Recent developments in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs) – Commons Library Research Paper

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Series Details RP15/18 (30.03.15)
Publication Date 30/03/2015
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The West Bank and Gaza were invaded by Israel in 1967, and are collectively known as the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs). Before the Israeli invasion, the West Bank was part of Jordan whilst Gaza was part of Egypt. Both areas remained under full Israeli control until the mid-1990s, when the Palestinian Authority (PA) was created. The PA controls some areas of the OPTs, but other areas remain under Israeli control. Many in the international community, including the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, still regard the Territories as ‘occupied’ in their entirety because Israel retains control of their borders. Many Israeli citizens have moved into the OPTs, living in purpose-built Israeli settlements. The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits this practice, though Israel argues that it is not applicable in the OPTs.

It is widely accepted that the most likely solution to the conflict is a “two-state solution” – in other words, the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. (Egypt never claimed permanent sovereignty over Gaza, seeing its administration as temporary pending the creation of a Palestinian state, whilst Jordan renounced its claim to the West Bank in 1988.) Fatah, one of the two leading factions in Palestinian politics, supports this initiative. Hamas, its rival, takes a more radical line. Under the Hamas vision, the entire area now covered by the State of Israel would – along with the OPTs – form part of a future Palestinian state.

With a view to achieving a two-state solution, there have in recent years been various sets of talks between the Israeli and Palestinian administrations. The most recent set of talks, mediated by US Secretary of State John Kerry, began in August 2013, but collapsed in April 2014 following the decision by Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority and leader of Fatah, to sign a reconciliation agreement with Hamas. Israel was opposed to such an agreement and withdrew from the talks in protest.

Following the collapse of the talks, the remainder of 2014 saw Israeli-Palestinian relations continue on a downward spiral. On 7 July, after rocket attacks by Hamas, Israel launched a full-blown military operation (Operation Protective Edge) in Gaza. The hostilities ended on 26 August, when a ceasefire came into effect. During the Operation, 65 Israeli soldiers plus four Israeli civilians (and one foreign national in Israel) were killed. Casualties amongst Palestinians were far higher. According to UN figures, 2,104 Palestinians were killed, including 1,462 civilians.

As part of the ceasefire agreement, Israel agreed to lift some of its restrictions on Gaza; restrictions had been imposed for security reasons in 2007, when Hamas seized Gaza by force. Hamas retained full control of the territory until the signing of its April 2014 reconciliation agreement with Fatah. Whilst some restrictions have been lifted, many remain in place: for example, ordinary Gazans are not generally allowed to leave the territory.

The OPTs do not presently meet the criteria for statehood under international law. However, this fact does not inhibit other states from granting diplomatic recognition to “Palestine” if they so wish. Out of 193 UN member states, 135 have granted diplomatic recognition to Palestine, though most Western countries have not. However, this is beginning to change. Sweden recognised Palestine on 30 October 2014, and in a number of countries which have not yet recognised Palestine (including the UK), national Parliaments have passed motions (albeit non-binding ones) calling on their governments to do so.

The Palestinian Authority has in recent years made various attempts to upgrade its status at the United Nations, some more successful than others. Following an unsuccessful application for full membership in 2011, the “State of Palestine” was admitted as a non-member observer state in 2012. Subsequently, in 2014, Jordan (a key Palestinian ally and non-permanent member of the UN Security Council) submitted a draft resolution to the UN Security Council, calling for an end to the occupation by 2017. This resolution was rejected by the Security Council. In protest at the Security Council’s decision, Palestine acceded to the Rome Statute, the founding treaty of the International Criminal Court. Israel, and many in the international community, had argued that it should refrain from acceding until agreement was reached on a two-state solution. Palestine’s accession may lead the ICC to investigate war crimes alleged to have been committed by Israeli forces during Operation Protective Edge.

It is difficult to make any meaningful predictions about what the coming months will hold for the OPTs. The early months of 2015 have been challenging. Following Palestine’s accession to the Rome Statute, the Government of Israel announced its intention to withhold tax revenues from the Palestinian Authority. (Ordinarily, Israel collects such revenues on the Palestinians’ behalf.) In response, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (a federation of political parties dominated by Fatah) called on the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority to abdicate the responsibility it currently holds for security matters in parts of the West Bank. If the Palestinian Authority were to implement this suggestion, control of security matters – and responsibility for funding the security forces – would be handed back to Israel. Israel released the tax funds in late March, and it remains to be seen whether the PA will implement the PLO’s suggestion: doing so would be a step into the unknown for the West Bank.

There are nevertheless some limited grounds for optimism. The 2014 ceasefire agreement provided for indirect talks between Israel, Hamas and the PA, mediated by Egypt. Whilst they are far less ambitious in scope than the direct negotiations of August 2013 – April 2014, at present the indirect talks represent the only available opportunity to achieve meaningful progress. If progress is to be made, both sides – the Palestinians and the new Israeli administration – will have to make compromises. Whether there exists sufficient political will, on either side, remains to be seen.

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Related Links
ESO: Background information: EU releases €212 million to ensure healthcare, education and other basic social services to the Palestinian people
ESO: Background information: European Parliament resolution on recognition of Palestine statehood

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