Israel accused of repressing basic Palestinian freedoms in ICJ hearing on West Bank rule

Israel rejects legitimacy of World Court proceedings sought by Palestinians, who want Israeli control of West Bank, East Jerusalem to be declared illegal in non-binding process

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Palestinian Authority foreign minister Riyad Al-Maliki (center) and PA ambassador to the UN Riyad Mansour, right, take their seats at the United Nations' highest court which opened hearings in The Hague, Netherlands, Monday, Feb. 19, 2024.  (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Palestinian Authority foreign minister Riyad Al-Maliki (center) and PA ambassador to the UN Riyad Mansour, right, take their seats at the United Nations' highest court which opened hearings in The Hague, Netherlands, Monday, Feb. 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Israel faced an avalanche of condemnation and denunciation in the International Court of Justice on Monday, as Palestinian representatives accused Jerusalem of creating a permanent and illegal occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and of establishing a system of apartheid in its treatment of the Palestinians.

The proceedings on Monday were the first of six days of hearings in The Hague over the UN General Assembly’s request for an advisory opinion by the ICJ on the “legal consequences” of Israel’s 56-year rule in the territories.

Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad Maliki accused Israel of giving Palestinians the choice of “ethnic cleansing, apartheid, or genocide” due to its long-term rule of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and he and other representatives for the Palestinians asked the ICJ to “declare that the Israeli occupation is illegal” and to call for its immediate end.

The hearing drew swift castigation from Israel’s Foreign Ministry, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office rejected the legitimacy of the proceedings, alleging they were “designed to harm Israel’s right to defend itself from existential threats,” and “dictate the results of a diplomatic settlement without any negotiations.”

In a brief statement to the ICJ issued last year in response to the proceedings, Israel emphasized that previous efforts to politically resolve the conflict had run aground, pointing to statements by former US president Bill Clinton, former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, and former Saudi ambassador to the United States Prince Bandar bin Sultan, accusing the Palestinians of failing to come to an agreement with Israel and thereby end Israeli rule in the territories.

The Palestinian Authority had lobbied for the UN General Assembly to request the advisory opinion. It is seeking a ruling by the court that Israeli rule in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is illegal, and that Israel must end that rule, dismantle Israeli settlements, and provide restitution to Palestinians who have been harmed by it.

Advisory opinions by the ICJ are non-binding and have no legal ramifications, but the hearing nonetheless carries enormous emotional and diplomatic heft amid Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza following the October 7 attack and increased criticism worldwide of the Jewish state’s dealings with the Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank.

On Sunday, Israel’s government unanimously backed a declaration rejecting a reported US-led proposal to set a firm timeline for recognition of a Palestinian state, saying this would be a “massive prize” for the terrorist massacre in southern Israel four months ago.

“A Palestinian can spend their entire lifetime as a refugee, denied dignity and the right to return home… under constant threat, have their loved ones thrown in Israeli jail and held there indefinitely, and their land stolen, colonized, and annexed,” said Maliki in opening remarks for the Palestinians.

“For decades, Palestinians have endured colonialism and apartheid,” he continued, and requested that the court “declare that the Israeli occupation is illegal” and that it must end “immediately, totally and unconditionally.”

The oral arguments presented by the Palestinian representatives almost entirely ignored the political nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the territories, past efforts to resolve the dispute, and the ongoing applicability of the Oslo Accords to resolving it in a political, not legal, framework.

International lawyer Paul Reichler presented the legal arguments for the Palestinian case, saying that Israeli control of the territories constitutes an illegal occupation and citing the UN Charter as well as UN Security Council resolutions 242, 478, and 2334, among others.

He described the settler movement in which some 700,000 Israelis now live in West Bank settlements and East Jerusalem neighborhoods as “a vast colonial enterprise” in which he alleged Israel had “implanted settlers” as part of a goal of permanent annexation.

He also quoted the statements of several senior Israel officials indicating their intention to permanently annex parts or all of the West Bank, pointing by way of example to Netanyahu’s 2019 declaration that he intended to annex the Jordan Valley, as well as comments by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich that it was “a national ambition” to control land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, which includes all of the West Bank.

“The evidence is indisputable. Under an umbrella of a prolonged military occupation, [Israel] has been steadily annexing Palestinian territory and the objective is the permanent acquisition of this territory and to exercise sovereignty over it, in defiance of the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force,” said Reichler.

“Senior Israeli officials admit their objective is sovereignty over all the territory over the green line… there is no reason not to take them at their word because their deeds are consistent with them.”

Prof. Phillipe Sands, an expert in international law, presented arguments that Israel’s decades-long rule in the West Bank has denied the Palestinians their right to nationhood.

“The Palestinians are a distinct people. As such they enjoy the same rights of every other people, namely the right to self-determination, to decide for themselves how they will live and organize politically, socially, and economically,” said Sands. “Israel] decides how, or if at all, Palestinians may meet, trade, live and love.”

He accused the right-wing government ruling the country, which includes many politicians opposed to Palestinian statehood, of celebrating “the denial of Palestinian self-determination, sovereignty and statehood,” and alleged that Israel intended to keep the situation in place “forever.”

A spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry denounced Monday’s hearing after it concluded, alleging the PA was “trying to turn a conflict that should be resolved through direct negotiations and without external impositions into a one-sided and improper legal process.” A statement called on the court to instruct the Palestinians to resolve the conflict through direct negotiations with Israel.

“For years, the Palestinian leadership has rejected direct negotiations to resolve the conflict, while fostering incitement to terrorism, promoting antisemitism and providing financial incentives to terrorists who murder Jews,” said the spokesperson.

“All of this was hidden from the Court in the distorted and one-sided questions posed to it by the [UN] General Assembly, which endeavor to predetermine the results of the proceedings without regard to the basic principles of international law and the legal framework that applies to the conflict.”

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