Yesterday, an Israeli government-appointed panel of judges issued a report declaring that Israel’s presence in the West Bank does not constitute an occupation, and therefore Israel is not bound by the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the protection of civilians, and free to build as many settlements and transfer as much of its own population into the West Bank as it wants (see the English language PDF summary here).
The committee’s findings were not exactly a surprise. The committee chair, Edmond Levy, is known to be a supporter of the settlements, and was the sole dissenter in the 2005 Israeli Supreme Court decision ruling the Gaza withdrawal to be legal. Versions of this argument have also been made before, perhaps most notably by Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon in a 2005 Wall Street Journal op-ed.
The difference here, said Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard, who has brought dozens of cases against settlements in Israeli courts, “is that this is a supposedly committee of jurists, and this is a legal position that they are taking,” not just a political position. “It’s one thing to be a politician and to hold certain views about what ought to be. That’s fine and legitimate. It’s a completely different matter to make legal assertions.” Many countries have territorial demands and disputes with other countries, Sfard said, “but they don’t simply ignore the legal consensus about the status of these territories. They conduct their disputes diplomatically in international affairs.”
According to Sfard, while Israel may have legitimate territorial aspirations in the West Bank — “I don’t agree, but it’s legitimate” — it tries to materialize those aspirations though negotiations with Palestinians and other countries. “Holding negotiations is legitimate, and it’s legitimate for a government to say ‘here’s what we want,’” Sfard said. “It’s a different matter to simply deny the legal framework that applies.”
“International law is based on consensus,” Sfard continued, “and if most of the jurists of international law, all U.N. organs, the International Court of Justice, multiple U.N. Security Council and General Assembly resolutions, the International Committee of the Red Cross, all agree that [the West Bank] is occupied territory, it is highly immodest for this committee to say otherwise, and for the government of Israel to even reflect on adopting this, sorry, but bizarre position.”
Asked about the report, U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell reiterated the U.S. position on the illegitimacy of settlements. “Obviously, we’ve seen the reports that an Israeli Government appointed panel has recommended legalizing dozens of Israeli settlements in the West Bank,” he said, “but we do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity and we oppose any effort to legalize settlement outposts.”