Australia’s foreign minister and attorney general announced last Thursday that their country would no longer be referring to East Jerusalem as a territory under occupation. They argue that “Occupied East Jerusalem” is “a term freighted with pejorative implications”, which is “neither appropriate nor useful”. Even more preposterously, they deemed it inappropriate “to describe areas of negotiation in such judgemental language”.
It’s hard to know where to begin in picking apart the absurdity of these declarations. The occupation of East Jerusalem is neither “pejorative” nor a “judgement”.
It is a legal and political fact established in countless UN Security Council resolutions beginning with 242 in 1967 and continuing to the present day.
Australia voted for many of these resolutions. And withdrawing recognition of that fact could hardly be more prejudicial to the outcome of talks.
Most significantly, UNSC Resolution 476, passed on June 30, 1980, reaffirmed “the overriding necessity to end the prolonged occupation of Arab territories occupied by Israel since 1967, including Jerusalem.”
The reason for this unanimous international consensus, as explained in the preamble to 242, is the absolute prohibition in the UN Charter against the acquisition of territory by war.
Australia should be required to explain what it thinks East Jerusalem’s legal status is, if it’s not occupied. Becoming the first country in the world other than Israel to reject the judgement of the Security Council, the International Court of Justice, and other definitive bodies – as well as an otherwise unanimous international consensus – that East Jerusalem is under occupation, is tantamount to an act of violence against the occupied Arab population of that city.
It strips them of their rights and protections, as people living under occupation, guaranteed by binding international documents, most notably the Fourth Geneva Convention.
And why stop at East Jerusalem? Why not apply this same twisted “logic” to the entirety of the occupied Palestinian territories, including Gaza? They are all subject to negotiations, and by the sophistry of the Australian government, isn’t it also pejorative and prejudicial to describe any of it as occupied?
Earlier this year, Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop said: “I would like to see which international law has declared [the settlements] illegal.” Let me help her out.
The Fourth Geneva Convention was adopted in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War to provide protection to civilians living under occupation. Article 49, paragraph 6, strictly prohibits any transfer of its civilians by the occupying power into areas under occupation. Israel’s settlement activities are hence manifestly illegal under international law.
The convening body for the Convention, the International Red Cross, compiled explanatory notes to the drafting process. These notes explain that paragraph 6 “is intended to prevent a practice adopted during the Second World War by certain powers, which transferred portions of their own population to occupied territory for political and racial reasons or in order, as they claimed, to colonise those territories. Such transfers worsened the economic situation of the native population and endangered their separate existence as a race”.
Therefore, the prohibition against settlement activity is a human rights protection for those living under occupation who have a right not to be colonised.
Since 1967, Israel has been playing a disingenuous double game over whether, in its view, these territories are occupied or not, because both positions raise profound difficulties for them.
Here’s Israel’s conundrum: if territories seized in 1967 are, in fact and under the law, occupied, (as the whole world, with the sole and sudden exception of Australia, believes) then much of its military activity there may be lawful. But its settlement project is definitely not.
Much of what the Israeli military has done is arguably permissible. Establishing military bases, checkpoints and other security measures, in some cases expropriating land for these purposes, and even creating a military government, are potentially within the legal purview of an occupying force. So, when it comes to military matters, the Israelis have based much of their conduct on the legal and political fact that they are conducting an occupation which is, by definition, temporary.
But if the territories are merely “disputed”, in the factually incorrect jargon of some Israelis, then settlement activity might not be unlawful, but much of its military activity must be. Israel would have to immediately dismantle most of its military installations, return the land to its owners with compensation, stop subjecting the population to martial law, and effectively abandon its system of discipline and control over the occupied Palestinian people.
So Israel likes to have it both ways. When it comes to the military, there’s an occupation. When it comes to the settlements, there is no occupation. But the uncontestable truth is these areas are occupied, as all global arbiters have established for almost half a century.
Australia’s sudden refusal to recognise this when it comes to East Jerusalem is not only morally, legally and politically indefensible. It’s an attack on international law and order, and an assault on the basic human rights of the Palestinian people living under occupation in East Jerusalem.