Middle East Monitor / August 25, 2023
The UK has come under scrutiny for reportedly attempting to hinder the International Court of Justice (ICJ) from issuing a legal opinion on Israel’s occupation of Palestine. The UK’s alleged move came to light through a 43-page legal opinion submitted to the ICJ, which is currently in the fact-finding stage before an expected advisory opinion from the Court on the legal consequences of the “occupation, settlement and annexation” of Palestinian land.
The UK’s objection submitted in the “amicus brief” has been met with dismay as it not only seeks to derail the work of the ICJ, it also goes against the grain of other member states and non-governmental organizations by opposing the hearing of the case entirely.
Critics argue that the UK’s stance ignores the entrenched nature of Israel’s occupation and the deteriorating situation on the ground. Palestinian diplomats and international humanitarian law experts have expressed dismay at the UK’s submission. The ICJ, based in The Hague, is the top United Nations Court for resolving disputes between nations; its decisions are binding, although it lacks enforcement powers.
“[Assuming that the document is authentic] … this is a rather weak and uninformed document that portrays Israel’s longstanding occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and its annexation of East Jerusalem, as a bilateral dispute between two states,” Dr Victor Kattan, an assistant professor in public international law at the University of Nottingham is reported saying in The Guardian.
Kattan stressed that the ICJ can issue an opinion on any legal question arising from the work of the UN, and the General Assembly does not need Israel’s consent to refer a request to the Court. The ICJ’s 2004 opinion on “The Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory”, for example, was issued without the consent of the occupation state. The UN Court found that the barrier violates international law and should be torn down. The vote of the justices was 14 to 1.
The latest attempt to obtain an ICJ opinion holds significance for Israel and the Palestinians, as it addresses the legality of Israel’s occupation – a matter that has not been conclusively judged in the 56 years of its existence. Legal experts have judged the occupation to be illegal due to its length and also because of Israel’s de-facto annexation, which has made occupation a permanent reality.
The UK’s position contrasts with the UN General Assembly resolution, which sought an advisory opinion from the ICJ on the “legal consequences arising from the policies and practices of Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” The UK, along with Israel and other Western states, voted against the resolution.
The ICJ’s deliberations on this matter are anticipated to last at least a year, and the question of whether the occupation is still temporary will be a central point of discussion. The ICJ’s potential findings could influence recognition, aid and obligations related to the occupation. Israel has criticized the referral to the ICJ, with its envoy to the UN describing the General Assembly vote as delegitimizing, a term that is often used to label critics of the occupation state as anti-Semitic.
Members have until 25 October to make comments on statements to the ICJ submitted by others. If the Court accepts the request for an advisory opinion, as is expected, deliberations will last at least a year.