It is almost inescapable to understand the essential character of Israeli oppression in the Occupied Territories if you are confronted with the reality directly. I was a member of the three-person United Nations commission of inquiry that visited Israel and the Palestinian territories in late February. The circumstances of the Palestinians are worse than my moral imagination is capable of depicting. The present modalities of Israeli occupation impose on every Palestinian a daily ordeal, whether closures, checkpoints, incursions, or random attacks. Israel’s larger design includes a desire to break the will of Palestinians to resist and to fasten a permanent structure of dominance onto the territories. The Israeli public, with some notable exceptions, lacks any real understanding of the Palestinians’ daily suffering.
Interaction between Palestinians and Israelis looks more and more like a war of attrition and less like an intifada. Beyond the overwhelming military power it uses, Israel also exerts what can be called “information hegemony.” It constructs the reality about the conflict that 99 percent of Americans accept-one that not only shifts responsibility to the victims but also shapes public understanding of a fair solution based on Israel’s starting point. Israel’s baselines include regarding pre-1967 Israel (78 percent of historic Palestine) as belonging definitively to Israel and accepting the existence of 190 illegal Israeli settlements.
Most of the violence in the early portions of the intifada related to the defense of these settlements and the roads leading to them; almost no Israeli casualties resulted from violence during demonstrations. Despite the settlements’ prominent role in the conflict, their expansion has not been adequately understood at the international level. Their expansion is part of a psychological war being waged against the Palestinians and on behalf of a Greater Israel. That these settlements are continuously expanding in space, population, number, and road infrastructure casts doubt as to whether Israel ever intends to withdraw from the Occupied Territories.
The settlement dynamic should be viewed as disclosing a fundamental ambivalence of the Israeli mainstream about whether it is possible or desirable to seek a negotiated outcome of the conflict. The settlements could allow Israel to make the conflict permanently irreconcilable while purporting to seek “peace” on the basis of a bargain that the Palestinians will have to reject. They will thus be blamed for the failure to reach a peaceful solution.
Palestinians are left further psychologically battered by Israeli political assassinations, with their seemingly random hit list. These assassinations appear designed to make Palestinians feel that no matter who they are or what they do, Israel has the capacity to kill them at its discretion and without any obligation to come forward with evidence or justification. It appears every adult Palestinian is a potential target. An acute level of anxiety among Palestinians is evident.
Destruction of Palestinian property beside settler roads by Israelis is also notable in its cruelty in concept and execution. The bulldozers typically arrive between midnight and 2:00 a.m., soldiers give inhabitants seven minutes to vacate their home, and then they proceed to destroy it as well as trees, wells, and farm buildings. There appears to be no genuine security justification, and even if there were, Israel could proceed in a far less inhumane manner: giving notice, providing alternative housing, offering compensation, and making a demonstration of security needs. House demolitions are a microcosm of Israel’s general approach to the Palestinian population. Palestinians are not treated as “protected persons,” as legally required by the Geneva Conventions, or even with a minimal respect due to all human beings. It is traumatic in the extreme to lose a home and livelihood as a result of a midnight action of this sort, especially considering that those so victimized have not been accused of any wrongdoing whatsoever.
Israel’s treatment of the refugees is an intensified version of the state’s violation of fundamental Palestinian economic and social rights. Palestinian refugees are vulnerable in a manner that other refugee communities around the world are not. They were supposed to be protected by the UN Conciliation Commission established in 1948 as a supplement to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)’s role in providing material humanitarian assistance. Because the protection role assigned to the Commission never became operational, however-it has no budget and no operating role-Palestinians have been left in the cold for decades. If a protective regime does not operate as intended, then the refugee community in question is supposed to be reassigned to the UN High Commission on Refugees. But this has not happened in the Palestinian case, so they have not qualified for standard forms of protection normally granted to refugees.
As a result, one of the largest and most severely abused refugee communities in the world finds itself in a situation of legal and political vulnerability. They are left unprotected, particularly victimized by Israeli policies of closure and blockade that prevent those in the camps from gainful employment and often from being able to receive medical attention. These are extraordinary impositions on their lives. UNRWA officials are reluctant to say anything about Israel’s violation of the refugees’ human rights because it might jeopardize their humanitarian work.
The Commission’s Findings:
The conclusions reached, summarized briefly here, are somewhat self-evident, following directly from Israel’s approach since the onset of the intifada. Israeli police units have relied on excessive and disproportionate use of force, shooting unarmed demonstrators, deliberately shooting to kill, and deploying snipers at the scene of demonstrations. It is worth stressing that during the early phases of this second intifada, there was no Palestinian gunfire. In these circumstances, there was no pretext for using snipers. Their active role since the very beginning of the intifada was itself shocking. The first and most major conclusion of the commission was that Israeli use of force was excessive and in violation of international law.
A second conclusion involves a legal condemnation of extra-judicial assassinations by Israel that have been officially proclaimed by high military and political officers of the Israeli government. Such assassinations are grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 147, and of international humanitarian law. The Commission also concluded that the settlements and their extension are both intimately connected to the violence of recent months, and a source of continuous provocations. This pattern violates directly the Fourth Geneva Convention, which makes the settlements per se illegal. Our further conclusion was that the Israeli reliance on closures, curfews, and the destruction of property of civilian Palestinians violates fundamental economic and social rights and is, as I suggested earlier, a severe form of collective punishment. And finally, we found that the treatment of Palestinian refugees is an intensified version of this violation of fundamental economic and social rights.
In conclusion, the sorts of things that the Commission recommended follow directly from our findings and are rather obvious. There is, first of all, a strong recommendation to establish an international protective presence in the Palestinian territories along the lines unanimously supported in the Security Council, but failed to be acted upon because of a veto by the United States. A second recommendation calls upon the parties to the Geneva Convention to take urgent steps to secure the implementation of its provisions. Third, steps need to be taken to secure credible protection for Palestinian refugees living in Gaza and the West Bank. Fourth, a clear expression must be made that settlement activity is illegal and should be stopped and reversed at once. A final recommendation mandates an end to the violations of international humanitarian law, such as assassinations and the destruction of property.
Richard Falk is Professor of International Law and Practice at Princeton University.