February 25, 2004

Government Professor Speaks About Israeli Barrier

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Last night, Prof. Jeremy Rabkin ’74, government, spoke at an event sponsored by the Cornell-Israel Public Affairs Committee about a case that has been presented to the International Court of Justice regarding the barrier that is being constructed on Israel’s West Bank.

CIPAC, a campus organization involved in education, political advocacy and lobbying on U.S.-Israeli issues, sponsored the event with the purpose of informing the Cornell community about the barrier and the controversy surrounding it. Currently, Israelis are constructing a barrier in the West Bank with the hope of providing stability and security to that region. Palestinians argue that it is illegal under international law because it crosses into occupied land and violates human rights.

Rabkin called into question the applicability of the rules set forth in the Geneva Convention of 1949 regarding occupied land, which constitutes a great deal of the argument asserted by the Palestinians.

“Does this apply to Palestine? It’s so far a geographical expression; there is not a state of Palestine — it is not recognized by any other country in the world as its own state and hasn’t even declared itself as its own state — therefore Geneva Convention rules don’t apply,” he said.

He added that Israelis do not recognize the West Bank as occupied territory but rather disputed territory, and therefore they believe that the Geneva Convention does not apply. Furthermore, Rabkin argued that there is no agreement about which laws or treaties are applicable in this case.

“Not only do we disagree on whether or not this barrier is legal, we don’t even agree on where to look. We don’t agree on the legal materials, the things we should be looking at, to determine if this is legal,” he said.

Rabkin also speculated that the Palestinians’ hopes in this case may not be just to protest the construction of the barrier, but to set forth additional controversial political goals.

“I think the largest purpose of this case is to give more authority to the claim that Jewish settlements in the West Bank are illegal and that anything you do to protect them is wrong,” he said.

He also called into question the applicability of international law regarding these issues to real-world situations.

“[The Geneva Convention], which everyone is invoking, is a treaty which is now 50 years old. It has never been litigated, and it’s never even really been applied,” he explained. “There are almost no precedents, almost no legal decisions.”

Furthermore, Rabkin expressed his concern at the fact that the court may still consider the case, even though Israel hasn’t consented to it.

“The [International Court of Justice] and its predecessors have never addressed a conflict between two parties unless both of them agree to submit their dispute and that has very obvious basis, which is, there is no point ordering a country to do something if they don’t say they’re willing to be bound by this,” he said. “Israel doesn’t want to consent to the court. A lot of countries find it very disturbing that we can change what had been a voluntary decision into ‘we’re going to tell you who’s right and who’s wrong whether you like it or not.'”

Students who attended the speech had mixed responses to Rabkin’s opinions regarding the ICJ and its involvement in the barrier dispute.

“It was a very different perspective than I was accustomed to,” said Winnie Wong ’04, who attended the lecture. “I had taken international law [while studying abroad] in the U.K., and even though international law is very touchy, they believed in it a lot more.”

Regardless, most people who attended the lecture seemed to agree that this is an issue worth discussing.

“This is such an important topic in international politics,” explained Jennie Berger ’04, president of CIPAC. “This little country on the other side of the world that’s smaller than New Jersey gets so much media coverage. It’s something you’ll hear about in your classes or hear people talking about. It’s really important that we make sure people are provided with more education and more background on it so they can form informed opinions.”

Berger was pleased with Rabkin’s talk, and she felt that it helped people to better understand this complex issue.

“I thought he did a fantastic job and was very informative,” Berger said. “He presented all of the different main points surrounding this case very clearly and explained the legal arguments behind them. Regardless of whether or not you agree with everything he said, I think everyone left here feeling like they’ve learned something.”

The ICJ is expected to decide this week whether or not it will consider the Palestinians’ case.


Archived article by Andrew Beckwith