Israel has been colonizing the West Bank for over fifty years. Such colonization is illegal under international law, specifically article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” Israel is a party to the Geneva Conventions, as is Jordan, who occupied the West Bank from 1949 to 1967. On June 14, 1967, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed resolution 237, which instructed the Israeli government “to ensure the safety, welfare and security of the inhabitants of the areas where military operations have taken place and to facilitate the return of those inhabitants who have fled the areas since the outbreak of hostilities,” and recommended “the scrupulous respect of the humanitarian principles governing the treatment of the prisoners of war and the protection of civilian persons in time of war contained in the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949.” On November 22, 1967, the UN Security Council unanimously passed resolution 242, which called for the withdrawal of the Israeli armed forces from the territories it had occupied during the Six-day War. In 1971, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, George H.W. Bush, stated that the United States “regret[s] Israel’s failure to acknowledge its obligation under the Fourth Geneva Convention, as well as its actions, which are contrary to the letter and spirit of this convention.”
For the past fifty years, Israel has tried to make the case that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to the West Bank because it was never a part of a sovereign state. Principally, Israel wants the West Bank to be understood as “disputed territory,” not “occupied territory.” Disputed territories are not necessarily subject to the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention. At times, Israel will argue that the Fourth Geneva Convention only concerns the forcible transfer of persons, and Israeli settlers are living in the West Bank voluntarily. This second argument is patently ridiculous as the forcible transfer of persons concerns the persons living under occupation, the Palestinian people in this case. Collectively, the international community has widely rejected both of these argument. On July 9, 2004, the International Court of Justice, in the Hague, rejected Israel’s argument that the Fourth Geneva Convention does not apply to the West Bank and Gaza. The court concluded that because the West Bank and Gaza came under the control of Israel as a result of a war between two states (Israel and Jordan) that are party to the Geneva Conventions, Israel must abide by the provisions of the Convention. This means the settlements are illegal. There are currently more than 425,000 Israeli civilians living in communities/cities ranging from roughly 500 to 70,000, yes 70,000.
This past November, the Trump administration changed U.S. policy regarding the Israeli colonization of the West Bank. In 1978, the U.S. State Department had concluded that Israeli settlements were inconsistent with international law. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the rescinding of the 1978 State Department legal opinion regarding the illegality of Israeli settlements. This marks a significant departure from international consensus on Israeli settlements, a consensus going back to the months just after Israel took control of the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem in June 1967. Apparently if you disregard international law for long enough, the U.S. will change its mind.
The formal title of the Fourth Geneva Convention is the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. According to international law expert Theodor Meron, the Fourth Geneva Convention is both “universally ratified” and widely regarded “as the gold standard of humanitarian law.” Incidentally, it was Theodor Meron who first alerted the Israeli government that the Fourth Geneva Convention applied to the occupation of the West Bank. On September 14, 1967, Meron, the newly appointed Legal Advisor of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, advised Israeli leaders that the establishment of civilian settlements in the West Bank and other occupied territories was a violation of international law. Of course, this opinion was not to the benefit of Israel but to the benefit of the Palestinian civilians. Israel ignored Meron’s legal opinion then and it continues to ignore it some fifty-two years later. Meron has remained steadfast in his opinion that the Fourth Geneva Convention applies to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
Israel claims to be a liberal democracy and often claims to have the most moral military in the world. And yet, Israel is unwilling to prove its superior morality by upholding the humanitarian provisions of the Geneva conventions. Under the Trump administration, and with full support from the Republican party and mixed support from the Democratic party, the United States has chosen to encourage Israel in this endeavor.