International Court of Justice starts hearings on Israel’s control of the West Bank

MIKE CORDER

(AP) — The Palestinian foreign minister on Monday accused Israel of apartheid as he urged the United Nation’s top court to declare that Israel’s occupation of lands sought for a Palestinian state is illegal and must end immediately and unconditionally.

The allegation came at the start of historic hearings into the legality of Israel’s 57-year occupation of lands sought for a Palestinian state. The case stands against the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war, which immediately became a focal point of the day — even though the hearings were meant to center on Israel’s open-ended control over the occupied West Bank, the Gaza Strip and annexed east Jerusalem.

Palestinian Foreign Affairs Minister Riyad al-Maliki said he stood before the International Court of Justice “as 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza, half of them children, are besieged and bombed, killed and maimed, starved and displaced.”

“More than 3.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, including in Jerusalem, are subjected to colonization of their territory and racist violence that enables it,” he added.

The session, expected to last six days, follows a request by the U.N. General Assembly for a non-binding advisory opinion into Israel’s policies in the occupied territories. Judges will likely take months to issue an opinion.

“The United Nations enshrined in its charter the rights of all peoples to self-determination and pledged to rid the world of the gravest breaches of this right, namely colonialism and apartheid,” al-Maliki continued. “Yet for decades, the Palestinian people have been denied this right and have endured both colonialism and apartheid.”

The Palestinians argue that Israel, by annexing large swaths of occupied land, has violated the prohibition on territorial conquest and the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, and has imposed a system of racial discrimination and apartheid.

“This occupation is annexation and supremacist in nature,” al-Maliki said and appealed to the court to uphold the Palestinian right to self-determination and declare “that the Israeli occupation is illegal and must end immediately, totally and unconditionally.”

After the Palestinians’ address, an unprecedented 51 countries and three international organizations will speak. Israel is not scheduled to speak during the hearings, but could submit a written statement.

Yuval Shany, a law professor at Hebrew University and senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, said Israel will likely justify the ongoing occupation on security grounds, especially in the absence of a peace deal.

It is likely to point to the Oct. 7 attack in which Hamas-led militants from Gaza killed 1,200 people across southern Israel and dragged 250 hostages back to the territory.

However, Palestinians and leading rights groups argue that the occupation goes far beyond defensive measures. They say it has morphed into an apartheid system, bolstered by settlement building on occupied lands, that gives Palestinians second-class status and is designed to maintain Jewish hegemony from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Israel rejects any accusation of apartheid.

Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek all three areas for an independent state. Israel considers the West Bank to be disputed territory, whose future should be decided in negotiations.

It has built 146 settlements across the West Bank, according to watchdog group Peace Now, many of which resemble fully developed suburbs and small towns. The settlements are home to more than 500,000 Jewish settlers, while around 3 million Palestinians live in the territory.

Israel annexed east Jerusalem and considers the entire city to be its capital. An additional 200,000 Israelis live in settlements built in east Jerusalem that Israel considers to be neighborhoods of its capital. Palestinian residents of the city face systematic discrimination, making it difficult for them to build new homes or expand existing ones.

Israel withdrew all of its soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005, but continued to control the territory’s airspace, coastline and population registry. Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza when the Palestinian militant Hamas group seized power there in 2007.

The international community overwhelmingly considers the settlements to be illegal. Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem, home to the city’s most sensitive holy sites, is not internationally recognized.

It’s not the first time the court has been asked to give an advisory opinion on Israeli policies.

In 2004, it said a separation barrier Israel built through east Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank was “contrary to international law.” It also called on Israel to immediately halt construction. Israel has ignored the ruling.

Also, late last month, the court ordered Israel to do all it can to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in its campaign in Gaza. The order came at a preliminary stage of a case filed by South Africa accusing Israel of genocide, a charge that Israel denied.

South Africa’s governing party, the African National Congress, has long compared Israel’s policies in Gaza and the West Bank to the apartheid regime of white minority rule in South Africa, which restricted most Black people to “homelands” before ending in 1994.