A Threat To Israel? Palestinians Apply To Human Rights Conventions

by Mitchell Plitnick

In an earlier article I discussed the apoplectic reaction by the United States to the Palestinian decision to send letters of accession to fifteen international conventions and treaties. This was condemned by Samantha Power in congressional testimony as a threat to Israel. Earlier, a White House spokesman had equated this Palestinian move with Israeli settlement expansion and reneging on the agreed release of prisoners by calling both moves “unhelpful, unilateral actions.”

So let’s examine these unilateral steps by the Palestinians and what existential threat they pose to Israel. Here is the list of the fifteen conventions that the Palestinians want to become a party to:

  1. The Four Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 and the First Additional Protocol
  2. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations
  3. The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations
  4. The Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in armed conflict
  5. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
  6. The Hague Convention (IV) respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its annex: Regulations Concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land
  7. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
  8. The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties
  9. The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
  10. The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
  11. The United Nations Convention against Corruption
  12. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide
  13. The International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid
  14. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  15. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

As you can see, the Palestinian applications do not affect Israel in any way. In fact, the Palestinians went out of their way to avoid impactful applications, such as to the Rome Statute (which would allow them to bring war crimes charges against Israel to the International Criminal Court) or to any United Nations bodies (which, thanks to Israel’s bought-and-paid-for US Congress would force the United States to suspend funding to any such bodies, as it did in response to UNESCO accepting the Palestinians in 2011).

If we want to really stretch our imaginations, we can come up with two things Israel might be concerned about. One is that by joining these conventions, Palestine looks a little bit more like a state. The second is that if Palestine is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, it helps to undermine Israel’s argument that the Conventions don’t apply to the Occupied Territories because after the 1948 war, they were merely occupied by other countries, rather than being truly part of a neighboring state.

But those imaginative leaps don’t amount to much, because even if they were Israel’s concerns — and they’re not — they’d be very minor. The accession to these conventions would be nothing next to the UN General Assembly’s decision to admit Palestine as a “non-member observer state” in November 2012. And no one who takes international law seriously buys Israeli arguments that the Geneva Conventions don’t apply to the Occupied Territories.

No, Israel’s concerns are that the Palestinians took an action that Israel did not agree to, and that the action they took is a reminder that the Palestinians can, any time they wish to, apply for accession to the Rome Statute, which Israel clearly fears.

There’s a real irony in the Israeli and US reactions. Ethically, and as a way to take some sort of action, the Palestinian decision is beyond reproach. But strategically, the particular conventions they applied to could cause some problems for them. The fact is, the Palestinian Authority (PA), from its inception, has had major problems with human rights. As attorney Darryl Li explains, “Many of the human rights agreements Abbas signed have monitoring mechanisms whereby committees of experts monitor state compliance through periodically holding hearings and issuing reports.” Israel, which has never been concerned about hypocrisy, will no doubt use such reports to attack the PA while condemning the same bodies when they issue reports critical of themselves.

That aside, the real issue here is that the United States is criticizing and threatening the Palestinian Authority for signing conventions committing them to international law, protecting human and civil rights, and agreeing to diplomatic norms. At the same time, Israel reneges on its commitments to the US, expands settlements and threatens to withhold tax monies from the Palestinians that Israel is not legally entitled to control, and the US expresses mild displeasure but threatens absolutely no action in response.

All of us who have followed this conflict for any length of time have likely become jaded by the US double standard. That’s why it’s worthwhile to examine what’s happening when that double standard is this blatant. We need to remember how much of a problem it really is.

Photo: US Secretary of State John Kerry and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands before a meeting in Paris, France, on February 19, 2014. Credit: State Department/Public Domain

Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. His previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, the New Republic, the Jordan Times, Middle East Report, the San Francisco Chronicle, +972 Magazine, Outlook, and other outlets. He was a columnist for Tikkun Magazine, Zeek Magazine and Souciant. He has spoken all over the country on Middle East politics, and has regularly offered commentary in a wide range of radio and television outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor, i24 (Israel), Pacifica Radio, CNBC Asia and many other outlets, as well as at his own blog, Rethinking Foreign Policy, at www.mitchellplitnick.com. You can find him on Twitter @MJPlitnick.



  1. I see no danger to Israel even if Palestine gains full membership in the UN. Real danger, that is. Unless “danger” is defined as Israel being obliged to get out of the West Bank.

  2. First rate, thanks for digging this stuff out. It’s not often that outside observers have access to the tools with which to make sound judgments about the actors’ strategies.

    This hornbook/monograph is a high quality, single volume encyclopedic study of the doctrine of “recognition” of new states in international law. It’s available as a Google e-book. It will help in sorting out what’s going on regarding this combination of legal strategy and application of pressure on the Israelis by the PA.

    I’m wondering if the cries of pain from the U.S. aren’t more theater for our great ally than anything else. The U.S. needs the application of non-violent pressure on Israel from all points of the compass except itself—at this stage anyway.

    The Creation of States in International Law
    James R. Crawford
    Oxford University Press, rev. ed., Feb 23, 2006 – Political Science – 944 pages

  3. James Canning says:

    ‘I see no danger to Israel even if Palestine gains full membership in the UN. Real danger, that is. Unless “danger” is defined as Israel being obliged to get out of the West Bank.’

    That’s probably the global judgment of Israel as a morally bankrupt, selfish scofflaw. The touch of cynicism is fully justified. Surely Israel intends to keep what she likes to think of as title by conquest to the West Bank even though in character she no more discloses such plans than she does her nuclear arsenal.

    So it’s a given that her long range intentions must entail recognition and legitimacy there in some distant epoch when people have forgotten what she’s done. You know, after the Sturm und Drang of the occupation is a faded memory and the outside world is tired of inveighing against apartheid or the final ethnic cleansing.

    But now the Palestinians are leaving behind a legal paper trail which looks very state-like.

  4. Another good post today, as usual Mr Plitnick, thank you. To Hunter, Haim Shime argued in Sheldon Adelson-owned Israel Today, that Israel wont give up its nuclear weapons like Ukraine did,. for pathetic promises of American protection. The handwriting is on the wall, “O” has the out needed, doesn’t need Congress approval, can step aside, not veto or back Israeli plans, for IMHO, “O” will have the backing of the majority of the American people as well as most of the world. Israel may find itself out in no mans land, without the U.S.A., no matter how angry AIPAC/Congress get. It will serve Israel right for the apartheid treatment of the other ethnic peoples in Israel.

  5. Joining Hunter’s expression of thanks to the author for “digging this staff out”. I think the real problem for those, who are unhappy about the Palestinian decision to join all these HUMANITARIAN (Sic!) conventions, is that this step adds to and emphasize statehood – something which has already been recognized by the UNGA.
    By the way, I wonder, why shouldn’t the Palestinians join some of the basic arms control and non-proliferation treaties, such as NPT, BWC and CWC. Palestine will lose nothing in terms of closing for itself certain military options, related to these weapons of mass destruction – realistically speaking, she does not have such options anyway. On the other hand, wouldn’t the security of its neighbors (including Israel) and of the region in general benefit from a legally binding confirmation that Palestine will never aspire to have such weapons? And wouldn’t it go in the direction of ultimate establishment of the WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East without requiring any material concessions from Israel?
    Furthermore, NPT and BWC do not have implementing organizations, so the question of the Palestinian membership in additional international agencies simply does not arise. The situation with the CWC is a bit more complicated, since there is OPCW to implement it. However, the CWC rules are very clear: any state which becomes party to the CWC is automatically a member of the OPCW, and the latter (just as any of its member states) has no decision to take on the admission or non-admission of the Palestinians. In other words, there is no place for divisive discussions and voting on the Palestinian membership. In case this is not as self-evident, as it is to me, the Palestinians might consider waiting a bit more with the CWC, of course.

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