Israel accused of breaking international law as ICJ hearings on West Bank wrap

Most at World Court call for withdrawal from territories, but Fiji backs Israel’s position that security issues are paramount; sides now await non-binding opinion

A Palestinian flag flies outside the United Nations' highest court during historic hearings in The Hague, Netherlands, February 21, 2024, into the legality of Israel's 57-year rule of West Bank and east Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
A Palestinian flag flies outside the United Nations' highest court during historic hearings in The Hague, Netherlands, February 21, 2024, into the legality of Israel's 57-year rule of West Bank and east Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

The world’s top court on Monday wrapped up six days of hearings into the legality of Israel’s 56-year-long rule in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with most voices arguing that Israel was in violation of international law and calling for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

“The real obstacle to peace is obvious — the deepening occupation by Israel of the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, and failure to implement the two-state vision, Israel and Palestine living side by side,” Turkey’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Yildiz told the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

The hearings were held in response to a request by the UN General Assembly for a non-binding opinion on the legality of Israel’s policies. The court says it will issue its opinion in “due course.” On average, advisory opinions are released six months after oral proceedings.

Fiji was one of a handful of countries to argue that the court should refuse the request and directly mentioned the Hamas attacks that set off the war in Gaza, which saw thousands of terrorists burst into Israel, murdering about 1,200 people and taking 253 others hostage, mainly civilians, amid horrific acts of brutality and sexual abuse.

“The events of 7 October 2023 have shown us what could happen if there were a complete and unconditional withdrawal without the necessary arrangements in place to guarantee the security of Israel,” Filipo Tarakinikini said on behalf of the South Pacific island nation.

The United States also cautioned the court against issuing an opinion calling for an immediate withdrawal from the territories. Acting US State Department legal adviser Richard Visek said last week the judges should not seek to resolve the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict “through an advisory opinion addressed to questions focusing on the acts of only one party.”

Richard C. Visek, acting legal adviser of the US Department of State, second left, waits to address the United Nations’ highest court during hearings in The Hague, Netherlands, February 21, 2024, on the legality of Israel’s 56-year rule in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riad Malki had previously urged the 15-judge panel to uphold the Palestinian right to self-determination and to declare “that the Israeli occupation is illegal and must end immediately, totally and unconditionally.”

Though the hearings were held against the backdrop of Israel’s ongoing war with the Hamas terror group in Gaza, they ignored this round of conflict and focused instead on Israel’s policies in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

Late last month in a separate case, the court ordered Israel to do all it can to prevent actions in the Gaza war that could violate clauses of the Genocide Convention, after South Africa filed allegations against Israel of war crimes because of its actions in the Strip, a charge that Israel denied.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry’s legal adviser Tal Becker (standing at right) shows the court photographs of Israeli hostages in Gaza during proceedings at The Hague on January 12, 2024. (Screenshot)

Israel rejects accusations that its treatment of Palestinians amounts to apartheid and has accused UN bodies and international tribunals of bias.

It did not participate in the oral proceedings but, in a five-page written submission, said the questions put to the court were prejudiced and “fail to recognize Israel’s right and duty to protect its citizens.”

Jerusalem’s stance is that the ICJ advisory opinion sought by the UN General Assembly is illegitimate since numerous UN resolutions, as well as bilateral Israeli-Palestinian agreements, have established that the correct framework for resolving the conflict should be political, not legal.

Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem — which includes the Old City — from Jordan during the 1967 Six Day War. In later years Israel annexed East Jerusalem in a move not recognized internationally, but it has not done so with the West Bank.

The peace process has repeatedly stalled because of Palestinian terror attacks, Israel’s expansion of settlements in the West Bank and the inability of the two sides to agree on issues like final borders, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

The court last issued an advisory opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2004 when the General Assembly asked it to rule on the legality of the West Bank security fence. The court ruled that the barrier Israel built was “contrary to international law” and called on the country to immediately halt construction.

Illustrative: The West Bank security barrier is seen near the Palestinian city of Qalqilya. (Flash90)

Israel has ignored the decision, arguing that the barrier is a security measure meant to prevent Palestinian attackers from reaching Israeli cities after approximately 1,000 Israelis were killed in the Second Intifada of the early 2000s. The Palestinians have said the structure was an Israeli land grab because of its route through East Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank.

The UN has a long history of passing resolutions against Israel, which together with the US has accused the world body of bias. Israel has also accused the Palestinians, who have nonmember observer state status at the UN, of trying to use the world body to circumvent peace negotiations and impose a settlement.

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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