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US opposes UN’s opinion to urge Israel to withdraw from Palestinian-claimed land

  • The U.S. has opposed the UN’s top court issuing an advisory opinion for Israel’s immediate withdrawal from Palestinian-claimed territories.
  • Acting State Department legal adviser Richard Visek has argued against resolving the conflict through a one-sided advisory opinion.
  • Visek said the conflict should be addressed within established frameworks like the “land for peace” principle and occupation law.

The United States said Wednesday the United Nations’ top court should not issue an advisory opinion that says Israel should “immediately and unconditionally withdraw” from territories sought for a Palestinian state.

Acting State Department legal adviser Richard Visek said the 15-judge panel at the International Court of Justice should not seek to resolve the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict “through an advisory opinion addressed to questions focusing on the acts of only one party.”

Visek spoke on the third day of hearings at the court into a request by the General Assembly for a non-binding advisory opinion on the legality of Israel’s policies in the occupied territories.

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He said the court “can address the questions before it within the established framework based on the land for peace principle and within the parameters of established principles of occupation law.”

Richard C. Visek

Richard C. Visek, acting legal adviser of the U.S. Department of state, second left, waits to address the United Nations’ highest court during historic hearings in The Hague, Netherlands, on Feb. 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Visek added that the court’s opinion “will have consequences for the parties to the conflict and for the ongoing efforts of all of those working to achieve a durable peace.”

Earlier this week, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki called on the court to uphold the Palestinian right to self-determination and declare “that the Israeli occupation is illegal and must end immediately, totally and unconditionally.”

The idea of land for peace has been the cornerstone of U.S.-led diplomacy for decades and was the basis of the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, in which Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula in return for peace and recognition.

The same principle has been applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the peace process has repeatedly stalled because of Palestinian attacks, Israel’s expansion of settlements in occupied territory, and the inability of the two sides to agree on thorny issues like final borders, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

The U.S. arguments at the world court came a day after Washington vetoed an Arab-backed and widely supported U.N. resolution demanding an immediate humanitarian cease-fire of the Israel-Hamas war in the embattled Gaza Strip, saying it would interfere with negotiations on a deal to free hostages held by militant Palestinian group Hamas.

The vote in the 15-member Security Council was 13-1, with the United Kingdom abstaining. It reflected the strong support from countries around the globe for ending the war, which started when Hamas militants invaded southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people and taking nearly 250 others hostage. Since then, more than 29,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s retaliatory military offensive, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which says the vast majority were women and children.

“Hamas’s attacks, hostage-taking and other atrocities, the ongoing hostilities and the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza and the violence in the West Bank reinforce the United States resolve to urgently achieve a final peace that includes the full realization of Palestinian self-determination,” Visek said.

Visek’s comments were preceded Wednesday by condemnations of Israel’s policies by representatives of Colombia, Cuba and Egypt. Along with the Palestinians, a total of 51 nations and three international organizations are scheduled to speak at the hearings. The court will likely take months to issue its non-binding advisory opinion.

The Palestinians argue that Israel’s open-ended military occupation has violated the prohibition on territorial conquest and the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, and has imposed a system of racial discrimination and apartheid.

On Tuesday, South Africa argued that Israel’s policies amount to apartheid against the Palestinians and that Israel’s occupation of land sought for a Palestinian state is “inherently and fundamentally illegal.” Israel rejects such claims.

In a written submission filed last year, Israel argued that the questions put to the court are prejudiced, ignore “Israel’s right and duty to protect its citizens,” fail to address Israeli security concerns or acknowledge past agreements with the Palestinians to negotiate “the permanent status of the territory, security arrangements, settlements, and borders.”

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Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek all three areas for an independent state. Israel considers the West Bank to be a disputed territory and says its future should be decided in negotiations.

Israel has also built settlements across the West Bank, many of which resemble fully developed suburbs and small towns. The settlements are home to more than 500,000 Jewish settlers, while around 3 million Palestinians live in the territory. The international community overwhelmingly considers the settlements to be illegal.

Israel has also annexed east Jerusalem, home to the city’s most sensitive holy sites, and considers the entire city to be its capital. The annexation is not internationally recognized.

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