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U.S. Defends Israel’s Occupation of the West Bank at Top U.N. Court

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The United States on Wednesday defended Israel’s decades-long occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, arguing at the U.N.’s highest court that Israel faced “very real security needs.”

The defense came a day after the United States issued its third veto against a call for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza at the United Nations Security Council, a vote that drew an angry response from nations and aid groups that have urged a stop to the fighting to help Gaza’s civilians.

The latest show of American support for Israel was at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where Richard C. Visek, the acting legal adviser at the U.S. State Department, urged a 15-judge panel not to call for Israel’s immediate withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territory.

He said that only the establishment of an independent Palestinian state “living safely and securely alongside” Israel could bring about lasting peace, repeating a longstanding U.S. position, but the prospect of which appears even more elusive amid the war in Gaza.

“This conflict cannot be resolved through violence or unilateral actions,” Mr. Visek said. “Negotiations are the path to a lasting peace.”

The court is hearing six days of arguments over the legality of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian-majority territories, including the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which has been the subject of years of debates and resolutions at the U.N. The hearings — involving more than 50 countries — were called long before Israel went to war against Hamas in Gaza, but have become part of a concerted global effort to stop the conflict and examine the legality of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians.

Even as the judges listened to arguments in the stately wood-paneled courtroom in the Netherlands, the dynamics of the Israeli occupation were playing out on the ground in the West Bank city of Jenin on Wednesday. In an overnight raid that the Israeli military said targeted “terrorism,” Israeli forces killed three people and detained at least 14 others.

Jenin, a more than 70-year-old refugee camp that is now a crowded neighborhood, has long been a center of armed struggle against Israel’s occupation. And Israeli military raids, though common for years, have become far more frequent since the Hamas-led terrorist attack on Israel on Oct. 7, which Israeli officials say killed about 1,200 people.

Israeli forces have detained hundreds of Palestinians in West Bank raids in recent months. Deadly violence against Palestinians by Israeli settlers has reached record levels, and Palestinian attacks on Israelis have also increased, underscoring the immediacy of the proceedings in The Hague.

And late Wednesday, Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s war cabinet, warned that Israel was preparing to operate in the Gazan city of Rafah, near the southern border, once civilians were evacuated there. He added that if a deal was not reached to release the hostages still held in Gaza, the Israeli military would continue to operate during the holy month of Ramadan, which begins in March.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have fled to Rafah after being displaced from their homes by the fighting in Gaza. The international community has decried Israel’s plan to invade the city because of the huge numbers of people taking refuge there.

“History will judge us for how we respond today,” Jasmine Moussa, the legal adviser to Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told the court Wednesday, as she made the case for “the Palestinian people’s inalienable, permanent and unqualified right to self-determination.”

“One only needs to look at Israel’s vicious wholesale destruction of Gaza today after years of imposing the medieval methods, a siege and blockade, to realize the extent of Israel’s transgression of this principle,” she said.

The hearings are the first time the court has been asked to give an advisory opinion on the Israeli occupation. The U.N. General Assembly asked the court to review the legality of Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories more than a year ago, before Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, which has killed more than 29,000 people, according to Gazan health authorities.

Israel has said it would not participate in the hearings, and sent a letter to the court last year arguing that they were unwarranted and failed to “recognize Israel’s right and duty to protect its citizens” or its right to security.

The United States has strongly defended Israel’s campaign in Gaza, which began after the Oct. 7 attacks. But although U.S. officials have also urged Israel to scale back its military campaign and do more to protect civilians, the American defense of Israel has left it increasingly at odds even with staunch allies like France, Canada and Japan.

On Tuesday, its isolation was on display at the U.N. Security Council: It delivered the lone veto of a resolution that called for an immediate cease-fire, saying it would disrupt efforts to free hostages held in Gaza. Thirteen other nations supported the resolution, and Britain abstained.

On Wednesday, Mr. Visek, the State Department legal adviser, asked the U.N. court to uphold the “established framework” for peace that he said U.N. bodies had agreed to — one that is contingent on a “broader end to belligerence” against Israel — rather than to heed calls by other nations for Israel’s “unilateral and unconditional withdrawal” from occupied territories.

The Oct. 7 Hamas-led attacks on Israel were a reminder of the threats facing the country and of its security needs, Mr. Visek said, “and they persist.”

“Regrettably, those needs have been ignored by many of the participants in asserting how the court should consider the questions before it,” he said, referring to other countries’ testimony in the hearings.

Mr. Visek’s appearance directly preceded that of Vladimir Tarabrin, Russia’s ambassador to the Netherlands.

When he took the microphone, Mr. Tarabrin said Russia values its “stable relations” with Israel and expressed condolences over Oct. 7. But in what appeared to be a thinly veiled swipe at the United States, he said Russia “cannot accept the logic” of those who “try to defend the indiscriminate violence against civilians” in Gaza by citing Israel’s right to defend itself.

“Violence can only lead to more violence,” he said. Mr. Tarabrin criticized Israel for many of the same things Russia has been accused of perpetrating in its war in Ukraine, including annexation, deportation, transfers of populations and other violations of the Geneva Conventions.

Both Russia and the United States have used the hearings to promote their own agendas, and they have each accused the other of hypocrisy.

The countries have repeatedly been accused of employing a double standard at the U.N., with the United States not pushing for a cease-fire in Gaza while demanding one in Ukraine, as Russia criticizes Israel for some of the very things Moscow has done in Ukraine.

The court, which often hears staid disputes among nations, has lately become a venue for countries to oppose Israel. Last month, South Africa argued at the court that Israel was committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza — a charge Israel strongly rejected. The judges have not ruled on that claim, but issued an interim order for Israel to take steps to prevent genocide in Gaza.

On Tuesday, South Africa condemned Israel’s policies against Palestinians, calling them “a more extreme form of apartheid,” the race-based system of laws that deprived Black South Africans for decades.

Israel has long denied accusations that it operates an apartheid system, calling such allegations a slur and pointing to what it says is a history of being singled out for condemnation by U.N. bodies and tribunals.

The United States has remained Israel’s staunchest defender internationally. But the Biden administration, under increasing pressure from parts of the Democratic Party, has also shown signs of impatience with Israel’s conduct of the war, the rising toll in Gaza and the plight of Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

President Biden this month said that Israel’s military response in Gaza had been “over the top” and that the immense civilian suffering had “to stop.” The remarks came days after Mr. Biden imposed broad financial sanctions against four Israeli men over violent attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank.

After the hearings, which are scheduled to conclude on Monday, the court will issue a nonbinding, advisory opinion. That decision is expected to take several months.

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