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US President Donald Trump has degraded American influence by legitimising Israel’s belligerent occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine in defiance of international law, concluded a panel of experts at a conference hosted by MEMO on Saturday.
Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was the subject of the conference titled “Legalising the occupation”. Despite arctic weather conditions, a packed audience gathered to hear the views of politicians, academics and activists over last year’s dramatic announcement, which was denounced universally by world leaders and international institutions.
An international panel traced Jerusalem’s history, clarified the holy city’s legal status under international law and shed light on the impact of Trump’s unilateral decision to break with international consensus. Describing the decision as an example of the US administration’s endorsement of the most extreme and reactionary sections of Israeli society, speakers examined the perils and opportunities Trump’s decision presented to the Palestinians.
Jerusalem’s rich history was the theme of discussion in the first session. Prior to its colonisation, the holy city felt like an Arab city, said Jerusalem born British academic Ghada Karmi. Recalling vivid memories from her childhood, Karmi said fellow Jerusalemites never imagined the that the city’s Arab and Muslim heritage would become overturned as swiftly as it did following the influx of large groups of European Jewish immigrants. The mass immigration, said the Palestinian academic, felt like an “invasion”.
Palestinian historians stressed the colonial heritage of the borders that currently divide their country; they spoke of the constant battle over facts and the ongoing rewriting of history to serve Israel’s ultimate political agenda. Dispelling the common myth that Palestinians gave up their opportunity for self-determination by refusing the partition plan, Karmi said:
The notion that you would give up half your homeland to a group of foreign settlers and simply accept your fate is ridiculous to even consider.
Co-panellists carried the theme of debunking the historical narrative crafted painstakingly by Israeli propagandists. Maria Holt, lecturer at Westminster University, described the conviction of early Zionists to settle in Jerusalem. This ambition, according to Holt, has hardened over the years and culminated in Netanyahu’s recent announcement that “we will forever keep Jerusalem under Israel’s sovereignty.”
The march to claim Jerusalem, according to Palestinian historian and cartographer Dr. Salman Abu Sitta, began the process of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. What followed under the Zionist project was the erasure of Jerusalem’s Muslim and Christian heritage, he added.
Zionist settlers, explained Abu Sitta, took advantage of every opportunity to gain control of the land with few Palestinians as possible. Citing the 1947 UN Partition Plan as an example, he said:
The partition plan has no binding affect what so ever, it was only a recommendation. Yet the Israelis used the Partition Plan to jump on Palestine.
The narrative of Israel’s founding has considerably muddied people’s understanding of the legal status of Jerusalem. Panellists in the second session examined in detail the key points raised in this discussion. Kevin Chamberlain CMG, a former deputy legal adviser for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, said that the British Mandate did not confer sovereignty either on the United Kingdom or indeed to the League of Nations. Chamberlain explained that “when it comes to the legal situation of Jerusalem, sovereignty is ‘in abeyance’, meaning a state of temporary disuse or suspension. Although Israel has de facto sovereignty over Jerusalem because of the acquiescence of the international community, but this sovereignty is not recognised by any members of the international community.”
Chamberlain sees Israel as remaining in belligerent occupation and is bound by international law to terminate this illegal occupation. Dispelling a common Israeli argument that the State of Israel is entitled to sovereignty over Jerusalem because it was the capital of Israel from the time of David around 1,000BC until 70AD, Chamberlain said: “This argument cannot justify the continuation of holding on to this territory because the use of force must cease when the immediate threat to the state ends.”
Sharing the stage with Chamberlin was renowned legal expert, Professor John Quigley. The professor Emeritus at the Moritz College of Law of the Ohio State University recounted the status of Jerusalem at the time that the UN took over the reigns from Britain in 1948. The legal status of Jerusalem, he explained, was different to the sovereignty of the territory on which the state of Israel would be created and seemed, at least initially, to recognise the international status of Jerusalem.
Quigley also shared the well-known fact that Israel was admitted as a member state to the United Nations on the condition that it would abide by international law – this included recognising Jerusalem’s international status – ending its belligerent occupation, and allowing Palestinian refugees expelled from their homes to return to their land. “However, Ben Gurion, then prime minister of Israel, shortly after admission to the UN, spoke of ‘Jewish Jerusalem’ and the Knesset voted to make Jerusalem the seat of government, quickly undermining the work and position of Eban,” the Israeli diplomat that gave assurances to the UN that Israel would abide by the rules of the international community.
Quigley shared a number of high profile legal cases in the US and Canada to highlight the fact that the fate of Jerusalem remains undecided and Trump’s unilateral declaration has no legal basis under international law.
The focus shifted in the afternoon to the impact of Trump’s declaration on the future of the peace process and the fate of Palestine in general.
“The occupation doesn’t cost anything for the occupier, whether in political or economic terms, in fact, Israel gains financially from the occupation,” began Dr Ahmad Tibi. In that instance “what incentive is there to stop?” he asked.
Tibi, a Palestinian member of the Israeli Knesset, had a powerful message for Trump. According to Tibi, giving Israel what it coveted the most was further confirmation that the Israeli extremists are in control of the fate of the holy city as well as the fate of Palestine.
Trump’s decision has been disastrous for the so-called peace process, he added, because it “tells Palestinians that you have nothing and Israel you have everything”. Trump was in fact saying “there is going to be no deal”.
Tibi’s sentiment was shared by Daniel Levy. The Israeli political analyst claimed that the disruption created by Trump on the “structurally flawed” peace process presents an opportunity for terminating the current road that leads to nowhere. As far as Israel and its partners are concerned, the status quo works, explained Levy. “Why would you change a system … which has worked?” he asked.
Levy’s co-panellist Nadia Hijab, co-founder and executive director at Al-Shabaka, spoke of the many “wasted opportunities” to galvanise resistance to Israeli occupation and the steps that need to be taken to aid Palestinians in their cause. She mentioned that activists needed to develop a programme that was not heavily tied to political outcomes but focused instead on human rights.
Concluding the third session was Professor Manuel Hassassian. The Palestinian ambassador to the UK thanked Trump for bringing Jerusalem back to the top of the agenda. Trump has done the Palestinians a favour, he explained, and now more than ever “Israel is being alienated”. People around the world are tired of Israel the “international view is what can we do with Israel?” said Hassassian.
Born in Jerusalem, Hassassian spoke of what he said was a “two-state delusion” before questioning Israel’s claims to being a democracy.
Israel has shown to the world it is not a democracy, it is apartheid. There is no democracy for the Arab citizens, only a democracy for Jewish people.
Speaking during the final session of the day, human rights lawyer Dr Munir Nuseibah, said: “Throughout Israel’s70-year occupation of Jerusalem, Israel has adopted a series of policies and measures to change its religious and demographic character. The consequences have been described as a form of cultural genocide and ethnic cleansing.”
Nuseibah, who was describing the complex mechanism by which Israel denies Palestinians in Jerusalem their basic rights, explained how Israel has been working to revoke the residency status of Palestinian Jerusalemites.
Former Jerusalem bureau chief, Donald Macintyre, shed further light on the stripping of residency endured by thousands of Palestinians. Macintyre thinks that this is a legacy of Israel’s founding moment, “you can’t escape the legacy of 1948. It is impossible to escape the effects of the occupation”. Highlighting also the expansion of settlements, building of the Separation Wall, the revocation of IDs, he said these were all “the effects of the occupation”.