21 November 2019

"The Occupying Power shall not...

...  deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies." 

- Fourth Geneva Convention (1949), Article 49.

Three days ago, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made headlines by announcing a new U.S. government policy concerning Israeli settlements. The heart of his statement: "The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not per se inconsistent with international law."

As you can imagine, some of us who care about international law felt kicked in the teeth. Among the Palestinian responses were these words from Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian Christian and graduate of the Ramallah Friends School, quoted by the WAFA news agency:
"The US neither has the right nor agency to rewrite international law and deface the rules-based international order based on its perverse ideological leanings," said Ashrawi. "Israeli settlements are a grave violation of international law, including international humanitarian law."
Pompeo seems to be arguing that it's useless to rely on international law if a dilemma is essentially political. (See the full statement.) The dangerous implication of this argument is that international law becomes irrelevant any time one side obtains an advantage by force and succeeds in keeping that advantage by force. The occupiers would simply have to maintain that control long enough to create an appearance of permanence for its treatment of the territory and people under its control.

His statement seems to promise that the status of individual settlements and the West Bank as a whole will be determined by internal Israeli legal processes and by Israeli-Palestinian negotiation. The problem is that any such expectation ignores the power imbalance between Israel and Palestine, the history of the USA's contributions to that imbalance, the Israeli legal system's pervasively discriminatory treatment of Palestinians, and the long-term strategy of the Israeli government (though not of all Israeli citizens) to reclaim all of the occupied territory.

Pompeo's caveat that "our decision today does not prejudice or decide legal conclusions regarding situations in any other parts of the world" implies that Israel and Palestine constitute an exception to the normal process of determining legality. But there's no logical reason to believe that any outcome anywhere that is obtained and maintained by violence, especially if the violator is powerful and has powerful friends, could not become another exception. International law exists precisely to outlaw unjust "exceptions."

The word "settlement" itself is deceptively simple, as if we were dealing with some benign version of gated communities. Their existence has huge consequences:
  • first, their territories are often seized by force (we're not talking, after all, about honestly purchased non-segregated real estate -- about such deals there would be no controversy);
  • they get priority access to scarce water;
  • they have a history of hostility to their Palestinian neighbors, whose farms, homes, and schoolchildren often come under attack from settlers;
  • at the same time they are protected by soldiers, who often do not protect Palestinians suffering from settlers' attacks;
  • they require secure roads, many of which are built on land seized from Palestinians, who then may not have the right to use those roads.
Both the USA and Israel signed the Fourth Geneva Convention. That treaty clearly outlines the legal status of occupied territories and their populations. Any people under any occupation by any power anywhere must be able to appeal to these basic principles. Otherwise, millions of people would simply disappear into special extra-legal zones where their rights are determined at the point of an occupier's gun -- the situation already faced by too many in this part of the world.

Nobody denies that, inevitably, politics are involved in arriving at solutions. Pompeo says, "... arguments about who is right and wrong as a matter of international law will not bring peace." He has a point; after all, being "right" in light of the Geneva Convention's articles on occupation has not yet been a decisive factor in Palestine's favor. However, international law shapes the vision for a fair outcome and adds the weight of global consensus on the standards to apply to that vision. Otherwise, "politics" in a situation of gross power disparity is just a polite term for the law of the jungle.

Dismissing international law feels like just another part of a growing anti-democratic trend -- a revolt against the rule of law and due process, in favor of rule by authoritarians. International law and human rights are things those effete diplomats care about, whereas we ought to trust in authoritarians who awe us by their ability to create "facts on the ground." Christians have a different mandate altogether: to care for those in bondage, and to confront the occupiers -- the powers and principalities and evil in high places -- who bind them.

A few words about two loaded terms: terrorism and antisemitism.

As a follower of Jesus, I can't agree with the use of violence in any situation, no matter how tempting the incentive. Using violence, even on behalf of justice, signals to the "enemy" that you are a legitimate target according to the ancient logic of self-defense and retaliation. (Arguing about who struck first just leads us back to Cain and Abel.) It follows that terrorism is never an acceptable choice.

However, "terrorism" is practiced by many people who don't fit the usual sinister stereotypes of ideological fanatics and conspiratorial groups. Under the definition of terrorism as the use or threat of violence against civilians to achieve political goals, this evil tool is used by governments and militias of all kinds, not just our own favorite villains. In situations of occupation where human rights are weak or nonexistent, people live in conditions of continuous and systemic terrorism.

Israel, like all other countries, is right to want to protect its citizens from terrorists. That defense is a legitimate police function within the rule of law and its equal protection for all, and not a reason to put whole populations under an oppressive occupation.

I have a special hatred for antisemitism, because I see what that spiritual poison did to a whole country, Germany, including my mother's own family. My father's family in Norway, however, worked to get some of Norway's Jewish citizens safely into Sweden during World War II. That war had antisemitism as one of its major inspirations, and it cost us 52 million lives.

However, many people insist on a clear distinction between antisemitism and criticism of Israel's treatment of Palestinians. I share that view. We are no more antisemitic than Americans who criticize slavery and the USA's treatment of  Native Americans are anti-American. No matter how I feel about Palestine and the occupation, I will maintain a testimony against antisemitism.

Your weekly kitten photo and update... Both kittens seem happy, lively, and affectionate, but the brother on the right seems to be growing faster than his sister on the left. Another visit to the vet (perhaps for worm medicine) may be next on the agenda.

More from Hanan Ashrawi. And a Lutheran bishop considers Pompeo's announcement.

Are Baptists (and we) ready to learn from Baptist prophet E. Glenn Hinson?

Rowan Williams and "one of the most extraordinary mysteries of being Christian," in Mike Farley's Mercy Blog.
We are in the middle of two things that seem quite contradictory: in the middle of the heart of God, the ecstatic joy of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; and in the middle of a world of threat, suffering, sin and pain.
Adria Gulizia on walking the path of the perpetrator.

On living in congruence with one's faith. (Be sure to read the story about Michele Rickett.)

Yoni Appelbaum's question: can the USA hold together?

Russia expands its laws on foreign agents -- now including individuals, not just organizations.

Lil' Jimmy Reed Band, "Honest I Do" (a song I associate with Junior Wells).


Bill Samuel said...

While it's probably not the case, I found myself wondering whether Pompeo was looking at the history of Turtle Island where settlers came in from Europe and tried to commit genocide against the existing population. Eventually, the survivors were mostly forced away from their pre-settler territories and forced into small reservations, generally located in areas not conducive to the people carrying on their way of life. It's actually even worse than what the Israeli government is doing, and there was no cover that the settlers had some claim that their ancient ancestors may have lived in that region. Of course, there wasn't international law against such activity at the time, but still one could argue that a white settler nation seems hypocritical objecting to the Israeli settlements.

Johan Maurer said...

Hi, Bill! Thanks for your comment. One COULD argue that it would be hypocritical, but that could logically mean we should never protest against a sin committed with our national blessing if we ourselves have committed a similar sin before. I know that it seems like "Being the USA means never having to say you're sorry" ... an imperial assumption that we need to work on challenging. (That's part of the task of evangelists, by the way -- whose citizenship, after all, is in a different Realm altogether.)

However, I'd rather be charged with hypocrisy than give up the moral leverage represented by one of the great achievements of the past century and a half ... namely the codification of international law.

Bill Samuel said...

I am not saying we shouldn't protest against a sin because of past sins. I am just pointing out the history.

Johan Maurer said...

And you're correct to point it out. A technically correct point made without humility and honesty about historical context loses its power to persuade.

This is especially important with subjects like Israel and Palestine, where the sides are very polarized and patience is in short supply. Too often arguments are made to gratify our sense of righteousness and reinforce our credentials with our own side. I appreciate Adria Gulizia's article (linked above) for this very reason.