Words matter – particularly when they rob Palestinians of the protection of occupied status without any citizenship rights

By dropping the term "occupied territories" from its report, the US administration is relieving Israel of the burden of having to act as an occupying power in a formal and legal sense, writes Hussein Ibish

Palestinian protesters evacuate a wounded woman during a protest at the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, Friday, April 20, 2018. Thousands of Palestinians joined the fourth weekly protest on Gaza's border with Israel on Fridays. Hamas says the protests are aimed at breaking a crippling border blockade that was imposed by Israel and Egypt after the Islamic militant group overran Gaza in 2007, a year after winning Palestinian parliament elections. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

For years, Washington's standing as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians has steadily eroded, most recently by the unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as "the capital of Israel". Now comes another massive blow to US credibility with the State Department's annual human rights reports, which now effectively denies that Israel is an occupying power.

Since the first of such reports was issued in 1977, they have always included a section on "Israel and the occupied territories". But the document released on Friday instead refers simply to "the West Bank and Gaza".

That's not all. The phrase "Israeli-occupied Golan Heights” has also disappeared. Instead there is one section about "Israel, the Golan Heights and problems related to Israeli residents of Jerusalem". Another section deals with "the West Bank and Gaza" and "Palestinian residents of Jerusalem".

So not only is the Trump administration relieving Israel of the burden of having to act as an occupying power in a formal and legal sense, as every single UN Security Council and all other relevant international legal documents affirm, but it is effectively imposing the logic of the Clinton Parameters onto Israeli-Palestinian affairs, especially in Jerusalem, with anywhere and anything involving Jewish Israelis rendered "Israel" and everywhere else left an undefined nebula.

This satire of reality is so absurd that if a Jewish Israeli and a Palestinian Arab lived in adjacent apartments, this formula would categorise only the Jewish home as being "in Israel". In effect, wherever a Jewish Israeli sets foot is, by the logic of this document, "Israel" by virtue of his or her presence there. There is also every effort to avoid the term "settlers" in favour of "Israelis living in West Bank settlements".

The illogical ethnic bias shot through the report reaches a crescendo in its reference to a July 14, 2017 incident when “three Israeli-Arab attackers shot and killed two Israeli national police officers" at a holy site in the old city of East Jerusalem. All five of these individuals were Israeli and it took place in Jerusalem. Yet the incident is cited several pages deep into the section dealing with "the West Bank and Gaza".

One might be relieved the report includes an East Jerusalem incident in "the West Bank and Gaza", where it indeed belongs, even if none are acknowledged as occupied. But by the logic of the report, the Israeli Arab attackers are being denaturalised and the event transferred out of Israel because of the ethnicity of the attackers rather than the location of the attack or anything else.


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These linguistic games are significant because Israel’s status as an occupying power in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza confer upon it a very specific set of rights and responsibilities and protections towards the occupied population.

The status of “occupying power” is regularly cited by the Israeli military as the justification for most of what it has done in order to control the occupied territories, including establishing checkpoints, military zones, firing areas, seizing territory and, of course, systematically discriminating between Jews and non-Jews.

But when it comes to settlement activity, which is absolutely prohibited in occupied areas by the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel likes to muddy the issue. That's what gave rise to this ludicrous model of a free-floating Israel that emerges wherever a settler happens to be standing at any given moment, surrounded by an undefined and unnamed other reality.

Israel and the Trump administration want to have it both ways, whenever that’s convenient for Israel. The problem is, if these areas are not occupied, then most of what the Israeli military has done to the land is an outrageous abuse, not to mention the disenfranchisement and virtual apartheid inflicted on the people. But if there is an occupation, then settlement activity is a massive human rights violation.

Settlements are prohibited by the Geneva Convention because establishing them is an obvious human rights abuse against the occupied people, who have a right not to have their land colonised by invaders. So to see the word and concept of "occupation" and "occupied territories" excised from the State Department report renders the document wilfully blind, morally bankrupt and intellectually indefensible.

But it was also predictable. The most senior person in the State Department who is interested in these issues is the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who is ardently opposed to a two-state solution and denies there is any Israeli occupation, precisely for that reason.

However, the State Department clearly managed to salvage some references to actual reality, including at least two references to Palestinians from the occupied territories being detained "extraterritorially in Israel". But this term only makes sense if the detained Palestinians came from a place that was, categorically, not part of Israel at all, so that bringing them to Israel would under those circumstances be considered an extraterritorial move.

There are many other honest and rational sections, as well as a lot of Israeli right-wing and government propaganda that was never included in the past.

One of the biggest affronts to human rights in the whole report comes, sadly, from its own cynical and utterly dishonest move in stripping from Palestinians the protection of being an occupied people without granting them the rights of citizenship and relieving Israel of the responsibilities of occupation without imposing any additional burdens whatsoever.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington DC

Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National