On January 31, 2013, the International Fact-Finding Mission on Israeli Settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory issued its report. The Commission said: “Despite all the pertinent United Nations resolutions declaring that the existence of the settlements is illegal and calling for their cessation, the planning and growth of the settlements continues.” It asserted that these settlements undermine “the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination”.
Although some cheered it as “a blockbuster report“, it said nothing new and will not change anything. In fact, after the UN mission on settlements asserted that Israel “must cease all settlement activities without preconditions” and withdraw settlers, Israeli authorities approved construction of 90 new homes in a West Bank settlement.
It would be easy to appreciate and then dismiss the work of this fact-finding mission. Here we have yet another group of well-meaning UN investigators rediscover what is known already about the ongoing human rights violations caused by the Israeli occupation in general and the settlements in particular. There are no secrets uncovered in this document.
The report ended with recommendations addressing the Israeli government, Member States, private companies, and the Human Rights Council Working Group on Business and Human Rights. The Mission called upon these parties, urged them, recommended actions, and called upon them further, crying out for remedies, accountability, and assumption of responsibilities as spelled out by international human rights and humanitarian law.
Instead of binning this document along with the files full of reports and declarations from decades of UN investigations into the Israeli occupation and its concomitant human rights violations since 1967, however, we should consider this fact-finding exercise in light of a longer trail of international investigative commissions to Palestine. It reveals some interesting patterns.
New missions and commissions
The Mission on Israeli Settlements is merely the latest in 94 years of investigations into the problems in Palestine, with perhaps the first such international investigation occurring in 1919. As a first instance, on the eve of the Paris Peace Conference that would divvy up the post-Ottoman Middle East among European powers, US President Woodrow Wilson dispatched the King-Crane Commission to the Levant in 1919 to assess “the state of opinion there with regard to these matters [of the post- Ottoman Middle East], and the social, racial and economic conditions”.
Since then, various commissions have visited Palestine, and Palestinians have drafted memos for them and provided testimony, trying to make their case for political independence, year after year. They have presented their arguments to the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations, the Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry of 1945-1946, the United Nations Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Population of the Occupied Territories from the 1970s onwards, the Mitchell Commission in 2001, and the UN Goldstone Commission of 2009, to name just a few.
Concerned liberals and humanitarians, diplomats, legal experts and governmental administrators of various political inclinations, and propelled with various official remits, have long been inquiring into the causes and violent effects of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict.
The settlements report describes the violations of “rights to freedom of self-determination, non-discrimination, freedom of movement, equality, due process, fair trial, not to be arbitrarily detained, liberty and security of person, freedom of expression, freedom to access places of worship, education, water, housing, adequate standard of living, property, access to natural resources and effective remedy”, among others.
These are violations that Palestinians have been telling the world about since before the occupation began. It is yet another report reminding Member States of their “obligations under international law and to assume their responsibilities in their relationship with a State breaching peremptory norms of international law”. But the Member States knew about those already, too.
For each and every commission, Palestinians have organised their arguments, corralled historical facts, collated statistics, presented photographic evidence and offered eye-witness testimony. In these repeated efforts, they have tried to present their political demands for liberation in ways that those with final say over their fate might hear and understand the justice of their position. And yet they are farther away from having an independent state than ever.
To the King-Crane Commission, they expressed their desire for complete independence (in that case of a Greater Syria, including Palestine) in a decentralised civil democratic kingdom, with rights for minorities. They rejected the idea of a mandate and asserted that they deserved independence because “the Arab peoples living in Syria are no less naturally elevated than the rest of the elevated peoples”. “We do not want anything other than independence and freedom,” delegates to the Commission proclaimed in city after city, from Haifa to Ramleh, Bethlehem to Gaza.
They used analogy in front of the Anglo-American Commission. As historian Philip Hitti quipped to that commission’s delegates, if the Zionists were basing their case for “restoring” Palestine as a Jewish National Home because they once controlled the area, then, the “Arabs would like to do some restoration, too. They would like to restore their authority over Spain, which they controlled much later than the time in which the Jews controlled Palestine and for a much longer period.”
Over and over again, Palestinians have endeavoured to prove the irrationality and inhumanity of their conditions of unfreedom in rational terms – using logic, law, precedent and parallel. Every year, they provide the United Nations Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Population of the Occupied Territories with evidence and testimony, of torture, unfair incarceration and home demolitions.
Israeli occupation continues
To the Mitchell Commission, (officially the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee), Palestinian lawyers provided destruction assessments and tallied the deaths and injuries caused by the Israeli assaults on the occupied territories during the second intifada. It’s all in the annexes. They also explained, with Power Point presentations and guided tours, the history of occupation and settlement construction that set the stage for the Palestinians’ rebellion.
“The Palestinian Authority has been approving water infrastructure for illegal West Bank settlements for the past 15 years.”
– Dr Jan Selby
And in response to all these reams of documentation, the commissioners have done their duty. They have read, listened and looked, and then assigned one of their staff to write a report. The report findings circulate in the media for a while and the Israeli occupation goes on while more settlements are built.
Often the reports reflect well the conditions on the ground, as the International Fact-Finding Mission on Israeli Settlements does. Occasionally the reports cause a brief stir, as the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict did. Formed to investigate what happened during the 23-day military offensive on the Gaza Strip by the Israeli army in 2008-2009, the Goldstone Commission was the subject of fierce controversy for a while. First because it accused both Palestinians and Israelis of possible crimes against humanity, and then because Justice Goldstone publicly recanted some of the report’s assertions.
But usually, the reports end up having no political impact at all. The King-Crane report – which relayed quite faithfully the Arabs’ assertions of national unity, rejection of Zionist claims in the land then known as Palestine, and demands for independence – was shelved for a few years before it was even made public. By the time its findings came to light in 1922, the Middle East had been split and allocated, doled out to European mandatory powers, with Palestine coming under British rule until Israel took over in 1948.
There is not much evidence that any of the tens of missions and commissions that have reviewed and reported on conditions in Palestine have had any salutary effect. As a Palestinian friend said to me with some sarcasm, it seemed to him that undertaking these missions is part of the job requirements for working at the United Nations, requirements which clearly do not entail any duty to turn findings into actions.
The blame cannot lie only with the commissioners and their sponsoring organisations. Those who might activate these reports, at least as advocacy tools, haven’t done much either. One would have to search hard for any response to the UN settlement report from the Palestinian Authority, despite the fact that it is now a full-fledged non-member observer state in the UN. And around the same time as this report came out, a UK researcher published findings that “the Palestinian Authority has been approving water infrastructure for illegal West Bank settlements for the past 15 years”.
This week has seen an intensified round of demonstrations against Israeli occupation. Palestinians are throwing stones and burning tyres, while political prisoners continue to starve themselves in protest against the Israeli use of administrative detention, whereby Palestinians are imprisoned without trial or due process.
With these decades of investigations, these pages of reports, these continual efforts to explain to the international community why Palestinians deserve to be independent like other peoples, and to convince the world that the occupation and its brutalities must end, is it any wonder that some people might consider alternative methods of making their opinions matter?
Lori Allen is Lecturer of Contemporary Middle Eastern Politics and Society in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge.