With the supposed “death of war” which has accompanied the widespread rise of liberal democracies, as there is a general unwillingness of democracies to go to war, especially against other democracies, the concept of conquest has almost completely disappeared from international discourse. In the age of kingdoms and empires, conquest was one of the most important goals of governments as can be seen by such conquering powers as the Macedonians, the Romans, and especially the Mongols. While the issue has almost been rendered irrelevant since the end of World War Two, a lone nation still exercises the right of conquest over two territories with enormous geopolitical consequences to today’s world.
Largely popularized by President Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” plan for peace after World War One, the concept of self-determination states that peoples have the right to freely choose their political status without outside influence. The essential meaning of this principle holds that every nation of people be freely allowed to choose their government type without interference from other nations. Originally intended to separate the various ethnicities in the Balkan region of Europe, as these ethnicities often clashed, self-determination spread the world over, allowing for African nations to centralize themselves from the large colonial holdings of European powers to more compact nations by ethnic group. While this principle has by no means ended ethnic strife (the genocide in Rwanda is a clear indicator of that) nor granted every ethnic group their own nations, as the Kurds would attest to, self-determination has played a large role in the end of conquest. In the present day, the international community is more likely to compel the invading nation to cede back any lands conquered in a conflict.
However, the exception to this trend occurred in 1967 between Israel on one side and primarily Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, although fighters came from numerous other Muslim nations. The Six-Day War, a decisive victory for Israel, ended with Israel occupying territory from each of its opponents; the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. While Israel ceded the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt as part of the Camp David Accords in 1978, the rest remain occupied to this very day.
The political status of the three remaining areas is somewhat murky. While the Israeli military has left the Gaza Strip and a Palestinian government has been established, Israel still holds an inordinate influence, as it controls Gaza’s borders. Israel controls who is allowed in and out of the territory, as well as regulating what materials flow into Gaza. The most notable example concerning the latter power is the ongoing blockade enacted by Israel around the territory. Despite the overall humanitarian nightmare this act has inflicted upon the citizens of Gaza (the United Nations office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs states that the blockade has banned a great deal of medical supplies, forcing Gazans to travel to Egypt for anything beyond basic care), the blockade only came to widespread, popular knowledge after a raid by Israeli defense forces on a Turkish aid ship, running the blockade, resulted in the death of nine activists.
The Golan Heights remain in Israel’s grasp rather firmly. Peace talks have been floated between Israel and Syria over the region a few times since the end of the war, but no serious negotiations ever occurred. Israel’s previous prime minister, Ehud Olmert, even stated at one point that, “The Golan Heights will remain in [Israel’s] grasp forever.” Israeli government sources and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants tally the number of Syrians displaced by the occupation at one hundred thousand, but more unbiased sources put the number at about one hundred and fifty thousand. These are people who were forced from their homes with very little warning and have not been able to return in over forty years, despite many still having the keys to their front door. It remains to be seen how the Golan Heights will be affected by the civil war currently raging in Syria as the ruling Ba’ath Party of Bashar al-Assad, while by no means friendly with Israel, holds a secular view of governance. Should an Islamic government come to power after the conflict, as we have already seen in Egypt, it is likely that the efforts to liberate the Golan Heights would increase substantially.
The West Bank is likely the most contentious of the three occupied areas. This area included East Jerusalem, a key factor in what many view as the impossibility of a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinian community. While this section of Jerusalem, under the administration of Israel, is supposed to be reserved for Palestinians, Israel has increased its settlements in the vicinity and well as instituted policies making it harder for Palestinian businesses and individuals to get building permits resulting in a steady demographic shift towards one which will be dominated by Jewish Israelis in the coming decades. The settlement of Israelis in the West Bank in general is a fiery topic, as nearly the entire international community opposes continued settlement of Palestinian land. While the United States has repeated vetoed any United Nations Security Council resolution which declares the settlements as illegal, it has been the policy of the American government to deem the settlements as “inconsistent with international law” and as illegitimate “obstacles to peace.”
Yet while the international community does not approve of these three acts of conquest by the Israeli government, why do they permit them? The answer, as always, is a multifaceted, ambiguous set of hypothesizes with no clear resolution. For one, the United States’ near-unquestioning alliance with Israel gives Israel a sense of protection from the international community. The United States, as one of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, is very unlikely to allow any resolution which condemns Israel to pass, as seen earlier with regards to the settlements in the West Bank. The U.S.’s position as one of the most powerful nations in the world also assists Israel outside of the United Nations, as it discourages America’s allies to take unilateral action against Israel. Even when they do, as the European Union did just two weeks ago, the action rarely if ever takes a form more severe than a simple condemnation.
Another possible explanation for at least the West’s reluctance to take action to end Israel’s occupation of its conquered lands is the slight prevalence of Islamophobia present in many Western nations. The United States’ fear of Islam is easy to see, although not as important here due to the aforementioned close relations with Israel. Europe, on the other hand, has a long history of anxiety of Islam, one which traces back much deeper into the annals of history than America’s. As I discussed in an early entry concerned with religious extremism, Christian Europe first came into contact with Islam through the invading Umayyad Caliphate which conquered the Iberian Peninsula and threatened to take over more European territories until it was pushed back at the Battle of Tours. Thus the very first experience Europeans had Islam was at sword’s edge. While the tensions between the two eventually settled as the Islamic merchants of Northern Africa became key contributors on the Silk Route, Muslims were always viewed as a foreign “other.” This historical “anxiety,” if you will, only increased with the arrival of Islamic extremism marked by the September 11th attacks on the United States, the July 7th subway attacks in London, and Madrid train bombings.
Since these attacks, Europe has become increasingly hostile to Muslims, an attitude which I believe has crept into governmental policy towards the conquered areas of Palestine. While there have been isolated incidents of anti-Islamic acts in Europe, such as defacing of mosques, criminal attacks on those perceived to be Muslim, grave desecration, and similar hateful actions, I would prefer to focus only on domestic policies passed by governments against Islam. The most well-known of these is the law passed by the French government which prohibits the wearing of the Islamic headscarf by Muslim female students in school, as well as the more inclusive (exclusive?) ban on the full-face veil. Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Italy have followed suit with similar national bans and Spain, which does not have a national ban, has seen many cities institute the bans on the smaller scale. While these laws are ostensibly to prevent the “oppression” of women which the full-face veil supposedly represents, they completely ignore the possibility (and in many cases, reality) of women wearing the veils as a religious choice.
It is my opinion that, while European nations may condemn Israel’s policies towards the conquered territories of the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank, the reason that they take no action to rectify these injustices are both an unwillingness to take action which the United States would disapprove of, and likely economically punish them for, as well as the latent anti-Islamic ideologies which are harbored both by the general population and the government. Therefore, while the rights of conquest were disavowed by the international community after the horrors of World War Two, Israel has enjoyed such rights for the past forty years due to its close alliance with the United States and the religion of those whom are oppressed by its exercitation of such rights.