As Israel escalates the military conflict in the occupied Palestinian territories, brushing aside criticism of excessive force by the United Nations and human rights groups, it is tempting to conclude that international law is irrelevant to the real struggle being waged on the ground with bullets and blood. But the constant interplay between law and force — in both politics and economics — has always been, and will remain, a crucial factor shaping the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its just resolution.

In the Oslo process Israel intended to achieve through negotiations what could not be achieved through force, namely international approval for Israeli control over the political and economic future of the Occupied Territories. For decades, denial of Palestinian rights had posed a significant obstacle to Israel’s pursuit of legitimacy. By shifting the conflict from the arena of international law to the arena of political negotiations, Israel expected to win international blessing for a series of bilateral agreements that effectively dismantled well-established Palestinian national and human rights. This is what Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered at Camp David — a legally binding “end” to the conflict that ignored the rights of refugees and confined Palestinians within cantons separated from one another by a grid of fortified Jewish settlements and bypass roads.

The second intifada has put an end, for now, to the prospect that the Palestinian leadership would consent to this solution and formally abandon its people’s basic rights. Israel’s current threat to impose Oslo through military means will not win international support or legitimacy. Eventually both parties will have to sit across from one another at the negotiating table. The key issue is whether, for the first time, international law and human rights, especially economic and social rights, will also have a place at the table.

Economic Warfare

The Oslo process ignored the legal principles governing occupation and self-determination, which lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel’s continued occupation and denial of Palestinian self-determination has created the conditions for systematic violations of economic and social rights affecting the lives and livelihoods of most Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. The new intifada is fueled as much by long-suppressed Palestinian rage over daily indignities and hardships in access to food, work, education, housing and health care as by the larger issue of statehood denied.

The Israeli army has begun to impose Barak’s threat of “unilateral separation”—laying siege to Palestinian communities in the Occupied Territories, preventing free movement, stifling trade, employment and economic activity, and threatening to withhold gas, electricity and water. This form of economic warfare violates fundamental human rights. The rights to food, work and health, for example, are recognized in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Covenant), which Israel has ratified.

Israeli officials assert that Palestinians want it both ways — political independence from Israel with continued economic links through jobs and trade. But this claim fails to account for the historical fact that deliberate Israeli policies enforced over 33 years of military occupation are responsible for the abject poverty and economic dependency in the Occupied Territories. These policies were designed to block the development of a viable economic base that might eventually support a Palestinian state. In 1985 Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin openly declared Israel’s strategic objective: “There will be no development in the Occupied Territories initiated by the Israeli government, and no permits given for expanding agriculture or industry which may compete with the State of Israel.” In concrete terms, this meant: expropriating land, water and other resources, establishing highly restrictive permit systems and quotas on water use and industrial inputs, stifling the economic base through lack of investment, credit and other financing, and reorienting production and labor to serve Israel’s economic interests through trade barriers and restricted access to external markets.

The Oslo process was expected to reverse these trends and usher in a measure of relative prosperity after 27 years of Israeli economic warfare. Instead the past seven years have brought increased hardship for most Palestinians, with the exception of the so-called “Oslo class” — corrupt leaders in the Palestinian Authority (PA) who have enriched themselves at the expense of their countrymen.

The UN Special Coordinator’s office paints a grim picture: Palestinian per capita GNP declined from $2,684 in 1992 to $1,896 in 1999. Between 1992 and 1996, Palestinian GDP declined 18 percent while Israel’s rose by 13 percent. Increases in Palestinian GDP in 1998 and 1999 have been offset by sharp declines in 2000. At the household level, poverty and unemployment have increased. Nationally, imports have increasingly outstripped exports, creating even more dependency. These figures are all the more remarkable given the artificial injection of over $3 billion in donor aid, most of which will have to be paid back with interest.

PA corruption and incompetence have certainly played a role in this catastrophe. But the Israeli-imposed closure bears overwhelming responsibility. Since 1993 Israel has restricted the movement of Palestinian people and goods in the Occupied Territories through a comprehensive permit system enforced at heavily militarized border crossings. In addition, Israel has periodically imposed internal closures that prevent all movement in and out of Palestin- ian cities and towns. These restrictions constitute an enormous shock to the Palestinian economy — disrupting routine trade and business, discouraging outside investment, and severing economic links to Israel after 27 years of dependency enforced through military occupation. Today the Palestinian economy is structurally incapable of responding to Israel’s economic warfare by generating new production or employment opportunities, apart from the already bloated PA bureaucracy.

Engaging Human Rights Mechanisms

International attention throughout the Oslo process focused exclusively on bilateral negotiations to the exclusion of concern for justice and human rights. Most countries were willing to fall in line with US insistence that all issues — even Israeli policies like closure and settlement expansion that clearly violate international law — should be left to political negotiations between the two sides. In practice this gave Israel, the vastly stronger party, the ability to unilaterally impose what are euphemistically termed “facts on the ground.” But as the recent explosion demonstrates, a peace process built on a foundation of rights violations and economic warfare can only be sustained through mounting repression, and will last only as long as the present imbalance of power.

The breakdown of the Oslo process has prompted a flurry of activity at the international level. A growing number of states and international bodies, as well as human rights groups worldwide, are calling for new peace efforts grounded in international law and human rights. They are seeking to replace the US with a more neutral UN mediator and establish both an international commission of inquiry into the recent violence and an international protection force for Palestinians. The sudden involvement of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the recent visit by UN High Commissioner For Human Rights Mary Robinson and interventions by the Security Council and the Commission on Human Rights all confirm a new tendency to broaden the conflict at the level of international law.

The Palestinian struggle for self-determination and human rights has long enjoyed the theoretical support of international law, but rarely the practical intervention necessary to help justice prevail where it matters. UN mechanisms for protecting human rights are bureaucratic procedures that become effective only when shaken into action by popular pressure and citizens’ groups. The current opening at the international level exists solely as a result of the enormous sacrifices of Palestinians resisting the Israeli military assault and demanding — at great risk — their national and human rights. To build on this struggle, the demand for human rights, especially economic and social rights, must be raised before the UN, national governments, media outlets and public events at every level and in every forum.

Center for Economic and Social Rights Report to the UN

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is an 18-member UN body which meets twice a year in Geneva to monitor compliance with the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights by state parties. In November/December 1998, after hearing submissions from a number of Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights groups, the Committee condemned Israel’s record of violating economic, social and cultural rights inside Israel and in the Occupied Territories. On November 13, 2000, the Committee heard a report (excerpted here) submitted by the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR).

While international attention has focused on Israel’s use of excessive force in killing almost 200 Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and inside Israel, most of them unarmed demonstrators, little attention has been paid to equally grave violations of economic, social and cultural rights resulting from the strict Israeli military blockade imposed on the OPT. As the authoritative UN body concerned with these rights, it is imperative that the Committee take a clear position condemning Israeli violations during the current crisis.
Article 1(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights affirms that “all peoples have the right to self-determination.” …Israel’s continuing occupation of Palestinian land and control over Palestinian resources, in violation of Article 1(1), forms the basis for all Israeli violations of Palestinian rights in the OPT, including during the current crisis.

The Oslo process was explicitly based on implementation of Security Council Resolution 242, which calls for Israeli withdrawal of occupation forces from the OPT. In the past seven years, however, Israel’s confiscation of Palestinian land and construction of settlements and bypass roads for Jewish settlers has accelerated dramatically in breach of Security Council Resolution 242 and of provisions in the Oslo agreements requiring both parties to respect “the territorial integrity and unity of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” Since 1993 the settler population in the West Bank and Gaza has doubled to 200,000 and increased to 170,000 in East Jerusalem. During this same period, Israeli authorities have demolished over 800 Palestinian homes and diverted water from the West Bank for use in Israeli cities and settlements.

From the outset of the Oslo process in 1993 Israel has imposed a continuous policy of general closure that severely limits the movement of Palestinians and their goods. In addition to general closure, Israel periodically imposes internal closures that restrict all Palestinian movement outside of Palestinian Authority-controlled “Area A” — currently 18 percent of the West Bank and approximately 80 percent of the Gaza Strip. These areas comprise a patchwork of more than 200 noncontiguous enclaves with entry and exit tightly monitored by Israeli military checkpoints from surrounding Israeli-controlled areas in the OPT. The current military blockade of Palestinian population centers in the OPT represents an extreme form of internal closure.

In its Concluding Observations from the 19th session, the Committee noted “with grave concern the severe consequences of closure on the Palestinian population…. [C]losures have cut off Palestinians from their own land and resources resulting in widespread violations of their economic, social and cultural rights, including in particular article 1(2) of the Covenant.”
The cumulative impact of these Israeli policies is to confine Palestinians in isolated enclaves without adequate land, water or infrastructure to foster viable economic development, especially in the industrial and agricultural sectors. These policies violate the full range of economic, social and cultural rights, including the rights to work (article 6), housing (article 11), health (article 12), education (article 13), and an adequate standard of living (article 11).

Various United Nations organs have recognized and condemned the gravity of Israeli human rights violations during the crisis that erupted on September 28….The Human Rights Commission, meeting recently in emergency session, condemned “the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force in violation of international humanitarian law by the Israeli occupying Power against innocent and unarmed Palestinian civilians.” (E/CN.4/S-5/L.2/Rev.1)

Equally grave human rights violations have resulted from the strict Israeli military blockade imposed on the OPT. Many Palestinian population centers are under military siege, with no exit or entry permitted for trade, work or even medical emergencies. As a result, the Palestinian economy has been severely damaged. The office of the United Nations Special
Coordinator (UNSCO) has estimated daily economic losses at over $8 million, not including material damage to physical assets. This amounts to a cumulative loss of almost $400 million in just seven weeks, more than double the total value of donor disbursements received by the Palestinian Authority during the entire year. This crippling of Palestinian trade and other economic activities has extremely negative consequences for the realization of the rights to food, health care, education and work, as documented below.

While sector-specific socioeconomic data on this decline is not yet available, the following examples, based on materials from UNSCO, the Palestinian Authority, and international and local NGOs, underscore the gravity of economic, social and cultural rights violations to date:

  • Both inside Israel and in the OPT, the Israeli army has prevented medical aid and personnel from reaching injured Palestinians and has even attacked clearly marked medical vehicles, wounding medical personnel and killing at least one ambulance driver.
  • Unemployment in the OPT has tripled during the crisis, causing severe economic hardship especially for poor and vulnerable sectors of the population.
  • Children traveling to and from school in the OPT have come under Israeli fire, and many schools in the OPT have been forced to close.
  • Israel has deliberately destroyed Palestinian agricultural land in the OPT, including over 3,000 acres in Gaza alone, and prevented farmers from harvesting their crops.
  • Israel has effectively shut down the Gazan fishing industry.
  • Israeli use of heavy weapons has destroyed utilities, schools, homes, roads, cars and civilian property throughout the OPT.
  • Trade between Gaza, the West Bank and Israel has virtually stopped due to the internal and external closure.
  • Israel has closed border crossings to Jordan and Egypt, and restricted use of the airport and seaports, cutting most Palestinian access to the outside world.

…Israeli policies of occupation, expropriation and blockade are deliberate acts of state that discriminate against Palestinians and regressively impact their enjoyment of the full range of economic, social and cultural rights. The necessary remedy does not require positive action by Israel in the way of providing food or health care to Palestinians, but only the negative duty to stop preventing Palestinians from feeding and caring for themselves. CESR urges the Committee to condemn these grave Israeli violations of Palestinians’ economic, social and cultural rights, and call for an immediate lifting of the military siege of Palestinian cities and town in the OPT.

The full text of the CESR report is accessible online at:

How to cite this article:

Roger Normand "Israel’s Accountability for Economic Warfare," Middle East Report 217 (Winter 2000).

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