Friday, December 4, 2009

The Illegal-Settlements Myth. Part II


 by David M. Phillips

2nd part of 2


Settlement opponents more frequently cite the Fourth Geneva Convention these days for their legal arguments. They specifically charge that the settlements violate Article 49(6), which states: "The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into territories it occupies."

Frequently, this sentence is cited as if its meaning is transparent and its application to the establishment of Israeli settlements beyond dispute. Neither is the case.

To settlement opponents, the word "transfer" in Article 49(6) connotes that any transfer of the occupying power's civilian population, voluntary or involuntary, is prohibited. However, the first paragraph of Article 49 complicates that case. It reads: "Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive." Unquestionably, any forcible transfer of populations is illegal. But what about voluntary movements with the antecedent permission or subsequent acquiescence by the occupant?

Even settlement opponents concede that many settlements closest to Palestinian population areas, on the central mountain range of the West Bank, were built without government permission and often contrary to governmental policy; their continued existence forced the government to recognize the settlement as an existing fact. Given this history, it is questionable to claim that Israel "transferred" those settlers.

The response of settlement critics is that certain tax subsidies and other benefits conferred by the Israeli government or the World Zionist Organization that may have encouraged Jews to settle in the West Bank constructively amounts to a "transfer." This interpretation would have greater traction under a l977 protocol to the Geneva Convention or under the Treaty of Rome, which established the International Criminal Court, but Israel is a signatory to neither (both covenants were heavily influenced by anti-Israel nongovernmental organizations and the PLO).

To the extent that a violation of Article 49(6) depends upon the distinction between the voluntary and involuntary movement of people, the inclusion of "forcible" in Article 49(1) but not in 49(6) makes a different interpretation not only plausible but more credible. It's a matter of simple grammar that when similar language is used in several different paragraphs of the same provision, modifying language is omitted in later paragraphs because the modifier is understood. To Julius Stone, an international-law scholar, "the word 'transfer' [in 49(6)] in itself implies that the movement is not voluntary on the part of the persons concerned, but a magisterial act of the state concerned."

To understand the phraseology used in Article 49(1), "individual or mass forcible transfers," as well as one plausible origin of Article 49(6), some background is necessary.

According to Stone, discussions at the 1949 Geneva Diplomatic Conference "were dominated" by a common horror of the evils caused by the recent World War and a determination to lessen the sufferings of war victims." The various nations' delegates considered a draft of the convention produced at a conference of the Red Cross Societies held in Stockholm during August 1948. Final Article 49 was the renumbered and revised successor to Article 45 of the Stockholm Draft.

At a legal subcommittee meeting at Stockholm seemingly attended by fewer than 10 active participants, a Danish Jew named Georg Cohn proposed the sentence, albeit with a wider scope, that became Article 49(6). Cohn's initial sentence, in French, would have prohibited an occupying power from deporting or transferring a "part of its own inhabitants or the inhabitants of another territory which it occupies" into the occupied territory.

According to Cohn's own report to the Danish foreign ministry, his language was directed at an event the aspects of which were little known outside Scandinavia. In the waning days of World War II, as the Russian military advanced westward through the Baltic states and the Germans retreated, the Germans rightly feared that the Russians would take retribution on all German citizens and ethnic Germans who had collaborated with the Nazis. The Germans evacuated more than 2 million people into boats, hoping to land them in northern Germany.

Many of the ports had been bombed, however, and the Germans began unloading the people wherever they could, including several hundred thousand people into Copenhagen. In the spring of 1945, German children comprised a majority of the pupils in Copenhagen's schools. The Danes despised them and placed them in concentration camps after the war, waiting to deport them to Germany as fast as possible. That goal had still not been accomplished in August 1948, at the time of the Stockholm conference.

Cohn may also have been motivated to propose the language that later became Article 49(6) in light of his own strong Jewish identity. The original language on deportations presented to the Stockholm conference would not have prevented Germany from deporting its own Jews to slave and extermination camps in Poland and other occupied countries, nor would it have prevented the Germans from sending Danish Jews found in Germany to concentration camps in occupied territories, sending either Hungarian or Italian Jews to Auschwitz, and/or from transplanting Germans to portions of Poland and other occupied countries. Cohn's original language would have criminalized all these practices.

Other participants in Stockholm, led by Albert J. Clattenburg Jr. of the United States, thought Cohn's provision too broad. The phrase "or the inhabitants of another territory which it occupies" was deleted, and "civil" was inserted before "inhabitants."

At the Geneva Conference itself, both the Final Report of the Committee charged with drafting the text of the 4th Convention for consideration by the delegates as well as comments by delegates generally differentiated between transfers that were voluntary and therefore permitted and those that were involuntary and therefore prohibited. As the Final Report to the delegates stated while explaining the differences between various articles dealing with the right of an occupying power to evacuate an area, primarily in the interest of the security of the civilian population's security: "Although there was general unanimity in condemning such deportations as took place during the recent war, the phrase at the beginning of Article 45 caused some trouble. . . . In the end the Committee had decided on a wording that prohibits individual or mass forcible removals as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to any other country, but which permits voluntary transfers."

That is a key reason why Julius Stone termed the anti-settlement interpretation "an irony bordering on the absurd" and commented: "Ignoring the overall purpose of Article 49, which would inter alia protect the population of the State of Israel from being removed against their will into the occupied territory, it is now sought to be interpreted so as to impose on the Israel government a duty to prevent any Jewish individual from voluntarily taking up residence in that area."

There is simply no comparison between the establishment and population of Israeli settlements and the Nazi atrocities that led to the Geneva Convention. The settlements are also a far cry from policies implemented by the Soviet Union in the late 1940s and early 1950s to alter the ethnic makeup of the Baltic states by initially deporting hundreds of thousands of people and encouraging Russian immigration.

Nor can they be compared to the efforts by China to alter the ethnic makeup of Tibet by forcibly scattering its native population and moving Chinese into Tibetan territory. Israel's settlement policies are also not comparable to the campaign by Morocco to alter the ethnic makeup of the Western Sahara by transferring Moroccan Arabs to displace the native Saharans, who now huddle in refugee camps in Algeria, or to the variety of population displacements that occurred in the various parts of the former Yugoslavia.

All these would seem to fit the offense described in Article 49(6) precisely. Yet finding references to the application of Article 49(6) to nations other than Israel is like looking for a needle in a haystack. What distinguishes a system of "law" from arbitrary systems of control is that similar situations are handled alike. A system where legal principles are applied only when it suits the political tastes of anti-Israel elites is one that has lost all credibility. The loose use of international law, disproportionately applied to Israel, undermines the notion that this is "law" entitled to authoritative weight in the first place.

Julius Stone referred to the absurdity of considering the establishment of Israeli settlements as violating Article 49(6):

We would have to say that the effect of Article 49(6) is to impose an obligation on the State of Israel to ensure (by force if necessary) that these areas, despite their millennial association with Jewish life, shall be forever judenrein. Irony would thus be pushed to the absurdity of claiming that Article 49(6), designed to prevent repetition of Nazi-type genocidal policies of rendering Nazi metropolitan territories judenrein, has now come to mean that the West Bank must be made judenrein and must be so maintained, if necessary by the use of force by the government of Israel against its own inhabitants. Common sense as well as correct historical and functional context exclude so tyrannical a reading of Article 49(6).

Stone's pointed critique of what has since become "accepted" wisdom invites a hypothetical: Suppose a group of Palestinian Arabs who are citizens of Israel requested permission to establish a community on the West Bank. Further, assume that Israel facilitated the community's establishment, without the loss of their citizenship, on land purchased from other Palestinian Arabs (not citizens of Israel) or on state land. Would establishment of this settlement violate Article 49(6)? If not, how can one distinguish the hypothetical Arab settlements from Jewish settlements?

Concluding that Israeli settlements violate Article 49(6) also overlooks the Jewish communities that existed before the creation of the state in areas occupied by today's Israeli settlements, for example, in Hebron and the Etzion bloc outside Jerusalem. These Jewish communities were destroyed by Arab armies, militias, and rioters, and, as in the case of Hebron, the community's population was slaughtered. Is it sensible to interpret Article 49 to bar the reconstitution of Jewish communities that were destroyed through aggression and slaughter? If so, the international law of occupation runs the risk of freezing one occupier's conduct in place, no matter how unlawful.

The idea that the creation of new settlements or that the expansion of ones already in place is an act of bad faith on the part of various Israeli governments may seem without question to those who believe those settlements constitute an obstacle to the ever elusive solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Whether this argument is well-founded or not, the willingness of Israel's critics to assert that these communities are not merely wrong-headed but a violation of international law escalates the debate over their existence from a dispute about policy into one in which the Jewish state itself can be labeled as an international outlaw. The ultimate end of the illicit effort to use international law to delegitimize the settlements is clear-it is the same argument used by Israel's enemies to delegitimize the Jewish state entirely. Those who consider themselves friends of Israel but opponents of the settlement policy should carefully consider whether, in advancing these illegitimate and specious arguments, they will eventually be unable to resist the logic of the argument that says-falsely and without a shred of supporting evidence from international law itself-that Israel is illegitimate.



David M. Phillips

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


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