The separation barrier in the West Bank. Photo: Justin McIntosh, reproduced under a CC license.
In July, the Levy Committee, a three person panel appointed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, published the conclusion of its investigation into the legality of the Israeli settlement enterprise in the West Bank. It determined that the West Bank is not occupied territory and the settlements are not a violation of international law.
Additionally, it recommended that the outposts (unauthorized settlements which receive support and assistance from the Israeli government) be legalized and Israeli citizens be permitted to live where they want in the West Bank.
The results of the report were not surprising. The Committee was headed by Edmund Levy, a former Israeli Supreme Court judge who opposed Israel’s disengagement from Gaza claiming it violated the Jewish settlers’ rights. Joining him was Alan Baker, a former Foreign Ministry legal adviser, who lives in the West Bank, and Tchia Shapira, who used to be deputy president of the Tel Aviv District Court and comes from a right-wing background.
The Palestinian territories have been occupied since the 1967 Arab Israeli War when Israel took control of Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights.
The report stands in defiance of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which states that ‘The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.’
According to a January 2011 report by the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, B’Tselem, ‘Israel took control of some 50 per cent of the land of the West Bank, primarily for establishment of the settlements and preparation of land reserves for their expansion.’
The settlements, often on hilltops, stand out as oddities, as if a part of Europe had been mistakenly placed on a traditional Palestinian landscape. Currently 500,000 Israeli Jews live in 121 settlements, 100 outposts and 12 neighbourhoods around Jerusalem on land annexed by Israel in 1967, and in enclaves in Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem.
Israeli human rights organizations vehemently opposed the conclusions of the Levy Committee. These included Yesh Din which stated: ‘Adoption of the committee's recommendations would lead to widespread land theft and complicate Israel’s relations with the rest of the world.’
Michael Sfard, legal advisor to Yesh Din, said, ‘The Levy Committee was conceived in sin to legalize a crime, and it has fully accomplished its mission. Its report is not a legal report but an ideological report that ignores the basic principles of the rule of law.’
B’Tselem has also spoken out against the report: ‘The Israelis living in the West Bank are Israeli citizens, and as such their rights are protected and they can influence the decisions that shape their fate. The Palestinians in the West Bank, in contrast, live under a military regime and the only law protecting them and their rights is the law of occupation.’
Over 40 prominent American Jewish leaders have written to Netanyahu in protest, asking him to ensure the report’s recommendations are not adopted.
Despite this outcry, the question remains: is Palestine occupied territory?
UN Resolution 242, passed in 1967 after Israel’s conquest of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, called for the ‘withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.’
More recently, in July 2004, the International Court of Justice declared the Israeli built separation barrier and settlements illegal, and the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem as under Israeli military occupation. In 2005, the Supreme Court of Israel stated that the West Bank is under ‘belligerent occupation’ by Israel.
In 2005, 8,000 Israeli settlers were withdrawn from the Gaza Strip, yet Israel still controls its entry and exit points, the coastline and airspace. This has a great effect on the people who live there.
A report by Human Rights Watch in 2010, stated: ‘Palestinians face systematic discrimination merely because of their race, ethnicity, and national origin…While Israeli settlements flourish, Palestinians under Israeli control live in a time warp – not just separate, not just unequal, but sometimes even pushed off their lands and out of their homes.’
The Levy Committee’s recommendations are still subject to review and the approval of the Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein but many Israeli Ministers including Netanyahu, have welcomed its publication.
Mouin Rabbani, Policy Advisor to Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network and contributing editor with magazines Middle East Report and Jadaliyya commented that in Israel’s view the Palestinian people have no legitimate right to the territories and Israel is: ‘now just a formality away from wholesale renunciation of international law. In practice it undertook this step decades ago.’