The International Court of Justice Gets Its Crack at the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Again
The United Nations General Assembly has voted to ask the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague to deliver its opinion on the legal implications of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including Israel’s “annexation” of territories and the “legal status” of the occupation.
The ICJ, also known as The World Court, is the main judicial body of the United Nations and its decisions are binding on the parties to a case. Its judgments and advisory opinions are highly influential and often cited as precedents in other international legal proceedings. The ICJ has the authority to interpret and apply international treaties and conventions, and its decisions are considered to be authoritative interpretations of international law. As such, ICJ rulings are primary sources of international law and are often used to support the development and evolution of international legal principles.
The resolution passed on Friday evening with 87 votes in favor to 26 against, with 53 abstentions. Britain, Germany, and the United States were among those who voted against it, while Denmark, France, Japan, and Sweden abstained. All the Arab states, including those that recently have normalized relations with Israel, voted in favor. It had been pretty clear that the resolution would pass, though the margin was uncertain, after it overwhelmingly passed a preliminary committee vote in November.
Advisory opinions of the World Court are not binding but they do influence international opinions and actions.
The resolution asks the court for its advisory opinion on “the legal consequences arising from Israel’s ongoing violation of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, its prolonged occupation, settlement and annexation of the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including measures aimed at altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem, and from its adoption of discriminatory legislation and measures,” according to a statement from the UN. The resolution further asks the court “how Israel’s policies and practices referenced affect the legal status of the occupation and what are the legal consequences that arise for all states and the UN.”
Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War. There have not been any peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians since 2014, and a peace plan drawn up by the Trump Administration in the United States that was presented in January 2020 was dead on arrival. The court last issued an advisory opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2004, after the General Assembly asked it to weigh in on the legality of Israel’s security barrier. That opinion found that the security barrier was illegal and called on Israel to stop its construction and pay reparations to the Palestinians for any damage caused by it.
The resolution requesting the opinion from the World Court comes after a report presented to the General Assembly on October 22, 2022, by the UNGA-established Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and in Israel, in which the commission found there were “reasonable grounds to conclude that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory is now unlawful under international law owing to its permanence and to ongoing actions undertaken by Israel to annex parts of the land de facto and de jure.” The commission had found in an initial report that “the continued occupation by Israel of Palestinian territory and discrimination against Palestinians were the key root causes of the recurrent tensions, instability and protraction of conflict in the region.”
Support for the resolution dropped during the period between the vote on Friday and the preliminary vote, after a full-court press from Israeli leaders including newly sworn-in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid, and Israeli President Isaac Herzog, as well as Israel’s Foreign Ministry and diplomatic staff. In all, Israel managed to convince nine additional countries to vote against the resolution, and two other countries changed their votes from in favor to abstain or were not present for the vote.
One example of this is Ukraine, which did not attend the vote on the resolution after voting for it in November. This is because, as first reported by Axios citing an unnamed Ukrainian official, Netanyahu called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Friday, less than a day after he was sworn in again as Israel’s prime minister, and asked the Ukrainian president to vote against the resolution. Zelenskyy reportedly used the opportunity to try to pin Netanyahu down to a commitment to provide Ukraine with anti-missile defense systems. Netanyahu did not do so, and, because of this, Zelenskyy ordered his envoy to not attend the vote rather than abstain or vote against it.
The vote itself took place in a session that started at 6 pm on Friday, after the start of the Jewish Sabbath, which meant that the Israeli delegation was not present for the public discussion or vote. Its vote was cast, however, by a US diplomat acting as a proxy.
In a statement after the end of the Sabbath on Saturday night in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said of the vote: “Just like the hundreds of distorted UN General Assembly resolutions against Israel over the years, (the) disgraceful resolution will not obligate the government of Israel. The Jewish people is not occupying its land and is not occupying its eternal capital Jerusalem. No UN resolution can distort this historical truth.” He concluded: “We will continue to fight for the truth.”
It will be at least several months before the court issues its advisory opinion.