Israeli governments, with US backing, continue to ignore both the declaration of human rights and the Geneva conventions and even deny the Palestinians their UN charter rights to recognition as a people.

International society, dominated by militarised economies, is now retreating from establishing the legal and political basis for any future world community. Attitudes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict prove this. Since 1945 principles have been established to protect the rights of individuals and peoples, and maintain peace, and there have also recently been attempts to set up a framework of international law to punish crimes against humanity. Israeli governments, with the backing of the US administration, have ignored all these.

The conventions and declarations adopted represent the common values of world society in peace and war. They include the 1948 universal declaration of human rights (not legally binding, but with a strong symbolic force), the 1966 covenants on civil and political, and on economic, social and cultural, rights. These join key texts such as the Geneva conventions on human rights in times of war, and the conventions against torture, and on the rights of the child (legally binding).

Since its inception the state of Israel has flouted these conventions. Even within Israel's borders, the Arab population suffers from discrimination that violates the principle of equality. In the Occupied Territories torture by the Israeli authorities is routine, and not merely isolated incidents. Officially the use of torture was halted for a while, but it continues unabated — even against children, many of whom are in prison (1). The refusal of the right to freedom of movement and of other recognised rights has been denounced by all organisations involved in human rights, including Israeli organisations (2).

These violations deny basic human rights, and more particularly the rights in the Geneva conventions. Forced resettlements of populations, the creation of settlements by the occupying power, the destruction of houses, the uprooting of trees and crops, arbitrary arrests, planned assassinations, measures to deny the population food, destroy the economy and cut contact with the outside world are all practised in Israel. Practices that dishonour their perpetrators are becoming common. Jewish settlers in Hebron throw rubbish on Palestinian houses below them, so it is necessary to stretch protective nets over the Arab part of the town.

Basic requirements for the maintenance of peace have been disregarded. The ban on the recourse to force and the territorial acquisitions resulting from it, and the requirement to respect the territorial integrity and political independence of other peoples are ignored.

The other half of Palestine

The rights of the Palestinians as a people are denied in practice and in principle. These rights, guaranteed by the covenant of the League of Nations and reinforced by the charter of the United Nations (which has them as an objective), were granted to the Palestinian people when they were being reduced to half of their former territory. Instead of negotiating with, and persuading, the Palestinians to get what Israel demanded, Israel and its allies have used force and worse. Forgetting the sacrifice of territory already required from the Palestinians, Israel has attempted to seize by degrees the other half of Palestine — the half reserved for a Palestinian state.

Israel's advance has been relentless — first the expansion with the war of 1948-50; then, in the 1967 war, the annexation of East Jerusalem. Israel now has a military grip on what remains of the Palestinian territories and an ongoing control over what (after the 1993 Oslo accords) were supposed to be autonomous territories. That this was a policy of the right has not stopped the left taking an active part. The settlements in the Occupied Territories have been expanded under Labour governments, which know about the fear brought by settlers with a religious mission. Peace negotiations have never been pursued on the basis of a full recognition of the rights of the individual and of peoples. And the nuances of US government support, Democrat or Republican, have never imposed clear limits on Israel.

Ariel Sharon's policy appears to be to crush the Palestinian people and deny their right to exist. Israel and the US discuss whether to keep Yasser Arafat or get rid of him, like colonial governments talking about replacing a troublesome governor. The Hamas bombings are a dreadful response, but by denying the Palestinians all peaceful means of resistance, the Israelis imperil their own security.

The issue of the possible criminal culpability of Israel's leaders has been dodged. Sharon was exonerated by a national enquiry into the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila camps in the Lebanon; there is opposition to the idea of the International Criminal Court; the public seems to approve of "targeted" assassinations of Palestinian leaders; it is impossible to pursue those who plan and commit such crimes: all these are matters that Israel's national conscience must address.

The peace negotiations were brief and, as they fell part, their true nature was revealed — as a process in which principles of justice took second place to ulterior motives. Direct accounts (including US ones) of the Camp David negotiations between Clinton, Barak and Arafat in July 2000 do not confirm that agreement was close. However in Taba in January 2001, there were realistic draft compromises on the table between the Israelis and Palestinians. But it was already too late: Israel's elections were too close (3).

The Palestinian question cannot be dissociated from international politics. There is now a unity of method between Israel, the US, and Russia, each pursuing policies of repression against targeted peoples: the Chechens, the Palestinians, the Iraqis (an unspecified list of other countries is about to be added to the US project). Defined as "terrorists" or "rogue states", these peoples are being subjected to state terrorism, and moreover practised by governments with overwhelming military superiority. They are being asked to respect a set of rules which the masters of the world are obviously abandoning.

Countries that barricade themselves behind protectionism lecture others on respect for global free trade. The US blocks the Kyoto protocols but still expects underdeveloped countries to keep within limits on greenhouse gas emissions. Sanctions are maintained against Iraq because it is said to have biological weapons, but the US blocks the protocol aimed at controlling such weapons (4). The US is preparing a set of legal counter-measures against countries supporting the idea of international criminal courts.

Israel calls on the Palestinian Authority to arrest bombers and hand them over, while Israeli attacks target the premises and personnel of the Palestinian police, making any such action impossible. And if Arafat or some other leader demanded that Sharon arrest and extradite to Palestinian courts the known and identifiable murderers of Palestinian leaders, the response would be outrage.

Israeli governments (not necessarily the Israeli people) have an impressive number of supporters around the world who maintain a high level of activism in supporting Israeli policy, and have no hesitation in using intimidation and threats against anyone who calls for Israel to abide by international law. When anyone criticise the anti-Palestinian policy of Israeli governments, they are swiftly accused of anti-semitism.

What to do

There must be ways out of this stalemate. Besides the Palestinians, and other peoples living directly under American and Russian repression, there are wider risks. The countries of the South — particularly the Arab-Islamic world — mostly have no experience of freedom or democracy. When the most powerful countries are blatantly contemptuous of the rules of international law and principles of national sovereignty (the keystone of any future world democracy), that encourages governments in the developing countries in their authoritarianism. People are left in despair, and despair breeds fanaticism.

The countries of Europe have a responsibility — they are the cradle of the values flouted in this great regression. Europe's cautious response to the sufferings of these people, especially the Palestinians, borders on cowardice. But there are measures that could redress the situation. The first would be sending a peacekeeping force. The UN could do this. The possibility of a US veto would only be an obstacle for those intent on doing nothing. The rules say that when Security Council action is blocked by a veto, the General Assembly can substitute for it. It has done this in the past, on the initiative of the US.

Such a restoration of the role of the General Assembly would augur well for the future of the UN, which is now in danger of being sunk by its powerlessness. Failing that, the creation of a European force would give the European Union a chance to create a common foreign and defence policy it badly needs. Opposition, from the US and Israel, can be guaranteed. But the time has come to take a stand, because the dangers threaten us all. Taking a stand necessarily involves taking risks.

The second step would be economic: to refuse admission to the EU for products manufactured in Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories, as a way of marking the illegal nature of those settlements. But more needs to be done, refusing all financial aid to Israel until it accedes to international law.

The third step is to recognise the state of Palestine. Many governments are on record as favouring its creation, so what are they waiting for? Palestine declared itself a state as long ago as 1988. A number of countries have recognised it. The member countries of the EU could join the list. If a new proclamation were thought necessary, it would be easy to encourage Arafat to make it. But to do nothing makes us all complicit in war crimes.

* Professor at the University of Paris-VII-Denis-Diderot

(1) "Enfants palestiniens détenus par Israël: exigez le respect de leurs droits", document produced by French NGOs for Palestine, November 2001.

(2) See the reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem.

(3) See particularly Robert Malley, "Quelques légendes sur l'échec de Camp David", Le Monde, 17 July 2001, and Alain Gresh, "The Middle East: how the peace was lost", Le Monde diplomatique English edition, September 2001.

(4) See Susan Wright, "US: the bacteria option", Le Monde diplomatique English edition, November 2001.


Translated by Ed Emery