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International community confronts Israel over occupation of Palestinian lands

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In a first-of-its-kind case, the U.N.’s top court is weighing the nature of Israel’s control over the occupied Palestinian territories. Public hearings began Monday at the International Court of Justice in The Hague as the tribunal seeks to put forward its opinion on the legality of Israeli policies in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and occupied East Jerusalem since 1967 after Israeli forces captured these areas in the aftermath of a war with its Arab neighbors. The deliberations are the result of a 2022 resolution passed in the U.N. General Assembly seeking the court’s intervention on the matter.

More than 50 countries are participating in the proceedings, which will run through this week. On Tuesday, 10 countries were in the docket with their presentations — and all, including the Netherlands and Belgium, largely condemned the underlying policies of Israeli occupation and settlement that lead to what myriad rights groups allege is systemic racial discrimination and apartheid. Millions of Palestinians in the West Bank live without the same political and civil rights as their Israeli neighbors, while Gaza has weathered years of economic blockade.

Representatives from South Africa — which is behind a separate ICJ case alleging that Israel is violating the Genocide Convention as it prosecutes its war against Hamas in Gaza after the militant group’s Oct. 7 strike on Israel — said the Jewish state was practicing an even more “extreme” form of apartheid than what was endured for decades in South Africa and called on the court to offer a ruling that pressures Israel into making political concessions to the Palestinians.

“A clear legal characterization of the nature of Israel’s regime over the Palestinian people can only assist in remedying the ongoing delay and achieving a just settlement,” Vusimuzi Madonsela, South Africa’s ambassador to the Netherlands, told the judges.

Saudi Arabia’s representative insisted that “there can be no serious debate that Israeli policies and practices also amount to racial discrimination and are tantamount to apartheid, in grave violation of the Palestinian people’s human rights.” And a dignitary from Djibouti said decades of Israeli occupation in the West Bank had the “effect of systematically discriminating against the Palestinian population — in favor of the Jewish population living in settlements.”

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Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian envoy to the United Nations, was moved to tears Feb. 19 during the ICJ’s hearing on Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. (Video: Reuters)

The day before, the Palestinian delegation laid out its claims. “The Palestinians have endured colonialism and apartheid,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said. “There are those who are enraged by these words. They should be enraged by the reality we are suffering.”

Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian envoy to the United Nations, choked back tears while urging the court “to guide the international community in upholding international law, ending injustice and achieving a just and lasting peace” and toward “a future in which Palestinian children are treated as children, not as a demographic threat.”

The United States is expected to mount a defense of Israel in The Hague on Wednesday. Israel itself is not attending these hearings, unlike the separate case regarding genocide and the Gaza war. “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said in a statement on social media that it does not recognize the hearing’s legitimacy, calling it an infringement on ‘Israel’s right to defend itself against existential threats,’” my colleagues noted.

In the coming months, the court will issue a nonbinding opinion that may have only minimal legal impact. At the end of the last month, the ICJ issued “provisional measures” calling on Israel to restrain its offensive in Gaza, which has killed at least 29,000 Palestinians, flattened Gaza’s civilian infrastructure and displaced the bulk of the enclave’s population. But that ruling appears to have done little to rein in Israel, which is still preparing for an assault on the southern Gazan border city of Rafah where more than a million Gazan refugees are camped out in desperate conditions.

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South African ambassador to the Netherlands Vusimuzi Madonsela on Feb. 20 urged the International Court of Justice to find Israel’s occupation illegal. (Video: Reuters)

Across the pond, officials at the U.N.’s top decision-making body once more failed to find a way forward. The United States vetoed an Algerian-led Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and the release of all hostages in Hamas captivity. The Biden administration found itself alone in the vote, with 13 countries, including allies such as France and Japan, voting in favor of the resolution and Britain abstaining.

“A vote in favor of this draft resolution is support to the Palestinians’ right to life,” Algeria’s U.N. Ambassador Amar Bendjama said before the vote. “Conversely, voting against it implies an endorsement of the brutal violence and collective punishment inflicted upon them.”

U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield described the resolution as “wishful and irresponsible” in a statement and floated a watered-down proposal calling for a “temporary” truce more directly linked to the release of all hostages. Netanyahu, meanwhile, dug in his heels: “We are committed to continuing the war until we achieve all of its goals,” he said. “There is no pressure, none, that can change this.”

What’s also not changing is the growing global perception that Israel is at odds with the international system and reliant on the United States to shield it from further censure. Israeli officials were incensed by U.N. Secretary General António Guterres’s claim last year that the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 did not occur in a “vacuum” — an observation which Israel argued was justifying Hamas terrorism.

But this week’s proceedings in The Hague dig into what Guterres was invoking, reckoning with more than a half century of deeper, tragic context. The current drumbeat of extreme rhetoric from Netanyahu’s political allies to the right — including rejections of any talk of Palestinian statehood or equal political rights, calls to carry out de facto ethnic cleansing in Gaza and even denials of the existence of the Palestinian people — offers a reminder of the parallel conversation taking place within Israel.

“Successive Israeli governments have given the Palestinian people only three options: displacement, subjugation or death,” Maliki, the Palestinian envoy, told the judges. “But our people are here to stay, they have a right to live in freedom and dignity in their ancestral land. They will not forsake their rights.”

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