One step closer toward achieving compliance with international law

One step closer toward achieving compliance with international law

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The Israeli settlement of Maale Edumim, in the occupied West Bank. (Reuters)

Almost 53 years into the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the UN, after resisting considerable bullying, has finally published a list of those companies reportedly doing business with illegal Israeli settlements. Such a database may not have seen the light of day but for the diplomatic reaction to the publication of the Trump plan in January, as many states wanted to send a message of opposition. This is then largely a response to that plan, which envisages Israeli annexation of much of the West Bank including East Jerusalem. 

The UN Human Rights Council published a list of 112 companies allegedly involved in business in settlements, 18 of which were international, the rest Israeli. Some of them are major brand names such as TripAdvisor, Airbnb, Booking.com, Motorola, Expedia and Opodo. Amazon, for example, started business in Israel in November and offers free shipping to settlements if listed as Israel. Palestinians in the West Bank can receive the same terms but only if they state they live in Israel. Palestinian postal services are hampered by the occupation and, unlike settlers, they typically have to travel miles to get their post. Back in 2018, Airbnb took the decision following extensive campaigning to cease operations in the illegal settlements but then rescinded this in 2019 under massive counterpressure. The company did at least declare it would not make any profits from settlements but donate them to charitable activities.

Inaction has been the hallmark of the international community’s response over decades yet even this mini-step toward accountability has met with the usual cackles of outrage from the anti-Arab voices.  

To be clear, the transfer of civilian population into or out of occupied territory is illegal. It is a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, and a war crime under the Rome Statute. Israel does both, by implanting its own citizens into occupied territory, and by imprisoning Palestinians, including children, inside Israel. All of this is reinforced by UN Security Council Resolutions and the 2004 ruling of the International Court of Justice.  In legal terms, it is as much of a slam dunk as you get. 

It is illegal but immoral too. The rationale for such a prohibition is clear. It is to prevent ethnic cleansing and colonization. It is to protect the victims of aggression. It is no coincidence that such prohibitions were introduced so soon after World War II.  

Rhetorically the world was united until 2017. In December 2016, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2334 reconfirming this consensus. It also emphasizes the obligation on states to differentiate in their dealings between the state of Israel and the territories it occupied in 1967. 

Yet for all this, a sum total of nothing has been done. Israeli settlers number an eye-watering 610,000 in more than 150 settlements and 100 outposts scattered across the West Bank. Settlers are represented at the very highest levels of the Israeli government, judiciary and business world. In effect the settlements were de facto annexed to Israel years ago. 

One could argue that if state actors have done so little then why should international companies be forced to do more than governments. Trade with settlements should be banned. That is the logic of declaring them illegal. However, the UN did not call for a boycott nor did it express a view as to whether the companies were violating international law. This database does not mean companies have to stop business with settlements but consumers can determine if they wish to continue to use their services. Companies will have to consider whether they wish to continue to aid in the commission of war crimes.  

All of this is not specific to Israel. The UN Human Rights Commission as part of its human rights due diligence has, for example, warned companies about how to avoid assisting in the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar. It did the same in the past for companies involved in conflicts in South Africa and the Congo. It released a list last August of 59 companies that have links to the Myanmarese army. Companies should not be investing in enterprises that prolong and abet any military occupation anywhere. This is a vital principal of international law that protects us all. 

Anti-Arab coverage referred to it as a “black list,” as if producing the list was the issue, not the systematic violation of international law and how companies profited from them. Many senior Israelis reacted in the usual off-the-chart fashion, ranging from anti-Semitism, to “economic terror attack” to President Rivlin declaring it to be a “shameful initiative reminiscent of dark periods in our history.” Upholding international law and justice is now being compared implicitly to the Holocaust and pogroms.  

The Trump administration was swiftly out of the blocks too. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “The United States has long opposed the creation or release of this database. Its publication only confirms the unrelenting anti-Israel bias so prevalent at the United Nations . . . Attempts to isolate Israel run counter to all of our efforts to build conditions conducive to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that lead to a comprehensive and enduring peace.” 

Inaction has been the hallmark of the international community’s response over decades yet even this mini-step toward accountability has met with the usual cackles of outrage from the anti-Arab voices.  

Chris Doyle

Alarmingly, it is not just the US. Many leading European states including Germany and the UK, who unlike the US still consider the settlements to be illegal, worked hard to delay the publication of the database. 

Ultimately the publication of this limited database is a miserly step toward achieving compliance with international law. If the international community will not even stand together on this minimal step, what chance will there be to stop Israeli expansionists from fulfilling their annexationist dreams in the next few months? Others with territorial ambitions will be licking their lips as the clear lesson is that international law simply does not matter anymore. 

  • Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech
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