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Israel and Palestine: The occupation that isn't

The lexicon of 'military occupation' is increasingly rendered redundant by Israel's expansionist policies, forcing us to consider alternatives

Human Rights Watch has released Occupation Inc this week, a report exploring the role of private corporations in the perpetuation of settlement-related rights abuses inside the occupied Palestinian territories. It is a piece of analysis to be commended for two important reasons.

Firstly, corporate complicity in such abuses is widespread and pervasive, with the Israeli settlement enterprise as reliant on the involvement of private businesses for its furtherance, as it is upon political acquiescence among the international community. Dragging such involvement into the open can act as a catalyst for those businesses connected to Israeli settlements to review and ultimately cease their complicit acts, as well as dissuading others from conducting business in such a way that it results in serious rights abuses.

Additionally, however, in adopting this business-centric angle of review, the report also draws our collective attention to a simple, ugly truth: Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory is nothing of the sort.

The boundaries of permissible behaviour in the context of military occupation are prescribed by three sources of international humanitarian law (IHL): the 1907 Hague Regulations, the Fourth Geneva Convention, and customary IHL, consisting of principles which given the universally-accepted necessity of their upholding, are deemed binding on all states.

IHL does not prohibit military occupation per se, as occupation is recognised as a common and often unavoidable aspect of international armed conflict. Instead, they seek to regulate the actions of the occupying power, ensuring that essential entitlements of the occupied civilian population are respected, including health standards, public safety and order. Critically, it is centred on the fundamental principles that all instances of military occupation are to be temporary in nature, with the occupied population’s right to self-determination to be fully respected.

Therefore it is a body of law which operates as a bulwark; compliance with its provisions should ensure an acceptable balance between any legitimate needs of the occupier and the rights of the occupied. However, when states’ actions push beyond the bounds of IHL, the consequences are catastrophic for occupied populations.

This is ably demonstrated in the report of Human Rights Watch, which draws particular attention to corporate complicity in Israeli confiscation of Palestinian land and in the support of settlement infrastructure. In doing so it highlights the deeply entrenched and parasitic nature of Israel’s military presence inside the occupied territories.

For instance, the fracturing and annexation of occupied land is in direct contravention of IHL, which strictly prohibits an occupying power from effecting permanent change to the foreign territory under its control.

As such, the research of Human Rights Watch not only sheds light on the role that private entities play in the acute suffering of Palestinians, but also poses fundamental questions as to the very nature of Israel’s conduct during its near half-century-long domination of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Indeed, the evidence points unerringly towards an underpinning motive of permanent land acquisition.

East Jerusalem - recognised by the international community as a contiguous part of the West Bank and cherished by Palestinians as the future capital of their state – has been administratively and physically annexed by Israeli whilst, to the east, the bulk of the West Bank is now studded with more than 220 settlements. The total settler population now numbers well in excess of half a million and Palestinian natural resources are exploited by and for these alien communities.

Moreover, a cursory glance at the planned route of the Wall – plotted to loop around the sprawling Ariel, Etzion and Adummim blocs– reveals a crystal clear Israeli intent to artificially stitch this land to the rump of Israel itself, placing it forever beyond the reach of its lawful owners: the Palestinian people.

Indeed, prominent Israeli politicians have publicly called for the complete annexation of the West Bank.

Such is the scope and systematic nature of Israel’s deviation from accepted legal norms that the lexicon of occupation has now been rendered largely redundant in its application to the occupied territories. Simply put, an occupation which fails to comply with the legal framework governing occupation cannot be regarded as an occupation.

But if the beast has fled the cage, was the cage partly at fault? To this end, in 2012 the International Committee of the Red Cross began an extensive review into whether the law itself remains fit for purpose in its regulating of the shifting nature of contemporary military occupation. The review concluded, however, that although clarification of some areas was desirable, there existed no great failing in the form of the law itself.

The issue, therefore, lies in the actions of states, but also in how we respond to such actions. Specifically, we must address our insistence on applying ill-fitting paradigms to scenarios of foreign, belligerent military presence.

For instance, in the case of the occupied territories, Israeli actions are far better understood through the lens of colonialism than that of ‘occupation’. This is by no means an isolated example, though, and consideration of other so-called ‘occupations’ reveals the rude health of a neo-colonialist mentality among powerful sovereign states.

Perhaps the most obvious example is that of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003; a headlong rush into chaos and bloodshed, with the stated purpose of disarming Iraq, freeing its people and defending the world from grave danger. In reality, it was a military conquest launched in an attempt to protect the energy interests of Western powers, which resulted in the country being brought to its knees, a death count estimated by some sources as exceeding one million, and the genesis of ISIS.

More recently, Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea region received widespread attention from the international media but has now largely slipped from public consciousness following the Minsk Accords and a ceasefire which appears to exist on paper only. Despite this free-fall in interest, however, the Kremlin continues to entrench its presence in the peninsula.

Then there is Morocco’s ugly annexation in 1975 of the territory of Western Sahara, located firmly in the blind spot of international consciousness, but accompanied by mass forced displacement of the occupied population, and implantation of Moroccan citizens.

These examples stretch the definitional and legal boundaries of ‘occupation’ well beyond breaking point, transitioning instead into brutal and parasitic phenomena which cannot be reconciled with international law.

This is not the fault of the legal instruments upon which we rely to protect both the territorial integrity of invaded states and the rights of civilian populations caught up in foreign invasion. Rather, it is a reflection of a two-pronged failure: firstly, the failure of states to adhere to the fundamental principles of International Humanitarian Law and secondly, our failure to recognise when legal paradigms other than that of occupation become of greater applicability to specific foreign invasions.

The research of Human Rights Watch is therefore a wake-up call, prompting us to recognise the potential for occupations to slip into deep-rooted, exploitative exercises of power; an assessment reinforced by historical review and the not uncommon examples of prolonged foreign interventions underpinned by expansionist, neo-colonialist agendas.

In the case of Israel and Palestine we must refocus our analytical lens and conclude that whatever we may be looking at, an occupation it is not.

- Simon Reynolds is the legal advocacy c oordinator for BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, based in Bethlehem. You can follow Simon on Twitter via @Simon_Reynolds_ 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Israeli security forces stand guard at the Beit Einun junction, northeast of the West Bank city of Hebron 14 January, 2016