Palestinian diplomat accuses Israel of apartheid at UN court

19 February 2024, 16:24

World Court Israel Palestinians
World Court Israel Palestinians. Picture: PA

The case focuses on Israel’s open-ended control over the occupied West Bank, the Gaza Strip and annexed east Jerusalem.

The Palestinian foreign minister has accused Israel of apartheid and urged the United Nations’ top court to declare that Israel’s occupation of lands sought for a Palestinian state is illegal and must end immediately and unconditionally for any hope for a two-state future to survive.

The remarks came at the opening of historic hearings at the UN’s top court into the legality of Israel’s 57-year occupation of lands sought for a Palestinian state.

The hearings are to last six days before the International Court of Justice.

Monday’s session started with foreign minister Riad Malki speaking as a representative of the Palestinians.

It follows a request submitted by the UN General Assembly for a non-binding advisory opinion into Israel’s policies in the occupied territories.

Though the case opens at the court’s Great Hall of Justice against the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war, it focuses instead on Israel’s open-ended control over the occupied West Bank, the Gaza Strip and annexed east Jerusalem.

“I stand before you as 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza, half of them children, are besieged and bombed, killed and maimed, starved and displaced,” Mr Malki said.

“More than 3.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, including in Jerusalem, are subjected to colonisation of their territory and racist violence that enables it.

“The United Nations enshrined in its charter the rights of all peoples to self-determination and pledged to rid the world of the gravest breaches of this right, namely colonialism and apartheid,” Mr Mr Malki continued. “Yet for decades, the Palestinian people have been denied this right and have endured both colonialism and apartheid.”

The Palestinians argue that Israel has violated the prohibition on territorial conquest by annexing large swathes of occupied land and the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, and has imposed a system of racial discrimination and apartheid.

International law expert Paul Reichler, representing the Palestinians, told the court that the policies of Israel’s government “are aligned to an unprecedented extent with the goals of the Israeli settler movement to expand long-term control over the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and in practice to further integrate those areas within the territory” of Israel.

“We want to hear new words from the court,” Omar Awadallah, the head of the UN organisation’s department in the Palestinian Foreign Ministry, said earlier.

World Court Israel Palestinians
Riad Malki, the Palestinian National Authority’s foreign minister, centre, gives a statement outside the Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands, on Monday (Peter Dejong/AP)

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement on Monday that Israel does not recognise the legitimacy of the hearings at the International Court of Justice about Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.

“The discussion at The Hague is part of the Palestinian attempt to dictate the results of the political agreement without negotiations,” he said.

After the Palestinians address the court on Monday, an unprecedented 51 countries and three international organisations will speak. The court will likely take months to issue its opinion.

Israel is not scheduled to speak during the hearings, but could submit a written statement.

Yuval Shany, a law professor at Hebrew University and senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, said Israel will likely justify the ongoing occupation on security grounds, especially in the absence of a peace deal.

It is likely to point to the October 7 attack in which Hamas-led militants from Gaza killed 1,200 people across southern Israel and took 250 hostages back to the territory.

However, Palestinians and leading rights groups argue that the occupation goes far beyond defensive measures. They say it has morphed into an apartheid system, bolstered by settlement building on occupied lands, that gives Palestinians second-class status and is designed to maintain Jewish authority from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

Israel rejects any accusation of apartheid.

Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East war. The Palestinians seek all three areas for an independent state. Israel considers the West Bank to be disputed territory, whose future should be decided in negotiations.

It has built 146 settlements across the West Bank, according to watchdog group Peace Now, many of which resemble fully developed suburbs and small towns. The settlements are home to more than 500,000 Jewish settlers, while around three million Palestinians live in the territory.

World Court Israel
Six days of hearings opened on Monday at the top United Nations court into the legality of Israel’s 57-year occupation of lands sought for a Palestinian state (Peter Dejong/AP)

Israel annexed east Jerusalem and considers the entire city to be its capital. An additional 200,000 Israelis live in settlements built in east Jerusalem that Israel considers to be neighbourhoods of its capital.

Palestinian residents of the city face systematic discrimination, making it difficult for them to build new homes or expand existing ones.

Israel withdrew all its soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005, but continued to control the territory’s airspace, coastline and population registry. Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza when the Palestinian militant Hamas group seized power there in 2007.

The international community overwhelmingly considers the settlements to be illegal. Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem, home to the city’s most sensitive holy sites, is not internationally recognised.

It is not the first time the court has been asked to give an advisory opinion on Israeli policies.

In 2004, it said a separation barrier Israel built through east Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank was “contrary to international law”. It also called on Israel to immediately halt construction. Israel has ignored the ruling.

Also, late last month, the court ordered Israel to do all it can to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in its campaign in Gaza. The order came at a preliminary stage of a case filed by South Africa accusing Israel of genocide, a charge that Israel denied.

South Africa’s governing party, the African National Congress, has long compared Israel’s policies in Gaza and the West Bank to the apartheid regime of white minority rule in South Africa, which restricted most black people to “homelands” before ending in 1994.

By Press Association

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