Landmark French Ruling on West Bank Construction and International Law

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.

Moreover, Israeli citizens who migrate to the West Bank are often said to be guilty of war crimes themselves as aiders-and-abettors. The Versailles decision would seem to reject such a position.

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). Now one might say the government is always “involved” – roads, security, zoning, etc., but ubiquitous “background” roles do not trigger the state action doctrine in U.S. constitutional law, and it is not clear why they would under international law. (On the other hand, if one gets a package bus/light rail ticket, it would be an unusual literal case of “transfer” into occupied territory.)

Indeed, the French case would be a strong one for inferring governmental role, since the defendant worked under contract with Israeli governmental entities. My understanding of the Court’s opinion is a little fuzzy here, but it seems they say contractual privity is not enough to trigger 49(6) either. This would certainly make it inapplicable to the vast majority of Israeli settlers (not all, necessarily, since 49(6) is ultimately a case-by-by-case factual question.

The Court goes on the reject the notion that the relevant norms have become customary or jus cogens and apply without the particular textual restrictions of 49(6).

Israel’s critics have long claimed that “everyone agrees” that all “settlements” (a term referring to all Israeli activity in the West Bank, at least that benefits Jews) clearly violates international law, and that only Israeli apologists could believe the arguments to the contrary. I assume the Versailles Court of Appeals won’t be accused of being unduly sympathetic to the Jewish State.

Indeed, many might share my surprise on such a decision coming from a European court, especially given the supposed uniformity of views on the underlying legal issues. Perhaps two factors may explain the surprising decision: this is not an international court, but an ordinary municipal one, and it was an important French industrial concern, rather than Israel, in the dock. International lawyers may what could positively be described as professional or scientific knowledge of the matter, or more cynically as guild orthodoxy. Judges unversed in these verities might see things differently. And of course, here international law is being used against important and powerful domestic interests.

The plaintiffs could still appeal to the Cour de Casssation, which however is not obligated to hear the appeal.

[Cross-posted on OpinioJuris.]

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