Core of the conflict

Palestinians and Israelis have long disputed the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the Palestinian occupied territories. Their differences on the matter go to the heart of the conflict. Palestinians base their claim that the Fourth Geneva Convention must apply to the territories on the fact that these are under a belligerent military occupation. Thus, those provisions of international law that deal with people under occupation should be applied.

The Israelis, on the other hand, have always refused the applicability of the Geneva Convention and many other aspects of international law because, in the final analysis, Israel has no intention of putting itself in a position of having to end the occupation: an Israeli acceptance of the applicability of the convention will lead not only to better treatment of the people under occupation, but would also embody an Israeli recognition of the occupied status of the territories and consequently the ultimate necessity of ending this occupation. This is the core of the conflict.

Israeli violations of humanitarian law concerning people under occupation go beyond the day-to-day harassments and collective punishments of Palestinians and the brutal Israeli measures including the killings, the confiscation of land, the destruction of infrastructure and the restriction of movement. There is another little-commented-upon motivating factor which plays a large role in the Israeli insistence to continue its occupation and consequently to deny the applicability of international law. One analyst suggested some time ago that the Israeli occupation might be the second most profitable project in the Middle East after oil. While this may sound somewhat exaggerated, there can be no doubt that the illegal economic benefits Israel reaps by exploiting the occupied territories are substantial.

First of all, Israel has illegally been taking most of the water resources that legally belong to the occupied Palestinian people, for the use either of Israelis in Israel or Israeli settlers in the territories. Israel has also been handsomely rewarded with tourism revenue from the many attractive religious and non-religious sites in east Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Jericho. A third economic boon of the occupation for Israel is the exploitation of Palestinian workers as cheap labor without the benefits that otherwise should have been extended. If we calculate all these different kinds of illegal economic benefits, another reason for the Israeli insistence on refusing to adhere to different components of international law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention, becomes apparent.

Yet, despite the continuous Israeli refusal to implement the Fourth Geneva Convention and accept its de jure applicability, the Palestinian people and the international community have continued to insist on the applicability of the convention. They have insisted on the applicability of articles related to the treatment of prisoners, to the transfer of citizens of the occupying country to the occupied territories, or the use of the natural resources of the occupied land by the occupying power. The latest illustration of the isolation of the Israeli legal position in general was the recent finding of the International Court of Justice which, among other things, specified that the Palestinian territories under Israeli control, Gaza and the West Bank including East Jerusalem, are under an illegal occupation and consequently the occupying power has to adhere to international law in this regard.

It would be in the interest of Israel to show more respect for international law, including the Geneva conventions. After all, the very legitimacy of Israel is based on specific UN resolutions and other stipulations of international law, and Israel might come to regret its dismissive attitude toward international law upon which it may need to depend again.