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In Opinion

At our meeting in Parliament on Tuesday 24 November 2015, journalist Ben White gave an excellent speech about international law. Here is a rough transcript of it, provided by Ben.

“Tonight we are considering Israel and international law, and I want to make the following three points that I think are crucial for the discussion this evening, but more importantly, going forward, and, hopefully, with regards to UK government policy. I will speak about how Israel’s violations are systematic, I will speak about impunity, and, I will speak about our complicity.

First – Israel’s violations of international law are not aberrations – they are systematic.

This is a vital point, but perhaps often obscured by particular outrages that stick out. To illustrate my point, let us consider the settlements in the Occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. The far-right settlers who vandalise mosques, fire-bomb homes, and set up caravans on hilltops may get the headlines. But who has created and who maintains the settlements? The Israeli state.

Since 1967, every single Israeli government, whether Labor or Likud – and let us remember that it was the former who oversaw the creation of these colonies in the Jordan Valley and elsewhere – every single Israeli government has consolidated and expanded these settlements

Settlements which are illegal. Says who? Says the International Court of Justice. The Red Cross. The UN Security Council and General Assembly. The EU. The UK government. And why are they illegal? Because, and I quote, civilian settlement in the OPT “violates explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.” Those are the words of the Israeli foreign ministry’s own legal adviser, in 1967. Even knowing that the colonies would be illegal under international law, Israel has proceeded regardless.

Settlements are not just illegal, of course; the human rights impact they have on the Palestinian population is catastrophic. Dismissing settlements as something to be resolved in final status talks shows contempt for international law and is also deeply immoral: settlements are an intrinsic part, a core part, of an apartheid system.

Second, the Israeli government and its military commit war crimes with impunity.

In May 2014, Haaretz reported that military police investigations into the deaths of 18 Palestinians in the West Bank over the previous two years had produced only one conviction (for “negligent manslaughter”). The soldier in got seven months in jail.

The ‘Operation Cast Lead’ massacre, when Israel killed around 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza, produced 52 investigations and three indictments. The harshest sentence – seven and a half months – was handed down to a soldier who stole a credit card.

According to Amnesty International, in their report on Israeli war crimes in Rafah in August 2014, “no official body capable of conducting [credible] investigations currently exists in Israel.” That is a damning indictment of Israel’s internal investigation mechanisms, including the (vaunted by Israel) role of the Military Advocate General (MAG).

Indeed, this track record of impunity led an NGO like B’Tselem to reject an invitation to assist in Israeli military investigations after ‘Operation Protective Edge’, so as to avoid playing a role in the “existing whitewashing mechanism.” As B’Tselem pointed out, among other problems, the MAG has a “dual role”, giving “legal counsel to the military before and during combat, yet is responsible for deciding on indicting those who violated the law.”

And what is the consequence of this impunity? More atrocities. Between October 9 and November 14, Israeli occupation forces killed 14 Palestinians during demonstrations in Gaza. Heavily armed soldiers, shooting live ammunition at protesters, from a perimeter fence. One fatality was a ten-year old boy who was struck in the back by a live bullet. 379 have been wounded – most by live ammunition.

I’ll read from the testimony of a Palestinian student, whose brother was killed on October 9, so that these words are heard here in Parliament. “I stood next to the ambulances and a few minutes later, I saw some other young guys carrying another wounded person. When they came closer, I saw it was my brother Shadi. He’d been hit in the abdomen. I helped the guys get Shadi into the ambulance and I stayed behind, because there were already two other wounded inside, apart from my brother, and there was no room for me. When I got to a-Shifaa Hospital, the doctor told me a bullet had entered Shadi’s abdomen and come out through his back and that he had lost a lot of blood and had died even before he made it to the operating room. Shadi worked with my father as an electrician. He was going to get married and had started building an apartment on top of the family home for it.” No Israeli soldier will be held to account for killing Shadi.

This systematic impunity is highly relevant when it comes to the International Criminal Court, where one of the core principles of the Rome Statute is so-called “complementarity”. This means that it is only when national authorities are “unwilling or unable genuinely to conduct national investigations and prosecutions” that “the Rome Statute authorizes the ICC to step in.”

Now third, and finally, I want to say something about our own complicity.

For to speak of impunity initially focuses the gaze on Israeli crimes – but the gaze quickly moves to ourselves, to those who allow this to continue by inaction, or worse, active assistance and protection.

So yes, the guidance to businesses on settlements issued by the UK government a few years ago was, is, a positive step – but no, it is not enough. Yes, the EU move to issue guidance for labelling settlement produce was a positive step – and no, it is not enough.

Individual Israeli settlers don’t confiscate land or allocate housing tenders or build roads and walls or demolish homes – it is the government that does this. The facts of Israel’s crimes, their systematic nature, the impunity with which war crimes are committed – all these lead to one conclusion: that anything short of state-level sanctions is simply inadequate. For us, it means boycott and divestment – carrying forward the BDS campaign as it goes from strength to strength.

And if the UK is serious about enforcing international law then it must end its shielding of Israeli war crimes suspects when they enter the country, through the absurd abuse of the Foreign Office’s ‘Special Mission Status’ procedure.

My last thought. Unfortunately, the U.S.-led, international, ‘peace process’, is designed to replace and undermine international law, not enforce it. How else to explain talk of what construction is allowed or not allowed in so-called, undefined settlement ‘blocs’? *All* of the settlements are a grave violation of international law, and form part of an inherently discriminatory system. As Israel’s chief negotiator Tzipi Livni instructively argued in 2011, “restarting negotiations would stop the snowball rolling towards us at the UN and in general.” The ‘peace process’, as currently constituted, thwarts accountability, and seeks to replace, not implement, international law.

International law *can be* an important tool for the colonised and occupied, in the defence of their rights and their search for freedom, but for that to be the case, it is up to us to do our part.”