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Just where does Israel's legitimacy stem from anyway?

January 24, 2014 at 12:16 pm

All of the major pro-Israel Lobbyists, including Barack Obama just a few days ago, have used the word “delegitimisation” to condemn critics of the State of Israel and its policies. Earlier this month, the British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband affirmed his status as a Zionist in a speech to the Board of Deputies of British Jews in which he equated odious anti-Semitism with “delegitimisation of Israel” as if the two are one and the same thing; they’re not.

Almost everyone who has ever condemned Israel’s illegal activities and abuses of international human rights legislation and conventions has been accused of trying to “delegitimise” the state. The pro-Israel Lobby cannot, and will not, accept that criticism of Israel’s actions does not necessarily mean that you want to destroy the state; hate the deeds, not the people who do them is a motto I teach at school to young people confused when people like Obama and, in Britain, David Cameron and Miliband, claim to be advocates of peace and justice and yet routinely proclaim their support for a country which displays the characteristics of a rogue state in almost every sense.

A number of key documents are often cited as giving Israel legitimacy in its present form. The first is, of course, the Bible; God chose the Children of Israel and promised them the land. That’s what Zionists use to justify the modern Israeli claim to the land of Palestine, although the “founding father of Zionism”, Theodor Herzl, at whose grave Barack Obama paid homage last week, was famously an atheist. Moreover, “Israel” was originally neither a state nor a nation; the Children of Israel were the descendants of Prophet Jacob (“Israel”). The “promise”, or covenant, was conditional on his descendants fulfilling Divine Commandments and upholding Divine Laws.

Shlomo Sand, in his book The Invention of the Jewish People, has debunked “the central myths about the primeval origin of a marvellous nation that emerged from the desert, conquered a spacious land and built a glorious kingdom”. Such myths, claims Sand, “were a boon for rising Jewish nationalism and Zionist colonisation”. The myths have been “undermined” but, “although Israeli society was… no longer in need of the historical legitimation that had supported its creation and its very existence, it still had difficulty accepting the new findings” at the end of the twentieth century. So, it would appear, have members of the pro-Israel Lobby. Jewish groups such as the Ultra-Orthodox Neturei Karta who define themselves as “Torah Jews” write: “All the great rabbis who in accordance with Jewish Law opposed Zionism at its inception did not do so merely due to consideration of the secular lifestyles of the then Zionist leaders or even for their opposition to Torah heritage and rejection of its values and practices, but due to the fact that the entire concept of a Jewish state is in direct conflict with a number of Judaism’s fundamentals upon which the State of Israel has been built.”

Neturei Karta is usually dismissed by the Lobby as a “minority group” and “extremists” but rarely, if ever, is the Torah-based reasoning behind the group’s position on Israel tackled by secular Jews who, paradoxically, despite their secularism and secular lifestyle use a religious text as the basis for the foundation of the State of Israel.

The Balfour Declaration of 1917 is also cited by Lobbyists to “prove” the legitimacy of their claim to the land of Palestine. The Declaration was a statement made in a letter sent by the then British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, to Lord Rothschild; it was written before Britain had any responsibility for, or even authority over, Palestine during the First World War. “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object,” wrote Balfour, “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” The latter clause is often overlooked by the Lobby and the government of Israel.

The text of the letter was “submitted to and approved by the Cabinet” but it was never put to the Houses of Parliament for debate. It may well have become government policy but it was never a legally-binding document. Indeed, it has been called “void, morally wicked and mischievous” because “the consent of the indigenous and sovereign inhabitants of the country… was never asked or obtained”. Turkey, the legal sovereign over Palestine in 1917 “did not consent to it”; according to lawyer Henry Cattan, “This basic flaw did not escape the attention of Chaim Weizmann, the principal Zionist negotiator of the Balfour Declaration, because he stressed to the British government ‘the importance of the Balfour Declaration being included in the Treaty of Peace with Turkey’.”

The Declaration refers to the British government’s support for a “Jewish National Home” not a Jewish state. Sir Herbert Samuel, the first British High Commissioner of Palestine whose views are said to have influenced the drafting of the letter, told the House of Lords in 1947 that “there was no promise of a Jewish state” intended by the Balfour Declaration. As Cattan said in The Palestine Question, at the time of writing the Declaration, “the British government, a foreign power in regard to Palestine, did not possess, nor had it ever possessed, any sovereignty, right of disposition, or jurisdiction over Palestine, that enabled it to grant any rights, be they political or territorial, to an alien people over the territory of Palestine”.

When the House of Lords debated the League of Nations Palestine mandate in 1922, members opposed the inclusion of the Balfour Declaration in the terms of the mandate. “Lord Islington,” wrote Cattan, “said that the proposed mandate violated the pledges made by His Majesty’s government to the people of Palestine.” According to Lord Sydenham in the same debate, “the harm done by dumping down an alien population upon an Arab country… may never be remedied… What we have done is, by concessions, not to the Jewish people but to a Zionist extreme section, to start a running sore in the East, and no one can tell how far that sore will extend.”

That “sore” has, of course, been very obvious to the Palestinians, who could answer his Lordship very succinctly; it has destroyed their country, their lives and quite possibly their future.

The other major document used by supporters of Israel is the 1947 UN Resolution to partition Palestine; this was opposed by Samuel as well as, apparently, “the indigenous religious Jews in Palestine” who were “strongly opposed to political Zionism”, among them Neturei Karta. Of course, the people of Palestine, represented at the UN by the Arab Higher Committee, for whom the spokesman was Henry Cattan, also opposed the partition of their land. Their fears were realised when General Assembly Resolution 181 (II) gave 57 per cent of Palestine to the Jews for their state even though they owned just 6 per cent of the land at that time. What is interesting when pro-Israel Lobbyists cite UN Resolution 181 as the basis of the state’s legitimacy is that a) General Assembly Resolutions of the UN are not binding, b) the Resolution “was probably ultra vires [outside the competence of the United Nations]” in any case; and c) the nascent State of Israel went beyond the boundaries fixed by the UN despite its pledge to implement Resolution 118, which inter alia intended Jerusalem to be a corpus separatum to be administered by the UN. Israel, of course, claims the whole of Jerusalem as its “undivided and eternal capital”.

When, in 1948, Israel applied to join the UN, it was rejected. A second application was made in February 1949 and it was made conditional for Israel to abide by UN Resolutions 181 “concerning the territory of the Arab and Jewish states, the City of Jerusalem, the Holy Places and minority rights” as well as Resolution 194 (dated 11 December 1948) “concerning repatriation of [Palestinian] refugees and Jerusalem”. Israel has never complied with those resolutions. Nor, indeed, has it ever complied with any other UN Resolutions which required it to do something which would entail the return of Palestinian refugees to their land or to fix its borders according to Resolution 181. Astonishingly, Israel is the only member state of the UN which has never declared what its borders actually are. This, very conveniently, has allowed it to grab ever more Palestinian territory on a regular basis over many years as it bids to create “Greater Israel”; the “Zionist dream”, according to President Obama.

In general, it is fair to say that Israel ignores UN Resolutions unless it suits its political and territorial ambitions to do otherwise. It is also fair to say that it has never been taken to task for this blatant abuse of UN membership, which requires all states to abide by the terms of the UN Charter.

In terms of human rights conventions, Israel breaks the Fourth Geneva Convention with apparent impunity; the most obvious example of this abuse is the Israeli settlements which are built across the occupied West Bank. These are deemed to be illegal in international law, which prohibits the acquisition of territory by war and the transfer of the occupier’s population across the border into occupied territory; Israel – surprise, surprise – disputes this but is the only country to do so. That is why it is so galling to hear people like Barack Obama insist that the Palestinians should return to the negotiating table at which the settlements can be discussed. Since when are criminals allowed to “negotiate” about their crimes? What kind of law did the US President study at Harvard?

The list of Israeli war crimes and crimes against humanity is long, ranging from the transfer of detainees from their land under occupation to prisons inside the territory of the occupying power, to the use of white phosphorus bombs in civilian areas during “Operation Cast Lead”, an act captured so dramatically on camera in an attack on a UN school in the Gaza Strip. Such atrocities have been fairly common, from the infamous Deir Yassin massacre of 1948, through the Qibya Massacre of 1953, Sabra and Shatila in 1982 to Israel’s offensive against the largely unarmed civilian population of Gaza in 2008/9 and 2012.

At all times, without exception, Israel’s actions are passed off as “responses” to Palestinian “terrorism”. The Lobby’s major success has been to convince Western governments, if any actually needed convincing, that legitimate Palestinian resistance to the Israeli military occupation is “terrorism”. Such legitimacy can be found in, for example, UN Resolutions 2787 dated 6th December 1971.

Given the requirement in international law for signatories to the Geneva Conventions to apprehend those accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, it is amazing that the likes of Barack Obama can go to Israel and praise such a criminal state and government. Equally amazing is the fact that a government like Britain’s coalition has amended domestic law to allow Israelis believed to be responsible for war crimes to visit the UK without fear of arrest.

All of this begs the obvious question: how can opponents of Israel’s illegal activities and policies ever be accused of seeking to “delegitimise” the state? Surely, by any measure, Israel has delegitimised itself ever since it agreed to uphold the terms of the UN Charter; allow the right of return of Palestinian refugees; and agree on the international status of Jerusalem, all of which are requirements for its membership of the UN, and yet make every effort not only to ignore those requirements but work actively against them? Israel can’t have it all ways; if it claims legitimacy from a particular document surely it must uphold its terms and requirements.

The pro-Israel Lobby and its lackeys should be exposed for what they really are; not supporters of a democratic state struggling to survive as an “outpost of civilisation against barbarism”, as Herzl put it, but as vociferous backers of a rogue state hellbent on interpreting international laws and conventions to suit its own nefarious objective of taking more and more Palestinian land with as few Palestinians on it as possible.

Talk of peace without justice, and without bringing to justice those who have treated international norms of behaviour with absolute contempt at the cost of thousands of Palestinian lives, should be a thing of the past. Peace with justice is beneficial to everyone in the Middle East; that is why people of goodwill need to pursue it assiduously.

So, does Israel’s legitimacy stem from its adherence to Biblical commandments as it claims Biblical roots in the “historical home of the Jewish people”? Or from the UN as the organisation which provided the springboard for its creation? Or does it stem from Israel’s respect for the UN Charter and UN Resolutions? Or from its respect for the international laws and conventions which the rest of us are expected to adhere to, or none of the above?

The next time we hear accusations that someone is trying to “delegitimise” Israel just because they have called for it to abide by international law or face the consequences as other countries and governments must, we must ask the proIsrael Lobby mouthpieces to state explicitly where they thinks their favoured state’s legitimacy comes from. The world deserves to be told.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.