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'Gross violation': Israel's occupation of West Bank illegal, new UN report finds

Palestinians say findings build on 'powerful legal case' against Israel they are putting before the International Court of Justice
Members of the Israeli military block a road south of Hebron in the occupied West Bank, on 21 August 2023 (AFP)

Israel's occupation of the West Bank is illegal under international law, according to a new report commissioned by the UN, which called for Israel's "immediate and unconditional" withdrawal from the territory.

The annual 2023 report, released on Wednesday, was commissioned by the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People.

The report found that Israel had violated several norms of international law to meet the conditions for the occupation to be deemed illegal, including moving to annex parts of the occupied territory, breaching rights of the occupied people, and instituting practices of apartheid.

"The study concludes that Israel is in gross violation of these laws and that the administration of the occupation has become illegal," Michael Lynk, the UN's former special rapporteur on Palestine, told the committee, unveiling the study.

"Because the occupation is illegal, the consequences should be the immediate, unconditional complete withdrawal of Israel's military forces, the withdrawal of colonial settlers, the repeal of all discriminatory laws and dismantling of the military administrative regime," he said.

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Israel has occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem since seizing the land from Jordan in the 1967 war.

In 1980, Israel unilaterally annexed East Jerusalem and has since consolidated its control of the West Bank. In 2023, under the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel has approved the highest number of settlements in the territory, considered illegal under international law, on record.

"Israel's conduct in administering occupied Palestine, characterized by the prolonged nature of the occupation and by its policies and plans of settlement construction, further evinces a breach of the right of self-determination," the report said. 

'Very strong legal argument'

Israel's actions have gone largely unchecked by the international community, which Cuba's ambassador to the UN slammed at the committee on Wednesday.

"What it is, is a process of ethnic cleansing... and here we are just acting as if it's business as usual... the UN doesn't talk about what's happening in Palestinian, the Security Council doesn't talk about what's happening."

Ambassador Pedro Luis Pedroso pointed to a recent visit by New York City mayor Eric Adams to Israel as an example of the limited criticism Israel has received from leaders.

"He talks on social media all the time, but there isn't a single word about the denial of the rights of the Palestinian people. It seems there is no price for this."

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Wednesday's report, however, builds on others at the United Nations that have criticised Israel. In March 2022, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories submitted a report concluding that the situation in Israel and the occupied territories amounted to apartheid.

The latest report echoed those findings, pointing to the confiscation of Palestinian lands and denial of seven million Palestinian refugees their right of return to their lands.

"Israel is administering the Occupied Palestinian Territory under a regime of systematic racial discrimination and apartheid," the report said. 

Palestinian advocates also scored a victory at the UN in December when the general assembly adopted a resolution  requesting the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to make an opinion on Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands.

The decision was criticised by Israel, which said that the Palestinians were "decimating any chances of reconciliation" by taking their case to the ICJ.

Riyad Mansour, the permanent observer charged with representing the State of Palestine to the UN, welcomed Wednesday's report as an "extremely powerful, strong, heavily researched legal argument about the legality of occupation", adding that it contributed to the "very strong legal argument" the Palestinians are putting before the ICJ in order to "be free from this evil system of occupation".

The deadline for UN members to make comments on arguments submitted to the ICJ is 25 October. The court is expected to accept the request, but an opinion could take at least a year.

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