Colonial occupation is now universally viewed as a crime against humanity. Many atrocities — diverse in nature, but all equally appalling — have been perpetrated against occupied peoples, especially in countries of the southern hemisphere. These countries are still reeling from the impact of colonial rule, which plundered or destroyed resources, aggravated ignorance, underdevelopment and poverty, and then installed puppet dictatorships to serve colonialism’s political and economic aims after its military presence had been withdrawn.
The Israeli occupation of Palestine is different in some respects from other forms of colonial occupation. Israel is a state that was created to replace the British protectorate in Palestine and its people were imported to supplant the indigenous Palestinian populace, who were driven from their land through intimidation, massacres and other acts of violence. Unlike the British protectorate, Israel is not, nor was it ever intended to be, a temporary military occupation whose officials and settlers were destined to return to their native countries once it ended. Rather, it was a European and then an American scheme to perpetuate and tighten control over the Middle East and, simultaneously, to eliminate the Jewish problem.
Israel was created at the expense of the Palestinians’ fundamental right to self-determination in an independent state. This alone was a humanitarian crime against the Palestinian people, perpetrated by Western powers. Through their control of the UN and with the collaboration of the ruling regimes in the Middle East that depended upon them, they impeded the creation of a secular state for Arabs and Jews in Palestine, partitioned Palestine to allow for Zionist occupation and statehood on one portion of Palestinian land and prevented the establishment of a Palestinian state on the remainder.
The Zionist movement, which aspired to create a purely Jewish state, could not accomplish this aim when so many of the indigenous people still remained despite the systematic ethnic cleansing it carried out on the eve of Israel’s creation, and which it continues to implement today. In 1967, Israel occupied the remaining portions of Palestine, established martial law and set in motion a series of measures that were part of an overall strategy to drive as many Palestinians as possible from these territories as well. In blatant defiance of the Fourth Geneva Convention and other international laws, the occupation government halted all property registration procedures to facilitate the confiscation of land and the construction of Jewish settlements, seized control of all water resources and instituted an array of measures to prevent the free movement of Palestinians into and out of the occupied territories.
These and other measures succeeded in turning tens of thousands more Palestinians into refugees and preventing those that remained from using vast tracts of their own land, as large, strategically located settlements cropped up in their midst. Israeli strategists knew that a solution would have to be found to the lands it occupied in 1967. The changes these measures effected on the ground were guaranteed to sustain and consolidate Israeli control over the occupied territories and obstruct a solution, as has been patently obvious in all Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.
The Palestinian people have responded to the occupation through various forms of resistance, culminating in the first Intifada, which threw everyone — particularly the Israelis — into disarray by making it clear that the Palestinian people refused to surrender to the status quo and remained determined to obtain independence. The Intifada, as a form of peaceful protest, succeeded in rallying international public opinion behind the Palestinian people and embarrassing Israel and its supporters. Violent repression proved insufficient as a means of ending the Intifada. For this and other reasons, the negotiating process began, leading to the Oslo accords and subsequent arrangements.
The second Intifada was sparked by Ariel Sharon’s visit to Al- Haram Al-Sharif and, the following day, by the massacre of Palestinians prevented from praying at that sacred site. Palestinian anger had accumulated since the beginning of the negotiating process due to Israeli repression, which made life for the Palestinians worse than it had been before, even during the first uprising. In addition, successive Israeli governments, both Labour or Likud, made it perfectly clear in the negotiations that they did not seek a just and lasting peace and had no intention of granting the Palestinians even their most basic legitimate rights. Compounding Palestinian frustration was the US’s unmitigated support for all Israeli positions, Europe’s indirect (and sometimes direct) complicity and Arab governments’ inability to counter either of these obstacles to Palestinian liberation.
Stripped of all external assistance, the Palestinians were edged into a corner, a process epitomised by Camp David II, in which Clinton and Barak hoped to coerce Arafat into an agreement that fell far short of Palestinian demands. When these negotiations collapsed, the US administration blamed Arafat and set into motion a propaganda campaign that sought to convince US and international public opinion that the Palestinians had spurned generous Israeli offers. In fact, Barak had only proposed a portion of the West Bank without Jerusalem, refusing to dismantle Israeli settlements (which were to be annexed to Israel), and essentially presenting a formula for a nominal Palestinian state that would remain firmly under Israel’s heavy thumb.
This Intifada, like its predecessor, has been a spontaneous response to objective necessities. There was no prior planning and no unified leadership. Because the fate of all Palestinians was in the balance, it mobilised popular energy far surpassing expectations of participation and self-sacrifice. Palestinian participation inside Israel was also very powerful, and threw Israel into greater confusion. Popular pan-Arab solidarity threw the US into a panic over its interests in the region.
Israel’s response to the Intifada was vicious. Live ammunition claimed high fatalities, particularly among the young, and caused casualties among local and foreign journalists. The blockades, closures and other measures to prevent the free movement of individuals were also harsher than ever before. Indicative of the fascist attitudes of the Israeli government was that guards were withdrawn and replaced by trenches or walls; while checkpoint guards might have allowed the ill, aged or pregnant women passage in order to reach hospitals, these stones remained impassive, thereby adding other victims to the terrifying list of casualties.
The Arab governments proved incapable of taking effective action against the Israeli occupation, bolstered by American support, European silence and the absence of the UN, whose decision to form an international force to end the violence was supplanted by the US Mitchell committee and the refusal to send international observers into the territories. Israel further exploited these circumstances to escalate its crimes against the Palestinians with particular ferocity after the election of war criminal Ariel Sharon.
More relentlessly besieged than ever and without effective support from abroad, the Palestinians intensified their mass protest movement and began to launch retaliatory armed attacks on Israeli settlers and to carry out suicide bombings inside Israel. The sole aim of these desperate measures was to tell Israelis, and the world beyond, that Sharon’s policy would not bring the security he had promised and that only an end to the occupation and the restitution of Palestinian rights would end the violence. The escalation of violence on the Palestinian side was a reaction to the unequivocal message the Israelis had delivered by electing Sharon: the majority favoured harsher repression, rejected the negotiating process and the Mitchell report, and refused to halt settlement construction.
During their crack-down on the Palestinians, the Israelis committed numerous crimes against humanity and breaches of humanitarian law. Occupation forces deliberately fired live ammunition at close range on unarmed protesters, claiming 309 deaths and 10,603 wounded in the first three months of the Intifada alone. Because of the immense damage that media coverage of these crimes caused Israel’s propaganda and international prestige, journalists, too, were deliberately targeted and intimidated, while many others were prevented from reaching the scene of events or saw their equipment confiscated and destroyed. Nor were the internationally recognised symbols of the Red Cross and Red Crescent immune to Israeli brutality. Ambulances and medical teams came under frequent Israeli fire, preventing them from reaching the victims of Israeli terror to administer first aid or take them to hospital. The death toll at roadblocks, where emergency cases were prevented from reaching hospitals, suffices to illustrate the scale of this crime.
The demolition of Palestinian homes and property has long been a component of Israel’s systematic policy of ethnic cleansing, and during the second Intifada the process intensified, bringing into service for the first time advanced weaponry such as F-16, F-15 and Apache fighter planes to bomb residential quarters, with particular emphasis on areas bordering Israeli settlements.
Among the most flagrant of Israel’s violations of humanitarian law has been its unwavering pursuit of a policy of collective punishment, through the closure and isolation of entire Palestinian cities, villages and camps. The policy has succeeded in reducing life in the occupied territories to an intolerable daily torment: it has crippled the Palestinian economy, devastated the urban infrastructure and disrupted the activities of all PA agencies, particularly in the public service sector. In its sustained campaign of attrition, the government has also recruited Jewish settlers to wage often deadly physical assaults against Palestinian civilians.
Under Sharon, Israeli forces violated all agreements concluded with the Palestinians by entering PA-controlled areas and destroying government and residential buildings, acts that resulted in numerous military and civilian casualties. Basking in international complicity, the Sharon government made public its extrajudicial assassination policy, bringing in its massive arsenal of fighter planes, helicopter gunships, tanks and missiles.
In the thick of this massive inhuman assault on life and dignity, Palestinian, Arab and international human rights organisations have worked to document Israel’s atrocities and analyse them in terms of international humanitarian law. Unfortunately, their efforts to disseminate this information at international forums have come up against a seemingly impenetrable brick wall of double standards and political pacts that place Israel above the law and allow it commit what can only be called crimes against humanity.
This is not a theoretical concern: more Palestinians are dying every day. The Middle East will not see peace and security until the Palestinians obtain the rights due to them under UN resolutions and international law. Moreover, those who support Israeli aggression are not only abetting the violation of Palestinian rights, but are undermining the long-term interests of Israeli Jews, whose government’s policies have failed to bring them the security they so desire. The resolutions adopted by the NGO Forum in Durban mark out the only path to a solution that will benefit all parties.
The writer is executive director of LAW, the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment.