In an important but largely ignored case, a French Court of Appeals in Versailles ruled last week that construction of a light rail system in the Israeli-controlled West Bank by a French company does not violate international law. In doing so, the court sided with many of the arguments long made against the blanket application of the relevant provisions of the Geneva Conventions to Israeli settlements. National courts rarely if ever address such issues, and thus the decision is important both for its rarity and for what it says.
In this post, I’ll address issues relevant to the substance – Israel’s presence in the West Bank. In the next post I’ll deal with the “Kiobel” issues raised by the case – corporate liability, the value of American ATS cases, and so forth. I should note at the outset that what follows is based on a rough translation of the opinion and my vague French; I would be grateful for corrections on matters of language that I have misapprehended. I venture forward because it is an important decision that deserves attention, yet has been met by complete silence by international legal scholars.
The Jerusalem Light Rail, which began running last year after a long period of construction, links the Western part of the city with the parts occupied by Jordan prior to and annexed by Israel after the 1967 War. The project was widely criticized by pro-Palestinian groups, as was the participation of French rail companies in the project. Along with a variety of political pressure and boycott activities, a Palestinian group sued the French-based multinational conglomerate Alstom Transport for its role in in the project. The case was dismissed below in 2011, and the Court of Appeals upheld the decision last week.
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 is an extraordinarily important holding in light of the decades old-debate about the meaning of 49(6) in the context of Israeli civilian migration into the West Bank. It is in direct opposition to the political and international law position on settlements. In the standard narrative, any migration of Israeli Jews past the Green Line, or the expansion of their residences and communities once there, is a war crime. Thus when private citizens decides to buy or build a house across the Green Line, or even expand an existing one, it is a war crime.