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(Jerusalem) – The Israeli government should reject an official panel’s conclusions that Israel is not an occupying power in the West Bank and that settlements do not violate international law, Human Rights Watch said today.

The panel, headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy, made far-reaching recommendations that disregard Israeli obligations toward Palestinians in the West Bank under international humanitarian and human rights law, Human Rights Watch said. The panel issued its report on July 9, 2012.

“The Levy report wants to eliminate Israel’s obligations under international law in the West Bank with the stroke of a pen,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “But Israel cannot wish away its obligations under the law of occupation, or make its duty to respect Palestinians’ human rights disappear.”

Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu appointed the panel in January to address the legal status of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In addition to Levy, the members were a former Tel Aviv District Court judge, Tchia Shapira, and a former ambassador, Alan Baker. Under the terms of the panel’s establishment, its recommendations will not be implemented unless Israel’s attorney general approves them.

The Levy panel acknowledged a 2005 government-commissioned report that found that governmental agencies had supported many settlements even though establishing them violated Israeli laws, but contended that the unlawful construction should be authorized retroactively. The Israeli government distinguishes between 136 government-authorized West Bank settlements, with more than 500,000 residents, and about 100 unauthorized settlement “outposts.” Among its recommendations, the panel called for the government to authorize the outposts retroactively, granting them the same legal status as settlements, and to halt any demolitions of illegal buildings in the meantime.

Since the 1990s, Israel has established few new settlements due to international pressure. But it has built new housing units within existing settlements and supported the establishment of outposts by providing them with security, financial support, water, electricity, and road infrastructure.

The panel contended that the government would be acting in “bad faith” if it refused to authorize the outposts because settlers had established them with the “knowledge and support” of the “higher [state] echelons,” including the military and government ministries, on lands provided with the support of state or quasi-official authorities, such as the Housing Ministry and the World Zionist Organization.

Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the establishment of settlements in occupied territory. However, the Levy panel concluded that the laws of occupation do not apply to Israel’s actions in the West Bank and therefore do not restrict its ability to establish settlements there.

The panel repeated various government arguments, including that Israel’s military victory over Jordanian forces in the West Bank in 1967 did not trigger the application of the law of occupation because Jordan was not the recognized sovereign in the territory. It also said that the Geneva Conventions prohibit forcible population transfers into occupied territory but not the voluntary relocation of civilians, as with Israeli settlers.

International legal bodies and foreign governments have almost universally rejected such arguments on the basis that Israel, which effectively controls the West Bank, is obliged to protect the Palestinian population there. Various governments, including the US, criticized the report, but have not indicated what steps they would take, if any, if Israel implemented it.

“Israel’s allies should make clear that they won't accept the panel’s distortion of international law to justify land-grabbing and other abuses against the Palestinian population,” Whitson said. 

The Levy report recommends that the government establish a compensation mechanism to pay the Palestinian landowners, but does not discuss the fact that they might not agree to accept the compensation, where the settlers built in “good faith” and did not know the land was privately owned. Instead, the government should demolish settlements built in contravention of Israeli and international law on privately owned Palestinian land, Human Rights Watch said.

The Levy panel recommended overturning Israeli laws, military orders, and precedents that are based on the law of occupation. It called on the government to allow settlement construction on expropriated Palestinian lands, subject to the approval of the security services, rejecting a 1979 Supreme Court ruling that the Israeli military could not expropriate Palestinian land for the purpose of establishing a civilian settlement rather than for security needs.

Israel considers itself eligible to declare as “state lands” areas of the West Bank to which Palestinians do not have formally registered ownership, though Israel stopped allowing Palestinians to register ownership of their lands in 1968. It purports to abide by the law of occupation by granting long-term leases to state lands instead of allowing settlers to register such lands in their own names.

The panel also recommended allowing settlers to register individual ownership claims on these lands. It called for the government to establish the jurisdictional outlines of settlements and designate additional areas to accommodate future “natural growth,” and to allow future settlement construction within such areas without the need for governmental approval at each stage in the process. Should the Israeli government accept the panel’s recommendations, it will be violating the rights of Palestinians under the law of occupation, Human Rights Watch said.

The Levy panel report follows recent moves by the Israeli government to authorize existing outposts. On April 22, a government committee consisting of Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and other senior officials retroactively “formalize[d] the status” of three outposts – Sansana, in the southern West Bank, and Rehalim and Bruchin, in the north – that had been established with government support in the 1990s, but had lacked zoning plans and government authorization as required under Israeli law. Rehalim was built partially on privately owned Palestinian land, where Israeli law prohibits establishing settlements.

On June 16, Israel transferred the committee’s powers “to recognize as settlements” outposts that were constructed “on state land with the assistance of state authorities” to a ministerial committee with expanded membership. In 2011, the Israeli government retroactively authorized at least one other outpost, Givat Habrecha.

“The Levy panel’s attempt to whitewash past Israeli violations fails to acknowledge that Israel has any legal obligations whatsoever to the West Bank’s 2.5 million Palestinians,” Whitson said. “The government should dismiss the panel’s report, and instead fully investigate past violations and provide redress to people whose rights were violated.”

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