By Eric Rozenman
There he goes again. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon erroneously has asserted, for the fourth time in two years, that “all [Israeli] settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem, is illegal under international law.”
The Washington Post headlined its Feb. 1 Associated Press dispatch “U.N. panel criticizes Israel on settlements; Report says ‘creeping annexation’ violates rights of Palestinians.” AP noted that Mr. Ban was “reiterating his often-stated view.” He sure was.
Visiting Lebanon last year, Mr. Ban alleged that “settlements, new and old, are illegal. They work against the emergence of a viable Palestinian state.”
Speaking to a U.N. committee in 2011, the secretary-general charged that “settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are illegal under international law.”
On a trip to Israel and the West Bank in 2010, Mr. Ban asserted that “the world has condemned Israel’s expansion plans in East Jerusalem. Let us be clear: all settlement activity is illegal anywhere in occupied territory and must stop.”
The BBC relayed this sweeping declaration by the secretary-general in a dispatch that, like most news media coverage of such claims, lacked context. Yet context would show that Mr. Ban – ineffectual in bigger Middle East problems including the Syrian civil war and Iran’s race to nuclear weapons – is quite mistaken on the legality of Jewish settlements.
The San Remo Treaty of 1920, in which the victorious World War I allies dealt with the remnants of the defeated Ottoman Turkish Empire, created an entity called Palestine along both sides of the Jordan River. The powers intended it as the land on which Great Britain would turn its 1917 Balfour Declaration from aspiration to reality, assisting the Zionist movement in re-establishing the Jewish national home.
The Franco-British Boundary Convention of 1920 demarcated the French mandate for what would become Syria and Lebanon from that of the British in Palestine. This was in part to prepare for the Jewish state.
Article 6 of the League of Nations’ 1922 Palestine Mandate encouraged “close Jewish settlement” on the land west of the Jordan River. The mandate encouraged settlement only west of the river because Great Britain in the same year unilaterally severed Transjordan (today’s Jordan) from Palestine, creating a new Arab country.
The Anglo-American Convention of 1924 saw the United States endorse British administration of the remaining Palestine Mandate lands, so long as London helped bring a Jewish state into being.
The 1945 U.N. Charter, Chapter XII, Article 80, continues Jewish rights recognized under the Mandate. It protects “the rights whatsoever of any states or any peoples or the terms of existing international instruments” and is sometimes known as “the Palestine article.”
So regardless of Mr. Ban’s invocation of “world condemnation” or political debates about settlements and the peace process, Jews building communities west of the Jordan River do so in accord with relevant international laws. Nor does Mr. Ban apply a consistent legal yardstick to Arab municipalities in the Jewish state, which he does not denounce as illegal.
By insisting on settlements’ illegality, Mr. Ban says in effect there is nothing for Palestinian Arabs and Israelis to negotiate on this score. He thereby also undermines U.N. Security Council resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973). These highlight requirements for Arab-Israeli peacemaking and do not call for Israeli withdrawal from all the West Bank.
Mr. Ban’s recent statements on settlements were echoing a report by the obsessively anti-Israel U.N. Human Rights Council. The council, dominated by Islamic states, made the usual charge that Israeli West Bank villages and towns violate the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949.
The convention prohibits forced transfer of people out of or into occupied territory. It was adopted to prevent crimes like the Nazi deportations of European Jews from conquered countries to death camps.
In the West Bank, however, Israel is the legal military occupational authority, pending a negotiated settlement. That’s because it gained the territories in 1967 in a war of self-defense. Further, it has not forcibly transferred Arabs out or Jews in, and the land itself is not an occupied part of a sovereign country but an unallocated, disputed remnant of the Mandate.
Perhaps the secretary-general feels like a prisoner of the institution he heads. Many U.N. members have targeted Israel for delegitimation with countless unsubstantiated-and unauthoritative-measures. Regardless, the press has an obligation to expose rather than parrot Mr. Ban’s errors. Settlements are not illegal under international law.
Eric Rozenman is Washington, D.C. director for Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).