International law enacted to protect occupied peoples against state violence is being flouted by Israel with impunity – and it’s just not sustainable, argue Hanlie Booysen and Nadine Kreitmeyr

Israel’s settlement policy is behind the current violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories.

Aotearoa New Zealand-sponsored UNSC Resolution 2334 of December 23, 2016 warns that the status quo, that is, the Israeli military occupation of 5.4 million Palestinians, is not sustainable. Moreover, the resolution reaffirms that:

“The establishment by Israel of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-state solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace”.

After 73 years of war, occupation, and broken promises, explanations for the current death and destruction are complex. Political radicalisation in Israel and the political standoff between Hamas and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) have undermined effective leadership on both sides of the conflict.

Adding to the tensions are competing claims to religious symbols such as the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound/Haram al-Sharif, Islam’s third holiest site, which Jewish Israelis venerate as the Second Jewish Temple. However, the catalyst for the current violence is the looming eviction of about 500 Palestinians – 27 families – from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem, to make space for illegal settlers, backed by the state.

The standoff in Sheikh Jarrah is far more than a “real estate dispute”, as it is characterised by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. The neighbourhood is named after Hussam al-Din al-Jarrahi, the physician of the Kurdish leader Salah al-Din (Saladin), who won Palestine back from the Crusaders in 1187.

Situated in occupied Arab East Jerusalem, Sheikh Jarrah found itself under Jordanian administrative control, after an armistice agreement between Jordan and Israel in April 1949. Two years earlier, fearing civil unrest, the UN General Assembly designated Jerusalem as corpus separatum or placed under a separate international regime, while the final status of Jerusalem was deferred to a future date.

Jordan, with the support of the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA), built a number of houses in Sheikh Jarrah and resettled 28 Palestinian families who fled their homes and villages during the Palestinian Nakba/Israeli war of independence in 1948. In 1959, these Palestinians became the legal owners of their homes. However, in the 1967 war, Israel occupied East Jerusalem and then in 1980, annexed it.

Since 1967, Israeli courts have facilitated the Judaisation of East Jerusalem, including the establishment of illegal settlements in Sheikh Jarrah based on a claim that Jewish families were living in the area during the Ottoman-era.

Sheikh Jarrah, like Silwan or Hebron, underlines the contentious nature of Israel’s settler-colonial project. Today, there are more than 620,000 Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, including 212,000 in East Jerusalem. The Israeli legal system supports and encourages settlements.

For example, the Law for the regulation of land in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), allows, even retroactively, the legalisation of Israeli outposts and settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Right-wing settler groups, such as Lahav Shomron in Sheikh Jarrah, are motivated by ideology and often include recent immigrants from the United States.

Economic and financial incentives, such as subsidies, grants, tax breaks, and free schooling are used to motivate Israeli citizens, especially from low-income families, ultraorthodox communities and the unemployed to settle in the occupied West Bank. The state also invests in infrastructure in and around settlements, such as bypass roads and the extension of the contested tramway cutting across East Jerusalem.

This infrastructure provides fast and safe connections between settlements and Israeli metropolitan areas, which Palestinians for the most part are not allowed to use. A key justification of the deployment of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) in the occupied West Bank is to protect the illegal settlements. At the same time, settler violence against Palestinians has increased dramatically in recent years. In 2018, settler violence was more than three times higher compared to 2016 and 2017, but such violations rarely result in compensation to their Palestinian targets or punishment for the settlers.

Where does this leave the international community? International law enacted to protect occupied peoples against state violence is flouted by Israel with impunity. Here we can list UNSC Resolution 2334, which was adopted unanimously, the Fourth Geneva Convention, and the opinion of the International Court of Justice (2004), which confirmed that settlements contravene international law.

The crisis created by the current violence has world leaders calling for “de-escalation”, which tragically misses the fact that the military occupation of more than 5.4 million Palestinians is just not sustainable.

Dr Hanlie Booysen is an adjunct research fellow in Religious Studies at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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