[Dr Lorenzo Kamel is Senior Fellow at IAI and Research Fellow at Harvard’s CMES]
It would seem unnecessary in 2015 to refer to the League of Nations or the Mandate for Palestine when discussing the legal status of the Palestinian territories. Yet, in recent years several scholars are resorting to these issues to provide a legal justification for the construction/enlargement of outposts/settlements and the indirect denial of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. This article aims to deconstruct these approaches and to shed light on the selective use of history and international law that underpins them.
The 89 pages of the Levy Report, released on 9 July 2012 by a special committee appointed in late January 2012 by PM Netanyahu to investigate whether the Israeli presence in the West Bank is to be considered an occupation or not, clarified that “with the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, the principle of recognizing the validity of existing rights of states acquired under various mandates, including of course the rights of Jews to settle in the Land of Israel by virtue of the above documents, was determined in article 80 of its charter”.
In a video entitled “the Legal Case for Israel,” international lawyer Eugene Kontorovich pointed out that “up to 1948 all this area [present-day Israel and the Palestinian territories] was Palestine reserved as a Jewish State by the League of Nations Mandate […] the legality of the Mandate jurisprudence cannot be changed.” More in general and according to an interpretation held by a growing number of scholars and by most of Israel’s right-wing parties, the preamble as well as Article 2 of the Mandate secured the establishment of the Jewish National Home on, in Howard Grief’s words, “the whole country of Palestine, not a mere part of it.” (H. Grief, The Legal Foundation and Borders of Israel under International Law (Jerusalem: Mazo, 2008), p. 106.) It would follow that, as argued by the late Eugene Rostow, “the Jewish right of settlement in the whole of western Palestine – the area west of the Jordan – survived the British withdrawal in 1948”.
But to resort to the League of Nations and the British Mandate for Palestine might be counterproductive for those committed to finding legal justifications for the construction of outposts, or the enlargement of settlements, in the Palestinian territories. The term “national home,” in fact, had no mutually agreed-upon meaning or scope and the British government was under no definite obligation, since the Mandate made any Jewish immigration subject to “suitable conditions” and contained safeguards for the rights and position of the non-Jewish communities.
True, in 1919 prominent British official Jan Christiaan Smuts, a leading figure in Lloyd George’s War Cabinet and an open supporter of racial segregation, envisaged the rise of “a great Jewish State.” Lloyd Gorge himself pointed out that “it was contemplated that when the time arrived for according representative institutions in Palestine, if the Jews had meanwhile responded to the opportunity afforded them by the idea of a National Home and had become a definite majority of the inhabitants, then Palestine would thus become a Jewish Commonwealth”.
On the other hand, the first Attorney General of Palestine, “lifelong Zionist” Norman Bentwich, contended that “a national home, as distinguished from a state, is a country where a people are acknowledged as having a recognized legal position and the opportunity of developing their cultural, social and intellectual ideals without receiving political rights”.
This position was also consistent with the one expressed a few years earlier by the general secretary and future President of the Zionist Organization Nahum Sokolov. He represented the Zionist Organization at the 1919’s Paris Peace Conference, where made it clear that the