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The more things change…?

Who could have imagined that a year which saw unprecedented global criticism of Israel’s repressive policies in Palestine would end with the return of the controversial Benjamin Netanyahu, already Israel’s longest-serving PM, heading a coalition described as the most extreme right-wing yet, and the expected expansion of those very policies.

As 2022 began, there was already a visible shift — howsoever small — in international public opinion regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict, stemming from events a year prior.

In January 2021, B’Tselem, one of Israel’s most prominent human rights organizations, had termed Israel’s control over Palestinian lives akin to an ‘apartheid’ regime. Though this wasn’t the first time the label was used to describe Israel’s persecutory policies, it held significance coming from within Israel.

A couple of months later, the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced a probe into crimes committed by Israeli security forces and Palestinian militants since just before the deadly June 2014 Gaza conflict. The investigation, denounced by both Israel and the US, is still ongoing. This was followed by Human Rights Watch publishing a damning report into Israel’s persecution of Palestinians, becoming the first organization of its scale to blame Israel of committing apartheid in the occupied territories. The US-based rights group also urged the international community to condition military aid and trade with Israel to its safeguarding of Palestinian rights.

In May 2021, after clashes between Hamas and Israel left over 250 people dead, mostly unarmed Palestinians, the UN Human Rights Council held a special session and, unprecedentedly, formed a commission to probe the “violations and abuses of international human rights” in the occupied territories and Israel. Most prominently, the commission would “investigate all underlying root causes of recurrent tensions, instability and protraction of conflict, including systematic discrimination and repression based on national, ethnic, racial or religious identity” and submit its reports to the UN General Assembly (UNGA).

In February this year, UK-based Amnesty International proclaimed that Israel maintains a system of apartheid over Palestinians, both in the occupied territories and Israel. Amnesty urged the ICC prosecutor to apply the crime of apartheid in its probe and advised the UN Security Council to impose targeted sanctions and arms embargo on Israel. It also called on states to institute and enforce a ban on products from the illegal Israeli settlements, something the indigenous 2005 BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement already calls for. Amnesty Secretary General Agnes Callamard, believed the report, in line with similar recent ones, was “part of the momentum that will lead to change”.

Then, in its first report to the UNGA in June this year, the three-member commission disclosed that the main drivers of the conflict were the continued occupation and discrimination against Palestinians. In its second report in October, the commission found reasonable grounds to conclude that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory is now unlawful under international law due to its permanent nature and Israel’s de-facto annexation policies. It called on the UNGA to request an urgent advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the legal consequences of Israel’s continued refusal to end its occupation. The commission seeks clarity from the ICJ about the obligations of third party states to ensure respect for international law. This means, according to the commission’s chair, Navi Pillay, that if the ICJ finds the occupation unlawful, states would be legally obligated not to support Israel’s illegal occupation as they too must ensure that it respects international law.

The apartheid label echoed later in the year too, by the UN special rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in occupied Palestinian territories, and on the right to adequate housing.

Other recent prominent incidents which supplemented this fresh wave of support for the Palestinian cause have included former UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon’s call for a new approach grounded in international law to see a “just end to this perpetual occupation”, Irish author Sally Rooney’s support for BDS, British actor Emma Watson’s show of solidarity for Palestinians, and American ice cream giant Ben and Jerry’s exit from the occupied territories, among others.

To all this, Israel reacted predictably, from terming antisemitic the rights bodies and individuals calling out its unjust and illegal tactics, to declaring Palestinian human rights NGOs terrorist organizations to halt their international collaborations.

While less than the year before, violence continued to rage across Palestine and Israel this year, with at least 50 Palestinians, including 17 children, killed during Israeli raids on Gaza during clashes in August. Most notably, 2022 became the deadliest year in the occupied West Bank since the UN started systematically documenting fatalities in 2005, with at least 150 Palestinians, including 33 children, killed by Israeli forces and settlers (as of December 14). This includes the targeted killing of Al Jazeera journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, which Israel has belatedly and only partially accepted. Multiple requests have been submitted to the ICC to probe the high-profile killing, with Israel, unsurprisingly, rejecting any such move.

Moreover, Palestinian attacks reportedly led to the death of 30 Israeli civilians and soldiers this year – the highest figure since 2008.

Things are expected to get worse under the new Israeli government, whose cabinet members from ultra-orthodox and nationalist parties make Netanyahu appear moderate. But, while incidences of violence and oppression will probably increase, there is still hope from this year’s events.

The expected expansion of illegal Israeli settlements and continuation of other oppressive policies under the new regime will further lift Israel’s democratic facade and ratify the recent claims made by rights groups, and maybe even lead to a change of thought in Washington.

The UNGA vote on referring the occupation’s legality question to the ICJ is expected soon and likely to pass, in light of the previous voting pattern on the resolution. While the court, as well as the ICC, may take years to reach a conclusion, and while there’s a chance it may not be in their favour, this is the furthest the Palestinian case has been in both these forums.

Most importantly, Palestinians can rest assured that even when their ‘brotherly’ countries pretend business as usual and even establish relations with Israel without any quid pro quo for them, the people of those very countries still feel their pain — something which permeated the recent football World Cup in Qatar and tells us that all is not lost.

Bilal Abbas, "The more things change…?," The News. 2022-12-30.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Palestine conflict , Human rights , Violence , Militants , Israel , Qatar , UNGA , ICJ , ICC