A Response to the University of Southampton’s Conference on International Law and the State of Israel

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In a few weeks, the University of Southampton will play host to a conference that questions the state of Israel’s actions and policies against the Palestinian peoples. National and international news has been gathered for the event.

The conference is historic: it aims to explore themes of legitimacy and responsibility, and explore the injustices and suffering of the Palestinian people. Scholars from many disciplines including Law, Politics and History are all included.

The political complexity of the Middle East has been written about, spoken about, and debated for many years. There are several reasons why the conference should go on, regardless of who disagrees.

The article I write today comes out of not only anger, but absolute astonishment at the response gained from articles written about the upcoming conference. I am fed up of what I am hearing, and I want to set the record straight.

Why does one question the legitimacy of Israel?

To begin with, let’s define what legitimacy actually means, the “ability to be defended with logic or justification: validity”. As a Politics student, you hear the phrase ‘sovereign state’ thrown around excessively. The idea of a ‘sovereign state’ is the idea that a state’s government is the only force that can maintain order, discipline or even hurt their people. In a world that has seen a rise in governance since the end of the Cold War, do ‘sovereign states’ retain such a high level of sovereignty? The existence of the UN is surely to not only halt the absolute power of a monarch or government, but to instil peace, security, justice and humans rights across borders.

Prior to 2010, the United Nations Security Council had published 79 resolutions critical of Israel’s violations of other UNSC resolutions, the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions, international terrorism and other violations of international law. The most recent of which (prior to 2010) called for the full withdrawal of forces from the Gaza strip, and “grave concern also at the deepening humanitarian crisis in Gaza”. In 2014, Operation Protective Edge ended with approximately 2200 deaths in Gaza, including 500 children. In 2008-2009, in Operation Cast Lead, 1400 people were killed in Gaza, including nearly 300 children. The 2006 Lebanon War killed just over 1000 citizens. The scale of death of civilians in the Gaza strip is incomparable to Israeli civilians. I condemn violence in all shapes and forms, whether it is a Gazan, Israeli, Lebanese, Russian, American, British or whomever that is brutally killed. Israel’s continuous disproportionate force used against its neighbours can be one reason for questioning its legitimacy.

After the Six Day War in 1967, which killed up to 15,000 Egyptian citizens (the number is not confirmed), Israel captured large parts of indigenous Palestine, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights. Since 1967, the UN has called for Israel to withdraw from “occupied territories”, and rejected Israel’s de facto annexation of the Golan Heights. The UN has repeatedly stated that the building of settlements on occupied territories is illegal, and violates the Fourth Geneva Convention. Put simply, if Israel continues to cross borders, and completely disregard international law, then one has a right to question its legitimacy.

Mistreatment of the Palestinians, and a very obvious implementation of policies of segregation in Israel is one of the most important reasons why one can question its legitimacy. The building of the ‘West Bank Wall’ or ‘Separation Barrier’ is the most discussed action taken. Ban Ki Moon has specifically stated that the construction of the Wall violated international law, and called for the UNSC to call upon Israel to stop its violations of such law. The Wall is still being built, and aims to be 700km long, and reaches up to 8m in height. In comparison, the Berlin Wall was up to 155km long, and 3m high – the ‘West Bank Wall’ is larger than the Berlin Wall. Surely this is where the international community chimes in and stops such segregation? No? What exactly is Israel defending itself from by building such a wall? Young boys throwing stones? How disproportionate; the Wall ghettoises and imprisons the Palestinians socially, economically, and agriculturally in a local manner, when they already isolated globally. The world wants more for the Palestinians.

Everyone retains the right to question Israel’s legitimacy, and to call such questioning anti-Semitic is not only false, but it is downright offensive. To question a state’s policies is a fundamental human right to free speech and free expression, and to do this in educational establishments only serves to teach and educate about an issue that has been hidden and considered as taboo in mainstream media.

The most recent example of the Palestinians voice being squashed is their attempt to join the ICC, which was met with threats like “they will receive the proper response”, and the freezing of Palestinian tax funds.

The University of Southampton can be a voice against injustice. Let the conference go ahead.

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Discussion16 Comments

  1. avatar

    It’s not our place to say what can and can’t be discussed, even in a rather one-sided conference that will likely provide little of value.

    However, to say that the Israeli people don’t deserve to have their state because of the actions of the government is perhaps extreme. The British government did morally wrong things in Northern Ireland, the French in Algeria, etc. Do the British and French no longer have the right to have a state of their own?

  2. avatar
    Julia Kassem

    Hi Tom,

    I never stated that we should question Israel’s right to exist. What we are questioning is how much legitimacy Israel has as a state, especially under the post-1967 borders which are illegal under international law. The French were a colonial force in Algeria and refuse to let go of it, do they deserve to have a state on Algerian land? I would say no, and I think most people would too.

    Netanyahu was re-elected into office only today. Only yesterday he stated that he would not allow the Palestinians to have a state. So let’s talk about who deserves what. Do the Palestinians deserve to not have a state?

  3. avatar

    But surely if we are saying that Israel has no legitimacy, then it has no right to exist.

    The French wanted Algeria to be a wholly integrated part of France, rather than a mere colony, and there were many French living there. There is a strong comparison with the West Bank and the issue of settlements. Should Israel not be considered a legitimate state because of the settlements issue? There are better ways to resolve it.

    I think the Palestinians deserve a state as well, and I disagree with Netanyahu. The problem is that, just because Palestine would be best served by having a state (if, indeed, the infighting in Palestine settles down enough to enable a state to really form) it doesn’t mean that Israel isn’t a legitimate state as well. One can be in favour of both sides.

  4. avatar

    Tom- France in Algeria was merciless European colonialism. The creation of Israel in Palestine was that + wholesale ethnic cleansing.

    I am interested to know which kind of state do you think the Palestinians deserve? I would argue (as would many others, including most importantly, Palestinians) that what has been on offer previously in the two-state peace process did not constitute anything near a state, justice or recompense for the decades of abuse inflicted upon the Palestinians by the Israeli state.

    “(if, indeed, the infighting in Palestine settles down enough to enable a state to really form)”. I do not understand this point. The Palestinians are clearly capable of operating a state, even under the extreme conditions imposed by Israel and the international community thus far. They do not have to prove this to anyone to be granted this ‘privilege’.

    In regards to the infighting, the previous round of wholesale infighting between Hamas and Fatah was backed by Israel, Egypt and the US. This is common knowledge; http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0525/p07s02-wome.html

    One can be in favour of both peoples having safe and secure states of course (we should all support that), but successive Israeli administrations do not see it this way at all, this is self-evident. They see a helpless series of tiny bits of unconnected land with no agency. Netanyahu (and many others) see nothing at all, just a continuation of the grinding occupation and siege.

  5. avatar
    Julia Kassem

    No, the legitimacy of the state of Israel does not have to be about it’s right to exist. No-one can deny it’s right to exist under international law. It’s right to exist under the post 1967 borders however can be and should be questioned as they are illegal under international law. There is no excuse for French colonialism in Algeria, whether there were many French people living there or not, that does not mean that Algeria should be integrated into French land. The settlements in the West Bank are being built on what is Palestinian territory. Are you saying that the Palestinians should give up their land because settlers are living there? That’s not a good enough excuse. Yes the resolution would be to stop building settlements illegally.

    I don’t deny the legitimacy of the actual state of Israel under international law. What I do question are the actions of the state of Israel, and whether their lack of compliance with international law takes away from their legitimacy.

  6. avatar

    No, you completely misunderstand me. I’m comparing Israeli actions in the West Bank to what the French did in North Africa. The question of Israel’s right to exist, which appears to be what is up for debate, would be like debating the French right to exist because of morally wrong actions committed outside their territory. The case for Israel not having ‘legitimacy’ is based on the idea that they do Bad Things. Of course they do and I don’t agree with many of Israel’s actions, but this doesn’t mean the state should be got rid of.

    When the USA, Britain, France or Russia breaks international law, we do not sit around and discuss the ramifications for their legitimacy as states. It’s a rather pointless exercise that won’t bring about the compromise peace needed.

  7. avatar
    Julia Kassem

    There’s a difference between colonialism and occupation. And back when the French did that in Algeria which was in the 1800s (even though the effects of colonialism are still rife in Algeria today), there was no inter-governmental body like the UN that was supposed to be a higher power that ceased human rights abuses, and the unipolarity of power. Now we do. And now, what Israel are doing is considered illegal under international law. So surely under international law we can question the legitimacy of their policies?

    You misunderstand me, or maybe you just don’t want to hear what I’m saying. The post-1967 borders of Israel are illegal, and the continuation of the building of settlements are also illegal. Prior to 1967 it is indeed difficult to question the state’s right to exist, but the Arab world still do. And I think if you were Palestinian, and your family was expelled from their homes, and had to seek refuge in neighbouring countries, you also would.

  8. avatar

    Hi Julia,

    Its a very complex issue, however I do not agree that there is necessarily any right for a Palestinian state. I say this as someone who is interested in the history of the Middle East, I am not related to either Arabs or Jews or Palestinians.

    You do not question the right for Israel to exist, I think that is a reasonable and correct position.

    You say in your piece “After the Six Day War in 1967, which killed up to 15,000 Egyptian citizens (the number is not confirmed)”, but you do not mention the CAUSE of the Six Day War.

    There have been political games played by other nation states, religious groups, and sponsors of terrorism in the Middle East for a long time, a quick look at Wikipedia will show you how complex the situation was, including trouble being stirred up like this:

    “In 1967, Israeli leaders repeatedly threatened to invade Syria and overthrow the Syrian government if Palestinian guerrilla actions across the border did not cease.
    In addition, the Soviet Union fed the Syrian government false information that Israel was planning to invade Syria. On May 13, the Soviets informed Egypt officially that Israel was massing troops and was planning on invading Syria. On May 14, Nasser sent his chief of staff, General Fawzi to Syria in order to verify the Soviet warning. On Fawzi return, he updated Nasser that the Soviet alarm is baseless, but Nasser continued to pour his divisions to Sinai. It was later revealed that on May 13 a Soviet intelligence report given by Soviet President Nikolai Podgorny to Egyptian Vice President Anwar Sadat claimed falsely that Israeli troops were massing along the Syrian border”

    To me, bringing up the six day war, and talking first about the number of Egyptians that died as if the war was unjustified shows immediate unfair bias. I would say that no war is desirable, but sometimes war is necessary.

    However, Israel was clearly going to be attacked in the run up to the Six Day War, it just happened to take prememptive action in self defence and win the war, and to protect itself in future it felt it necessary to retain some of the land around it as a buffer, I would suggest quite understandably in the face of aggression from its near neighbours.

    “The PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) was first established in 1964, under a charter including a commitment to “[t]he liberation of Palestine [which] will destroy the Zionist and imperialist presence…” (PLO Charter, Article 22, 1968).
    On May 19, 1967, Egypt expelled UNEF observers, and deployed 100,000 soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula. It again closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, returning the region to the way it was in 1956 when Israel was blockaded.
    On May 30, 1967, Jordan signed a mutual defense pact with Egypt. Egypt mobilized Sinai units, crossing UN lines (after having expelled the UN border monitors) and mobilized and massed on Israel’s southern border. On June 5, Israel launched an attack on Egypt.”

    The situation in the Middle East is unfortunate, and complex, but I see no problem with maintaining the status quo.

    I see no problem with the security barrier between the Israeli’s and the Palestinians, it seems a reasonable response to the terrorist atrocities the Palestinians kept committing, and still make efforts to do.

    If you have terrorist Palestinians using innocent Palestinians as human shields, can anyone be surprised when they are innocent deaths when Israel responds to terrorist attacks? It seems to me that the Palestinian cause needs outrage and innocent casualties to have any hope of progress, which is why it seems to try and provoke Israel into actions which generate such casualties and outrage at every opportunity.

    If it were not for radical Islamists, and other state actors and terrorist groups trying to destabilise Israel, I am confident the Palestinians would be happily living in a province in Israel with no need of a separate state. It is the aggression from outside parties which has left these poor unfortunates as pawns in a bigger game.

    I do not believe the confidence should go ahead, I see it merely as an excuse for more hatred to be stirred up unjustifiably. in the course of punishing Israel for defending itself.

    I do not accept that Israel’s accepts are disproportionate, Why should it respond weakly to terrorism, and suffer needless deaths of Israelis, just so it looks proportionate.

    If we had a similar situation in this country I would hope our Government would act similarly decisively, and if we had terrorist rockets raining down on Southampton from terrorists, we would demand it.

    Just because Israel now has Iron Dome, and can limit its own casualties from these terrorist acts, it does not de-legitimise decisive action against the source of these attacks.

    No state could tolerate guerilla warfare being waged against it in this way without a decisive response.

    Look at how America responded to 9/11, it could not allow Bin Laden, the Taleban, and Afghanistan to not be retaliated against.

    Israel still faces an existential threat from actors such as Iran and its proxies. If you google threats against Israel, you will see articles such as this demonstrating the position of the Iranian leaders expressed over time: http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/14336#.VQqp1Y6sV8E

    If I were to place myself in the shoes of an Israeli leader, I find their actions understandable considering the circumstances they find themselves in.

  9. avatar

    It’s a difficult subject. I think for Israel, it is on the back foot constantly. These people were put right in the middle of an already established nation surrounded by completely alien governments and ideologies who for many years and many still do, want to destroy Israel. Now i don’t agree at all with Israel’s disproportionate response to Palestinian aggression but i completely understand why they are doing it. They are afraid, they are vulnerable and they do have a right to defend themselves.

    The conference should go ahead, absolutely. But in the grand scheme of things we need to detach ourselves emotionally from the conflict. It sounds horrible, but when we see children being blown up and people starving we mustn’t immediately demonise Israel. And I can’t stress this enough the human inside me sees these things and is angered and furious at how a state, Israel can cause such devastation. BUT, we need to understand the whole picture. We need to bring Israel and the Muslim world together to become dependent on one another and work with one another for mutual benefit. We can’t solve the issue of borders while there is such anti-Israeli sentiment in the middle east because Israel will simply not accept it.

    France has been mentioned in this thread, so lets look at France. It went to war with Germany three times in 70 years, and each time the scale of violence and horror and chaotic destruction increased. World War 1 and World War 2 stand out as the bloodiest conflicts in human history. And a great reason for each of these conflicts was because France and Germany could not get along. Each believed their security depended on the weakness of the other, just like Israel believes. After World War 2 institutions like NATO and the European Common Market sat these two nations down and got them working together. They become dependent on one another and through such diplomacy they no longer believe that their security is threatened by the other.

    Israel will never stop its policies against Palestine until it can be sure that it will be secure and its people safe. And while these conferences are absolutely a fundamental right of every human’s freedom of speech, when we export this debate of Israel’s existence into mainstream media and into popular politics, like a python around its prey it constricts, and becomes ever tighter.

  10. avatar

    That’s extremely pro-Israel. Of course the Palestinians have a right to exist. I wrote how Israel has a right to defend itself, I also argue that Palestinians have a right to defend themselves.

    Israel has a right to defend itself but we must again look at the greater context. Zionists argue that the Jews had Israel thousands of years ago therefore they have a fundamental right to exist. Well that would be like Britain saying we owned the East Coast of America around 240 years ago so we have a fundamental right over it. Israel is only 67 years old, that fact in itself suggests that we can create states, therefore to suggest we can’t dissolve them makes no sense.

    You believe the Palestinians should just accept Israeli rule and when they do all will be well and they will be happy. That’s exactly what De Klerk and the Apartheid government argued to Mandela. The Atlantic Charter which was signed by the allies and formed a bases for the UN explicitly supports the right to self determination. To suggest this shouldn’t apply to Palestine is quite frankly an affront to the value that rebuilt our society after the War.

    The Palestinian question needs to be answered, the violence on both sides need to be stopped. But Israel needs to show willingness to resolve it so the Palestinians can confidently stop resisting while it is solved. But you are right, the region itself must accommodate the Israeli government and accept their right to exist. In short, the problem will not be resolved in the comment section on an article on Wessex Scene unfortunately.

  11. avatar

    Julia

    You have missed the point of the conference entirely as your responses to the questions highlights.
    This conference is about Israel’s legitimacy. Not the 67 conquests, the occupation since or the oppression of the Palestinians since either 48 or 67. This conference is doing exactly what you say cannot be done
    You said
    “No-one can deny it’s right to exist under international law.”

    But that is *EXACTLY* what this conference is doing. It says so in explicit terms on its program. Haven’t you read it?

  12. avatar
    Julia Kassem

    Hi John,

    My article states that prior to 1967, we cannot deny Israel’s right to exist under international law. The Palestinians can continue to deny it’s right to exist based on their current situation and I think that’s fair. Post 1967, it’s borders and legitimacy is debatable.

    “The conference will examine how international law could be deployed, expanded, even re-imagined, in order to achieve regional peace and reconciliation based on justice.” – and yes the conference will talk about the controversial manner in which Israel came into existence. I think it’s fair to question Israel’s legitimacy under international law, which is what this conference is doing, because as the article states, it’s adherence to international law is appalling.

    A distinction between ‘legitimacy under international law’, and it’s ‘right to exist’ must be made.

  13. avatar
    Isobel Thompson

    As a Southampton University (and Wessex Scene) alumna I’m gobsmacked at the lack of coverage and discussion the Wessex Scene has dedicated to this conference and the decision to scrap it. Do you not know this has made the national and legal press? Have SUSU released a statement at all? Do students care? Students have a chance here to step up and have a proper discussion both on academic free speech and Israel.

    Isabella Hunter-Fajardo
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    Hello Isobel, as one of the editors I can tell you we do have more coverage planned, so stay tuned!

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