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French Appeals Court Throws Out Suit on West Bank Activity

Legal scholars are calling attention to a little-noticed but legally significant ruling issued last week by a French Court of Appeals in Versailles. The Court was asked to adjudicate whether a French-based multinational conglomerate was violating international law by helping to build a light rail system in Israeli-controlled areas of the West Bank.

The claim was that the French company – Alstom Transport – was in violation of a clause in the Fourth Geneva Convention which prohibits the deportation or transfer of civilian populations by an “occupying power.” At stake is whether private action can be taken as violating that part of the Convention, or whether only government action triggers the clause. It has become somewhat assumed in certain corners of the foreign policy world that of course private action violates the relevant Geneva clauses. The assumption is the basis for assertions that private Israeli purchases of homes in the West Bank are violations of international law.

Not so much, according to the Court:

Crucially, the Court held that only the Government of Israel, and not private parties, can violate the relevant provisions of the Geneva Conventions. The arguments that Israeli communities in the West Bank violate international law start with Art. 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which provides that “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer its civilian population into the territory it occupies.” The provision was also relied on heavily in the lawsuit. The Court ruled that 49(6) only speaks to and applies to action by the Israeli government (“the Occupying power”), and does not regulate Alton’s activities in the occupied territory…

This conventional reading of 49(6) as generally banning Jewish settlements is disconnected from the text, which only speaks of “transfers” carried out by the Government. Some scholars, including myself, have long maintained that private movement of persons is in no way covered by 49(6), and the Court apparently adopts this position (though I am unclear how much of a role domestic legal principles played).

The ruling promises to complicate condemnations of Israel, often voiced by anti-Israel activists and non-governmental organizations, which assume otherwise.

[Photo: Occitandu34 / Wiki Commons]