The ICC Decides to Investigate War Crimes in West Bank and Gaza

The International Criminal Court at The Hague
The International Criminal Court at The Hague

As Israel moves toward its third round of elections in less than a year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is desperate to find a way to hold on to power. More than vain self-interest motivates him now, as he hopes that being a sitting (and re-confirmed) prime minister will make it impossible for him to be tried, convicted, and eventually jailed for the corrupt dealings with which he has been charged.

Netanyahu was doubtless overjoyed to hear that the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague has decided there was sufficient cause to investigate whether war crimes had been committed by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip over past five and a half years. The announcement provided him with exactly the kind of target he likes best, one that allows him to claim that Israel is being singled out, persecuted, held to an unfair standard, and all because of antisemitism.

That assertion is absurd on its face, and hardly worth examining. Israel’s human rights record is open for all to see, and it’s not pretty. Moreover, the ICC isn’t investigating Israel; it is investigating the conflict in the occupied territories, and that investigation includes all parties involved. That’s just one of several key points that need to be understood regarding the ICC investigation. Read more at Responsible Statecraft

The Tangled Mess In The Persian Gulf Echoes 1914

The current situation in the Persian Gulf is all too similar to Europe in 1914, according to a new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG). In “Averting the Middle East’s 1914 Moment,” the ICG makes the case that the situation in the Persian Gulf has gotten so complicated and volatile that, as ICG’s Iran Project Director, Ali Vaez. put it, “Just as in Europe in 1914, a single incident has the potential of sparking a military confrontation that could, in turn, engulf the entire region.”

The comparison to 1914 is obviously chilling, but the sheer number of actors connected to the U.S.-Iran standoff and the unmanageable array of potential trigger points in the region make it apt. Tightening U.S. sanctions, as part of the Trump administration’s so-called “maximum pressure campaign,” and the response they force from Iran means steadily rising tensions and raises the possibility that at some point, Iran could take a step to which the U.S. or Israel feels it must respond militarily. Read more at LobeLog

The War that Changed the Middle East

Fifty years have passed since Israel’s stunning military victory over the countries surrounding it in 1967. War transforms countries, regions, the entire planet as no other event can. And perhaps no war ever transformed a country and the entire region surrounding it as suddenly and as dramatically as the 1967 war did to Israel, the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the entire Middle East.

Consider where the region was on June 4, 1967. The Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union was in full swing in the region, with the US enjoying an advantage, but still concerned with Soviet influence. Egypt, under Gamal Abdel Nasser, was a leader in both the global Non-Aligned Movement—which purported to resist the influence of either of the superpowers—and the rapidly declining Pan-Arab movement. Syria was already fighting with Israel. Its government in a state of flux that would not resolve itself until several years later, Syria was already the Soviet Union’s strongest ally in the region. Disunity among Arab governments in general was rampant, with uneasy relationships thwarting several attempts at alliances among different sets of countries.

Israel was a 19-year-old country that was in a de facto state of war with all its neighbors. Its economy was much more centrally controlled than it is now, and the country was much poorer. Palestinians who remained within Israel after the 1948 war were mostly granted technical citizenship, with voting rights, but lived under martial law until 1966. Those restrictions were hauntingly similar to what Palestinians in the West Bank live under today. Curfews, travel permits, administrative detention, land confiscation through the manipulation of the law, and summary expulsions were all traits of the lives of Israel’s Arab citizens.

Although Israel had been building its military strength since 1948, the extent of its military might was both far less than it is today and untested. The United States supported Israel and saw it as a Cold War ally, but the relationship was not nearly as close as it is today. Israelis did not need a Benjamin Netanyahu to scare them. They faced real threats from countries around them and had no idea if their military was sufficient to counter that threat. The populace was always afraid of a major war, and that fear rise to a fever pitch in spring 1967.

The West Bank was controlled by Jordan, which had annexed it in 1950, an act that no other country, save the United Kingdom, ever recognized. Nonetheless, Palestinians living in the West Bank as well as in the rest of Jordan were granted full citizenship. But there was virtually no contact between Palestinians on the West Bank and those in Israel, splitting families apart for many years.

East Jerusalem was also under Jordanian control. The city’s status as an economic hub declined sharply as it had lost its connection to the coast and was no longer a true capital, but its religious significance remained. In a decision that continues to have political repercussions, which peace advocates too often ignore or minimize, Jordan barred Jews from the city.

Egypt captured the Gaza Strip, and, again not unlike the situation today, it really wanted no part of it. The Nasser government kept Gaza isolated and cut off from the rest of Egypt, causing the already poor Strip to fall deeper into economic hardship. The flow of refugees from the 1948 war into Gaza had been considerable, generating the overcrowding that would plague Gaza to this day.

A Changed Landscape

The war, which lasted from June 5 to 10, changed the entire landscape of the region. The regional influence of Nasser’s Egypt, which had been an uneasy but valued Soviet ally and a serious concern for Israel, the United States, and Saudi Arabia, dropped precipitously. Pan-Arabism was largely dead after the war.

Israel’s occupation of the Sinai Peninsula was intolerable to Egypt. In the absence of any effective international diplomacy that offered hope of persuading Israel to withdraw, Egypt launched a gradually building war of attrition, which would last until a cease-fire in 1970.

Nasser was never able to make headway in regaining the Sinai. His successor, Anwar Al-Sadat, would eventually succeed with a show of military strength that got Israel’s attention, a clear pivot away from the Soviet Union and toward the United States, and a bold political initiative that included an appearance before the Israeli Knesset in 1977.

The eventual resolution of the Sinai issue established a number of precedents. One was the concept of “land for peace.” This was a concession to the fact that UN Security Council Resolutions had proven ineffective at prying concessions from Israel. Another was the primacy not only of US diplomacy but of US military aid in the region. Both Egypt and Israel continue to reap the benefits of that agreement.

The return of the Sinai also had a profound effect on the Palestinians. When the final agreement was struck between Israel and Egypt, it included a section on a broader peace that would involve the settlement of the “Palestinian problem.” The wording, however, was vague, included no references to Jerusalem or the return of Palestinian refugees, and was deliberately framed by Israel to limit Palestinian aspirations to “autonomy,” not independence. In practice, the agreement changed nothing for the Palestinians and was widely seen as an Egyptian departure from the Arab consensus and betrayal of the Palestinians. It would cost Sadat his life.

In Syria, the swift defeat and loss of the majority of the territory of the Golan Heights in 1967 was the spark that eventually led to Hafez al-Assad’s rise to power. His predecessor, Salah Jadid, had been very active before the war in provoking Israel, with frequent air raids and mortar fire into northern Israel. After the defeat, Jadid was able to hold onto power for a while, but he immediately lost support to his minister of defense, Assad. By 1970, Jadid was out of office and in prison and the more pragmatic, but quite ruthless, Assad was in power.

Although Saudi Arabia was not involved in the war, it nonetheless saw a massive transformation in its foreign policy as a result of it. Prior to the war, the Saudis had led one side of a “regional cold war,” with the pro-Soviet and Pan-Arabist Egypt leading the other. Soon after Israel’s victory, the Saudis and Egyptians ended their conflict, which was largely playing out in Yemen, not unlike today’s competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

King Faysal bin Abdelaziz al Saud had been a close friend of the United States and had, in the past, worked very diligently at building up that relationship. But, angered at the US response to the war, he supported an Iraqi initiative to cut oil exports to the US and United Kingdom, which had little impact on the US but was a precursor to the embargo that did affect the US a few years later. Saudi policy became focused on positioning the country as the leader in supporting the Palestinian cause, after largely staying in the background on the matter for years before. The Saudis established themselves as the top backers of Yasir Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Impact on Palestinians

Indeed, the 1967 war transformed the Palestinian situation in major ways. Palestinian politics had been largely in shock since 1948. There was very little real activity; even the initial formation of the PLO was largely a broader Arab project.

After the war, the Fatah movement led by Yasir Arafat gained primacy and took over the PLO. Arafat gave the PLO sufficient legitimacy that it would eventually be recognized by the entire Arab world, and in time the entire international community, as the official representative body of the Palestinian people. In addition to the massive dispossession the Palestinians suffered in 1948, which only increased after 1967, a large Palestinian population under Israeli law had no guaranteed rights.

The occupation brought a new layer to the conflict over Israel. It soon spawned real consideration of a two-state solution. At the 1974 Arab League Summit in Rabat, Morocco, the PLO first began to consider a Palestinian state alongside an Israeli one, at least as a temporary measure. It began the diplomatic push that, two decades later, would see Jordan renounce its claims to the West Bank.

Before the war started, the United States was confident that Israel could triumph over the combined forces of its neighbors. Israeli leadership was less fully confident, and the Israeli public was absolutely terrified at the prospect. After the war, triumphalism swept the country. Although some voices, most notably David Ben-Gurion, called for returning most of the territory Israel had just captured, the mood of the public and the leadership was overwhelmingly opposed to such ideas.

Israel’s victory established it as a reliable client for the United States in the region, although those who supported a more conciliatory policy toward the Arab world would continue to plead their case, especially in the State Department. Although the United States supported UN resolutions calling for Israel’s withdrawal, it was not inclined to take strong action to enforce them.

Israel’s stunning victory also made the government feel that it had no reason to compromise. This thinking resulted in the years-long war of attrition and the near-calamity of the 1973 War.

History, of course, has evolved greatly over the ensuing 50 years, and many notable, important, and tragic events have occurred. But no single event has so dramatically reshaped the dynamics of the entire region since the war of June 5-10, 1967.

The Endless Occupation

In late October, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a joint meeting of the Knesset foreign Affairs and Defense Committees that “at this time we need to control all of the territory (of Occupation in Jerusalemthe West Bank) for the foreseeable future.” He echoed this during his talk at the Center for American Progress on November 10, when he insisted that, despite his stated support for a two-state solution, he saw no alternative to a permanent Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley.

These remarks fall within a particular set of parameters of discourse around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this view, Israel is being asked to make a concession by even considering an end to its now 48-year old occupation. In this view, Palestinian liberty is not a self-evident, inalienable right, but an Israeli gift.

This view is not only that of the Israeli right, but of the majority of politicians in both Jerusalem and Washington. Netanyahu is merely following those parameters to their logical conclusion: that the occupation lives until such time as Israel feels it should end. The fact that millions of Palestinians live under military rule may disturb many Israelis, but it does not create a political imperative to change that state of affairs.

Netanyahu recognizes the absence of any international agenda for a peace process, much less any real pressure to get back onto the long and winding road toward a sustainable solution. As a result, he is pressing forward with the agenda of the Israeli right, which has long been clearly articulated by its leaders. Their view has been, unabashedly, a single Israeli state in all the territory Israel now controls, with Palestinians contained and controlled within a series of disconnected cantons.

That policy means holding the West Bank and East Jerusalem in perpetuity while denying citizenship, along with basic rights, to the Palestinian people living there. If that is the policy that Israel pursues, then it must explain to the world how it justifies a system that is unmistakably reminiscent of apartheid.

It will not be an easy case to make, and it certainly will not be a popular one. But given the fact that, at this writing, there has been no notable response to Netanyahu’s words, it might not be very hard for him to sustain the policy he seems to be proposing.

Last month, during the height of the tensions raised over the status of the Temple Mount, I met with a high-ranking official in the Netanyahu government in Jerusalem. In discussing the impasse in peace talks, he posed the following question: “As an Israeli, if I am to agree to a Palestinian state, is it not fair that I know what will be on the other side?”

It’s a reasonable question. After all, can we expect Israel to consent to an arrangement if they don’t have some assurance that it won’t lead to even more attacks? Once we unravel the context of that rhetorical question, however, we get to one of the root causes of the endless nature of this occupation.

The point the official made to me was based on the view that Israeli security demands that Palestinians prove they can be trusted with their own freedom. This is a logic that is broadly accepted. Yet it rests on certain assumptions.

The first assumption is that Palestinians are either not entitled to or have somehow forfeited the rights Americans consider fundamental and inalienable. Many of us in the West have a greater measure of freedom than most, and we generally hold to the idea that human rights, civic rights and rights of individual liberty are inalienable. True, most of us also believe that a crime can lead to an individual being forced to forfeit some of those rights, but you’d be hard pressed to find people who believe that an entire group of people can be denied their individual or collective rights because of the actions of a few members of their group.

Yet when it comes to the Palestinians, we seem to lose sight of this basic ethic. Of course, this is a situation of unsettled conflict, and in such circumstances, people are often put under martial law, or even besieged. But according to international norms, those are supposed to be temporary conditions. Indeed, the laws of military occupation (which Israel’s High Court has confirmed apply to the West Bank) exist precisely because occupation is understood to be a temporary condition, which all sides are striving to end.

Indeed, the blind eye the United States and, to a lesser extent, the European Union turn to Israel’s failure to fulfill its duties as an occupying power, in addition to the human rights issues that numerous Israeli groups have documented, are also an outgrowth of this view of the conflict. Even many who are sympathetic to the Palestinians’ plight, whether out of fear of being seen as insensitive to the Jewish history of persecution or for purely political reasons, continue to treat basic Palestinian rights as subordinate to Israeli security concerns.

Israel’s argument that the territories in question are not occupied because they were not the sovereign territory of another state (in this case, Jordan) does not change the dilemma of the millions of Palestinians who exist on a daily basis without civic or national rights and whose human rights are routinely violated with impunity.

This is what needs to change before any serious progress can be made. Israeli security is of course important, but it cannot continue to serve to justify the violation of Palestinians’ basic rights. The current paradigm frames the issue as one where Israel’s security concerns are the first order of business, and in pursuing those concerns, Palestinian rights should be addressed. But the most basic ethical view demands the reverse: a framework that demands the same rights for Palestinians as for Israelis, and within pursuing that overarching goal, security for both peoples must be maximized.

If that framework is adopted, we have the potential for a solution because it demands that the occupation end, where the current one does not necessarily do that. Most of us can reluctantly accept that people live under occupation for a short time, and we hope that human rights monitors can be effective in policing the conduct of occupying powers. But there are no moral or ethical, let alone legal grounds for accepting endless occupation. If Israel truly wants to control all of the West Bank, then it must annex it all (not just the parts it wants) and grant full citizenship to all of its inhabitants. Otherwise, it must work diligently to end the occupation and establish a viable, secure and self-sufficient Palestinian state.

As tragic and outrageous as the stabbing of innocent civilians or the suicide bombings of years past or any other murder of Israelis may be, they cannot justify open-ended occupation for the millions of innocent Palestinians who had no part in any such crimes. But no outside party is enforcing this basic ground rule with Israel. It is thus no surprise that Netanyahu is advocating perpetual occupation.

This is where the attitude of the United States and its international partners must enter, and enter forcefully. Israel is a country whose populace feels itself to be under permanent siege and is led by a Prime Minister who has a long history of building his political base on a foundation of fear. Under those circumstances, it is not reasonable to expect Israel to willingly give up what it perceives as its security advantage in controlling the Palestinians.

The United States has long sided with Israel in resisting any kind of timetable for ending the occupation. This has to change. Just as there needs to be a sense of urgency about Israeli civilians being killed in the streets of Israel, there must be at least as much urgency about the Palestinian people getting the rights and freedoms that all of us are entitled to as human beings.

Netanyahu has, ironically, given the US and EU the opportunity to change the game. These bodies must respond to Bibi’s declaration of perpetual occupation by making it clear that the occupation must begin to be drawn down.

The process need not be instantaneous. An international security presence can begin to replace Israeli security forces in various parts of the West Bank as Palestinians continue to develop the infrastructure they will need for a functional government. Meanwhile, permanent borders, the status of Jerusalem and the questions of refugees, the Jewish identity of Israel and mutual economic, water and security agreements can be worked out. It amounts to a phased Israeli withdrawal, with constant security adjustments and steady increases in Palestinian freedom. Such a process, however, can only succeed with robust international participation, led by the United States,

Until now, too much of the international diplomatic framework has been centered on what is best for Israel. Yes, it is important to make the argument that the occupation is the single biggest obstacle to a normal existence for Israel; that it is diverting resources from the Israeli public; and that it is rotting Israel’s moral structure from the inside. These are powerful arguments that should help incentivize Israelis to end the occupation.

But the more crucial moral argument is that millions of Palestinians live under occupation, and have done so for more than 48 years now. As those years have progressed, the occupation has not normalized or relaxed, but has grown even more restrictive and oppressive. This is a horrible reality, and obscuring it behind attacks on Israelis is a massive injustice to the overwhelming majority of Palestinians who want nothing more than to live normal lives without fear but with hope and opportunity. That is an argument that has been sadly neglected.

As long as the moral and political questions of ending the occupation revolve so strongly about Israel’s concerns, legitimate though those may be, Netanyahu can find his justification for advocating occupation without end. And he will find an audience that will not berate him for it. Once the question is properly framed around both Israeli security and Palestinian rights and freedom, such options cannot be considered, and progress can reasonably be expected.

Toward A New Two-State Solution

The idea that the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dead has been repeated so many times in the
past several years that it has taken on the droning sound of a mantra. Yet at the same time, we continue to hear pleas like the one that Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour made as the Security Council was about to reject the Palestinian resolution calling for an end to Israel’s occupation: “Those eager to save the two-state solution must act and cannot continue to make excuses for Israel and to permit, and thus be complicit in, its immoral and illegal behavior.”

So which is it? Must we abandon the two-state solution and think of other formulations or do we desperately need to revitalize and resuscitate the process we’ve been working on since 1993? Perhaps there is a better answer: a completely different approach to the two-state solution. Read more at the Foundation for Middle East Peace