Beyond Occupation is an important book that gives the reader rigorous and detailed arguments showing Israel’s colonial treatment of the Occupied Territories, argues Lindy Syson

Beyond Occupation: Apartheid, Colonialism and International Law in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, ed. Virginia Tilley (Pluto 2012), 352pp.

This important book comes at the time of an uneasy ceasefire between Israel and Gaza and the continued siege of Gaza. It will be a valuable resource to all those arguing against the illegal Israeli occupation of the Occupied Territories (OPT). Based on a detailed two year study by a group of legal experts on international law, the book offers a legal analysis of the Israeli-Palestine conflict in the OPT, drawing on both humanitarian law (which applies in the context of armed conflict) and human rights law.

The book begins with an acknowledgement of the futility of past legal efforts, including those of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the highest legal authority on international law, to intervene in the Israeli-Palestine conflict. The problem, it is suggested, lies with the international community, which has failed to recognise and address Israel’s colonial and apartheid regimes in the OPT, and it is this which has ‘stalled all progress towards ending the conflict’ (p.xiii). Therefore, the authors argue that what is needed is a ‘fresh perspective’ on the situation which will prove, on the basis of international law, that Israel is not just an occupying power, but is practising apartheid and colonialism.

The book succeeds in this aim, offering rigorous and detailed legal arguments and evidence of Israel’s colonial role. After a first chapter, which sets out the illegality of Israel’s occupation of the OPT, chapter two shows how Israel has set up a dual system to sustain two societies: one Jewish-Israeli, and the other Palestinian. For example, Jewish settlers are granted the protection of Israeli civil law, while Palestinians living in the same territory are tried under a military law ‘whose procedures violate international standards for the administration of justice’ (p.78).

Examples of this are that indictments are presented in Hebrew only, which most defendants are unlikely to understand; lengthy detention periods before, and between, trials are common; and the decisions of military courts are not published. So, a Jewish settler and a Palestinian can be tried for the same offence, in different courts, under different laws, and will invariably receive different sentences. The book gives detailed evidence of this reality (see particularly pp.64-78).

Chapter three sets out the case that Israel is a colonising power in the OPT and that its colonial practices are part of a systematic attempt to deny Palestinians the ability to exercise self-determination. Examples of this are the settlement policy; road building and the construction of The Wall, which has deprived the Palestinians of control and development of over 40% of the land in the West Bank. Furthermore, the Israeli water allocation system deprives Palestinians of adequate water supplies whilst serving Settler communities. By these means and others, Israel is attempting to integrate the economy of the OPT into its own, as defines a colonising power.

Chapter four outlines the evidence which shows that under international law, Israel is practicing an apartheid system. The book uses examples from the South African apartheid state to illustrate the similarities of the regimes, including segregation into different geographical areas and the restrictions on movement between those areas, and also the use of torture and arbitrary arrest and imprisonment on the pretext of ‘security’.

This book, then, offers clear, decisive evidence of Israel’s colonial occupation and apartheid rule in the OPT. However, despite this wealth of evidence and legal argument it is the book’s underlying premise and conclusions that reveal a fundamental weakness. Its underlying premise is the liberal one that the law, in this case international law, can be a positive force which can be used to uphold or amend a basically just system. However, ‘humanitarian’ aid and intervention is often a way in which powerful states use the language of human rights as a cover, with strings attached, for Western powers to extend their grip and exploitation of countries for their own strategic advantage. And international human rights are used to support global economic expansion. International financial institutions such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ride roughshod over the social and economic rights of working people in the ‘underdeveloped world’.

Yet, the book concludes that as international law is being transgressed in such an obvious way – and the evidence is set out for all to see – then the onus is on the international community to respond. Not only is Israel clearly implicated in the illegality of the occupation, but the whole of the international community is implicated as ‘third party states’ have a legal duty to ‘co-operate’ and ‘abstain’ where it is clear that international law has been violated. The international community should exercise its legal duty by not recognising Israeli colonisation and occupation in the OPT and not assisting or co-operating with this illegal system. Furthermore, it is suggested that the international community should call on the United Nations to request that the ICJ gives an opinion as to whether Israeli occupation constitutes apartheid and colonialism. However, history shows that rulings from the ISJ will not necessarily change anything. When, for example, Nicaragua took the USA to the ICJ in the early 1980s and the ICJ found the USA guilty of violating the sovereignty of that country, the US simply refused to comply with the ruling; indeed it terminated its acceptance of the compulsory jurisdiction of the court.

So, the main weakness of this book is its legalistic framework, divorced from the wider system of global capitalism, and its assumption that there is a legal solution to the problem. The law is not about the application of static laws, however much open to interpretation they are, but a process between actors who have different levels of economic and military strength.  As Marx observed: ‘… between equal rights, force decides.’ Indeed, a Marxist view of international law would see it as having an imperialist dynamic built into its fabric. The international rule of law can be seen as an expression of imperialism, rather than a force counter posed to it. This means that we have to be aware of this imperialist dynamic in the law and reject answers that remain at an abstract level. An analysis is needed which looks at Israel’s role as a colonising power in the OPT, in the context of imperialism and the Arab uprisings, which have had a significant impact on the current situation in the Middle East, and dealing with what Israel can get away with, backed as it is by the US and its European allies.

In conclusion, any analysis which sees the legal system as working above and beyond politics and economics will always be limited in its assessment and solutions. However, we need to use all weapons at our disposal and this book is a challenging and detailed resource. Nonetheless, change will not be brought about merely by appeals to social justice and rights. One of the ways in which pressure can be brought to bear by the international community is by popular campaigns such as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) which puts pressure on Israel to comply with international and human rights. We need to be part of anti-imperialist struggles; to support the self-determination of the Palestinian people; to support those activists on the ground fighting against the Israeli State, Western imperialist powers and their allies in the Middle East. Within the UK, our best expression of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle is to fight back against our own government which arms and supports the State of Israel.

Lindy Syson

Lindy is an ex-teacher who now works in higher education. She is also studying part-time for a PhD. Her research topic is critical pedagogy and academic activism. Lindy is a member of Counterfire.

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