The Geneva Convention is generally thought to apply to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank – that portion of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine previously occupied by the Jordan. This is important because the legal argument against settlements is that they violate Art. 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention, a provision which did not reflect prior international law.
Art. 2 of the Convention provides:
In addition to the provisions which shall be implemented in peace-time, the present Convention shall apply to all cases of declared war or of any other armed conflict which may arise between two or more of the High Contracting Parties, even if the state of war is not recognized by one of them.
The Convention shall also apply to all cases of partial or total occupation of the territory of a High Contracting Party, even if the said occupation meets with no armed resistance.
Because the West Bank was not part of the sovereign “territory of a High Contracting Party” (or of any country) in 1967, and Israel has argued that “occupation” within the meaning of the Convention can only exist in such territory. Of course, most international lawyers disagree, though in the years after 1967, some very prominent ones agreed.
What is more interesting is what people thought the provision meant before 1967, that is, before they knew the identity of the alleged violator. There is very little written on this, and few have looked at pre-1967 sources. However, one quite serious (pro-Israel) blogger has unearthed this intriguing discussion from Hans Kelsen in 1952, which clearly does not assume that the occupation of non-sovereign territory has the same consequences as the occupation of sovereign territory:
The principle that enemy territory occupied by a belligerent in course of war remains the territory of the state against which the war is directed, can apply only as long as this community still exists as a state within the meaning of international law. This is hardly the case if, after occupation of the whole territory of an enemy state, its armed forces are completely defeated to that no further resistance is possible and its national government is abolished by the victorious state. Then the vanquished community is deprived of one of the essential elements of a state in the sense of international law: an effective and independent government, and hence has lost its character as a state. If the territory is not to be considered a stateless territory, it must be considered to be under the sovereignty of the occupant belligerent, which—in such a case—ceases to be restricted by the rules concerning belligerent occupation. This was the case with the territory of the German Reich occupied in the Second World War after the complete defeat and surrender of its armed forces. In view of the fact that the last national government of the German Reich was abolished, it may be assumed that this state ceased to exist as a subject of international law.
There is a lot of research to be done in this vein. I recently came across a discussion in the U.N.’s International Law Commission from 1950, as part of the drafting of the Draft Declaration on Rights and Duties of States. There were quibbles from countries such as France about whether annexation is always banned, or whether there might be various exceptions.
In response, the Secretary observed: “It might be suggested that in order to constitute a crime under international law an annexation must be carried out through the use of armed force, with a view to destroying the territorial integrity of another State.” [See I Yearbook of Int. Law Comm. 137 (1950).]
Indeed, it was not surprising that there was some confusion and concern about the extent of an annexation norm, since as the delegates admitted, there were some “frontier adjustments” made by the Allies after WWII.