New Report Denies Occupation
On Monday a panel commissioned by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released its final report on the status of settlements in the West Bank. The group decided that Israel’s presence in the West Bank does not constitute an “occupation” and therefore settlement activity does not violate international law. The results are only recommendations at this stage, but nevertheless, they received harsh criticism from Israeli peace groups and much of the international community.
The committee, headed by former Supreme Court Justice Edmund Levy, concluded that the “classical laws of ‘occupation’ as set out in the relevant international conventions cannot be considered applicable” given the unique circumstance of Israel’s presence in the West Bank. Additionally, it found “the provisions of the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, regarding the transfer of populations, cannot be considered applicable and were never intended to apply to the type of settlement activity” that is carried out in the West Bank. This means, “the establishment of settlements cannot, in and of itself, be considered illegal.”
There are several recommendations in the report based on these conclusions. Levy and his colleagues believe that since the government provided encouragement and tacit approval for outposts, they should be legalized. In cases where settlers built outposts on private Palestinian land, the report suggests that Israel should create a separate judicial tribunal to investigate claims to the land. This could make the process harder for Palestinians to pursue claims by establishing a “fixed time period” for the owner to take legal action.
The committee convened in January this year after settlers in Netanyahu’s coalition pressured him to resolve the illegal outpost issue that has plagued Israel for years. In 2005, Talia Sasson issued a report at the behest of then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that revealedthe Israeli government funded the building of settlements and outposts in the West Bank that were illegal under Israeli law. While the government voted to accept the report's recommendations, there was no set timetable for evacuations and construction continued at a faster rate, often at odds with Israeli courts. The most recent example of this tension was the court ordered evacuation of Ulpana a few weeks ago, in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu followed the court ruling, but vowed to physically relocate the settlers’ homes and build 850 new ones to compensate.
It is important to remember that the Levy Report’s conclusions are mere suggestions for the Netanyahu government. Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein must examine the findings and approve them before Netanyahu and his cabinet can entertain the idea of legalizing all settlements.
A press release from Americans for Peace Now quoted President and CEO Debra DeLee saying, "If the Levy Report's recommendations become official policy, the Netanyahu government will be taking the country that we love and support one step closer to becoming an international pariah - a country whose government declares openly that it prefers land to peace and ideology over law and justice."
Legal advisor to Yesh Din, Michael Sfard released a statement which, “The Levy Committee was conceived in sin to legalize a crime, and it has fully accomplished its mission. Its report is not a legal report but an ideological report that ignores the basic principles of the rule of law.”
If Weinstein does accept the findings, Jerusalem Post writer Jonathan Rosen cautions Netanyahufrom making the recommendations law. He writes, “To endorse the Levy report is to unmask the ongoing fraud by the Israeli government; it is to admit openly that the government has lent its tacit support to the establishment of the outposts and, as such, to the ongoing settlement of the West Bank, despite promises to the contrary. In short, to do so would be politically suicidal for Netanyahu.”
The report bolsters the settlers’ claims to the land in the West Bank and many of their supporters in the government praised the findings. Prominent Likud Knesset Member Danny Danon said, “The report will remove any leftist radicalism from previous court ruling on the outposts and bury once and for all the alarming report previously submitted by attorney Talia Sasson.”
The United States government says it has not changed its position on the issue of settlements. A State Department spokesman told reporters, “Obviously, we’ve seen the reports that an Israeli government appointed panel has recommended legalizing dozens of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but we do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity, and we oppose any effort to legalize settlement outposts.”
This response uses the standard verbiage that has become commonplace in recent years. Several of the statements made by the President Barack Obama’s administration since 2009 involve the illegitimacy of the settlement enterprise but avoid deeming them illegal. However, the State Department says the outposts are illegal, but that view is in agreement with current Israeli law.
The issue of boycott and divestment has come to prominence on the national church level in recent years, leading many churches to discuss actions relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at their national conventions. In the past two weeks, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Episcopal Church have dealt with divestment and boycotts, with mixed results.
Last week the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which meets every two years, voted on two motions relating to divestment from firms “profiting from non-peaceful pursuits” supporting the occupation and boycott of settlement products from the West Bank. The call for divestment passed out of the Middle East Committee by a vote of 36-11 but was defeated by two votes in the General Assembly. Instead the body agreed to begin a fund for positive investment in the West Bank. The following day, the church voted in favor of second motion to boycott products made in Israeli settlements. Despite the passionate feelings on all sides of the issue, Chairman of the Committee on Middle East Peacemaking Issues, Reverend Jack Baca emphasized that it will not distract the church from its goal. “We have disagreed on strategy and tactics,” he said. “We have not disagreed on our goal… of Middle East peace.”
The Episcopal Church, which holds a convention every three years, overwhelmingly rejected boycotts and divestment on Wednesday, but instead encouraged positive investment in the Palestinian Territories. Allison Duvall, a deputy from the Diocese of Lexington and a member of the sub-committee that worked on the resolutions said the result “honors what Bishop Suheil Dawani [from the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem] has asked of us…What we say here will directly impact the lives of our Anglican brothers and sisters in the Holy Land. They need to lift up a document that does not incriminate them in the eyes of the Israeli government.”
Formed in 1984, Churches for Middle East Peace is a coalition of 24 national Church denominations and organizations, including Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions. It works to encourage U.S. government policies that actively promote a just, lasting and comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ensuring security, human rights and religious freedom for all people of the region.