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III. Background

The Gaza Strip is a wisp of land southwest of Israel along the Mediterranean Sea.  Forty-five kilometers long and ranging from five to twelve kilometers wide, it is home to some 1.2 million Palestinians, making it one of the most densely populated areas on Earth.  Approximately seventy-eight percent of the Palestinian population consists of refugees, displaced in 1948 and 1949 from what is now Israel, and their descendants.

The Gaza Strip and West Bank were the two areas of the British mandate of Palestine that did not become part of the new state of Israel as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.  Instead, Gaza came under Egyptian control while Jordan seized the West Bank.  Israel briefly took Gaza and the Sinai peninsula during the Suez Crisis in 1956, but returned them to Egypt under international pressure.  The 1967 War, however, left Israel in control of Gaza, the West Bank, the Sinai, and the Golan heights of Syria.  In 1982, Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt as part of the Camp David Peace Treaty.  The U.N. refers to the West Bank and Gaza Strip as the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

Under international law, Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan are occupied territories, which places their populations under the protection of the Fourth Geneva Convention.  Israel has long disputed the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the OPT, although it has promised to voluntarily abide by its humanitarian provisions.  The rest of the international community has consistently affirmed the applicability of the Convention to the OPT and Israel’s responsibilities as an Occupying Power under the Convention.30

Israel has continually failed to fulfill its obligations under international law as an Occupying Power.  It has built, and continues to build, settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip reserved exclusively for Jews.  Such settlements in occupied territory are illegal under international law; they violate the prohibitions of the transfer of civilians to an occupied territory31 and the creation of permanent changes that are not for the benefit of the occupied population.  After World War II, the drafters of the Fourth Geneva Convention specifically intended to prevent states from colonizing territories they occupied.32

According to the Oslo Accords of the 1990s, approximately forty percent of Gaza’s territory is currently under direct Israeli military control, most of it inaccessible to Palestinians.33  These areas include some twenty Israeli settlements, home to 7,500 settlers, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) bases, and exclusive by-pass roads linking these areas to each other and to Israel.34  Areas along the Egyptian border in the south and the boundary with Israel in the north and east are also under direct Israeli military control.  Israel controls all movement into and out of the Gaza Strip.

[30] These arguments are reviewed in, inter alia, Center of the Storm: A Case Study of Human Rights Abuses in Hebron District (New York: Human Rights Watch, April 2001) and Israel’s Closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip (New York: Human Rights Watch, July 1996).  Israeli Attorney General Menachem Mazuz recently recommended that the government “thoroughly examine” the possibility of formally applying the Convention to the OPT.  The recommendation was made after examining the legal consequence of the International Court of Justice’s July 9 advisory opinion, which found that the parts of Israel’s “separation barrier” built inside the West Bank violate international law and should be dismantled (Aluf Benn, “AG: ICJ Ruling Necessitates Adoption of Geneva Convention,” Ha’aretz, August 25, 2004).  The government has not indicated whether it will reverse its longstanding policy on the Convention’s applicability in the OPT.

[31] Fourth Geneva Convention, Art. 49(6).

[32] Jean S. Pictet, ed., Commentary on the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949: IV Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (International Committee of the Red Cross: Geneva, 1958), commentary on Art. 49(6) of Fourth Geneva Convention, p. 282.

[33] See Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, A Comprehensive Survey of Israeli Settlements in the Gaza Strip (undated),, (accessed July 27, 2004).

[34] Settlement population as of December 31, 2003.  See Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, “Population in Urban Localities and Other Geographic Divisions, Provisional Data as of December 30, 2003,” March 2004.  Available at, as of July 27, 2004.  Actual settlements populations are believed to be lower.

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