From the US Archives 1991: Israel’s 1967 Attack Was Aggression – Israel’s Current Occupation Is Illegal

Washington Report Archives (1988-1993) | July 1991, Page 40 | In the Public Prints


By Sheldon L. Richman

In The Wall Street Journal of April 22, Harry V. Lerner, an attorney in Bethesda, Maryland, issued a challenge to anyone who believes that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is illegal. In his article, “Read the Law: Gaza Is Not Kuwait, ” Lerner states that the Israeli occupation is in no way parallel to Saddam Hussain’s occupation of Kuwait. “Under international law,” he wrote, “an occupying power is a state that holds territory taken from its legitimate sovereign in an act of aggression … Iraq in Kuwait was an occupying power in the classic sense of the term. Israel in the West Bank and Gaza is not.”

Lerner asserts that UN Security Council Resolution 242, which was passed six months after the Six-Day War of June 1967, did not condemn Israel, or refer to an Israeli invasion, or demand an unconditional withdrawal from the territories.

The dictionary says that something inadmissible is “not to be allowed, accepted, granted, or conceded.”

“The reason for these omissions is simple,” Lerner writes. “The Security Council concluded in 1967 that Israel had not committed an armed attack or invasion against its neighbors, but was in fact the victim of aggression by the Arab states. Until the Arab states comply with the clause of Resolution 242 that expressed Israel’s right to ‘live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force,” Israel’s status in the West Bank and Gaza was held to be that of a lawful administrator, holding territories taken in a defensive war.”

Lerner acknowledges that Israel actually launched the Six-Day War, but argues that it came in response to acts of war by Egypt, after nearly 20 years of “defensive war” against the Arabs. He also acknowledges the use of the term “occupied” in Resolution 242, but explains that it means merely “possessed” or “taken into possession” without a violation of international law.

According to Lerner, Resolution 242 does not require total Israeli withdrawal from the territories, only negotiation between the parties to the conflict. Citing the late US Ambassador to the UN Arthur Goldberg, Lerner wrote that the “territory for peace” formula “is not a principle under 242. It is an option available to Israel. ” In other words, Israel has no prior obligation to withdraw from the territories. In fact, if Lerner is right, Israel and Jordan could legally sign a treaty establishing Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank.

A Highly Selective Position

The first thing to be said about Lerner’s position is that it is highly selective. Lerner ignores the preamble to Resolution 242, the second paragraph of which begins, “Emphasizing the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war. . . ” The dictionary says that something inadmissible is “not to be allowed, accepted, granted, or conceded.” One cannot have a right to the inadmissible. Furthermore, in 1980 the UN Security Council said the Geneva Convention applies to all the occupied territories. So much for Lerner’s claim that “under 242 Israel is in possession of the West Bank and Gaza as a matter of right, not as an occupying power.”

According to the diplomat who drafted the language of 242, Lord Caradon, the preamble clears up any ambiguity in the resolution’s call for “withdrawal of Israel’s armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict. ” Israel and its partisans never tire of asserting that the absence of the definite article “the” from before “territories” means that a full withdrawal is not required. Lord Caradon has said, “The text means all and not some of the territories. ” He has pointed out that in the other four official UN languages (French, Russian, Spanish, and Chinese), the phrase “the territories” is used.

Thus, the resolution does condemn the taking of the land and demands withdrawal. The resolution also affirms “the right [of all states in the area] to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries. ” But this implicitly and logically must include the right of the Palestinians to secure and recognized borders, because any alternative would violate the preamble. Lerner’s sleight of hand notwithstanding, these principles amount to the familiar “land-for-peace” formula.

This is not to say that Resolution 242 is unflawed. It was a troubling compromise, the most outstanding deficiency of which was the short shrift given to the Palestinians, who were called merely “refugees.” But regarding the status of Israel’s possession of the territories, the resolution is clear.

To make his thesis fly, Lerner must rely on a twisted interpretation of the Six-Day War. The Israeli attack on Egypt that launched the war was neither a defensive measure nor a response to perceived acts of war. Indeed, President Nasser had asked the United Nations Emergency Force to leave Egyptian territory, placed troops in the Sinai, and announced that the Straits of Tiran were closed to Israeli and Israel-bound ships. But these moves came after overt Israeli threats against Egypt’s ally Syria.

“Invented in Every Detail”

Nevertheless, Israel’s leaders did not regard Nasser’s acts as threatening. As Mordecai Bentov, at the time a member of the Israeli government, said, “The entire story of the danger of extermination was invented in every detail, and exaggerated a posteriori to justify the annexation of new Arab territory.”

Zionist and Israeli leaders have never dropped their dubious claim to the whole of Palestine.

What Lerner ignores is that Zionist and Israeli leaders have never dropped their dubious claim to the whole of Palestine. As Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, said before the state’s founding, “No Zionist can forego the smallest portion of the Land of Israel.”

In 1967, Israel seized the hopedfor opportunity to acquire territory it had always aspired to possess. Jordan merely provided a pretext when it responded to the Israeli attack on its treatypartner, Egypt.

Regardless of whether King Hussein was right or wrong in attacking Israel, it is unjust to blame the Palestinians of the West Bank. They did not make Jordanian policy in 1967, just as the Gazans did not make Egyptian policy. In fact, the West Bank Palestinians were under the king’s jurisdiction only because his grandfather, King Abdullah, and Israel had conspired in 1948 to deprive them of their own state. Jordan’s control of the West Bank was as inadmissable as Israel’s.

No advocate of moral and political individualism can justify denying the Palestinians self-determination because of something over which they had no control. Both legally and morally, the occupation is wrong.

Sheldon L Richman is the senior editor at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC

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