U.N.'s top court considering legality of Israel's occupation of West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem

UN’s top court considering legality of Israel’s occupation of West Bank


UN’s top court considering legality of Israel’s occupation of West Bank

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THE HAGUE – The eyes of the world are on the United Nations’ top court in the Hague Monday. 

Historic meetings are now underway on the legality of Israel’s decades-long occupation of lands sought for a Palestinian state. 

It comes as Israel presses on with its ground offensive in southern Gaza

The hearings are expected to last for six days and began Monday at the United Nation’s top court in the Netherlands. An unprecedented number of countries are expected to participate.

A panel of 15 international judges will be deciding if Israel’s 57-year occupation of lands sought for a Palestinian state is legal.

Palestinian representatives, who are speaking first, argued that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem has violated key tenants of international law, including imposing a system of racial discrimination and apartheid.

The Palestinian foreign minister urged the court to declare that Israel’s occupation of lands sought for a Palestinian state is illegal and must end immediately and unconditionally for any hope for a two-state future to survive.

Palestinian Foreign Affairs Minister Riyad al-Maliki told the International Court of Justice that “2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza, half of them children, are besieged and bombed, killed and maimed, starved and displaced.”

“More than 3.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, including in Jerusalem, are subjected to colonization of their territory and racist violence that enables it,” he added.

International law expert Paul Reichler, representing the Palestinians, told the court that the policies of Israel’s government “are aligned to an unprecedented extent with the goals of the Israeli settler movement to expand long term control over the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and in practice to further integrate those areas within the territory” of Israel.

The hearings follow a request by the U.N. General Assembly for a non-binding advisory opinion into Israel’s policies in the occupied territories. 

Israel’s representatives were not scheduled to speak but submitted a five-page letter to the court last July that was published after Monday’s hearing.

In the letter, Israel said that the questions put to the court are prejudiced and “fail to recognize Israel’s right and duty to protect its citizens,” address Israeli security concerns or acknowledge Israel-Palestinians agreements to negotiate issues, including “the permanent status of the territory, security arrangements, settlements, and borders.”

“While the request made to the Court seeks to portray it as such, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a cartoon narrative of villain and victim in which there are no Israeli rights and no Palestinian obligations,” it said. “Entertaining such a falsehood can only push the parties further apart rather than help create conditions to bring them closer together.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement Monday that Israel does not recognize the legitimacy of the hearings at the International Court of Justice about Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.

“The discussion at The Hague is part of the Palestinian attempt to dictate the results of the political agreement without negotiations,” he said.

In court, al-Maliki cited the right to self-determination enshrined in the U.N. charter as he told judges that “for decades, the Palestinian people have been denied this right and have endured both colonialism and apartheid.”

The Palestinians argue that Israel, by annexing large swaths of occupied land, has violated the prohibition on territorial conquest and the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, and has imposed a system of racial discrimination and apartheid.

“This occupation is annexation and supremacist in nature,” al-Maliki said and appealed to the court to uphold the Palestinian right to self-determination and declare “that the Israeli occupation is illegal and must end immediately, totally and unconditionally.”

After the hearing, al-Maliki said that the court’s opinion could increase chances for peace. “This ruling could help both Palestinians and Israelis to finally live side by side in peace, mutual security and dignity,” he told reporters.

The hearings come amid mounting concerns about an Israeli ground offensive against the Gaza city of Rafah, where 1.5 million Palestinians live.

Fifty one countries and three organizations are expected to address the International Court of Justice during this case.

Palestinians and leading rights groups argue that the occupation goes far beyond defensive measures. They say it has morphed into an apartheid system, bolstered by settlement building on occupied lands, that gives Palestinians second-class status and is designed to maintain Jewish hegemony from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Israel rejects any accusation of apartheid.

Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek all three areas for an independent state. Israel considers the West Bank to be disputed territory, whose future should be decided in negotiations.

It has built 146 settlements across the West Bank, according to watchdog group Peace Now, many of which resemble fully developed suburbs and small towns. The settlements are home to more than 500,000 Jewish settlers, while around 3 million Palestinians live in the territory.

Israel annexed east Jerusalem and considers the entire city to be its capital. An additional 200,000 Israelis live in settlements built in east Jerusalem that Israel considers to be neighborhoods of its capital. Palestinian residents of the city face systematic discrimination, making it difficult for them to build new homes or expand existing ones.

Israel withdrew all of its soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005, but continued to control the territory’s airspace, coastline and population registry. Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza when the Palestinian militant Hamas group seized power there in 2007.

The international community overwhelmingly considers the settlements to be illegal. Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem, home to the city’s most sensitive holy sites, is not internationally recognized.

It’s not the first time the court has been asked to give an advisory opinion on Israeli policies.

In 2004, it said a separation barrier Israel built through east Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank was “contrary to international law.” It also called on Israel to immediately halt construction. Israel has ignored the ruling.

Also, late last month, the court ordered Israel to do all it can to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in its campaign in Gaza. The order came at a preliminary stage of a case filed by South Africa accusing Israel of genocide, a charge that Israel denied.

Palestinian U.N. Ambassador Riyad Mansour, at times overcome with emotion, concluded Monday’s hearing with an impassioned plea to the 15-judge panel to “guide the international community in upholding international law, ending injustice and achieving a just and lasting peace.”

He urged judges to “guide us towards a future in which Palestinian children are treated as children, not as (a) demographic threat, in which the identity of the group to which we belong does not diminish the human rights to which we are all entitled.”

Judges will likely take several months to rule.

Experts say although the decision is legally non-binding, it could impact public opinion on this very sensitive issue. 

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