BRUSSELS, 7 September — Israel was changing the demographic composition on the ground by transferring Jewish settlers into the Occupied Palestinian Territory and driving out Palestinians, experts told the United Nations International Meeting on the Question of Palestine this afternoon during its first plenary session.
Titled “Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem — Situation on the ground”, the session followed the opening segment of the two-day conference, convened by the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. The session aimed to address, among other topics, the impact of the occupation on the Palestinian population, including its economic cost.
Delivering presentations were Rima Khalaf, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia in Beirut, Abdulhadi Hantash, expert on land and settlements in Hebron, and Jad Isaac, General Director of the Applied Research Institute in Bethlehem. Mouin Rabbani, senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies and co-editor for Jadaliyya, served as a discussant.
Ms. Khalaf said that by illegally transferring some of its citizens to the occupied territories and according them special treatment and rights, Israel had established a calamitous system of segregation and racial discrimination. If two 16-year-old boys, one Israeli and the other Palestinian, were to commit the same offence at the same time in the same locality in the occupied territories, the Israeli child would be treated as a minor with all the associated protections and rights. The Palestinian child, however, would face military detention, be tried by a military court as an adult, and be subject to harsh treatment that violated his internationally recognized rights.
Israeli policies in the West Bank also consistently discriminated against Palestinians, she said, evident in the inequitable allocation of water in which Israelis could receive per capita up to seven times the water provided to Palestinians. Segregation was starkly manifested in the fortress-like Jewish settlements scattered all over occupied Palestine. Sixty-five kilometres of roads had been built on expropriated Palestinian land for the exclusive use of Israelis and Jewish settlers.
She said Israel’s strategy of forcing Palestinians to leave their land employed three interlinked sets of policies: collective punishment of the Palestinian population, their displacement and the construction of Jewish settlements. The Gaza blockade and the Wall in the West Bank were examples of collective punishment, a practice prohibited under international humanitarian law and in direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Those measures impeded children’s paths to school, farmers’ roads to their land and the journey of pregnant women to hospitals.
Further, she said, the revocation of residency permits for Palestinians, practised since 1967, had resulted in the exile of 250,000 people from the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Population displacement policies were most prominent in East Jerusalem, where Israeli authorities openly sought to attain a Jewish majority through what they labelled the “demographic balance policy”.
Land grabbing began soon after the 1967 war, she explained, when Israel formally annexed East Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. Other forms of that practice included the confiscation of Palestinian-owned land and the designation of areas of the occupied territories as military areas, firing zones and natural reserves. The most prominent example of land grabbing, however, remained the construction of Israeli settlements. Consecutive Israeli Governments had sponsored and supported the expansion of settlements and growth of their population inside the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
“The status quo is unsustainable,” she said, warning against turning a blind eye to a system that appeared to constitute “apartheid” and racial segregation. Ignoring injustice would only embolden the occupier. The United Nations Charter, and the principles of self-determination, non-discrimination, equality, justice and the rule of law, remained the basic tenants for the resolution of all conflicts. Applying those principles in Palestine was not only an ethical obligation but the only solution that would yield real and lasting peace for the Israelis and Palestinians.
Mr. Hantash said that Israel’s occupation was three-pronged. First, it was trying to transform the character of Palestinian land and establish a State that excluded anything but Jewish. Second, it sought to link major settlements to each other. Third, it aimed to displace Palestinians. In some cases, Palestinians had been expelled and left in the wilderness to die. A lawsuit had been filed to return Palestinians living in caves to their land that had been declared military zones.
There were two kinds of settlement activities — official settlement projects and “silent” settlements that were neither announced by the Government nor reported by the media, he said. Silent settlements were more dangerous. He had conducted weekly field visits to report on those secret activities. In addition, Israel was building a road network only accessible by Israelis. Some were called “purified roads” as they were used only by Jewish inhabitants. Palestinians were treated like “viruses”.
He said Israel had planned three projects to encircle Jerusalem, including the so-called Plan E1, which aimed to connect settlements and create territorial contiguity with Jerusalem in order to have one municipality. Israel had confiscated tens of thousands of acres of Palestinian land for that purpose. E1 aimed to merge three major settlements into one settlement. He recalled remarks made by an Israeli official that “there was no Zionism without a settlement, and there was no settlement without the expulsion of the Arabs and the expropriation of their land”. The international community should courageously confront Israel, which was enjoying impunity. Settlers had been given a free hand to commit violence and Israel bore “the characteristics of apartheid and terrorist States”. If their concern mounted, Palestinians could fight back with force.
Meanwhile, said Mr. Isaac, Israel continued to enjoy unprecedented economic growth and faced virtually no regional security threats. That had made Israeli leaders reluctant to make any real concessions. Indeed, Israel continued to exploit turmoil in the Middle East to accelerate its unilateral actions to create de facto realities on the ground. The Israeli public had been indoctrinated to believe that the territory was not occupied but rather “disputed”, with Jerusalem united as the eternal capital of Israel. “The occupation is a profitable enterprise,” he said, noting that the Palestinian economy lost $7 billion annually because of the occupation.
He said Israel grabbed land by, among other measures, constructing settlements, legalizing outposts, building the segregation Wall, and by declaring State land, firing zones and natural reserves. Israel planned to grab 75 per cent of Area C, including through “de-Palestinization” of Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. Satellite images had shown there were 196 Israeli settlements and 232 outposts in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. The Israeli population in that area now exceeded 750,000 people — a tripling from 255,000 in 1992. Natural population growth would have put the number at 448,000. Indeed, the West Bank had become a “Swiss cheese.”
Further, he said, from June 2014 to August 2015, 65 tenders had been issued to build 8,546 units and lease 71 plots of land, commercial and industrial areas and offices. About 56.2 per cent of those units would be built in Israeli settlements in Jerusalem and 21.4 per cent in Bethlehem. Mr. Isaac also noted that since June 2014, more than 900 attacks had been carried out by Israeli settlers, including the torching of Mr. Khdeir and the Dawabsheh family, the uprooting of more than 10,000 trees and attacks on churches and mosques. And 47 per cent of settlements had been built on privately owned Palestinian land.
He said Israelis and Palestinians had been negotiating at both formal and informal levels for more than 24 years, but negotiations had failed due to unilateralism, the absence of an arbitration mechanism, lack of “symmetry” between Israelis and Palestinians, and the changing of the terms of reference of the peace process. Indeed, Israel had pursued a consistent strategy of settlement expansion that had escalated during the peace process, terminating the two-State solution.
The international community, by and large, still supported the two-State solution as the end game of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said. Jerusalem, refugees, water, security and borders were not bilateral issues to be resolved by Israelis and Palestinians alone. Israel’s insistence on bilateral negotiations should be replaced by comprehensive multilateral negotiations under the United Nations umbrella, with full support and a mandate from the super-Powers to ensure arrival at a durable peace treaty with a well-defined implementation time frame set forth in the Third Geneva Convention.
Following the expert presentations, Mr. Rabbani, a discussant, said the settlement issue was significant because the “forced implantation of population” was among the most severe violations of the Geneva Convention and the Rome Statute, and it formed the very essence of Israeli’s colonial occupation. It was a systematic establishment, which was premeditated and deliberate, and aimed to block the implementation of a framework for Palestinians’ right to self-determination. There was a difference between settlement activity and military occupation. Military occupation could be legitimate; however, the question was whether Israel’s presence could still be defined as military occupation.
In the ensuing dialogue, Walid Assaf, Minister of Colonization and Wall Resistance Commission in Birzeit, pointed out that all activities by the settlers were not the responsibility of individuals, but rather the responsibility of the Government, which allocated budgets and had its ministries engage in planning.
Christine Chanet, former Chairperson of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission on Israeli settlements, said there was a need to address the legality of “extended” military occupation.
Ardi Imseis, Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Politics and International Studies of the University of Cambridge, said Palestine should put the question of the legality of the prolonged regime to the International Court of Justice.
Riyad H. Mansour, Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the United Nations in New York, said it was not a good idea to seek another advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice. Rather, all the available tools must be revisited to make Israel’s occupation and settlements costly. There was no need to reinvent the wheel.
Comments were made also by representatives of Member States, non-governmental organizations and United Nations entities, with the discussion covering the lack of protection of Palestinian civilians, increasing number of victims among children, the viability of the two-State solution, and the “fund flow” from the United States to the Israeli settlements.