Israel-Palestine conflict back in The Hague as ICJ considers West Bank occupation

More than 50 countries, including the UAE and the US, to take the floor in six days of hearings

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki and Palestinian UN envoy Riyad Mansour at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Reuters
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The Palestine-Israel crisis returns to The Hague on Monday as judges are asked for a first ruling on Israel's 57-year occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Dozens of countries, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, the US and Britain, as well as Palestinian representatives, will take the stand during six days of hearings at the International Court of Justice.

Lawyers are seeking a verdict on the legal consequences of Israel’s actions since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, including settlements in the West Bank widely condemned as illegal.

The case is separate to South Africa’s accusation of genocide against Israel during the war in Gaza, which has shone a new spotlight on settler violence in the West Bank.

Unlike in the genocide case, a ruling on the West Bank and East Jerusalem would be non-binding, but any condemnation of Israel’s policies would carry significant symbolic weight.

A finding that Israel’s conduct, and the 57-year span of its actions, make the occupation illegal would be a “major outcome”, said Tareq Shrourou, a human rights lawyer in the UK who works for Palestinian causes.

UN members voted in 2022 to seek an advisory opinion from The Hague on Israel’s “prolonged occupation, settlement and annexation” of Palestinian territory.

Judges are also asked to rule on Israeli actions “altering the demographic composition, character and status” of Jerusalem and on policies alleged to be discriminatory.

The ICJ issued a ruling in 2004 that Israel had illegally built a wall in occupied territory that “severely impedes the exercise by the Palestinian people of its right to self-determination”.

However, the court is preparing “for the first time to broadly consider the legal consequences of Israel’s nearly six-decades-long occupation”, said Human Rights Watch adviser Clive Baldwin.

“Governments that are presenting their arguments to the court should seize these landmark hearings to highlight the grave abuses Israeli authorities are committing against Palestinians.”

The two-day hearings in the South Africa case attracted huge interest as pro-Palestinian demonstrators marched outside the Peace Palace. The court told Israel that it should do everything in its power to prevent a genocide in Gaza.

More than 50 countries, as well as the Arab League, the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation and the African Union, have been granted permission to intervene in the latest case.

Palestinian representatives will take the floor when the case opens on Monday. Israel has made a written statement but is not taking part in the oral hearings at the ICJ.

Countries have been allocated 30-minute speaking slots, with the UAE due to address the court on Wednesday. The hearings end the following Monday, when judges will hear from the three international organisations.

Lawyers taking the Palestinian side will first have to persuade the court, now led by Lebanese judge Nawaf Salam, to take up the case at all – with some countries expected to argue that it should be thrown out.

Annexation claim

On the substantive issues, pro-Palestinian lawyers are likely to argue that Israel’s settlement of the occupied West Bank “effectively amounts to annexation”, Mr Shrourou said.

While international law does not forbid all military occupations, it is considered illegal for an occupying power to move its people into the territory or seek to claim sovereignty over it.

A ruling on legal consequences could include an appeal to Israel to end its illegal conduct, and possibly pay reparations, while third parties could be called upon not to recognise or assist illegal activity in the West Bank.

An estimated 700,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank, with recent expansion plans and violent clashes leading to condemnation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Efforts to curb the violence have been gathering pace in recent weeks as diplomats try to keep a two-state peace option on the table, which they say is threatened by Israeli settlements.

An order by US President Joe Biden at the start of February took aim at “extremist settler violence” by sanctioning four people and giving officials the power to freeze assets.

Yet the US has described the request to the ICJ as counterproductive and could use its speaking slot on Wednesday to oppose any ruling against Israel.

Updated: February 19, 2024, 9:49 AM