Cracking under the strain
Israel is under mounting pressure to present a fairer face to the world by both local and international groups, writes Jonathan Cook
Click to view caption|
Aseel Mohamed Qandeel, aged six, holds a portrait of her father Mohamed who is imprisoned in an Israeli jail
Severe cracks surfaced inside the Israeli government this week as its senior law officers publicly fell out with the defence establishment and the Foreign Ministry over the country's future strategy in the face of the July verdict of the International Court of Justice that the separation wall being built in the West Bank is illegal.
According to a report issued last week by a Justice Ministry team appointed by the attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, Israel is facing international sanctions and its leaders potential prosecution for war crimes unless it begins presenting a fairer face to the world.
In a radical departure from past policy, Mazuz recommended Israel fully apply the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the West Bank and Gaza, in what would constitute formal recognition that they are occupied.
The long-standing Israeli position is that these territories are merely "disputed".
Private government anger over the report spilled out into the open when a senior Foreign Ministry official, Alan Baker, publicly lambasted Mazuz's team for interfering. "This is why there is a Foreign Ministry... It doesn't need this type of team of academics to tell it what to do."
Mazuz's fears, however, were promptly confirmed when the Non-Aligned Movement of developing nations urged all its 115 member states to individually and collectively impose sanctions on settlements and international companies participating in settlement activity.
"We must remember that these sanctions are only the beginning," Nitza Nahmias, a professor of political science at Haifa University, wrote in the Maariv newspaper. "This is the marker that grants legitimacy to economic and commercial sanctions."
Pressure for Israel to make progress on the peace track is also expected from Europe as it negotiates next month with Israeli officials on the country's participation in the Wider European Initiative, an upgrading of relations with the EU open to states bordering Europe.
Nonetheless, in defiance of Mazuz's legal advice, the government announced on Monday further expansion of settlements in the West Bank, in violation of the Geneva Conventions, which forbid an occupying nation from transferring civilians into occupied territory.
Tenders for more than 530 homes were revealed, in addition to the 1,000 construction permits approved last week by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Peace Now, which uses aerial surveillance to monitor settlement expansion, claims that a far larger number of homes, at least 3,700, are being built in the West Bank.
The expansion of settlements also contravenes the terms of the US-backed roadmap, a document that in practice was discarded long ago but which is still officially the only peace process on the table. According to the roadmap, building in the settlements must be frozen and more than 100 unlicensed outposts dismantled.
The government's high-level split with its law officers stems from differing perceptions of what the next few months will bring.
Sharon is taking advantage of US President George Bush's impending election battle, in which Jewish voters are expected to have a decisive influence, to extract unchallenged as many concessions as possible. He hopes to consolidate his hold on the West Bank's largest settlement blocs before the outcome in November.
According to a New York Times report on Saturday, the White House had already agreed with Sharon to a major shift in its policy by officially backing building within established settlements.
Mazuz, on the other hand, is more concerned by the battle Israel is losing outside Washington, in the international arena. He said the ruling by the International Court, based in the Hague, created "a new legal reality for Israel". "It is difficult to minimise the negative repercussions of the Hague court's decision," he said.
The court defined anywhere over the Green Line, the 1967 border between Israel and the West Bank, as "occupied Palestinian territory" and ruled that Israel must dismantle existing sections of the wall and compensate the Palestinians.
The ruling reaffirms not only the illegality of the current route of the wall but also Israel's military occupation and its settlements. By inference, Israel's refusal to recognise Palestinian combatants as prisoners of war -- one of the demands of the Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike -- also violates international law.
All these issues will be raised by Palestinian representatives at the United Nations' General Assembly, which is due to discuss the Hague court's ruling again in September. There are widespread expectations that the assembly will press for sanctions against Israel, although the US would undoubtedly veto any such recommendation.
Nevertheless, Mazuz and his legal team fear the international atmosphere risks turning against Israel. He is mindful that an international campaign of boycotts gained strength against South Africa after the International Court ruled its occupation of Namibia illegal.
John Dugard, a South African law professor and the UN's special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied territories, issued a harshly critical report this month that termed Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza an apartheid regime that is "worse than the one that existed in South Africa".
The Israeli government's main worry, however, is trying to make the Americans' job of selling their support for Israel a little easier.
On Monday Baruch Spiegel, a Defence Ministry adviser, issued a statement to a Knesset committee that 82 outposts of the 104 established during Sharon's premiership had been dismantled.
The statistics were greeted with derisive laughter from Knesset members and reporters, and called "a sheer lie" by Yossi Sarid of Meretz. Peace Now's spokesman, Yaariv Oppenheimer, said that in fact only a handful had been removed and "all of them were minor, most of them were empty".
The army is also playing up its willingness to reroute sections of the wall but this has little directly to do with the International Court's ruling.
The government has been cornered by its own Supreme Court, which shares Mazuz's fears and has given the government 30 days to explain how it will respond to the Hague court decision.
In June the Supreme Court, in anticipation of the International Court's opposition to the wall, demanded that the army reroute a section of the wall north-west of Jerusalem to bring it nearer the Green Line.
Meanwhile, the number of Palestinian prisoners joining the hunger strike by its second week rose close to 3,500, including nearly all the 3,800 political prisoners being held in jails inside Israel. Some 4,000 more Palestinians are in detention, in military facilities, Shin Bet interrogations centres and police stations.
Popular demonstrations spread from the West Bank and Gaza to inside Israel, where Palestinian citizens staged protests outside several jails, and to neighbouring states such as Syria and Lebanon.
Several legal and human rights groups also threatened legal challenges against the Israeli government.
The Adalah legal centre for the Arab minority in Israel demanded from the attorney general that he instruct the Prison Service to return fluids and salt to the prisoners after they were confiscated last week in an attempt to break the strike. The prisoners are refusing only food.