What 'occupation'?

Israel does not fit the literal definition of an occupying force.

arik sharon main 88 (photo credit:)
arik sharon main 88
(photo credit: )
The recent occurrences in Georgia present a good opportunity to compare how the media describe certain world events. The conflict between Georgia and Russia was immediately cited by President Mikhail Saakashvili as an "occupation of Georgia." The case involved a sovereign independent nation where a neighboring hostile army held onto and asserted its authority over territory within its recognized boundaries. This is a classic definition of an "occupation." The Hague Conventions of 1907 state specifically that "territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army." However, much of the world's media do not appear to have knowledge of the legal definitions in its appellation of the Georgia-Russia conflict. Most of the major media organizations have only used the word "occupation" when quoting Saakashvili or others like British Foreign Secretary David Milliband. Agence France Presse in almost every report used the term "occupation" in quotation marks, or claimed that "Tiblisi has labeled them [the Russians] an occupying force." Many other media organizations follow suit. Senior British journalist Peter Wilby implies in The Guardian that Saakashvili has used terms like occupation to win a public relations battle. He contends that the Georgian president knows which words pull heartstrings in the West. "Note the use of terms that trigger Western media interest: civilian victims, nuclear, humanitarian, occupation, ethnic cleansing," Wilby wrote. There is a sort of irony in the fact that The Guardian, long accused of treating Israel unfairly in its reporting, has an article clearly stating how certain words are utilized to garner sympathy for a particular cause, when all these terms have been used against Israel in the past - and mostly without quotation marks. ISRAEL DOES not fit the literal definition of an occupying force. The Hague Conventions and the later Geneva Conventions of 1949 do not appear to apply definitively to the West Bank. The West Bank has never been sovereign territory, and was won from a nation which held no legal claim to the area. After Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza, former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar wrote in the 1970s that there is no de jure applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention regarding occupied territories to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, since the convention "is based on the assumption that there had been a sovereign which was ousted, and that it had been a legitimate sovereign." To take it a step further, former US State Department legal adviser Stephen Schwebel, who later headed the International Court of Justice in The Hague, wrote in 1970 regarding Israel's case: "Where the prior holder of territory had seized that territory unlawfully, the state which subsequently takes that territory in the lawful exercise of self-defense has, against that prior holder, better title." OBVIOUSLY, MANY would disagree with these formulations. However, there is enough evidence to contend that Israel is not "occupying" the West Bank according to the letter of international law. This is further codified in UN Security Council Resolution 242 which, according to its drafters, allows Israel to hold onto territories it won in the 1967 war. This stands in contradistinction to other theaters of conflict and occupation. In 1975, an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice established that Western Sahara was not under Moroccan territorial sovereignty. Nevertheless, when the Western Sahara receives any column inches in the international media, it is seldom referred to as "occupied." Nagorno-Karabakh, the area of Azerbaijan claimed as an independent republic by indigenous Armenian separatists, is in the main referred to as "disputed." Of course, the media attention Tibet received as a result of China's holding the Summer Olympics provided another recent comparison. Again, the famous quotation marks are frequently applied when using the term "occupation" - if the word is used at all - to China's control of Tibet. There are many other examples of territories that could denote an occupation but are referred to as "disputed." According to Dore Gold, former ambassador to the UN and president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, there appears to be a major disparity in the terminology describing conflicts around the globe. "Of course each situation has its own unique history, but in a variety of other territorial disputes - from northern Cyprus to the Kurile Islands to Abu Musa in the Persian Gulf, which have involved some degree of armed conflict - the term 'occupied territories' is not commonly used in international discourse. Thus, the case of the West Bank appears to be a special exception," Gold wrote. THE TERM occupation has been long used as an accusation by the Palestinians in what Wilby would describe as a "PR war." However, as opposed to how circumspect the world media are about other territorial disagreements, they are almost unequivocal that the West Bank is "occupied." This has had many ramifications as the UN now uses the term "occupied territories" as if by rote in its resolutions when describing the West Bank. Perhaps even more worryingly, the Israeli government has bought into this terminology, which flies in the face of its own legal opinions. The Road Map which was agreed to by the government referred to an "occupation that began in 1967," and soon after prime minister Ariel Sharon criticized what he called the "occupation" in the territories. By referring to the West Bank as occupied, Sharon broke one of the greatest taboos in Israeli governmental policy. Today, it has almost become commonplace for high-ranking officials like Tzipi Livni to use the term "occupation" in their speeches. Consequently, the government has adopted the language of its accusers in the media, and has thus handed itself a major defeat in its own PR war. The writer is an editor at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs for the Middle East Strategic Information Project.