- What is a military occupation? Which laws apply?
- Do Israel's actions in the West Bank constitute a military occupation?
- Does Israel conduct its military occupation of the West Bank in accordance with the Fourth Geneva Convention?
- Why do some refer to the West Bank and Gaza as “disputed territory”?
- Is the situation of Gaza also an occupation?
- Do Palestinians have a legal right to resist Israel’s military occupation?
- What are the legal standards for one country to annex another country or territory?
- What about the special plight of children living under occupation?
Scroll down to find the answers to these questions
What is a military occupation? Which laws apply?
During World War II, the Axis powers (notably Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan) seized and occupied countries and territories without concern for the health, safety, and basic rights of the people living in those lands. By the end of World War II, the world had seen enough of this behavior and wished to put an end to it.
Shortly after the end of the Second World War, representatives from 63 nations met in Geneva, Switzerland, to address international laws regarding war and conflict. They were concerned that the existing laws to protect civilians and soldiers in times of conflict needed to be updated. The document they forged—the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949—to this day is the most important document governing the protection of civilians and soldiers in areas of active armed conflict as well as areas of military occupation.
The convention describes a military occupation as the following: whenever one country—the occupying power—“exercises the functions of government” in the land it occupies. All the laws of the convention remain in effect as long as an occupying power continues to exercise the functions of government in the occupied territory.
Israel signed the Fourth Geneva Convention in 1949 and ratified it “without any reservation” in 1951. As one of 196 states to sign onto the convention, Israel is required to follow its laws.
Do Israel's actions in the West Bank constitute a military occupation?
Israel’s actions in the West Bank clearly meet the Fourth Geneva Convention’s definition of a military occupation. Since 1967, Israel has imposed Israeli military law on all non-Jews (including Palestinian Christians and Palestinian Muslims) living in the West Bank. Palestinians in the West Bank live under Israeli military law, and they must face the Israeli military justice and detention systems.
Israel has also taken on many other functions of government. Israel controls passports and travel permits. It controls building permits and it controls the import and export of commercial goods. Israel controls water reserves and basic services such as electricity, roads, and schools. In fact, Israel has issued over 2,500 individual regulations that limit and constrain basic rights and freedoms of Palestinians living in the West Bank. In overseeing so many functions of government in the West Bank, as well as stationing thousands of soldiers throughout that territory, Israel is clearly enforcing a military occupation.
Does Israel conduct its military occupation of the West Bank in accordance with the Fourth Geneva Convention?
Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank routinely violates the Fourth Geneva Convention. Among the most obvious violations:
- Land theft
- Mistreatment of prisoners
Why do some refer to the West Bank and Gaza as “disputed territory”?
People who defend Israel’s military occupation sometimes refer to the West Bank and Gaza as “disputed areas.” According to the International Court of Justice and broad international consensus, the proper term for land in the West Bank is “occupied territory,” not “disputed area.” This difference is important. The term “disputed” suggests that it’s not clear that Israel’s activities are illegal. In U.N. Resolution 446 (1979), however, the United Nations Security Council ruled that Israel’s settlement activities in the West Bank “have no legal validity and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.” Calling this area “disputed” is misleading and dangerous.
Some people who support Israel’s military occupation will even say that Palestine gave large swaths of the West Bank to Israel back in the 1990s, as part of the Oslo Accords peace process. This is not true, but some people repeat it constantly, hoping others will believe it. A Palestinian legal advisory team called the Negotiations Support Unit clarified that Palestine has not signed over control of the West Bank, and it condemns Israel for “exceeding the lawful scope of its powers” by acting as if it has sovereignty over the land.
Is the situation of Gaza also an occupation?
Gaza is a coastal strip of land just 22 miles long and 8 miles wide. With a population of 1.8 million, it is one of the most densely populated places on earth. Although Israel withdrew its Jewish settlers from Gaza in 2005, it maintains a blockade on Gaza. This blockade prevents people from leaving, and limits resources such as food and medical supplies that enter Gaza.
Israel conducted full-scale military bombardments of Gaza in 2008-2009, 2012, and 2014 (and lesser bombardments in intervening years) in which thousands of Palestinian men, women, and children died. During these bombardments, the Israeli military destroyed much of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure; many residential neighborhoods, schools, hospitals, and places of worship; as well as Gaza’s once-vibrant fishing industry. Israel occasionally bombs and shells Gaza and fires upon civilians going about their everyday activities, even during times when it is not conducting a full-scale assault.
Israel imposes severe restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of Gaza. Because of these restrictions, Gazans today suffer from poverty, malnutrition, disease (especially among children), and inadequate medical care. Israel has limited building supplies so severely that in mid-2016, nearly two years after the 51-day bombardment of Gaza in 2014, some 100,000 people in Gaza remained homeless, lacking even basic shelter.
Legal experts are nearly unanimous: Through its air, land, and sea blockade, Israel effectively has control over the citizens of Gaza. So, the siege of Gaza is a military occupation. For this reason, Israel is legally obligated to uphold—not harm—the rights of Gaza citizens as described in the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Do Palestinians have a legal right to resist Israel’s military occupation?
During World War II, Allied powers gave military assistance to resistance forces (“freedom fighters”) in territories occupied by Nazi Germany. No one questioned the right of those resistance forces to fight the Nazis. In fact, their resistance was assumed to be an “inherent right.”
In 1977, the Geneva Convention was amended to say that armed struggle can be used, as a last resort, by people in occupied lands. Fully 177 countries (nearly every country around the globe except Israel) agreed, and signed onto this amendment. And who would argue that, after 50 years of increasingly harsh, suffocating military occupation, the people in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza are not at a point of last resort?
The people of Palestine have a right under international law to resist their military occupiers, including by armed force (although not by harming civilians).
What are the legal standards for one country to annex another country or territory?
During World War II, the Axis powers (notably Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan) seized and occupied countries and territories without concern for the health, safety, and basic rights of the people living in those lands. By the end of World War II, the world had seen enough of this behavior and wished to put an end to it. They held the Fourth Geneva Convention, and listed requirements for treatment of people during war and occupation. They also created the United Nations, with laws regarding nations’ actions. Article 2(4) of the United Nations charter states clearly that the use of force to acquire lands (as was common up to that time) is no longer legally permissible: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Israel’s use of military force to occupy and control the West Bank and Gaza violates this provision of the United Nations charter. The United Nations has consistently stated that Israel’s military occupation is illegal.
There are several legal methods for a country to take land beyond its immediate borders. What these methods of acquiring land have in common is that land transfer can occur only if the people affected by the transfer agree to it, and if it follows an extended period of peace, not during times of conflict. Israel’s actions do not suggest it is pursuing such peaceful methods in the case of the West Bank or Gaza.
What about the special plight of children living under occupation?
As Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip enter their 51st year under Israeli military occupation, lack of stability and violence continue to affect many Palestinian children. While living under military occupation causes suffering to all Palestinians, it is especially hard on the children. They face persistent, serious human rights violations and violence, and they suffer from physical and emotional trauma. Generations of children in the West Bank and Gaza have grown up living in refugee camps and behind walls. Generations of children have waited at checkpoints to go to school and return home. Generations of children have seen young Israeli soldiers humiliate their parents. Generations of children have seen their families’ homes or businesses ruined, their land stolen, their farms and orchards destroyed. Generations of children have been arrested by Israeli forces and prosecuted in an Israeli military detention system known for its widespread mistreatment of children.
The witness of Scripture grants children a privileged place in the embrace of Jesus and the vision of the beloved community. Jesus welcomed children and blessed them; he called us to become childlike in our reception of the Realm of God. Jesus himself was born in Palestine under Roman occupation and, according to Matthew’s Gospel, escaped the slaughter of innocents by becoming a refugee in Egypt before returning to the land of his birth where he came of age. To read the Gospels is to become aware of both the blessing and the vulnerability of children. It is to know that God’s love was revealed in a child and, in particular, a child facing injustice and violence.
Those who falsely see Israel and Palestine as equals are standing in the way of justice and peace. They refuse to acknowledge the gross imbalance of military and police power between Israelis and Palestinians, or to recognize that occupation affects the occupied more than the occupier. Those who see the failed peace processes in Israel and Palestine and give up on a solution are acting as if God is impotent and historical change is impossible. To those who don’t have the vision or energy to pursue this issue of justice, we respond, “With God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).