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U.S. Just Launched a One-Word Attack on Palestinian Rights

Is the West Bank “occupied” by Israel? The State Department has said yes for decades. Suddenly, it says no.

What would you call it?

Photographer: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images Europe

If you issue a report on human rights, the least you can do is avoid damaging, dismissing or denigrating those rights. But that’s exactly what the U.S. State Department just did in the new edition of the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, released on April 20. The targets, no one should be surprised to learn, were the Palestinians.

Ever since the first State Department human rights reports were issued in the 1970s, they always included a section on “Israel and the occupied territories.” But the new document suddenly expunges any mention of occupation, referring instead to “Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank, and Gaza.”

QuicktakeIsraeli Settlements

Recognizing that Israel’s presence in lands that came under its control in the 1967 war is a military occupation acknowledges that its expanding settlement project in the West Bank is a human rights abuse.  The Fourth Geneva Convention, which is designed for the “protection of civilian persons during time of war,” prohibits an occupying power, under any circumstances, from transferring “parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”

Supporters of Israeli settlements claim that this article of international law merely forbids forcible or involuntary transfers or expulsions. But the Red Cross’s definitive 1958 explanatory commentary on the original drafting, which took place in the late 1940s, makes clear the purpose of Article 49:

It is intended to prevent a practice adopted during the Second World War by certain Powers, which transferred portions of their own population to occupied territory for political and racial reasons or in order, as they claimed, to colonize those territories. Such transfers worsened the economic situation of the native population and endangered their separate existence as a race.

In other words, people living under the control of a foreign army have a right not to have their land taken away from them and given to the population of the victors.

But that’s exactly what Israel has done since 1967, and now more than 600,000 Jewish Israelis live as settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, both of which have been clearly identified as occupied territories by United Nations Security Council resolutions and other international legal instruments. Israel calls the territories “disputed” rather than occupied. But the dispute isn’t just between Israel and the Palestinians. It’s between Israel and the rest of the world.

The 5 million or so Palestinians in the occupied territories (East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip) are not citizens of Israel, and they don’t have any state of their own. The vast majority aren’t refugees. Many still live in their ancestral towns and villages. Yet they remain stateless, lacking the protections of citizenship.

What they do have in theory are the protections afforded by the Fourth Geneva Convention for persons living under occupation. But if you eliminate the reality of the occupation, you strip away the legal protections.

In other words, the State Department has now joined Israel in declining to admit that Palestinians are protected by the Geneva Conventions from Israeli colonization of their lands.

The ironies are endless. Israel claims the rights of an occupying power to justify its military rule of the occupied territories through checkpoints, firing zones, and an apparatus of discipline and control. If there’s no occupation, then most of what the Israeli military has done in the occupied territories is an outrageous abuse.

But if there is an occupation, then the settlements amount to a violent human rights violation. Try, as a thought experiment, to imagine a nonviolent settlement program. How many Palestinian villagers could be persuaded to voluntarily abandon their property in favor of newcomers from Brooklyn, Latvia or Ethiopia without the Israeli military there to “insist”?

Israel wants to have it both ways, continuously adjusting the status of these areas depending on which set of abuses is being defended. But the rest of the world has rejected this cynical shell game. Until now.

Meanwhile, Palestinians in the occupied territories live under an occupation that restricts everything they do, from the moment they wake until they go back to sleep. They live under martial law, while nearby Jewish settlers live under Israeli civil law. Their movements are curtailed. The most quotidian aspects of their lives are subject to the whim of a foreign army. And various Palestinian authorities notwithstanding, they have no access to the Israeli government that actually rules them.

Now the State Department has issued a “human rights report” that deliberately and cynically strips this almost uniquely vulnerable group of millions of stateless non-refugees from even the minimal protections they get from their legal status of living under foreign military occupation. They aren’t citizens of anything, and now they aren’t even under occupation.

There are plenty of affronts to human rights in the new State Department report. One of the most grotesque is the way it manipulates words to rob Palestinians of the few human rights they have.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Hussein Ibish at hussein.ibish@gmail.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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