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Israel Is an Occupier With a Duty To Protect

Author: Henry Siegman, Former Senior Fellow and Former Director for the U.S./Middle East Project
April 22, 2003
Financial Times


A frequent complaint of Israel's government and its supporters is that the country is subjected by the international community to double standards. Even President George W. Bush, from Israel's point of view an exemplary supporter of Ariel Sharon, its prime minister, is suspected of double standards in calling for the resumption of apolitical process that entails changes in Israel's behaviour towards the Palestinians. The Israeli lobby is campaigning to get the US Congress to press Mr Bush to soften his support of the "road map" to peace.

The latest evidence of this double standard, according to Israeli commentators, is the absence of international condemnation of the "collateral damage" inflicted by coalition forces on Iraqi civilians. The world accepts, they maintain, the unavoidable killing and maiming of Iraqi civilians by US and UK forces while criticising Israel for causing civilian casualties during its incursions into the West Bank and Gaza and extrajudicial killings of suspected Palestinian terrorists. What is more, Israelis note, this criticism of Israel did not prevent coalition forces from turning to the Israeli Defence Force for advice on urban warfare based on last year's assault on Jenin.

Mr Sharon and his military commanders are convinced that the way to end Palestinian terror and to restore Israel's security is to inflict on Palestinians a devastating military defeat. In the words of General Moshe Ya'alon, the IDF's chief of staff, the aim is to lead Palestinians to internalise "in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people".

The notion that there are similarities between the Sharon government's objective of humiliating an entire people and the US-UK military goal in Iraq is a measure of the Israelis' lack of insight into their own situation.

International law recognises a major difference between the rules that apply in a war between armies and an occupying power, for an occupying army has special obligations to the population under its control. Thus, when military activities ended in Iraq, entirely new standards of conduct were applied to the coalition force. They are now judged by how well they protect and meet the needs of a civilian population under their occupation. That is why the US now faces international criticism for failing to prevent looting and lawlessness in Iraq and for delays in re-supplying power and drinking water, and in repairing infrastructure.

It seems not to register with many Israelis that they are occupiers and as such have inescapable responsibilities towards those in their custody and an obligation to end the occupation as speedily as possible. It is an obligation reinforced by Israel's decision after the 1967 war not to grant citizenship and equal rights in the Jewish state to the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza, even in return for Israel's permanent retention of the occupied territories. The inescapable corollary of this decision is that Israel must grant Palestinians the right to their own state. The alternative is permanent disenfranchisement and subjugation of the Palestinians.

Palestinians are not the only ethnic minority denied separate statehood. The Kurds, the Albanians in Kosovo, and others have been denied a separate homeland. In the case of the Kurds and the Kosovo Albanians, the international community intervened so they would at least be granted the same rights as the majority. However, Palestinians are the only ethnic group denied by their occupiers both Israeli citizenship (which in any case Palestinians do not want) and separate statehood. Mr Sharon's notion of a Palestinian "state" in less than 50 per cent of the West Bank and in parts of Gaza would create South African style bantustans entirely under Israel's control.

The Sharon-led government opposes a viable Palestinian state, and a political process that may result in one, on the grounds that it would serve as a haven for Palestinian terrorism impossible for Israel to control. It is a disingenuous argument. The contrary is the case: it would be far easier for Israel to deal with terrorism from a neighbouring state than terrorism from 3.5m people it is deeply intertwined with and whose national aspirations it represses. This, too, is the lesson of Iraq, where the US and Britain devastated Iraqi forces using measures they could never have used against an occupied population.

But it is Israel's own experience that best demonstrates the difference between internal terrorism and state-sponsored terrorism. There is no cross-border terrorism into Israel from any of Israel's Arab neighbours. This is not because any of them have a special affection for Israel, but because they have experienced the devastating price of allowing such terrorism. And the terrorism Israel failed to subdue when it occupied southern Lebanon for two decades ended immediately when Israel withdrew and threatened a full-blown war should terrorism continue. There is no reason to doubt that a neighbouring Palestinian state would be similarly constrained.

So it is not the danger of terrorism from a Palestinian state that explains Mr Sharon's resistance to the "road map". As indicated by his opposition to every peace move by Labour and Likud governments alike, it is his goal of maintaining Israeli control over all of the territories that continues to determine his approach to the Palestinians.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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