period, pending Palestinian independence.

Calling for the resumption of bilateral talks is pointless. The main reason why past negotiations were doomed before they began is the vast disparity between the powerful Israeli political agency and the very weak Palestinian political agency. This will only be rectified, to an extent, when the Palestinians, like the Israelis, have their own state, with all that that entails. This has all along has been the vital missing parameter. Thus the urgency of all countries to recognize a Palestinian state now whatever the hoped-for eventual outcome.

States—sovereign, independent states—are how the world is currently organized, and the Palestinians, who at times of crisis have been expelled from more than one friendly Arab state, apart from being maltreated by Israel, have no less a need for one than other peoples. If in the future the world is structured on different lines, the Palestinian need for a state will surely evaporate along with everyone else’s need.

What our proposal is not

Our proposal is not a silver bullet. Rather it is a strategic move available to us today, and possibly for a limited time, to advance a lasting peace in the future.

Our proposal is not a solution. Rather, it recognizes that a key element of the solution, the Palestinian state, is a given today and it holds that making progress in this area would positively influence other aspects of this conflict.

Our proposal does not bring Palestinian refugees back home. Rather, it recognizes that, as life under military occupation is unsustainable, life in refugeedom is even more unsustainable and must immediately be addressed.

Our proposal does not resolve the issue of structural discrimination against Palestinian citizens in Israel. Rather, this is an issue Israel will need to deal with regardless of their occupation ending or not.

Our proposal does not redefine the Palestinian political program. Rather, it is focused on what the international community can do today, to give meaning to its repeated calls for the end of the occupation. Third states can and must act, individually, and collectively where possible. It is cowardly and self-defeating for states to hide behind a need for a collective decision that, in effect, requires Israeli approval in order to act!

Our proposal is not an Oslo-style—”let’s-talk-until-Kingdom-come” approach—while the Israeli occupation simultaneously continues to entrench itself deeper and deeper with full impunity. Rather, it is very conscious of one of the strategic flaws of Oslo which allowed for Palestinian recognition of Israel without reciprocal recognition by Israel of Palestine. We don’t expect this to be rectified imminently. Israel might be the last state to recognize Palestine. We would settle for that! The target of our proposal and the driver for this action is the international community, meaning individual third states, countries acting collectively like the EU and other regional structures and, of no less importance, civil societies.

The influence these states and entities have is tremendous. They underwrite a lot of today’s reality—as donor states to Palestinians and major trading partners with and accomplices of Israel. In effect, they subsidize the occupation. They have leverage and if they use it strategically as proposed it could make all the difference.

The price of inaction

The alternative is to carry on as things are, meaning Israel would continue to rule over the Palestinians indefinitely without granting them civil or political rights. It would mean the continuation of the belligerent settlement project and further expropriation of Palestinian land. In short, it would mean perpetuating Palestinian dispossession and suffering. It would also mean endless conflict with all its global repercussions.

For Israel’s Jewish citizens, it would mean their further isolation, an expanding boycott campaign, growing challenges to the legitimacy of the state itself, spreading accusations of apartheid and the steady erosion of internal democracy, a telling symptom of the moral damage exacted on a society that daily enforces a despised military rule over another people.

The bottom line is that until the Palestinians, like the Israelis, achieve their primary choice of self-determination in their own state — if ever they do — they should no longer, in the modern era, be denied equal rights in whichever lands they inhabit, including in Arab states. In the case of Israel and its indefinite occupation, this means putting an end to the cherry-picking of international law and the resultant inequities that have lasted for far too long.

An original version of this proposal was published by Le Monde Diplomatique in April 2014.

Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American business consultant in Ramallah and blogs at Dr Tony Klug is a veteran Middle East analyst based in the UK.