How a missing ‘the’ enabled Israeli occupation
The wording of UN Resolution 242 helped Israel justify its occupation of Palestinian land.
When the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 2334 in December 2016, Israeli leaders seethed. Their fury was duly understood to stem from what they perceived as an unprecedented betrayal by the United States.
But that was not it at all, since Resolution 2334 – which asserted that Israeli settlements have no legal validity and constitute a flagrant violation of human rights – was partly predicated on, and clarified and added to, previous UNSC Resolution 242 of 1967.
This means that 50 years of incessant Israeli attempts to absolve itself from any commitment to international law have failed, and terribly so.
Resolution 242, which stipulated that the Israeli army has to withdraw from territories occupied in the 1967 war, has been cited in various agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and later, the Palestinian Authority (PA), but only as if to say that these agreements were legally binding. The citations did not accept the full legal context, obligations and retributions of international law as stipulated in the resolution.
Instead, the Oslo Accords of 1993 and later agreements gave Israel the opportunity to use its leverage to bypass international law altogether: signing a peace agreement without ending its military occupation became the goal.
Then, over time, Oslo and the ensuing “peace process” developed a unique lexicon and served as an independent legal initiative, managed and interpreted by the US government as it saw fit.
Against this backdrop, it is no wonder Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quite shocked to witness that a recommitment to Resolution 242 last year at the UNSC did not garner US opposition. In fact, the long-standing resolution gained more substance and vigour.
But Resolution 242 was not always welcomed by Palestinians, for it was born out of the collective Arab defeat in the war of June 1967. European and US military backing ensured Israel’s victory in that war and the collapse of Arab defences in a battle that expanded Israel’s control over Arab land nearly three-fold.
Expectedly, Arabs fell into deep political discord from which they are yet to recover.
Resolution 242 enshrined a whole new order in the Middle East, one in which the US and Israel reigned supreme.
That division was highlighted most starkly in the August 1967 Khartoum summit, where Arab leaders clashed over their future priorities. A major dilemma was whether Israel’s territorial gains should be allowed to redefine the status quo and whether Arabs should focus on returning to a pre-1967 border or to the situation before 1948, when a Jewish state was established on the ruins of historic Palestine.
Prior to that war, two UN resolutions defined the international legal frame of reference for Palestine and Israel: Resolution 181 pertained to the partition of historic Palestine into Jewish and Arab states and Resolution 194 detailed the Right of Return of Palestinian refugees who were driven out of their land during the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe).
But Israel’s territorial gains in 1967 imposed a new reality on Palestinians wrapped up in a new frame of reference which aimed to sideline resolutions 181 and 194 as irrelevant and historically removed.
While the Arabs quarrelled over priorities, Lyndon Johnson’s US administration capitalised on the Arab and Soviet camp’s defeat and pushed to pass Resolution 242on November 22, 1967.
The US and the UK also managed to omit the article “the” in front of “territories” from a critical sentence in the resolution which demanded the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict”.
That fact alone gave Israel an argument that it has pushed relentlessly since, namely that Resolution 242 didn’t demand a complete withdrawal.
Moreover, under US pressure, Resolution 242 made no mention of Resolutions 181 and 194, as if it was a declaration of a new era, where the Arab-Israeli conflict was to be managed through a whole new mode of thinking imposed by the US and its allies alone.
This was made clear in a Resolution 242 stipulation that calls for the “termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force”.
Considering that no Arab country’s sovereignty was ever in question, and that Palestinians were never mentioned in the resolution, that condition was injected to facilitate future Arab recognition of Israel, in what became known as the “land for peace” formula.
For Israel, Resolution 242 was a tool to reach unilateral agreements with Arab countries without making any concessions on its military occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Today, 50 years after the passing of Resolution 242, the Israeli military occupation has become entrenched in all of the occupied Palestinian territories.
Coopting the Arabs
The 1967 war and its aftermath also brought about fundamental shifts in language and alliances. It relegated the role of the Soviet Union while enforcing the power and influence of the US.
The Arab political narrative was also changing.
Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser‘s pan-Arab message seemed, for the first time, befuddled and unconvincing. He resigned, only to be brought back to power after popular protests. However, he died three years later without ever reclaiming the central position he had once enjoyed as the leader of the Arab nationalist movement.
It is true that Arab governments had rejected the outcomes of the war, and announced the famous “three no’s” – no negotiations, no recognition and no peace with Israel – but it is also true that the war had redefined Arab relations with the Palestinian struggle.
The altered language expressed in Resolution 242 alarmed Palestinians who realised that any future political settlement would likely ignore the situation that existed prior to the war, and would only attempt to remedy current grievances.
The Palestinian faction Fatah concluded that this required the swift resumption of an armed struggle. It also moved in 1969 to consolidate its power over the PLO, whose agenda was, up until that point, largely shaped by Egypt.
When Anwar Sadat took over the presidency in Egypt after the death of Nasser, he offered a peace settlement with Israel along the lines of UN Resolution 242, which, more or less, cemented Israel’s military victory.
Meanwhile, Israel’s new prime minister, Golda Meir took office in March 1969 only to dismiss all peace offerings that existed at the time.
Peace that never was
Washington’s pro-Israeli stance morphed into unconditional backing under the hardline policies of Henry Kissinger, who served as National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State in the Richard Nixon administration.
Kissinger maintained intense pressure on Egypt to disown its Soviet allies. When Sadat, in 1972, abruptly ordered more than 25,000 Soviet advisors and military experts to leave Egypt, he had perhaps hoped that the US would reciprocate by offering a more even-handed approach to the conflict in the Middle East.
All he gained, however, was a vague US promise to bring the region’s violence to an end, in accordance with UN Resolution 242.
The war of October 1973 – between Israel and a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt – led to the passing of Resolution 338, which reaffirmed the centrality of Resolution 242 as the basis for a future peace between Israel and Arab nations.
When Egypt disengaged from the conflict with Israel, after the signing of the Camp David peace treaty in 1979, the PLO was left to navigate on a divided Arab front. As the political landscape in the Arab world moved closer to the US camp, the PLO eventually yielded to the new reality.
On November 12, 1988, the PLO’S Palestine National Council (PNC) convened in Algiers to approve of a political strategy based on Resolutions 242 and 338 – which by then had become the habitual US condition for politically engaging with the PLO.
A few years later, as local Palestinian leaders negotiated an agreement based on Resolutions 242 and 338 with their Israeli counterparts in Madrid, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and a few Fatah officials negotiated in Oslo a secret agreement of their own: the Oslo Accords.
The Israeli gambit to degrade Palestinian rights seemed to have finally succeeded.
Death and resurrection
The June 1967 war was Israel’s greatest military victory, and Resolution 242 enshrined a whole new order in the Middle East, one in which the US and Israel reigned supreme.
This is why Resolution 2334 was a political earthquake, for it invalidated all the physical changes that Israel has made in 50 years of illegal occupation of Palestinian lands.
The resolution called for “two democratic States, Israel and Palestine, liv(ing) side by side in peace within secure and recognised borders”.
And unlike Resolution 242, Resolution 2334 left no room for clever misinterpretation: it referenced the pre-June 1967 lines in its annulment of the Israeli occupation and all the illegal settlements Israel has constructed since then.
The resolution even cited the Fourth Geneva Convention, the UN Charter and the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion of July 2004, which stated that Israel’s barrier in the West Bank was illegal and should be dismantled.
It may be argued that Resolution 2334 is a far more convincing resolution than the politically manipulated Resolution 242. The former gave the latter more credence and substance and a clear legal framework.
However, it may have also arrived belatedly, as 50 years of illegal Jewish settlements have altered the physical reality of Jerusalem and the West Bank in ways which may be irredeemable.
It seems that no matter what Israel does to distract from the history of its occupation, mistreatment of Palestinians and violations of international law, the past will always be present – if only as a reminder of a justice that has yet to be served.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.