How the Failure of International Law Perpetuates the Israel-Palestine Conflict

Today in the West Bank, about 871,000 Palestinian refugees reside in UN refugee camps. Inside one of these camps, women and their children prepare a dish called Maqluba, meaning “upside-down.” The pot consists of rice, meat and vegetables and is flipped upside down when served to guests. Outside, children are seen walking home from school or playing soccer. At first glance, it’s difficult to discern the refugee camp that resembles a pleasant, peaceful suburb — a symbol of the shattering of Palestinian society.

The making of Palestinian refugees can be traced back to 1948 when Israel was legally established during its War of Independence. To Palestinians, 1948 is known as Al-Nakba — “The Catastrophe.” 

In 1947, the UN Partition Plan called for the partitioning of the British Mandate territory of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. The plan passed during the UN General Assembly but was rejected by the Arab community — and the 1948 War followed shortly after. The conclusion of the Al-Nakba war spurred more territorial changes. The Israeli government seized an additional 60% of the land designated for the proposed Arab state in addition to obtaining the 1947 UN Partition Plan, resulting in the exodus of 750,000 Palestinian refugees to the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Today, the Palestinian refugee population encompasses over seven million people. 

After the 1948 War, indigenous Palestinians who attempted to return to their homes were either killed or rejected. At the time, the Israeli government believed that allowing Palestinians to return would undermine self-determination efforts and create a Jewish minority

In 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank. Some Israelis settled for economic reasons, and some settled to fulfill an ethnic cleansing paradigm. Noam Chomsky defines this as establishing a Jewish state by taking as much of historic Palestine as possible and leaving as few Palestinians as possible. Ethnic cleansing often relies on expulsing individuals from the state, which isn’t always possible in today’s Israel since Palestinians have resided in the region since the early 20th century. Instead, Israel relies on enclaving Palestinians and occupying Palestine. 

Regardless of the reasons, Israel’s current-day expanding occupation of designated Palestinian territories is a blatant violation of international law and constitutes a war crime, according to the International Criminal Court. 

To an outsider, certain facets of the Israel-Palestine conflict may seem like a simple legal or illegal, moral or amoral binary. However, the conflict is objectively complex, with no foreseeable policy solutions. 

The ongoing conflict between Israeli occupation and the Palestinian Right of Return is a culmination of religious contradictions, political deadlocks and policy stalemates — issues that international law cannot rectify. 

Though international law intended to rectify Israeli occupation, legal declarations hold no legitimate enforcement mechanisms, including international human rights courts. Ultimately, there are no costs for not adhering, and countries don’t have any form of ‘bargaining power’ to make them adhere. Israel may ratify treaties, but, at the end of the day, Israel has different interpretations of international law and ends up executing the law differently — in a method that benefits them. Moreover, countries often see international law as a violation of their state sovereignty and will either bypass or ignore mandates. For international law to work, it requires common denominators — an agreement on specific civil liberties, geography, interpretation of history and religion, and a specific idea of sovereignty —  between all parties. 

However, international law has inherent failures deeming it futile. The main way international law fails is by allowing countries to sign human rights treaties without requiring the country to ratify and incorporate them into its domestic law. The Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 49 (which prohibits the occupying power to transfer citizens from its territory to the occupied territory), and the 1949 Hague Regulations were signed by Israel, not ratified. 

This means the Israeli government is only required to act in de facto compliance, not de jure. De facto means existing ‘in fact’ or in practice but not strictly ordained by law. De jure is a legitimate right and is ordained by law. If a country doesn’t embed international law into its constitution, adherence doesn’t matter because its agenda doesn’t align with it in the first place. Support from the country’s legislature is simply absent. 

Israel’s mere nod to international human rights law has allowed its occupation to become the most prolonged in modern history and build at least 250 illegal settlements on Palestinian land. 

Another way international law perpetuates this conflict is through ambiguous, unenforceable legal jargon. Human rights treaties use words like “self-determination,” “equality,” “property,” and “freedom of movement”, but fail to operationally and systematically define these terms in the context of the situation — allowing for the country to cherry-pick the human rights they are willing to abide by. 

Countries strategically write treaties with words and syntax that result in outcomes favorable to them to circumvent the responsibility they should be dealing with. In the 1967 Israeli Military Order 101, for example, the Israel Defense Forces state they “entered” the area, as opposed to “conquered” or “occupied” — words that align more closely with the reality — “for the purpose of establishing security and public order in the area,” allowing Israel to avoid accountability for their settlements. 

Lastly, international law is immensely subjective, especially in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Countries demonstrate legitimacy and belief in something only if they choose to believe in it, whether it’s a legal geographical boundary or a treaty. 

Settling in Area A in the West Bank is illegal by all standards of international law. To Israel, it’s not — simply because they believe it’s their right. International law remains illegitimate to Israel because its laws treat it as such, and nothing happens due to an absence of enforcement methods. 

International law, though well-intentioned, is performative. It sustains Israeli occupation by giving Israel an easy pass. Once Israel signs and merely acknowledges these legal declarations, the UN and countries intending to hold Israel accountable in treaties do not expect anything more. International law has no inherent enforcement mechanisms to challenge Israel’s behavior or ensure repercussions for its violations. 


Hanna Teerman

Hanna Teerman is a junior from Houston, Texas studying international relations and law. She was first exposed to international relations when she studied Mandarin in Taipei, Taiwan her junior year of high school. Since then, she has become increasingly interested in U.S.-China relations and IR’s intersection with law. Outside of school, Hanna enjoys traveling, philosophy, and playing piano.