During the past month, Israel has held 800 Palestinians under administrative detention orders, expelled several Palestinians from East Jerusalem, seized more Arab-owned land from areas around Hebron and in the Jordan Valley turning much of it over to settlers, and instituted a lockdown of many Palestinian areas during Jewish religious days. All of this passed without notice in the US press because Israeli policies, such as these, have long been routine features of the decades-long occupation.
All of these practices, however, are in violation of international law, and all have a disturbing history in Palestine/Israel.
Many of them were initially put in place by the British as part of their effort to squash the Great Palestinian Revolt of 1936-1939. Back then, as Palestinian rebels at the peak of their uprising had gained control of significant areas of the country, the British put in place what they termed the “Emergency Military Administration in Palestine”. Under the provisions of this new regime, thousands of Palestinians were arrested and detained without charge, hundreds were expelled, villages were subjected to collective punishment, and Palestinian properties were confiscated and/or destroyed, all in an effort to end the Revolt.
While these repressive measures did play a role, what finally ended the Revolt was a combination of false promises by the British. They pledged that they would consider Palestinian demands for independence. The naivete of some Arab leaders, who accepted these British pledges, caused them to press the Palestinian fighters to disarm.
After the Second World War, when faced with a new threat from a Zionist armed insurgency, Britain reinstated the Emergency Administration, this time directed against the Jewish militias. In response, Jewish leaders rose up in outrage. One noted attorney, Ya’acov Shimshon Shapiro (who later served as Israel’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice), criticised these British laws as “unparalleled in any civilised country”.
There were, he said, “no such laws even in Nazi Germany … There is only one form of government which resembles the system in force here now – the case of an occupied country … It is our duty to tell the whole world that the Defence Laws passed by the British Mandatory Government of Palestine destroy the very foundation of justice in this land”.
He concluded by noting that “no government has the right to pass such laws”. Given this outrage and condemnation, it might be seen as ironic that immediately upon assuming state power in 1948, the State of Israel would adopt these very same laws, applying them to the Palestinian population that remained after the Nakbah, without any protest from Jewish jurists.
Between 1948 and 1965, the Emergency Defence Laws (EDL), as they were now called, were in place in order to control the captive Palestinian community in Israel. Collectively, these laws functioned to establish a military administration over the Arab sector; give the state the power to institute collective punishment; intern Palestinian citizens of Israel without judicial process; expel Palestinian citizens without recourse; confiscate Arab-owned land; and impose curfews and lockdowns over entire regions.
While the EDL were formally lifted in 1965, they were resurrected and rehabilitated in 1967, this time to be applied, even more harshly, to the areas of Palestine that had been occupied in the 1967 war. Collective punishment of entire villages was widespread, as was the use of administrative detention. No political parties or expressions of Palestinian national identity were allowed. More than 1,200 Palestinian leaders – mayors, college presidents, labour leaders and clergy members – were expelled. Substantial areas of Arab-owned land were confiscated, placed under Israeli control, and declared either “green spaces” or “security zones”, off limits to Palestinians, later given over for Israeli settlement construction. And since any Palestinian construction required Israeli permission, which was rarely granted, homes and community buildings were routinely demolished.
Even after the Oslo Accords, which Palestinians hoped would lead to an independent state, provisions of the EDL remained in place as accepted legal practice by the Israeli occupation authorities.
Given that these Israeli “laws” have been in place for more than seven decades, it might not be surprising that western media and political leaders seem to have become inured to such repressive measures. This, however, only adds insult to injury.
Palestinians are not “children of a lesser god”. Like all citizens around the world, they are deserving of the rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions. Israel’s “security concerns” (like those of the British in the 1930s and 1940s) do not excuse their wholesale violation of international law and conventions. And they do not absolve the silence of the West in the face of this total disregard for Palestinian rights. To repeat the quote from Israel’s first attorney general, these laws “destroy the very foundation of justice in this land … no government has the right to pass such laws”.