Raja Shehadeh, Occupier’s Law: Israel and the West Bank (Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1985).
When Israel’s Declaration of Independence was being drafted, David Ben-Gurion rejected the suggestion that the document cite the country’s legal, international borders. He insisted that “law is whatever people determine it to be.” Just what this meant in practice became clear a few months later when an Israeli judge, reasoning that the sovereignty of the State of Israel was based first and foremost on the natural and historical right of the Jewish people, ruled that the conquered land laying beyond the original UN partition plan was under Israeli sovereignty. In the stroke of a court’s pen, dozens of Arab villages and much Arab territory fell under Israeli statehood.
Raja Shehadeh argues that a similar process is at work in the West Bank. Immediately following the 1967 war, Israel imposed laws and regulations aimed at controlling the people and natural resources of the West Bank. Additional laws added over the next 19 years enveloped the territories in a complex and confusing legal regime that, according to Shehadeh, was intentionally designed to mask Israel’s goal “to drive out the Palestinians, to take over their land, and eventually to annex the occupied territories.”
The book first reviews the legal techniques deployed to dispossess Palestinians of their land. Up until 1979, Israel confiscated land simply by requisitioning it for military purposes. When the Israeli High Court ruled that international law prohibited the taking of private property, Israeli authorities introduced the concept of “state lands.”
Palestinians now had to prove legal title to their lands. Because about two thirds of West Bank land was not legally registered, the Israelis declared most of the area “state lands” and transferred it to the exclusive use of Jewish settlers. The only tribunal empowered to hear Palestinian appeals is the Objection Committee, controlled by the very military authorities which declare lands “state land” in the first place. Through this and similar pernicious legalities, Israel now controls over 52 percent of the West Bank, according to a study by Israeli researcher Meron Benvenisti.
The second part of the book investigates the de facto expansion of Israeli sovereignty into the West Bank. Israeli settlers retain full Israeli citizenship and all the accompanying privileges and prerogatives, while the Palestinians next door have been reduced to “permanent alien residents” in their own land. The inequities inherent in the judicial system show the firm establishment of an apartheid-like system in the West Bank.
The final part details the human rights abuses that arise naturally out of a legal system seeking to displace the indigenous Palestinian population and ease the way for Israeli annexation. Examples of such violations range from prohibiting the picking and marketing of wild thyme (so as to protect an Israeli family’s monopoly over the herb’s production) to arbitrary arrests and “administrative” detention without charge or trial. Maltreatment of prisoners is common. Shehadeh has done a superb job in illuminating the role of law in Israel’s occupation policy.