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The Use and Abuse of International Law in the Occupied Territories

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Living and working as a lawyer in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, I have followed the changes that Israel has been making to the laws in force there since the late 1970s. Over the course of the first 24 years of its occupation, Israel imposed laws affecting every aspect of Palestinian life—from land and water use to mobility and zoning—that have enabled the establishment of Israeli settlements and redefined the lives of Palestinians on their own land. And yet, during most of these years, there was seemingly little or no interest shown by the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian political leadership based outside the Occupied Territories in these legal maneuvers, leaving it up to human-rights organizations like Al Haq, an affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists, and the Palestine Human Rights Information Center to document these changes and show how they violated international law.

When negotiations started in 1991 between Israel and the Palestinians, who were represented by a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation in Washington, I thought this situation might change, so I joined the delegation in order to ensure that any agreement signed by the PLO would not have the effect of consolidating Israel’s violations of international law. The West Bank delegation that I advised knew exactly what I was talking about, and yet we found little interest among the PLO’s Tunis leadership.

Throughout my time in Washington, I wondered why this was so. Did the PLO have an alternative plan to address Israeli and international law or a separate channel for negotiations? After the first year, I gave up and left the talks. Two years later, I read the 1993 Oslo Accords Declaration of Principles and saw my worst fears confirmed: The PLO had fallen into every trap that the Israeli delegation prepared. Just as I warned, Israel succeeded in consolidating the laws it implemented that restrict Palestinian life in Gaza and the West Bank and that enable the expansion of its settlements.

After the Palestinian Authority was consolidated in 1995, its leadership continued to ignore the legal dimensions of the occupation. In the absence of such pressure, Israel continued to implement all of its plans in the Occupied Territories, even when they were in violation of the accords.

Why did the PLO, the Palestinian Authority, and other representatives repeatedly fail to use the law to the Palestinian people’s advantage? How did their view of the law differ so significantly from the Israeli government’s? And how did Israel succeed in creating alternative legal regimes for regulating Palestinian lives that fell outside the purview of international laws relating to war and occupation? All of these questions have haunted the history of the region for the past half century, and they now find some compelling answers in Noura Erakat’s Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine.

Israel’s legal maneuvers go back to 1951, when it won concessions in the United Nations’ Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees that allowed it not to recognize as refugees those Palestinians forced out of what became Israel in 1948, as long as they received assistance from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. It is an exclusion that is in effect to this day.

Since that exception, Israel has done everything in its power to continue to manipulate and avoid adhering to those conventions under international law governing refugees. In the 1950s and ’60s, Israel kept the estimated 160,000 Palestinians who had not fled or been expelled during the 1948 war under what amounted to a martial-law regime through a declaration that the country was still in a state of emergency and the adoption of what came to be known as the Defense Emergency Regulations. By doing so, Erakat observes, Israel racialized martial law in order “to dispossess, displace, and above all, contain its native population.”

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Thanks !

Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !