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Israel may have a fig leaf of UN respectability, but it still fears BDS

Banner during protest near Karmi Tzor Israeli settlement.
A banner seen during a protest with international activists near the illegal Israeli settlement of Karmi Tzor [file photo]

When Israel joined the United Nations on 11 May 1949 its membership was conditional on it fulfilling several requirements. Apart from being obliged to abide by the UN Charter, it had to declare its borders publicly and allow the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. Sixty-seven years on, none of these obligations has been carried out. Despite such glaring and ongoing contempt for the international community worthy of the rogue state that it has become, the UN has succumbed to pressure from the Western European and Others Group (WEOG) and elected Israel to chair one of its six permanent committees.

As predicted, the move has provoked widespread criticism, not only from the Palestinian Authority but also from international non-governmental organisations, the League of Arab States and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Israel’s election to chair the UN’s legal committee, they argue, is an affront to the rule of law and a scandalous perversion of the world body’s founding principles.

In London, a statement from the Arab Organisation for Human Rights in the UK insisted that such condemnation was justified because Israel remains, after several decades, the illegal occupier of Palestinian and Arab lands and commits heinous crimes regularly, including the extra-judicial killing of Palestinians in the occupied territories and possibly war crimes and crimes against humanity. Not only that, but Israel also arrests Palestinians arbitrarily; constructs illegal settlements on occupied territory; engages in land theft; displaces the Palestinians forcibly; and refuses to allow the Palestinian people to exercise their right to self-determination despite repeated calls from the UN Special Political and Decolonisation Committee.

Though largely symbolic, the election of Israel to the UN legal committee will raise its profile within the organisation and allow it to influence decisions on issues relating to international law. Danny Danon, the country’s UN ambassador, was understandably elated after the election and had the audacity to claim that, “Israel is a world leader in international law and in fighting terrorism.”

Without the support of the regional Western European and Others Group (WEOG) Israel’s candidacy to chair the legal committee stood very little chance of succeeding. In recent years, the EU and a number of its member countries acting individually have attempted, under the guise of combatting anti-Semitism, to censure debate and criticism of Israel. It now remains to be seen whether Israel will use its chairmanship of the UN’s legal committee to promote similar rules aimed at suppressing international criticism and censure of its illegal policies and practices.

While Israeli officials have never attached any significance to the scores of UN resolutions that condemn its actions, they have never concealed their fear of the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Its success in the West has led countries like France and Britain to criminalise calls for the boycott of Israel. In October last year, France’s highest court of appeal upheld the conviction of 12 Palestinian solidarity activists for calling for the boycott of Israeli goods.

In Britain, the pro-Israel Conservative government recently unveiled plans to ban local councils, public bodies and even some university student unions from boycotting companies that operate in Israel’s illegal colony-settlements. A spokesman for Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn described the government’s decision as an “attack on local democracy.”

With its privileged chairmanship of the UN’s legal committee, Israel now has an opportunity to deal once and for all with yet another long standing concern; its so-called “delegitimisation” by pro-Palestine campaigners. The central pillar of this strategy is to delegitimise in turn those who dare to criticise its policies. Hence, from now on we can expect no shortage of debates on how to sanitise the occupation, redefine Zionism and make any and every criticism of Israel an act of “anti-Semitism”.

If the UN allows itself to be hijacked for these purposes it might as well bid farewell to whatever credibility and respect it has left within the international community. That Israel should be elected to monitor the application of international law is as preposterous as appointing a career criminal to guard the crown jewels. Under no circumstances can the UN expect the rule of humanitarian law to apply in Palestine when Israel does not acknowledge that its occupation is illegal, and recognise the relevance of the Geneva Convention over the occupied Palestinian territories.

In the circumstances, no one should blame the Israelis for relishing what is clearly a diplomatic triumph. Not since it was admitted to the UN in 1949 has it ever headed any of the six permanent committees of the world body. Likewise, no one should blame the Palestinians, the victims of Israeli occupation, for losing trust in the UN. After all, Israel was, and will always remain a creation of the United Nations, created as it was by UN resolution 181 in the first place.

More than anything else, this week’s election of Israel to head the UN’s legal committee has underlined the futility of relying entirely on the organisation and its agencies. It is, in addition, a stark reminder of the need to preserve the gains secured by direct civil action such as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. Yes, it may take time to gather momentum, but rest assured that when it does, BDS will be a force that is irreversible and unstoppable. Israel knows that to be the case, which is why it is expending so much time, energy and resources on trying to block the global movement. It may have a fig leaf of UN respectability now, but it still fears the peaceful BDS campaign more than anything else in the world.

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

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