UN court begins hearings on Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories

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The International Court of Justice has begun hearings into the legality of Israel’s 56-year occupation of the Palestinian territories, including whether the expansion of Jewish settlements violates the Geneva Conventions.

The proceedings are unrelated to the politically explosive claim brought by South Africa at the same UN court, which alleges Israel is perpetrating genocide on Palestinians in Gaza during its current war with Hamas. Israel denies the allegation.

But the second case at The Hague adds to the legal scrutiny of the Jewish state’s actions over decades of conflict with the Palestinians.

The hearing that began on Monday stems from a request by the UN General Assembly in 2022 that the ICJ take a position on “the legal consequences arising from the ongoing violation by Israel of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination”.

The opinion of the court — which will take many months — is not binding on Israel. But a finding that the country may have violated international law during the occupation would damage its moral standing, and add heft to growing calls for a Palestinian state to be recognised.

Israel wrested control of both Gaza and the West Bank, which includes East Jerusalem and the holy sites in its Old City, from Egypt and Jordan in the 1967 war. It has administered military rule in the West Bank ever since. The Israeli military pulled out of Gaza in 2005, and placed the territory under a blockade shortly after.

Some 750,000 Jewish settlers now live in the West Bank, in fortified settlements approved for construction and guarded by the Israeli military.

That has left Palestinians faced with the choices of “displacement, subjugation, or death”, the Palestinian foreign minister Riad al-Maliki told the court on Monday. “The only solution consistent with international law is for this illegal occupation to come to an immediate, unconditional and total end,” he said.

Most of the international community considers the settlements to be illegal, although the US partially reversed its stance when Donald Trump was president.

Other parts of the ICJ hearings are meant to examine allegations regarding Israeli “measures aimed at altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem, and from its adoption of related discriminatory legislation and measures”.

Any ruling will have little impact on Israel’s occupation but is likely to bring pressure on it to curb any alleged violations of International Humanitarian Law and the Fourth Geneva Convention, on the treatment of civilians, especially in the manner in which it has advanced settlement building in the West Bank.

As many as 50 countries are making representations at the court, but Israel will not do so. It instead sent a five-page statement rejecting the General Assembly’s request for an opinion as “prejudiced”.

“Israel does not recognise the legitimacy of the proceedings of the international court in The Hague regarding ‘the legality of the occupation’ — which are an effort designed to infringe on Israel’s right to defend itself against existential threats,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a separate statement.

ICJ advisory rulings are non-binding, and Israel has ignored them in the past. A ruling in 2004 found that the wall separating parts of the West Bank from Israeli territory was illegal, but Israel has continued expanding the barrier in the years since.

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