U.S. Defends Israel at UN Court Hearing on Occupation: Live Updates

A day after vetoing calls for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza, the United States on Wednesday defended Israel’s decades-long occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, arguing at the United Nations’ highest court that Israel faced “very real security needs.”

The latest United States defense of Israel on the global stage came at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where Richard C. Visek, the acting legal adviser at the U.S. State Department, urged a 15-judge panel not to call for Israel’s immediate withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territory.

He said that only the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel could bring about lasting peace, repeating a longstanding U.S. position but one whose prospects appear even more elusive amid the war in Gaza.

The court is hearing six days of arguments over the legality of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian-majority territories, including the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which has been the subject of years of debates and resolutions at the United Nations. The hearings — involving more than 50 countries — were called long before Israel went to war against Hamas in Gaza, but have become part of a concerted global effort to stop the conflict and examine the legality of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians.

Israel has said it would not participate in the hearings, and sent a letter to the court last year arguing that they were unwarranted and failed to “recognize Israel’s right and duty to protect its citizens” or its right to security.

The United States has strongly defended Israel during the war, including on Tuesday, when it cast the lone veto against a U.N. Security Council resolution that called for an immediate cease-fire, saying it would disrupt efforts to free hostages held in Gaza.

On Wednesday, Mr. Visek asked the court to uphold the “established framework” for peace that he said U.N. bodies had agreed to — one that is contingent on a “broader end to belligerence” against Israel — rather than to heed calls by other nations for Israel’s “unilateral and unconditional withdrawal” from occupied territories.

The Oct. 7 Hamas-led attacks on Israel were a reminder of the threats facing the country and of its security needs, Mr. Visek said, “and they persist.”

“Regrettably, those needs have been ignored by many of the participants in asserting how the court should consider the questions before it,” he said, referring to others countries’ testimony in the hearings.

Mr. Visek’s appearance directly preceded that of Vladimir Tarabrin, Russia’s ambassador to the Netherlands.

When he took the microphone, Mr. Tarabrin said Russia values its “stable relations” with Israel and expressed condolences over Oct. 7. But in what appeared to be a thinly veiled swipe at the United States, he said Russia “cannot accept the logic” of those who “try to defend the indiscriminate violence against civilians” in Gaza by citing Israel’s right to defend itself.

“Violence can only lead to more violence,” he said.

The court, which often hears staid disputes among nations, has lately become a venue for countries to oppose Israel. Last month, South Africa argued at the court that Israel was committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza — a charge Israel strongly rejected. The judges have not ruled on that claim, but issued an interim order for Israel to take steps to prevent genocide in Gaza.

On Tuesday, South Africa forcefully condemned Israel’s policies against Palestinians, calling them “a more extreme form of apartheid,” the race-based system of laws that deprived Black South Africans for decades.

Israel has long rejected accusations that it operates an apartheid system, calling such allegations a slur and pointing to what it says is a history of being singled out for condemnation by U.N. bodies and tribunals.

The United States has remained Israel’s staunchest defender internationally. But the Biden administration, under increasing pressure from parts of the Democratic Party, has also shown signs of impatience with Israel’s conduct of the war, the rising toll in Gaza and the plight of Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

President Biden this month said that Israel’s military response in Gaza — which began after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks — had been “over the top” and that the immense civilian suffering had “got to stop.” The remarks came days after Mr. Biden imposed broad financial sanctions against four Israeli men over violent attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank.

After the hearings, which are scheduled to conclude on Monday, the court will give an advisory opinion, a decision that is expected to take several months. The opinion will be nonbinding.

Cassandra Vinograd contributed reporting.