Wednesday, June 6, 2007

What Happened in Israel in 1967?

Can the turmoil in the Middle East be traced back to the events in 1967? There are many who believe that they can be. It was at that time, 40 years ago that the Israelis were beginning and ending the Six Day war. Some say it was at this moment that the fate of Israel and the Palestinians were both sealed with the fateful decisions made following this war. Have those decisions led to a safer Israel? That is hard to say, but what we do know is that those decisions have fed an ongoing cycle of violence that has no end in sight.

Although there were lots of discussions concerning the disposition of the newly occupied territory, one that is not mentioned in the all the papers is the legality of it. So, either it wasn’t discussed or was removed from the archives. However, there was a legal opinion given which until now has remained secret.

“By September, Eshkol was seriously considering settlements in the Golan and Kfar Etzion. He was no doubt influenced by the Khartoum Arab summit which had responded to the Israeli Cabinet's secret offer, agreed within a fortnight of the war, of a negotiated withdrawal from most of the territories, with a resounding "no" to talks. In hindsight, it is possible to see the Khartoum declaration as a heavily coded concession to some form of indirect negotiation on recognition, in return for withdrawal from the territories occupied in the war. But Israel, whose position was anyway hardening, wanted direct negotiations and explicit recognition if it was going to pull back.

In all the debate – within the public and, it appears, in Cabinet – one highly significant aspect of settlement policy was barely, if at all, discussed: whether it was legal. Since then Israel has never accepted the argument, ratified by successive UN resolutions, that civilian settlements violated international law. Which makes it all the more interesting that Theodor Meron, the then-36-year-old legal adviser at the Foreign Ministry, was asked to deliver an opinion on just that issue. Meron, a Holocaust survivor, had been a member of Israel's delegation to the UN during the June war. "It was a very traumatic period because in New York things looked terribly ominous," he recalls today.

But the secret memorandum he wrote three months later – initially only for the eyes of his boss, the Foreign Minister Abba Eban, but then sent to Eshkol's office – was clearsighted and unequivocal. The document, written after the Khartoum summit when he knew settlement in the Golan and the West Bank was very much in the air, was unknown until it was unearthed from the Israel State Archives and brought to light by Gorenberg last year. In it, Meron wrote that "my conclusion is that civilian settlement of the administered territories contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention." The Convention prohibits deportation or transfer by the occupying power of its own civilian population into the territories it occupies. The official Red Cross commentary explains that this prohibition was "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 colonise those territories." Meron's crisp recommendation was that the prohibition was "categorical and aimed at preventing colonisation of conquered territory by citizens of the conquering state." That was not all. Even when establishing military posts, Israel, he was clear, had also to respect the 1907 Hague Convention on Laws and Customs of war on land, which stated that "Private Property cannot be confiscated" . This has been little discussed in the Israeli-Palestinian context but its lasting pertinence was underlined last November when Peace Now, on the basis of leaked data from the military's Civil Administration in the West Bank, revealed that 15,000 acres, or 40 per cent of the West Bank settlements, were on privately owned Palestinian land, often by military order.

This could be dismissed as no more than an interesting historical footnote, except for one thing. Theodor Meron, now an American citizen, went on to become one of the world's most eminent international jurists, if not the most eminent. Until 2005 he was president of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Moreover, as a law professor at New York University, he published much of the theoretical work which led to the establishment of the tribunal, on which he now sits as an appeals judge, and of the International Criminal Court. The Government was not choosing to ignore the opinion of some obscure legal maverick.”[1]

So, it appears that the Israeli government which has since the war’s end refused to accept international law concerning the occupied territories and settlements, has known from the beginning that the settlements were illegal. So why would they continue to build settlements and occupy the land knowing that it is illegal? The answer lies in the desire of many in the government and religious movements who wanted to see Israel expanded to the Mediterranean Sea. With the ease at which the Arabs were defeated many were heady with the taste of victory and I’m sure had attributed their victory to the Divine Will of God. Hadn’t God promised them this land?

The decisions on the disposition of these lands, has led to 40 years of strife and occupation and have made Israel no safer. Israel has gone from a fledgling democracy supported by most of the international community to a pariah. Because of this occupation they have lost any moral high ground they may have received from the holocaust. That doesn’t stop them though from continuing to portray themselves as the victims in a global anti-Semitism conspiracy. The occupation and settlements of these lands was illegal and wrong then and it still is today. Israel has a right to exist, but so do the Palestinians. It is time to stop the cycle of violence that has fueled the Middle East powder keg for all these years. It is time for all peace loving people to embrace peace. A good place to start is the Saudi peace plan, give peace a chance…


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