Why the West Bank is "occupied" and not "captured"

In their coverage of Palestine-Israel, the media often blur the distinction between the terms "occupied" and "captured" and falsely suggest that Israel “captured” the West Bank, East Jerusalem and other territory in the 1967 war. 

This usage may mislead the reader into thinking that Israel has a strong claim to, or ownership of, these Palestinian territories. Nevertheless, such usage runs directly counter 1) to how international law views the military seizure of territory, 2) to how the international diplomatic community currently views Israel’s presence in the Palestinian territories, and 3) to how both words are understood in plain English. 

To illustrate this issue, it is worth noting the influential role of the Associated Press (AP), an international wire service that supplies content to numerous Canadian media outlets, particularly concerning Israel and Palestine. The following line was frequently used in AP articles in the first half of 2023: “Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967.”

Failing to properly describe the current status of these territories under Israeli administration is misleading to the public, and potentially damaging to the eventual resolution of the conflict. 

Key Points

International law does not recognize the capture of territory by force, and the international community has never diplomatically acquiesced to Israel's ongoing military presence in the West Bank.

1. In international law, the term “capture” never applies to land appropriation

The UN Charter specifically outlaws the acquisition of territory by force.[1]  As such, according to numerous legal interpretations, there is no concept of legal “capture” of sovereign territory. In International Law: A Treatise, Lassa Oppenheim illustrates the five recognized modes of acquiring state territory, namely: cession, occupation, accretion, subjugation, and prescription.[2] These five modes have been incorporated into common international law (e.g. The Acquisition of Territory in International Law, by Robert Jennings[3]) and by the ICJ in particular.

In customary international law (namely the Fourth Geneva Convention[4] and the Second Hague Convention[5]) the word “capture” is exclusively used in reference to belligerent armies taking captives as prisoners of war.

2. There is no legal avenue for the “capture” of territory under international law

The UN Charter provides no avenue for a country to violate or infringe on the territorial integrity of another country. Specifically, the UN Charter states that “all Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”[6] In a legal opinion issued by the International Court of Justice concerning the legal consequences of the construction of the barrier wall in the occupied Palestinian territories, the Court affirms the applicability of Article 2, Section 4 of the UN Charter regarding the “illegality of territorial acquisition resulting from the use of force.”[7] The decision cites the earlier ICJ case of Nicaragua v. The United States of America, which states:

“In sum, the provisions of Article 2(4) with respect to the lawfulness of the use of force are 'modern customary law' […] and the 'embodiment of general principles of international law' […]. There is no other 'customary and general international law' on which Nicaragua can rest its claims. It is, in short, inconceivable that this Court could consider the lawfulness of an alleged use of armed force without referring to the principal source of the relevant international law - Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter.” [8]

Furthermore, according to the 1966 Yearbook of the International Law Commission, “the great majority of international lawyers today unhesitatingly hold that Article 2, paragraph 4, together with other provisions of the Charter, authoritatively declares the modern customary law regarding the threat or use of force,” [9] establishing the UN Charter as the definitive authority on this area of international law.

This interpretation of the UN Charter is specifically applied in the case of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in many UN resolutions.  For example:

  • Resolution 242 (22 Nov. 1967) of the UN Security Council “[emphasizes] the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in which every State in the area can live in security,” and mandates the “termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.” [10]
  • Resolution 252 (21 May, 1968) of the UN Security Council, addressing the unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem by Israel, states that “all legislative and administrative measures and actions taken by Israel, including expropriation of land and properties thereon, which tend to change the legal status of Jerusalem are invalid and cannot change that status.” [11]

3. Israel’s presence in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) is consistently described in legal terms as a (military) occupation

In response to Israeli claims that the Fourth Geneva Convention did not apply to its presence in the West Bank, the signatories of the Fourth Geneva Convention reconvened on December 5th, 2001. The Fourth Geneva Convention was established after World War II to define international humanitarian law specifically in times of war and occupation.  In 2001, the signatories reconfirmed the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, thus confirming that Israel is indeed considered an occupying power. [12] Referring to Section 3, the signatories explicitly identify the State of Israel as the occupying power. [13]

The ICJ decision of 2004 also specifically re-iterated Israel’s status as the occupying power:

“…territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army, and the occupation extends only to the territory where such authority has been established and can be exercised. The territories situated between the Green Line (see paragraph 72 above) and the former eastern boundary of Palestine under the Mandate were occupied by Israel in 1967 during the armed conflict between Israel and Jordan. Under customary international law, these were therefore occupied territories in which Israel had the status of occupying Power. Subsequent events in these territories, as described in paragraphs 75 to 77 above, have done nothing to alter this situation. All these territories (including East Jerusalem) remain occupied territories and Israel has continued to have the status of occupying Power.” [14]

4. There is no diplomatic justification for the term “capture” in Canadian foreign policy

Canada has long deferred to international law in its international relations. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Canada does not recognize Israel’s presence in the Palestinian territories as a “capture.” In reference to the occupied territories and settlements, Global Affairs Canada is very clear:

“Canada does not recognize permanent Israeli control over territories occupied in 1967 (the Golan Heights, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip). The Fourth Geneva Convention applies in the occupied territories and establishes Israel's obligations as an occupying power, in particular with respect to the humane treatment of the inhabitants of the occupied territories. As referred to in UN Security Council Resolutions 446 and 465, Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The settlements also constitute a serious obstacle to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace.”[15]

In 1967, Israel publicly announced that it was annexing East Jerusalem, despite the fact that such an act would strictly violate international law. To date, no country has recognized this supposed “annexation.”  Canada’s position on the status of Jerusalem is unequivocal: “Canada does not recognize Israel's unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem.”[16]

Addressing Israel’s wall (a.k.a. “separation barrier”) which repeatedly crosses over into Palestinian land, Global Affairs Canada once again refers to the West Bank and East Jerusalem as “occupied territory” and explicitly opposes Israel’s intrusion therein: “Canada opposes Israel's construction of the barrier inside the West Bank and East Jerusalem which are occupied territories. This construction is contrary to international law under the Fourth Geneva Convention.”[17]

Canada is joined by virtually all other members of the international community in these same positions. Even the United States, despite its recent recognition of Israel’s annexation of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, continues to describe East Jerusalem and the West Bank as “Israeli-occupied territories.”[18]

The EU, likewise, takes the same position as it discusses Israel’s various violations of international law:

Settlements: “The EU considers that settlement building anywhere in the occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, is illegal under international law, constitutes an obstacle to peace and threatens to make a two-state solution impossible.”[19]

Borders:       “The EU considers that the future Palestinian state will require secure and recognized [sic] borders. These should be based on a withdrawal from the territory occupied in 1967 with minor modifications mutually agreed, if necessary, in accordance with UNSC Resolutions 242, 338, 1397, 1402 and 1515 and the principles of the Madrid Process.” [20]

Jerusalem:    “The EU will not recognize [sic] any changes to the pre-1967 borders including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties.”[21]

5. The use of the term “capture,” as opposed to “occupy,” perpetuates the erasure of Palestinians

The term "capture" has its origins in the Latin word "captura," which combines "capiō," meaning "capture, seize, take," with "-tūra," denoting concrete results or activities. Etymologically, "capture" carries a sense of concreteness and finality. On the other hand, the term "occupy" shares the same Latin root, "capiō," but it is combined with the Latin prefix "ob," meaning "toward, over, or against." Inherent in the term "occupy" is a tension and a sense of contestation. It conveys the idea of conflict and ongoing control, indicating that something is not final but rather being held by one party over or against another. By using "capture" instead of "occupy," the other party, which in this case is the Palestinian people, is effectively erased.


As emphasized above, Canada, the United States, the United Nations, the international community, and human rights organizations, only ever describe the West Bank and East Jerusalem as occupied territories, and never as “captured” territories. Furthermore, despite what Israel describes as a “disengagement” from Gaza in 2005, the international community and legal experts overwhelmingly view Gaza as an occupied territory under Israeli “effective control.”[22]

As such, the use of the terminology "military occupied" or simply "occupied" is the most accurate way, legally, diplomatically and etymologically to describe Israel’s administration in these territories.

Last updated: 2023-08-03

[1] “UN Charter,” Article 2.4, The United Nations. 26 Jun. 1945. Web. 27 Jul. 2016. <http://www.un.org/en/sections/un-charter/un-charter-full-text/index.html>.

[2] Oppenheim, Lassa Francis. International Law: A Treatise. Second Edition. London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1912. Project Gutenberg. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/41046/41046-h/41046-h.htm>.

[3]Jennings, Robert. The Acquisition of Territory in International Law. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1963. Google Books. <https://books.google.ca/books?id=NhfpAAAAIAAJ&lpg=PA52&ots=vr2WnyVsPK&dq=robert%20jennings%20the%20acquisition%20of%20territory%20in%20international%20law&pg=PA37#v=onepage&q&f=false>.

[4] “Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.” International Committee of the Red Cross. 12 Aug. 1949. Web. 27 Jul. 2016. <https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/ihl/INTRO/380>.

[5] “Laws of War: Laws and Customs of War on Land (Hague II)” The Avalon Project. Yale Law School. 29 Jul. 1899. Web. 27 Jul. 2016. <http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/hague02.asp>.

[6] “UN Charter,” Article 2.4, The United Nations. 26 Jun. 1945. Web. 27 Jul. 2016. <http://www.un.org/en/sections/un-charter/un-charter-full-text/index.html>.

[7] “Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory” International Court of Justice. 9 Jul. 2004. Web. 27 Jul. 2016. <http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/files/131/1677.pdf>.

[8] “Case Concerning Military and Paramilitary Activities In and Against Nicaragua”. International Court of Justice. 27 Jun. 1986. Web. 27 Jul. 2016. https://www.ilsa.org/jessup/jessup08/basicmats/icjnicaragua.pdf

[9] “Yearbook of the International Commission1966” The United Nations. 1966. Web. 27 Jul. 2016. <http://legal.un.org/ilc/publications/yearbooks/english/ilc_1966_v2.pdf>.

[10] “Resolution 242” Security Council of the United Nations. 22 Nov. 1967. Web. 27 Jul. 2016. <https://unispal.un.org/DPA/DPR/unispal.nsf/0/7D35E1F729DF491C85256EE700686136>.

[11] “Resolution 252” Security Council of the United Nations. 21 May 1968. Web. 27 Jul. 2016. <https://unispal.un.org/DPA/DPR/unispal.nsf/0/46F2803D78A0488E852560C3006023A8>.

[12] “Implementation of the Fourth Geneva Convention in the occupied Palestinian territories: history of a multilateral process (1997-2001)” International Committee of the Red Cross. 5 Dec. 2001. Web. 27 Jul. 2016. <https://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/article/other/5fldpj.htm>.

[13] “Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.” International Committee of the Red Cross. 12 Aug. 1949. Web. 27 Jul. 2016.  <https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/applic/ihl/ihl.nsf/7c4d08d9b287a42141256739003e636b/6756482d86146898c125641e004aa3c5?OpenDocument>.

[14] “Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory” International Court of Justice. 9 Jul. 2004. Web. 27 Jul. 2016. <http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/files/131/1677.pdf>.

[15] “Canadian Policy on Key Issues in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict”, Government of Canada. Last modified 29 Jan. 2023. < https://www.international.gc.ca/world-monde/international_relations-relations_internationales/mena-moan/israeli-palestinian_policy-politique_israelo-palestinien.aspx?lang=eng>.

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] “Israel” CIA World Factbook. Last updated 26 May 2023. < https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/israel/>

[19] “EU Positions on the Middle East Peace Process.” European External Action Service. Web. 04 Aug. 2016. <http://eeas.europa.eu/mepp/about/eu-positions/eu_positions_en.htm>.

[20] Ibid

[21] Ibid

[22] “CBC Falsely Asserts that Gaza is ‘Not Occupied’ by Israel,” CJPME. 12 Apr. 2023. <https://www.cjpmemap.ca/2023_04_12_mb_cbc_news>