Vol. XLI No. 09 February 26, 2017

Israeli Occupation Continues To Be Seen As Illegal

Yohannan Chemarapally

IN the last week of December, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted resolution 2334 reaffirming that Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and Jerusalem are illegal. The United States this time did not veto the resolution. A similar resolution was vetoed by the Obama administration in 2011, despite the US characterising itself as “an honest peace broker” in the Israel-Palestine dispute and terming the settlements as “illegal”. The US has in fact been indirectly subsidising much of the illegal settlement activity. The Israeli army which protects the settlers and represses Palestinians, is the recipient of the largest tranche of American military aid worldwide.

It was the first serious condemnation of Israel by the international community in the last eight years. Under George W Bush, six similar UNSC resolutions were allowed to pass. During the single term of George H W Bush, nine resolutions critical of Israel were passed in the UNSC. The latest UNSC resolution described Israel's settlement building as “a major obstacle” to peace and “a flagrant violation under international law” that was “dangerously imperiling the viability of a two state solution”. The resolution also demanded that Israel “immediately and completely cease all construction activities in the occupied Palestinian territories, including Jerusalem”. There are at present 196 illegal Israeli settlements on the West Bank along with hundreds of settlers outposts located on strategic points. The Jerusalem municipality recently announced that 300 more housing units will be built on illegally occupied land.

The decision on not vetoing resolution 2334 was a parting kick from the Obama administration. President Barack Obama had treated Israel with kid gloves for the last eight years despite open provocations from the right wing government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The current Israeli government, the most right wing so far in the country's history, not only did not heed Washington's advice to halt the constructions of settlements on occupied Palestinian territory but had started diplomatically snubbing senior Obama administration officials, including the secretary of state, John Kerry. There was of course no love lost between President Barack Obama and the long serving Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister had gone to the unprecedented extent of backing Obama's rival, Mitt Romney in the 2012 American elections and personally lobbying with the US Congress against the nuclear deal the American president was about to sign with Iran.

Leading lights in the Israeli government joyously welcomed the victory of Donald Trump. The Republican president had on the campaign trail openly advertised his support to the government led by Netanyahu and his policies towards the Palestinians. Trump gives the impression that he is determined to shift the American embassy to Jerusalem despite the opposition from the Palestinians and the international community. If the American embassy is shifted, it will give legitimacy to Israel's claim over the holy city. East Jerusalem is the designated capital of an independent state of Palestine. The Israeli prime minister was among the first foreign leaders Trump welcomed to the White House. Netanyahu got the assurance he wanted from the new president of the United States. Almost on cue, President Trump indicated that for all practical purposes, the “two state solution” to resolve the Palestine issue is no longer relevant.

Netanyahu has described Trump as “a true friend of Israel”, Naftali Bennet, Israel's education minister, said that the election of Trump would give Israel “a unique opportunity to reset and rethink everything”. Bennet has been advocating the annexation of over 60 percent of the occupied West Bank. “The era of the Palestinian State is over”, Bennet said after the victory of Trump was announced. Trump has appointed a pro-settlement hardliner and avowed Zionist, David Friedman as his ambassador to the Jewish State. Friedman has supported the annexation of the West Bank and is opposed to the creation of a Palestinian State. He has described Jerusalem as the “holy capital of the Jewish people and only the Jewish people”. Jerusalem is among the most sacred and hallowed places for Muslims as well as Christians.

Trump, had called on the Obama administration to veto the UNSC resolution. Before that the Israeli government had lobbied frantically with key UNSC members to shelve the resolution condemning the creeping annexation of the West Bank. Egypt, which is an elected member of the UNSC, withdrew the draft resolution it had sponsored, at the eleventh hour. Egypt's decision to withdraw the resolution happened after a telephone conversation between Donald Trump and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. According to reports in the Israeli media, Netanyahu had also convinced the Russian government also to go along with the Egyptian government's decision to postpone the tabling of the resolution. It had absented itself in the UN General Assembly when a vote was held to condemn alleged war crimes being committed in Syria by Russia and its allies.

Russia eventually voted for the resolution which passed 14 to 0, with the United States abstaining. The other non-permanent members in the UNSC, Malaysia, Venezuela, Senegal and New Zealand, did not succumb to the intense lobbying from Israel. These countries told Egypt that they would press ahead with the reinstatement of resolution regardless of the stance adopted by Egypt. Israel had warned New Zealand and Senegal, with which it has close relations to desist from tabling the resolution. Netanyahu, who also holds the foreign minister's portfolio,  made personal phone calls to the foreign minister of New Zealand, Murray McCully, saying that tabling the resolution was akin to a “declaration of war” and that he could even go to the extent of closing down Israel's embassy in Wellington.

According to reports appearing in the Israeli media, New Zealand was encouraged to table the resolution by the British government with the tacit approval of the Obama administration. After the resolution was passed, Netanyahu pledged to impose a “diplomatic and economic price” on the countries that voted in favour of the resolution. He ordered that “working ties” be limited with 12 of the 14 countries that supported the resolution, recalling the country's ambassadors from New Zealand and Senegal. Venezuela and Malaysia have no diplomatic links with Israel. Netanyahu ordered the cancellation of aid projects to Senegal, including a “drip irrigation project” that was part of “the fight against poverty in Africa”. The Israeli prime minister also announced the cancellation of his country's contribution to the United Nations institutions deemed “particularly hostile to Israel.”

Netanyahu and his senior ministers have blamed Obama of orchestrating “the ganging up” against Israel at the UN. At the same time, the Israeli prime minster has gleefully accepted the record breaking $38 billion military aid package the Obama administration has bestowed. Samantha Powers, the American ambassador to the UN, made it a point to remind the UNSC that Israel receives a tremendous amount of American military aid. She said that America chose not to veto the resolution this time because Israeli settlement activity had increased dramatically and had put the two state solution in jeopardy.

The Palestinian ambassador to the UN, Riyad Mansour, while welcoming the resolution, said that in reality the action “may be too little, too late”. He said the resolution could turn out to be “the last attempt to preserve the two state solution and revive the path for peace”. Saeb Erekat, the veteran Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) negotiator urged Israel to seize the opportunity that the latest UNSC resolution provided. He said that this was the time for Israel “to stop the violence, to stop settlements and to resume negotiations”.

The passage of the resolution has served as a wakeup call for the Israeli government. Netanyahu was seemingly under the impression that the international community will keep on looking the other way as Israel accelerated its settlement programme and in the process buried the two state solution to the conflict. It is also a reminder to the Jewish state that without the support of the United States, it stands isolated in the international arena despite Tel Aviv's claims to the contrary. The Security Council resolution will also give a fillip to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting the apartheid policies being pursued by Israel. A recent opinion poll conducted by the Brooking Institute has shown that two thirds of Americans favour UN resolutions demanding a halt to settlements and that a majority of Americans who vote for the Democrats support the imposition of sanctions on Israel to bring about a two state solution.

The BDS movement is already very strong in North America and in many parts of Europe. Civil society groups, trade unions, university campuses all over the world are beginning to take a stand against Israeli occupation and the apartheid policies that have been put in place to control the Palestinians. An Israeli think tank, the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) affiliated to the Tel Aviv University has published a report which stated that “Israel's image in Western countries continues to decline, a trend that enhances the ability of hostile groups to engage in action aimed at depriving Israel of political and moral legitimacy and launch boycotts”. The report by the INSS said that liberals in America are displaying “a greater inclination to view the Palestinian plight as analogous to apartheid”. This sentiment, the report adds, fuels more support for the BDS movement.

The yearend UNSC resolution has once again brought the issue of Palestine to the front burner. 248 Palestinians were killed between October 2015 to December 2016. Most of them shot by Israeli security forces. 33 children were killed in the West Bank in the past year. Only one Israeli soldier so far has been held guilty on manslaughter charges since the recent round of violence erupted in late 2015. A military court's decision to send a soldier, Elor Azaria to jail has been criticised by Netanyahu and senior members of the Israeli cabinet. They have even appealed to the Israeli president to pardon Azaria who shot an injured Palestinian in cold blood and that too in full public view. On January 8, a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem, drove a truck into a group of Israeli soldiers, killing four and injuring many more. Palestinians, many of them armed only with knives, have been targeting Israelis for more than a year. Revenge attacks by the Palestinians have resulted in the deaths of 40 Israelis and two Americans. Palestinians attribute these attacks to 50 years of Israeli occupation.