By Hussain Abdul Hussain
- The writer is a Washington-based political analyst. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post and Kuwaiti daily Al Rai, among others.
WASHINGTON (AA) - The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (UNHRC) has fired a shot across Israel's bow.
In a report, the international organization said 206 companies are in violation of international law for their operations in Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian Territories.
Israel's friends in Washington scrambled to its rescue. American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) called the UN report "pernicious,” and warned it could serve as the basis for a general boycott of Israel.
While the UN has so far kept names of the 206 companies under wraps, AIPAC said "the report targets at least 22 American companies” with business ties to Israeli settlements. To counter the UN effort, AIPAC called on Congress to pass the Israel Anti-Boycott Act (S. 720 and H.R. 1697), "which would expand existing US anti-boycott laws to international organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union. ”The legislation was introduced in response to a March 2016 resolution of UNHRC.
But despite its vast influence inside Congress, AIPAC has had a hard time pushing through the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, with some of its closest legislators, such as Democratic Senator Christine Gillibrand of New York, withdrawing support for the law. New York is home to more than 5 million Jewish Americans.
Gillibrand justified her reversal by saying she could never support an act that ultimately prohibited people from calling for any kind of boycott, since such a right is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of expression.
The New York senator has not been the only American friend of Israel to express unease with settlements in Palestinian Territories. The U.S. State Department considers the settlements illegal, and has gone as far as blaming them -- in its report on terrorism in July -- for fanning Palestinian "violent extremism.”
Even Donald Trump, the only sitting U.S. president to visit the Western Wall and announce plans to relocate the American Embassy to Jerusalem, has expressed unease with the settlements.
"Settlements do not help the (peace) process,” Trump told Israel Hayom, the newspaper owned by an avowed supporter of settlements, Jewish-American billionaire Sheldon Adelson. "Every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left,” Trump told the Hebrew-language daily.
Unease with Israeli settlements in Palestinian lands comes from all quarters of American power, Republican and Democrat, in the administration or in Congress.
American opposition to the settlements, though subtle, should tell Israelis something: Their unique experiment in grabbing land outside their internationally recognized borders, and annexing them to their state, is an experiment that does not promise success.
The Israeli experiment is relatively new in the aftermath of World War II order, and only started in 1967. Except for Israel, there are currently no governments engaged in programs of population replacement, outside their borders.
In his book, Israel: A Place under the Sun, released in the mid-1990s, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued that whatever the outcome of the peace process with Palestinians, Israel will annex a few big settlement blocs in the West Bank. Netanyahu cited military and strategic concerns, saying that a narrow corridor connects north and south Israel, and that should the Arabs launch a sweeping attack, like in 1948 or 1973, Israel will not be able to defend this narrow strip, hence the need to beef it up with adjacent Palestinian land.
But since the mid-1990s, technology has changed drastically, as armies gained the ability to project power anywhere without holding territory. Israel's "security argument” for annexing a few settlement blocs has since fallen out of fashion and has been replaced with the "de facto” argument, that is, the settler population has grown so big that displacing and relocating it to Israel is impossible.
But the "de facto” argument is one that Israel gives to the world. The storyline that Israeli officials sell to their constituents is more connected to religious and historic claims, along the lines that no Israeli government will ever relinquish land in the West Bank, the territory that hosted the kingdoms of Judea and Samaria around the turn of the Common Era.
The validity of historic claims aside, history can be used as a populist platform to rally supporters, but is of little value in foreign relations governed by international laws. Unless Palestinians sign off on any piece of the West Bank or East Jerusalem to Israel, Tel Aviv will always carry the badge "occupier” when it controls these lands. Its settlers will always be seen as illegal colonizers or occupiers by international law.
The restrictions of international law has made it hard, even for Israel's staunchest supporters in America, to support settlements beyond saying that these territories are "disputed,” and that their final status is open for discussion in peace talks. No matter how strong and strategic ties between America and Israel are, Washington will always face the problem of running afoul of international laws, should it endorse the Israeli line, and logic, on settlements.
Still, America's unwavering support to Israel, materially and diplomatically, will continue. But when it comes to violating the Fourth Geneva Convention, which bans occupiers from population reshuffle, America, even Trump, will remain reluctant in crossing that line. For all his pomp, Trump has yet to describe the Israeli settlements as legal entities, even though his ambassador to Israel has done so, in a move that seemed more of a personal position than a shift in U.S. policy.
So how will the UNHCR report, and the possible public shaming of the 206 companies that operate in Israeli settlements, affect Israel?
The answer is anybody's guess. Proponents of the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement hope to replicate a regime similar to the one that brought down the apartheid government in South Africa.
But the Israeli situation is different. For starters, companies inside Israel proper are not subject to any boycott or sanctions. Second, the current financial system makes it much easier to hide Israeli capital than it was for South Africa in the 1980s. Israelis today can buy a majority stake in any company, while keeping their identity concealed. They will thus make profit despite the BDS campaign. For BDS to succeed in inflicting pain on Israel, time will have to go back to the day when business was more of a one-on-one transaction than one run by multinational conglomerates.
So far, however, BDS has put the settlement movement on the back foot. Companies that invest in occupied Palestinian Territories find themselves the target of public shaming and boycott. The UN has just joined this activity. If such conditions persist, the only way for Israeli settlements to survive would be for the Israeli government to fully subsidize them, or they can serve only as suburbs for Israel's economic centers, but never as viable independent economic centers.
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.
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