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The Responsibility to Protect Palestinians

June 02, 2023
Michael Barnett


In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, Michael Barnett, a professor of international affairs and political science at George Washington University, analyzes the international community’s responsibilities concerning Palestine. 

A recent headline from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz describes a familiar event: “West Bank Palestinian Village Residents Flee Amid Ongoing Settler Violence.” In many respects, this is old news. Settlers have been terrorizing Palestinian residents for decades, and 2023 appears to be a particularly horrific year. In response to these criminal acts, the Israeli army and government have tended to look the other way. The military is often slow to react or a no-show when settlers take to the streets and rampage through Palestinian villages or uproot olive trees. The Israeli government rarely attempts to arrest or punish the offenders, often citing a lack of evidence or persuasive identification of suspected perpetrator, but the dominant reasons range from ideological sympathies with the settlers to the indirect benefits of keeping Palestinians in fear.

The international community has developed a moral register and set of possible responses for such situations: a responsibility to protect. The general claim is that when the state fails in its responsibility to protect its citizens and civilians, then the international community inherits this duty. The original formulation applied to situations of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, but it has expanded over the years to include less severe events and apartheid. These and other state-sponsored or state-enabled actions now sometimes go by the name atrocity crimes. Additionally, the United Nations and other international bodies have a protection of civilian mandate, as do many humanitarian and human rights agencies.

These various protection discourses and mandates were built for situations like the territories. Israel has routinely violated international law, including that related to refugees, human rights, and occupation. In addition, it has demonstrated an unwillingness to provide protections for Palestinians from the growing number of settlers. But the international community—specifically the West—has failed to act for two major reasons. It tolerated these abuses and arbitrary rules in the name of the peace process. The peace process led Western states to hold their tongues, creating something of a human shield for Israel. Relatedly, the US, for reasons owing to the peace process and domestic politics, played the role of protector of last resort in various international bodies and, most visibly, in the UN Security Council, where it reflexively vetoes any resolution that is critical of Israel. Only in the last days of the Obama administration did it find the “courage” to abstain. The US has been Israel’s “get out of jail free” card.

Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance.