North Africa, West Asia

International legal obligation to end trade with settlements

If the political will to bring about justice and peace is lacking, the answer lies in international law. Ending state trade with Israeli settlements is not an economic sanction, but a legal obligation.

Tom Moerenhout
5 August 2014

Stories and sequels

Again the world has its eyes on Gaza. About two weeks after the ground invasion started on 17 July, at least 1000 Palestinian civilians of whom more than 320 children have been killed, a registered 475,000 Palestinians were displaced, five hospitals and 34 clinics stopped working, and the only power plant in the Strip has been destroyed. Also Israel has suffered two civilian casualties.

This is no less than a humanitarian disaster caused by a disproportionate war in which collective punishment is a tactic. For example, the power plant is used to supply power to hospitals, and to ensure a minimum operation of water treatment and sewage facilities. Israel's self-proclaimed targeted operations, of course, also have a political rationale: putting pressure on the recently formed unity government between Hamas and Fatah.

Surely this round of hostilities will suffice for at least one more of the by now classic stories. These are: (1) Israeli security threats posed by a uniform collective of anti-Semitic terrorists who surround the only democracy in the Middle East; (2) a Palestinian reaction that demonstrates polarisation and a lack of unity; (3) an Israel that cannot negotiate a peace agreement with such terrorists even though that is what the government says it really wants.

For anyone with some reasonable knowledge about the conflict, the Israeli regime is a poor writer and a poor director. Netanyahu and co. recycle earlier narratives in a series of repetitive sequels with catchy names: Operation Hot Winter, Operation Cast Lead, Operation Pillar of Defense, and now Operation Protective Edge. In essence, they are all the same: politically abusive and humanitarianly catastrophic.

Government obligation to stop trading with settlements

The Gaza conflicts are indeed a useful distraction from Israel's settlement enterprise. Throughout the conflicts and peace negotiations, including those in Oslo and Camp David, settlement expansion has been a given constant. These settlements have been unequivocally recognised as illegal under international law, and as the main political barrier to actual peace negotiations.

These settlements are permanent cities, as much as they are production centres of goods and services. Free trade has very much assisted settlement expansion. Western governments have accepted, and even encouraged, uncontrolled and unrestricted trade of settlement produce. This is, however, in stark conflict with their obligations under international law.

Let us be very clear: stopping trade with settlements is not a sanction, but an obligation under international law. When our states and our governments do not stop such trade, it is not about them taking politically cowardly decisions – they are violating their own fundamental obligations under international law.

In short, Israeli settlements violate the highest norms of international law. This law mandates third states not to recognise or assist the breach of such norms. Economic relations such as trade and investment policies that accept, in any way possible, the continuation of economic settlement activity for the benefit of the occupying state (in this case Israel) violate this obligation of non-recognition.

To demonstrate the acceptance of this argument, it suffices to point out that even the Israeli Supreme Court, which has a bad track record in correctly applying international law, has recognised that settlements cannot serve an economically beneficial role for the state of Israel. This is exactly what is happening today.

Let us be very clear again: the obligations that states have to stop trading with such settlements are self-executing under international law. This means there is no action needed from the United Nations Security Council. It has also been clearly established that international trade law would not prohibit states from banning trade with settlements.

The breach of international legal obligations by third states

Politicians lack the honour and courage to confront the real political, economic and legal problem. Nearly every Washington politician is on his knees begging for campaign financing and endorsements from the powerful Israel lobby, in a system in which re-election and success have become conditioned upon unconditional support for Israel - in the literal sense of the word.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the cowardice of Europe is as pathetic, if not more so. With a better-informed public, politicians are still tied by economic considerations and historical legacies. Taboos prevail over the lessons of history, and money prevails over ethics, morality and law. Indeed, the west at large (not unlike the rest of the world) is corrupt when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Political honour in this dossier is nothing more than a decorative myth.

The current Avaaz petition that directly calls on banks, pension funds and businesses to divest from settlements is indicative. By now, more than 1.5 million people have signed this petition, to support the understanding that it is not politics, but legal and economic considerations that might accelerate a final conclusion of this enduring conflict.

If the most-signed petition is currently one asking the CEOs of companies such as Veolia, Caterpillar and G4S – all strongly involved with the settlement enterprise – to respect international law, it is painfully clear what the public thinks of governments' capacity to do so. 

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