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A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z   This menu features recently updated backgrounders on people, places and subjects. To view all backgrounders, click More...
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last updated Feb. 5, 2009 1:31 AM (EST+7)
International law
Read more: 
international law, international court of justice, ICJ, apartheid, colonization, colonies, wall, barrier, security fence, settlements, international humanitarian law, United Nations, ocupation, Nakba, exile, refugees
During the First World War, Britain promised Arab leaders to recognize their independence in exchange for Arab support against the Ottoman Empire (e.g. 1915 McMahon Letter). However in November 1917, Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour issued the so-called Balfour Declaration which expressed government support for the establishment in Palestine of “a national home for the Jewish people”.

EnlargeA section of Israel's Wall between Jerusalem and the West Bank town of Ramallah, Wednesday, March 4, 2009.(AP/Tara Todras-Whitehill)
Aljazeera: Looting the Holy Land documentary
Oct. 12, 2010 12:18 PM (EST+7)
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Oct. 11, 2011 1:20 PM (EST+7)
Riz Khan with Pink Floyd's Roger Waters
March 8, 2011 2:08 PM (EST+7)
Israeli Apartheid Week - Discussion
March 6, 2010 5:44 PM (EST+7)
Refugees and internally displaced persons
White phosphorus
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UNHRC Report investigating Israeli attacks on the flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian assistance
Gaza closure: not another year!
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The Israeli Assassination Policy in the Aqsa Intifada
Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Israeli Settlement and the Peace Process
Beg, Borrow or Steal! Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories
"Israel backs down over white phosphorus," Times, April 23, 2009
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"Rain of Fire: Israel's use of White Phosphorus in Gaza," Human Rights Watch report, Mar 25, 2009

In 1918, the British defeated the Ottoman forces and occupied Palestine. In 1919, the League of Nations decided to establish a mandate system. Article 22 of The Covenant of the League of Nations talked about the need of “certain communities formerly belonging to the Turkish Empire” to have “their existence as independent nations... provisionally recognized”.

At the San Remo Conference in April 1920, the League entrusted the temporary administration of Palestine to Britain as a Class A Mandate. The mandate incorporated the Balfour Declaration and was included in article 95 of the Treaty of Sèvres.

In February 1947, Britain announced it would terminate the mandate. The United Nations, successor to the League of Nations, created the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) in May to find a solution to the “question of Palestine.” UNSCOP included no representative from Arab nations. A majority of the committee recommended the partition of Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states, while Australia, India, Iran and Yugoslavia supported a single federal state.

On November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 181 recommending the partition plan of the UNSCOP majority (this plan also included a special international regime for Jerusalem).


As soon as the partition resolution passed, fighting started in Palestine. Zionist militias began the long-planned ethnic cleansing of Palestinian villages and cities (see Pappe, pp. 39-85). Between the end of 1947 and early 1949, over 500 villages were depopulated and destroyed by the Zionist militias (who later formed the Israeli army). Between 750,000 and 900,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled from fear of massacre. Half of these were made refugees before the Arab armies invaded.

On May 14, 1948, Zionist leaders declared a new state called "Israel." The Arab states invaded, beginning on the 15th (the day the British mandate officially expired). The first Arab-Israeli war began. Palestinians call this period of mass-expulsion and dispossession “al-Nakba” (The Catastrophe). Israelis call it the “War of Independence.”

Throughout the first half of 1949, Israel signed separate armistice agreements with Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. The 1949 armistice line (commonly known as the Green Line) became the de-facto boundary between Israel and the territories controlled by Egypt (the Gaza Strip) and Jordan (who formally annexed the West Bank).


In June 1967, Israel invaded and occupied the West Bank (including east Jerusalem), the Gaza Strip, the Syrian Golan Heights and the Egyptian Sinai peninsula. The UN Security Council passed Resolution 242 calling on Israel to withdraw from all occupied territories. Israel also annexed east Jerusalem, which it still considers its “united and eternal capital” – though this move was not recognized by any other state (embassies to Israel, including those of the US and UK are maintained in Tel Aviv). (On the illegality of the Israeli annexation of Jerusalem, see also UN Security Council Resolutions 267 (1969), 298 (1971), 446 (1979), 465 (1980), 476 (1980), 605 (1987) and UN General Assembly Resolution 298 (1971).)

The West Bank and Gaza Strip are occupied territories under international law. Both international human rights – in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination – and international humanitarian law apply to the occupied Palestinian territories.

Israel, however, contends that the West Bank and Gaza Strip are only “disputed” territories, and does not recognize the applicability of international human rights law there. It only recognizes some customary provisions of international humanitarian law.

The right to self-determination of the Palestinian people was officially recognized by the United Nations General Assembly in 1974 with passage of Resolution 3236.


Israeli, Palestinian and international non-governmental organizations such as B’Tselem, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, and Amnesty International report ongoing and serious violations of the basic human rights of the Palestinian people in the occupied Palestinian territories. According to a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (“Dignity Denied in the Occupied Palestinian Territories” November 2007), the “balance between the legitimate Israeli security concerns and the right of the Palestinian people to live a normal life has not been struck”.

In August 2005, Israel unilaterally “disengaged” from the Gaza Strip. It dismantled all settlements (moving most inhabitants into the West Bank) and redeployed its armed forces to the borders. Israel has since claimed it has no legal obligations towards the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, but this position is not shared by the UN, the Palestine Liberation Organization or human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International.

Since the Hamas victory in the Palestinian legislative election of January 2006, Israel and a number of states have imposed sanctions against the Palestinian Authority, and an intensified siege against the population of the Gaza Strip. According to Amnesty International, the UN and Human Rights Watch, this blockade amounts to collective punishment: a war crime under international law.  

Because of this pattern of human rights violations and the application of two separate legal systems in the occupied Palestinian territories – one for Jewish settlers and another for Palestinians – human rights organizations have described Israel’s regime as one of institutional discrimination. John Dugard, who was UN special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories between 2000 and 2007, concluded in his 2007 report that Israel’s occupation regime includes elements of both colonialism and apartheid.

Reports by Amnesty International, Yesh Din (“Law Enforcement upon Israeli Civilians in the OPT”), B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch have found that the Israeli military has failed to investigate wrongdoing and that impunity is widespread for Israeli soldiers and settlers responsible for murder, property damage and other abuses of Palestinian human rights.


Israel’s settlements (or colonies) in the West Bank (and formerly in Gaza) have been repeatedly condemned by the international community, including the United Nations Security Council (Resolution 446). Israeli settlements in the West Bank contravene the prohibition against population transfer as stipulated in article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilians in Time of War.

Under articles seven and eight of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, population transfer can also amount to a crime against humanity and a war crime respectively. Settlements also contravene the right to self-determination (see UN General Assembly Resolution 1514) and undermine the prospect of a two-state solution. For Palestinians, the settlements constitute forcible conquest and annexation of land that has been Palestinian for generations.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that Israel has actively settled more than 450,000 of its citizens in the West Bank (see “The Humanitarian Impact on Palestinians of Israeli Settlements and Other Infrastructure in the West Bank” July 2007). The report found that almost 40 percent of the West Bank is now taken up by settlements and related infrastructure.

Reports by the Israeli group Peace Now found that settlement construction increased in 2008 compared to the previous year.

Reports by Amnesty International and B’Tselem have also documented settler violence against Palestinians and their property as well as against human rights workers (see for example “Ghost Town” B’Tselem, May 2008).


In 2002, Israel began building a Wall throughout the West Bank. When completed, the Wall will be over 700 kilometers long, with 80 percent of it built inside the West Bank, rather than on the Green Line.

The Wall and its associated regime are illegal according to the International Court of Justice. The court ruled in July 2004 that Israel’s construction of the Wall violates the Palestinian right to self-determination and that Israel should dismantle it and make reparation for the damage caused.

The ICJ ruling used the term “wall” throughout: “The ‘wall’ in question is a complex construction, so that that term cannot be understood in a limited physical sense. However, the other terms used, either by Israel (‘fence’) or by the Secretary General [then Kofi Annan] (‘barrier’), are no more accurate if understood in the physical sense. In this opinion, the court has therefore chosen to use the terminology employed by the General Assembly [i.e. wall].”


Increasingly, the analogy is made between Israel’s regime and the former South African apartheid regime. Jimmy Carter, former United States President, wrote a book, titled “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” which covered the topic (although Carter was clear that he was referring only to the occupied territories and not Israel proper). Israel denies that its regime amounts to apartheid.

Article two of the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid set down a legal definition of apartheid in 1973. In his January 2007 report (see above), John Dugard observed this convention was being violated by Israel in the West Bank. Article seven of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (see above) classifies apartheid as a crime against humanity.

Responding to such sustained Israeli violations of international law, Palestinian civil society launched a boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign in 2005.

News on International law
Palestinians, Catholic order make final appeal against WallFeb. 13, 2013 12:47 PM (EST+7)
Palestinians establish new camp 'Dignity' to protest WallJan. 21, 2013 4:23 AM (EST+7)
ANALYSIS: Palestinians set for Pyrrhic victory in United NationsSept. 25, 2012 11:01 PM (EST+7)

“Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of ‘Transfer’ in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948” Nur Masalha, Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992
“The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” Ilan Pappe, Oneworld Publications, 2006
“Survey of Palestinian Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons 2006-2007” Badil, 2007
“Occupied territory - the legal issues” ICRC
“International humanitarian law (IHL)” ICRC
Palestine Remembered
Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Campaign.
International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, United Nations
International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination
Peace Now settlement reports

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