The economic motives behind Israeli occupation

Yossi Mekelberg

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In the interminable discussion of breaking the stalemate between Palestinians and Israelis, the economic aspect of the Israeli occupation and its impact on Palestinians human rights is mostly pushed aside.

A new report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) highlights how Israeli and international businesses have helped to entrench the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. This is done in violation of their human rights obligations and at the expense of Palestinians’ most basic rights to their land, freedom of movement and ability to benefit from natural resources on that land.

As much as the settlers’ movement and their political allies in the Israeli government are hard at work in presenting the occupation and settlement building as a security imperative, for the survival of the Jewish state, they conveniently conceal that it is also a very profitable economic enterprise. The Israel’s security, ideological and economic motives for imposing its control over the lives of millions of Palestinians is becoming almost impossible to undo, especially in the face of an international community that ignores this triple nexus.

This HRW report indirectly also exposes the economic motives behind the decision of many Jewish Israelis to live in the occupied territories of the West Bank. If the impetus behind the first wave of settlers and settlements was anchored by mainly messianic-nationalist-religious zeal, economics played a bigger role for most those who followed them.

Occupation for economic reasons is no better than for ideological ones, but it suggests alternative remedies

Yossi Mekelberg

Shortage of properties and increased house prices in Israel proper, coupled with a range of government financial incentives, including cheap mortgages and loans, encouraged immigration into Palestinians territories. Occupation for economic reasons is no better than for ideological ones, but it suggests alternative remedies.

Admittedly, those whose parents and grandparents moved for economic reasons to colonize the West Bank, on behalf of the Israeli government, might develop ideological, atavistic or even sentimental attachments. However, exploring the economic draw could open the door for a discourse, which is neither based on security nor ideology for the repatriation of Jewish settlers back to the Israeli side of the Green Line.

Contravention of law

It is almost universally agreed that the Israeli settlements have been built in direct contravention of the laws of occupation. By transferring citizens into a territory occupied by Israel since 1967 and by displacing Palestinians from their land in the West Bank, the Israeli government violates the Fourth Geneva Convention that explicitly prohibits these actions. Moreover, under the provisions of the Rome Statute, the International Criminal Court has the jurisdiction over war crimes, such as the one established by the Fourth Geneva convention.

The HRW report brings compelling evidence that companies, whether Israeli or international, by merely conducting business in or with settlements contribute to Israel’s violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses. Most worryingly, this 162 page report demonstrates how these human rights abuses can revolve around some of the most mundane, yet significant, aspects of daily life.

On the contrary, these rights make the difference between living a free, prosperous and dignified life or not. Under these circumstances, even granting a waste management company the right to service settlements, by operating a landfill on confiscated land in the Jordan Valley, is a human rights and political issue.

To make things worse, other violations of human rights harm Palestinians’ ability to earn a living or build homes. Currently they are restricted to building on only one percent of area C in the West Bank, which is under Israeli administrative control. Israeli businesses thrive on using the country’s military might to expropriate land for building “industrial zones”, twenty of them so far, or cultivating agricultural land.

The inevitable and unacceptable product of Israeli settlement activity is the confiscation of land, water and other natural resources at the expense of the Palestinian people. This is done with the support of the banking sector, which finances these business enterprises and makes them seemingly culprits in prolonging the occupation.

In a territory where there are two different legal systems – one military law for Palestinians and another civil law for Jews – there is no justice for the occupied. Consequentially, the confiscation of land, displacement and restrictions of Palestinians’ movement have become the norm, without recourse to law or legal remedy.

Abuse of labor

Furthermore, there is constant labour abuse of Palestinians that have very little choice but to seek employment in the settlements. They are caught between job shortage within the Palestinian economy and dwindling number of permits to work inside Israel. The alternative is jobs offered in settlements that in many cases pay less than the minimum wage and with very little social benefits.

Admittedly settlers have not invented economic exploitation and are not the only ones to use it to their economic advantage, but the political context of occupation and dispossession makes it even more unscrupulous. The involvement of international companies in aiding and abetting the Israeli occupation reflects another sad reality, as to how profits for these companies are often prioritized over their corporate social responsibility, while also ignoring the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Whether it is an international real estate company based in the United States, that operates a subsidiary in Israeli settlements, or a European company, which operates a quarry in the West Bank and pays millions of US dollars in taxes to the Samaria Regional Council; the result is the perpetuation of Israeli control over an occupied land and people.

A single report as meticulously researched and balanced might not change realities immediately, but it immensely contributes toward reminding companies of their obligations to human rights and humanitarian law. The longer the occupation continues the more it becomes economically valuable and adds another tier of difficulties in reaching a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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