With the Golan Heights now recognised as Israeli territory by the US, and Russia and Egypt helping to deliver gifts ahead of today’s general election, it looks like Israel’s dramatic swing to the right has been internationally accepted.
“There is a very important principle in international life,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week at the Golan signing ceremony at the White House in Washington DC. “When you start wars of aggression, you lose territory, do not come and claim it afterwards. It belongs to us.” As absurd and preposterous as it may be, he said this with no attempt to find an argument that could be reconciled with reason. This complete indifference to the international community’s opinion says a lot about Netanyahu’s position while US President Donald Trump is in office.
Right after landing at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, Netanyahu went on with this indifference, telling reporters: “Everyone says you can’t hold an occupied territory, but this proves you can. If occupied in a defensive war, then it’s ours.”
The Israeli right-wing seems to have welcomed this declaration not as a gift, but as an intrinsic right that has been finally recognised by the world’s superpower.
Yet while Netanyahu has been working day and night on his electoral campaign, he seems to have had little time to comment on the international condemnation of this declaration from the EU, the Arab League, Turkey, Iran, Russia and China. Thinking of the blind support he receives from the White House, why should he?
Instead, he went even further few days ago in an interview on an Israeli radio programme, saying: “All the options are still on the table.” He said this included the “reoccupation” of the besieged Gaza Strip and “giving” it to Arab leaders.
The most recent example was the crowning of these promises with his pledge to “annex the West Bank if re-elected”. Who could imagine this being said few years ago?
Any legal basis?
In the eyes of international law, these declarations and promises are not worth the paper they are written on. International law could not be clearer: the acquisition of territory by force or threat of force is inadmissible. This has been reiterated through several conventions and declarations, as well as UN Security Council resolutions in which the US voted in favour of condemning Israel’s annexation of the Golan in 1981, and in favour of its retreat from the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, in Resolution 242.
Netanyahu’s argument that, since these territories were gained in a “defensive” war, it is legitimate to maintain control over them, is more befitting of the law of the jungle than international law.
In international law, there are certain ways in which sovereignty of a territory can be acquired or transferred to another state. It could be through cessation, as in Berubari which was given to Pakistan by India, leasing or purchasing territory like in Alaska or through a plebiscite like in Kashmir. Other options include the birth of new states through an exercise of self-determination by the people of a territory, through prescription, or occupation uninterrupted by any claim from another state. You guessed it, the example of the Golan Heights fits in nowhere into these aforementioned options.
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As for the reoccupation of Gaza, the sentence is itself contradictory; you just cannot reoccupy what you are already occupying. Several UN resolutions make it clear that Gaza is occupied – even after the unilateral withdrawal of forces in 2005. Israel controls Gaza’s borders, coast, atmosphere and population registry, as well as access to several resources.
Meanwhile the West Bank is internationally recognised as Palestinian territory, confirmed by several UN Security Council and UN General Assembly resolutions, as well as the International Court of Justice (ICJ)’s advisory opinion. However, international law seems to be the last of Netanyahu’s concerns.
A simple question comes to mind; why would President Trump contradict his country’s long-held position which was in line with international law? Perhaps this should be read in the context of the so-called “deal of the century”. Netanyahu, a “prime rib” in this formula, is taking part in a critical election today and his position needs any support or “gifts” it can get from the US and other powers. Trump gave him the Golan; last week Putin handed him the body of an Israeli soldier lost in Syria 1982; Egypt is trying to keep Gaza calm and silent until the end of the elections, lest it creates a sense among the Israeli electorate that Netanyahu is not able to protect it. Netanyahu is now showing himself as the protector of the realm, the man who world powers are trying to please and court.
As for Gaza, Netanyahu’s attempt to outsmart his opponents in the election does not seem to be what he really wants. Israel’s withdrawal of forces and dismantling of settlements in the Gaza Strip in the name of “disengagement from the Palestinians” in 2005 was not about finding a solution for the situation in the coastal enclave. The only reason Israeli forces do not want a base in Gaza is because they do not want to take responsibility for the population there. Gazans have been given a very generous offer; die from starvation or attempt to survive, either way, make sure you do it silently.
The alternative is the “hammer logic”; a hammer sees any obstacle as a nail that should be hammered. That is what Netanyahu meant when he used the word “wisely” in an interview with Israel Hayom. He proudly stated: “More than 300 Palestinians have been killed near the border when they tried to breach the fence and abduct our soldiers.” He complimented himself that force had been used “wisely and powerfully”.
Finally, the occupied West Bank has always been “Israeli Land” in Netanyahu’s eyes; his old writings say that explicitly. Look at his book “A Place Among Nations: Israel and the World,” published in 1993, for example. There he makes it explicitly clear that the West Bank, and also the Golan, can never be part of any state but Israel; otherwise it is suicide, he infers.
What it means
For the Palestinians this comes as another message that the second Nakba – the name given to the ethnic cleansing of 1948 – is on its way. The first was through bloody expulsion, the second could be with more courtesy. Israel wants to find a “solution” for the Palestinians but without the Palestinians, and the White House could not be more acquiescent to Israeli demands.
Recognising the occupation of Golan is a starter for formally annexing the West Bank – a pledge which eventually came this weekend – after annexing East Jerusalem in 1982. There is just one minor piece of collateral damage: the 2.8 million Palestinians of the West Bank who Israel certainly wants gone, or at least to live silently with no political or civil rights. As for Gazans, the hammer is less public-opinion-conscious than ever.When Netanyahu said Israel is not a country of all its citizens, he meant it, so expecting that the Israeli mainstream would wilfully let the Palestinians of the occupied West Bank enjoy political or civil rights, through any formula, is merely wishful thinking.
As for the Syrian government, its opinion will count for very little after eight years of crisis have all but destroyed the country.
Besides the Palestinians and Syrians, a major loser after this declaration is international law itself. The saying that the breach of international law somewhere is a breach everywhere is not just a metaphor. Respect for international law and international institutions like the UN could be discarded by powers all over the world. “The US recognized the annexation of Golan, why can’t I annex Crimea?” Putin could think. Others would be more than happy to think the same. Trump has once again told the world that the law of the jungle works, and Netanyahu loudly applauds. It is enough to be powerful to do what you want, with a total disregard for human rights.
Any way forward?
Despite the fact that Netanyahu’s declaration has been met with international rejection – the French Ambassador to the UN François Delattre, among others, called it “a breach of international law, in particular the obligation of states to not recognise an illegal situation of occupation” – little has been done beyond mere rejection. Voting Netanyahu out today would not be enough, as any other candidate would bow to the creeping Israeli right after Netanyahu’s irresponsible behaviour has raised the bar so high. A serious international stance is needed but, needless to say, condemnation is not sufficient.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.