If there is anything that perplexes good friends of Israel, it is the issue of settlements beyond the “Green Line” (a misleading term, as we shall see). In a familiar phenomenon, a foreign politician arrives in Jerusalem to make a speech that manifests genuine admiration of the State of Israel and its achievements, but proceeds to an equally genuine cry of distress over its settlement policies. Why? Because they are supposedly “illegal under international law.”
These friends, as we shall see, are making a widespread basic mistake. Because of the endless talk of a “two-state solution,” the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is viewed as if it had always been a war between two states. In fact, it began as a civil war under the British Mandate for Palestine and continued as such until at least the late 1980s. By that time, almost all the present settlements were already in existence. Consequently, the provisions of international law that should apply to them are those that pertain to civil wars, not to inter-state wars.
To start with, let us set aside some questions whose answer is relatively simple. First, the present Israeli occupation of lands acquired during the Six Day War of 1967 is not illegal per se, because it resulted from aggression by the neighboring states concerned. Hostilities with Egypt started when Egypt blockaded the Israeli port of Eilat, an act of aggression that was followed by Egypt’s demand for the removal of United Nations peacekeepers from the border between the two states (obviously in preparation for further acts of aggression). Hostilities with Jordan began with a Jordanian bombardment of the Israeli part of Jerusalem. As for Syria, it had for years been engaged in constant aggression by way of encroachments into Israeli territory and bombardment of Israeli villages from the Golan Heights. Moreover, a recent expert report (2012) of the International Committee of the Red Cross emphasized that International Humanitarian Law “did not set any limits to the time span of an occupation” (see p. 72); rather, the longer the occupation lasted, the more the “occupying power” was required to upgrade the infrastructure, etc., for the benefit of the inhabitants.
Second, the sale of goods produced in those Israeli settlements is not illegal in most of the world’s markets. In the European Union (EU), for example, it is legal under two conditions. One condition is obligatory: those goods do not enjoy the reductions in customs duties that pertain to free trade agreements between Israel and the EU, because these agreements apply explicitly to the area of pre-1967 Israel. The other condition is optional: the EU Commission issued guidelines in November 2015 on how to label such products. After a fuss, the Commission conceded that the individual European governments could decide whether and how to implement the guidelines, while emphasizing that such labeling is not a boycott and that the EU opposes any boycotts of Israel. (See here for a comprehensive discussion of the matter, also regarding other disputed territories.)
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