In just a few weeks, the world will witness a remarkable and sobering milestone. By June, 2017, Israel will have been a military occupying power in the Palestinian territories for 50 years. Given the West’s blasé attitude, you might think this anniversary were inconsequential, but for millions in the Middle East, their hope and future depend on a shift from the status quo.
Some Canadians take a fatalistic attitude to the occupation and associated strife, making comments like, “the conflict will never end,” or, “they’ve been fighting for thousands of years” – neither of which is true. But regardless of the myths and the cynicism, 50 years of military occupation is far too long, and international players – including Canada – need to get serious about bringing it to an end. This crippling standoff between Israelis and Palestinians represents a ongoing failure in international diplomacy, and remains a source of ongoing strife in the broader Middle East.
Some Israelis have suggested that this Palestinian territory – the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza – is theirs, won through a war with Jordan and Egypt in 1967. But the UN Charter and international law do not recognize the acquisition of territory by force, and the land was never Jordan’s nor Egypt’s to “lose.”
Israel’s military occupation is not benign, and it has been widely condemned by legal experts. It comes with soldiers, guns, walls, checkpoints, sniper towers, arrests, searches, land confiscations, house demolitions and more. Every day, Palestinian civilians live with its reality: waiting at checkpoints to get to work; tolerating humiliating searches; farmers blocked from accessing their olive groves; patients blocked from getting treatment at health facilities; families fearing the loss of their homes. After 50 years, we should not be surprised when some of them lose hope and turn to violence to vent their frustration.
The occupation is also destructive for Israel. One book released by the Israeli Political Science Association concludes that Israel’s occupation has severely undermined core societal values and institutions. The authors argue that suspicion and distrust within the occupying Israeli society transform themselves into contempt and humiliation of the occupied Palestinians. These changes, the book argues, cause the fragmentation of Israel’s moral texture. Human rights journalist Gideon Levy is more blunt: “[Israel] is a state whose sense of direction has been lost, its ability to distinguish good from evil impaired.”
There is no reason the Palestinians shouldn’t have their own state. It was the intent of the UN Partition Plan of 1947, and the right to self-determination of all peoples is enshrined in international law. For years, the Palestinians have satisfied the three criteria normally set out for peoples demanding the right to self-determine. First, the Palestinians exist as a distinct people with a distinct identity. Next, the borders of the Palestinian state are clear, and would mirror that of the 1947 armistice (Green) line. Finally, the Palestinians have a recognized government, the Palestinian Authority, established via the 1993 Oslo Accords.
The vast majority of the world is ready to welcome Palestine as a member of the UN community of nations. In 2012, the UN General Assembly voted 138-9 in support of “Non-MemberObserverState” for Palestine. There is no reason that the cultural, economic and societal aspirations of the Palestinians should continue to be held hostage to an intrusive and brutal Israeli occupation.
It is true that there would be logistical challenges to the establishment of a free Palestine today. Indeed, Israel has worked hard over 50 years to create “facts on the ground” as a deterrent to Palestinian self-determination. Most notably, Israel has illegally moved 600,000 Jewish-Israeli civilians into Palestinian territory, in direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention’s prohibition against the colonization of occupied land.
- But these and other obstacles could be overcome if the West had the honest desire to do so. The Geneva Initiative of 2003 is one of several independent initiatives between Israeli and Palestinian civilians which demonstrates that a mutually agreeable deal for both Israelis and Palestinians is possible. For much of the world, the Western governments’ lack of resolve on Israel-Palestine makes a mockery of all our talk about human rights.
- Middle powers like Canada may feel like they don’t have much of a role to play, but this is untrue. Both Israelis and Palestinians crave legitimacy, and abhor talk of their human rights abuses. Just as the Security Council condemnation of settlements riled Israel in December, ongoing condemnation of human rights violations by Canada and others would similarly create pressure for an end to the impasse.
- The world would not have tolerated US occupation soldiers in Germany 50 years after World War II. In the same way, the world should not tolerate Israeli soldiers in the West Bank 50 years after the 1967 war. But unless something galvanizes Trudeau, Trump and other Western leaders to action, we may soon observe another sad anniversary of Israel’s ongoing military occupation. If so, Israelis, and especially Palestinian civilians, will continue to pay a heavy price for our indifference.