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Samer Issawi, Hunger Strikes, and the Palestinian Struggle

28 Dec

 

 

            For the last three years Palestinian prisoners, mainly unlawfully detained in Israeli jails, have been engaged in a series of life threatening hunger strikes to protest administrative detention imprisonment (that is,without indictment, charges, and access to allegedly incriminating evidence), abusive arrest procedures (including nighttime arrests involving brutality in the presence of family members, detention for prolonged interrogations violating international standards, e.g. 22 hours at a time, sleep deprivation), and deplorable prison conditions (including unlawful transfer to Israeli prisons, denial of family visits, solitary confinement for prolonged periods).

 

            No recent Palestinian prisoner has received more attention among the Palestinian than Samer Issawi, released a few days ago after reaching an extraordinary bargain with prison officials last April. He agreed then to stop his hunger strike, which had lasted an incredible 266 days, either partially or completely, in exchange for an Israeli pledge to release him in eight months at the end of 2013. Notably, Issawi had rejected Israeli earlier offers to release him provided he would agree to a ten year deportation order to either Gaza or some distant country. Issawi refused this arrangement, a form of punitive release, which Israel had imposed on other hunger strikers, including Hana Shalabi. In Issawi’s words, “I do not accept to be deported out of my homeland.”

 

            In the background also is the apparent Israeli effort to avoid having hunger strikers die, either because of their memory of the strong impact of Bobby Sands’ death on public opinion in Northern Ireland back in 1981 or as an aspect of the Israeli brand of ‘subsistence humanitarianism’ that has been explicitly most implemented in Gaza for the past decade. It involves a grouping of policies that seeks to make life extremely difficult for Palestinians but short of the point of death or epidemic, an extreme austerity reinforced periodically by what some Israelis referred to as ‘mowing the lawn,’ that is, relying on military incursion to ensure that the average collective material circumstances of Gazans don’t rise above subsistence levels. Such an articulated cruelty, proclaimed to be the rationale for an occupation policy, is bound to sow seeds of hatred, resentment, and give rise to feelings of revenge among even the most moderate of Palestinians. I have encountered such responses to Israeli practices and policies among the gentlest of Gazans with whom I have met in recent years.

 

            Issawi’s case stands out for several reasons aside from taking note of the length of his hunger strike. His expressed motivation was an understandable reaction to being rearrested in July 7, 2012 after having been released the prior year as part of the arrangement in which 1,027 Palestinian prisoners were given their freedom in exchange for the return of Gilad Shalit, the captured Israeli soldier. Issawi was rearrested at the Juba checkpoint, accused of violating the terms of his release that restricted him to Jerusalem, his place of residence. He was apparently still within the municipal limits of Jerusalem, but in an area treated as the West Bank by the Occupation authorities, and even so was claiming only to be seeking a shop for the repair of his car. For this possible technical violation of the release agreement, he was sentenced to eight months in prison, but then additional to this, a special committee, acting under Military Order 1651, Article 186, used its authority to rule that someone rearrested in this way could be returned, on the basis of a secret file, to prison for the completion of his original sentence, which in Issawi’s case meant twenty years. There was no right to challenge such a seemingly outrageous ruling. Even Issawi’s lawyer was denied access to the file that contained the supposedly incriminating information. It was against this background that Issawi was unwilling to accept a reversal of his release from jail. He declared that a hunger strike was the only weapon available to him to protest such treatment, implying that he would either win his freedom in that way or die in prison.

 

            Issawi’s family history is emblematic of what it has meant to live for most Palestinians decade after decade under military occupation. Samer’s brother, Fadi, was killed in 1994 by Israeli security forces, and a second brother, Medhat has spent the last 19 years in prison, while his sister Shireen was detained during 2010. The family lives in the village of Issawiyeh, a suburb of Jerusalem, and a site of protest in recent years, especially in reaction to the confiscation of village land to create a ‘national park’ and to establish a waste dump. In other words, the context of occupation, annexation, expropriation of resources, and suppression are all part of the Issawi story. Indicatively, Israel banned any celebration of Issawi’s release in Issawiyeh, an order somewhat ignored by a warm welcoming crowd joyful about his release.

 

            Even before his rearrest for violating the terms of his release, the Palestinian NGO that monitors Israeli prisons and policies, Addameer, indicated that Issawi was subjected to constant harassment by security forces. He was questioned at length several times a week, and was denied the opportunity to live a normal life. The daily ordeal of Palestinians living under occupation is a Kafka tale of lawless law, where those in charge decide   

whatever they wish, hide behind veils of secrecy, and impose their authority by relying on excessive force and a variety of humiliating obstacles to normalcy. Issawi made clear that his struggle would not end with his release from prison: “It is our obligation as freedom fighters to free all Palestinian political prisoners.” Also, that there was a link between his kind of resistance by Palestinians and the broader international solidarity movement: “I draw my strength from all the free people in the world who want an end to the Israeli occupation.” Of course, there is mutuality present as those who support the Palestinian struggle from outside are inspired by the courage and resilience of individuals such as Samer Issawi, and should know these stories of nonviolent Palestinian defiance.

 

            The Issawi story is more than the struggle of an individual or the sad saga of a family active in resistance or a village confronting the daily realities of an occupation that is also a scenario of resource confiscation and oppressive living conditions. It represents a metaphoric summary of the Palestinian reality, epitomized by pervasive vulnerability, violent oppression, and the steady encroachment on the integrity of the Palestinian habitat, but also by the dynamics of resistance, struggle, and hope for a better, decent future. It is a reality we should all reflect upon at the turning of the year, wishing and acting for a better 2014 for Palestinians and for all of us.

 

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Northern Ireland and the Israel/Palestine ‘Peace Process’

22 Dec

Richard HaassUnknown-1UK flagIrish flag

            I visited Belfast the last few days during some negotiations about unresolved problems between Unionist and Republican (or Nationalist) political parties, I was struck by the absolute dependence for any kind of credibility of this process upon the unblemished perceived neutrality of the mediating third party. It would have been so totally unacceptable to rely on Ireland or Britain to play such a role, and the mere suggestion of such a partisan intermediary would have occasioned ridicule by the opposing party, confirming suspicions that its intention must have been to scuttle the proposed negotiations. In the background of such a reflection is the constructive role played by the United States more than a decade ago when it actively encouraged a process of reconciliation through a historic abandonment of violence by the antagonists. That peace process was based on the justly celebrated Good Friday Agreement that brought the people of Northern Ireland a welcome measure of relief from the so-called ‘Time of Troubles’ even if the underlying antagonisms remain poignantly alive in the everyday realities of Belfast, as well as some lingering inclination toward violence among those extremist remnants of the struggle on both sides that reject all moves toward accommodation. The underlying tension remains as Republican sentiments favor a united Ireland while the Unionists Having continue to be British loyalists, deeply opposed to any moves toward a merger with the Republic of Ireland.

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            The current round of negotiations going on in Belfast involve seemingly trivial issues: whether the flag of the United Kingdom will be flown from the Parliament and other government buildings on 18 official holidays or everyday and whether the Irish tricolor will be flown when leaders from the Republic of Ireland are visiting Belfast; the degree to which annual Unionist parades passing through Republican neighborhoods of the city will be regulated to avoid provocations; and how might the past be addressed so as to bring belated solace to those who have grievances, especially associated with deaths of family members that were never properly addressed by those in authority at the time.  Apparently, in recollection of the achievements attributed to George Mitchell, the distinguished American political figure who was principally associated with developing the proposals that produced the Good Friday Agreement, the present phase of an evolving accommodation process is being presided over by another notable American, Richard Haass. Haass is a former State Department official and current President of the Council on Foreign Relations, the influential establishment NGO in the foreign policy domain. In this setting the United States Government (as well as its leading citizens) is seen as an honest broker, and although the government is not now directly involved, an individual closely associated with the established order has been chosen and seems acceptable to the five Northern Ireland political parties participating in the negotiations. This effort to ensure the continuation of stability in Northern Ireland seems responsive to the natural order: that negotiations in circumstances of deep conflict do benefit from third-party mediation provided it is perceived to be non-partisan, neutral, and competent, and acts credibly and diligently as a check on the gridlock of partisanship.

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            The contrast of this experience in Northern Ireland with what has emerged during the past twenty years in the effort to resolve the Israel/Palestine conflict could not be more striking. The negotiating process between Israel and Palestine is generated by an avowedly partisan third party, the United States, which makes no effort to hide its commitment to safeguard Israeli state interests even if at the expense of Palestinian concerns. This critical assessment has been carefully documented in Rashid Khalidi’s authoritative Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East (2013). Beyond this taint, sand is repeatedly thrown in Palestinian eyes by White House gall in designating AIPAC related Special Envoys to oversee the negotiations as if it is primarily Israel that needs reassurances that its national interests will be protected in the process while Palestinian greater concerns do not require any such indication of protective sensitivity.

 

            How can we explain these contrasting American approaches in these two major conflict-resolving undertakings? Of course, the first line of explanation would be domestic politics in the United States. Although Irish Americans by and large have republican sympathies, Washington’s multiple bonds with the United Kingdom ensure a posture of impartiality would be struck from the perspective of national interests. The United States had most to gain in Ireland by being seen to help the parties move from a violent encounter to a political process in pursuing their rival goals. Such would also seem to be the case in Israel/Palestine but for the intrusion of domestic politics, especially in the form of the AIPAC lobbying leverage. Can anyone doubt that if the Palestinians had countervailing lobbying capabilities either the United States would be excluded as the diplomatic arbiter or it would do its best to appear impartial?

 

            There are other secondary explanatory factors. Especially since the 1967 War, it has been a matter of agreement with American policymaking circles, that Israel is a reliable strategic ally in the Middle East. Of course, interests my diverge from time to time, as seems recently to be the case in relation to interim agreement involving Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but overall the alliance patterns in the region put the United States and Israel on the same side: counter-terrorist operations and tactics, counter-proliferation, containment of Iran’s influence, opposition to the spread of political Islam, support for Saudi Arabia and conservative governments in the Gulf. Since 9/11, in particular, Israel has been a counter-terrorist mentor to the United States, and to others in the world, offering expert training and what it calls ‘combat-tested weaponry,’ which means tactics and weapons used by Israel in controlling over many years the hostile Palestinian population, especially Gaza.

 

            A third, weaker explanation is purported ideological affinity. Israel promotes itself, and this is endorsed by the United States, as the ‘sole democracy’ or ‘only genuine democracy’ in the Middle East. Despite the many contradictions associated with such an assertion, ranging from eyes closed when it comes to Saudi Arabia or the Egyptian coup to a wide-eyed refusal to notice the Israeli legalized pattern of discrimination against its 20% Palestinian minority. It has been persuasively suggested that part of the reason that Arab governments are reluctant to support the Palestinian struggle is the fear that its success would destabilize authoritarian regimes in the region. In this regard, it was the first intifada, back in 1987, that seems in retrospect to have been the most important antecedent cause of the 2011 Arab Spring. It is also notable that despite the profession of democratic values in the Middle East, Israel showed no regrets when the elected government in Egypt was overthrown by a military coup whose leadership then proceeded to criminalize those who had been chosen only a year earlier by the national electorate to run the country.

 

            These are weighty reasons when considered together, help us understand why the Oslo Framework and its Roadmap sequel, and the various negotiating sessions, have not produced an outcome that remotely resembles what might be fairly described as ‘a just and sustainable peace’ from a Palestinian perspective. Israel has evidently not perceived such a conflict-resolving outcome as being in its national interest, and has not been given any sufficient incentive by the United States or the UN to scale back its ambitions, which include continuous settlement expansion, control over the whole of Jerusalem, denial of Palestinian rights of return, appropriation of water and land resources, intrusive, one-sided, and excessive security demands, and an associated posture that opposes a viable Palestinian state ever coming into existence, and is even more opposed to give any credence to proposals for a single secular bi-national state. What is more, despite this unreasonable diplomatic posture, which attains plausibility only because of Israel’s disproportionate influence on the intermediary mechanisms and its own media savvy in projecting its priorities, Palestine and its leadership is mainly blamed for the failures of the ‘peace process’ to end the conflict by a mutually agreed solution. This is a particularly perverse perception given Israel’s extreme unreasonableness in relation to resolution of the conflict, the U.S. partisanship, and Palestine’s passivity in asserting its claims, grievances, and interests.

 

            Finally, we must ask why Palestinian leaders have been willing to give credibility for so long to a diplomatic process that seems to offer their national movement so little. The most direct answer is the lack of the power to say ‘no.’ This can be further elaborated by pointing to the lack of a preferable alternative. A further indication of Palestinian diplomatic dependence, is the degree to which the United States exerts pressure on Ramallah because it finds the management of this bridge to nowhere of the peace process to be useful, despite its many frustrations and failures, allows Washington to exhibit both a commitment to peace and to Israel. The American Secretary of State, John Kerry, has in recent months pressured the parties to resume peace talks, talking often of ‘painful concessions’ that both sides would have to make if the negotiations are to succeed. This misleading appeal to symmetry overlooks the gross disparity in position and capabilities of the two sides. Whether such a disparity is so great as to make it dubious to use the language of conflict is itself an open question. Would it not be more forthright and revealing to ask due to the degree of inequality, whether Palestine has any capability to say anything about the terms of a resolution other than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to what Israel is prepared at any time to offer? In this sense it more closely resembles the end of a war in which there is a winner and loser except that here the loser at least retains the sovereign right to say ‘no.’ Also it needs to be observed, that this perception is deeply misleading because it overlooks what might be called ‘the other war,’ that is, the Legitimacy War that the Palestinians are winning, and given the history of decolonization, seems to have a good chance of controlling the political outcome of the struggle.

 

             Returning to the inter-governmental approach, it should also be noticed that the diplomacy does not take account of the historical background. Did not Palestine concede more than enough before the negotiations even began, accepting a frame for territorial proposals that seems content with 22% of historic Palestine, although this territory is less than half of what the UN partition plan proposed in 1947, and seemed then to be unfair given the ethnic demographics at the time? We should also take account of the relevance of the supposed basic UN policy against the acquisition of territory by the use of force, which would seem to mandate a rollback of Israeli territory at least to the 1947 UN proposals contained in General Assembly Resolution 181. The implication of Kerry’s painful concession rhetoric is that Israel would only be expected to remove some isolated settlements and outposts in the West Bank even though they were unlawful ever since established, and could retain the valuable land it has appropriated for the settlement blocs established since 1967 despite their existence being in flagrant violation of Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention. In other words, Palestine is expected to give up fundamental rights while Israel is supposed to abandon some relatively minor unlawful aspects of its prolonged occupation of the West Bank and retain most of the ill-gotten gains.

 

            What do we learn from such an analysis?

(1)  Third-party intermediation only works if it is perceived to be non-partisan by both sides;

(2)   Partisan intermediation can only succeed if the stronger side is able to impose its vision of the future on the weaker side;

(3)   Analyzing the Palestine/Israel diplomacy underscores the relevance of (2), and should not be confused with its claimed character as an instance of (1);

(4)   Perhaps in the aftermath of a Palestinian victory in the Legitimacy War the sort of framework for constructive diplomacy achieved in Northern Ireland could be devised, but its credibility would depend on non-partisan intermediation.

             

Clashing Views of Political Reality: Chomsky versus Dershowitz

2 Dec

 

 

            My friend and former collaborator, Howard Friel, has written an intriguing book contrasting the worldviews and polemical styles of two Jewish American intellectuals with world class reputations, Noam Chomsky and Alan Dershowitz (Friel, Chomsky and Dershowitz: On Endless War and the End of Civil Liberties, Olive Branch Press, 2014). The book is much more than a comparison of two influential voices, one critical the other apologetic, with respect to the Israel/Palestine struggle and the subordination of private liberties to the purveyors of state-led security at home and abroad . Friel convincingly favors Chomsky’s approach both with respect to the substance of their fundamental disagreements and in relation to sharply contrasting styles of argument.

 

            Chomsky is depicted, accurately I believe, as someone consistently dedicated to evidenced based reasoning reinforced by an abiding respect for the relevance and authority of international law and morality. Chomsky has also been a tireless opponent of American imperialism and military intervention, and of oppressive regimes anywhere on the planet. He is also shown by Friel to be strongly supportive of endowing individuals whether citizens or not with maximal freedom from interference by the state. From such perspectives, the behavior of Israel and the United States are assessed by Chomsky to be betrayals of humane values and of the virtues of a constitutional democracy.

 

            In contrast, Dershowitz is presented, again accurately and on the basis of abundant documentation, as a dirty fighter with a readiness to twist the truth to serve his Zionist predilections, which include support for the post-9/11 drift toward authoritarian governance, and an outrageous willingness to play the anti-Semitic card even against someone of Chomsky’s extraordinary academic achievements in the field of linguistics and of global stature as the world’s leading public intellectual, who has an impeccable lifelong record of moral courage and fidelity to the truth. Dershowitz has devoted his destructive energies to derailing tenure appointments for critics of Israel and for using his leverage to badger publishers to refrain from taking on books, however meritorious, if they present either himself or Israel in what he views to be a negative light. 

 

            Friel illustrates the contrast between these talented and titanic antagonists by reference to the much publicized debate about Robert Faurisson, the French Holocaust denier. Chomsky signed a petition in 1979 that defended Faurisson’s freedom of expression, an act consistent with his overall long record of support for unrestricted academic freedom. Dershowitz abandons his own earlier allegiance to a similar approach, not only refusing to allow free speech to protect Faurisson, but lashing out to condemn Chomsky for his supposed show of support for Holocaust denial because he had the temerity to defend Faurisson’s right to say what he said. This is a typical tactic employed by Dershowitz, deliberately confusing a principled support for the right to hold and espouse ethically unacceptable views with an alleged identification and sympathy with the substance of the views being expressed. To contend that Chomsky is tacitly embracing Holocaust denial by supporting Faurisson was, as Friel conclusively shows, clearly defamatory, ignoring numerous occasions on which Chomsky has denounced the Nazi experience culminating in the Holocaust as a predominant historical instance of pure evil.  For Dershowitz to overlook such plain facts in relation to Chomsky on such an inflammatory matter is to show his true colors as a dirty fighter who has no inhibitions about smearing his opponents, however distinguished and honorable they happen to be, and no matter how clearly he must know better. Dershowitz must be assumed to realize that Chomsky’s entire life displays an abiding concern for the ethical treatment of ‘the other,’ and to allege that somehow Chomsky is himself flirting with Holocaust denial is the most irresponsible slander and ironically, an unforgiveable abuse by Dershowitz of the freedom of expression, which transgresses civility if not the law. Civil discourse and public reason in a democratic society depend on the overall willingness of individuals to show self-discipline, and avoid exploiting the opportunities for defamation that the law allows in commentary on so-called public figures.

 

            Dershowitz is primarily known, aside from his controversial notoriety as a trial lawyer in high profile criminal cases, as an unconditional defender of Israel against a wide range of responsible critics. He wrote a number of books and numerous articles with vicious attacks on such moral authority figures as Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, including his notorious tract The Case Against Israel’s Enemies: Exposing Jimmy Carter and Others Who Stand in the Way of Peace (2008). Even such mainstream and widely respected experts on world affairs as Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer become targets of Dershowitz’s calumny because of their daring to write critically and persuasively about the destructive influence of the Israeli Lobby in relation to the prudent and rational pursuit of American national interests in the conduct of foreign policy in their book, The Israeli Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007).

 

            At this point, I should acknowledge that I am far from being a neutral observer. I have been accused on several occasions of being an ‘anti-Semite’ and ‘bigot’ by Dershowitz, primarily in relation to my role as UN Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine, but even in response to my endorsing blurb of Gilad Atzmon’s seminal challenge directed at liberal Zionist and Jewish thought in The Wandering Who? (2011). Similar insults were directed by Dershowitz at my predecessor as Special Rapporteur, John Dugard, a distinguished jurist from South Africa and as unbiased and balanced a champion of human rights and international law as I have ever known. Attacking the critics of Israel, especially those possessing strong academic and ethical credentials, is a nasty illustration of what I have called ‘the politics of deflection,’ that is, avoiding the substance of criticisms by denouncing the critics and their auspices with the intention of shifting the conversation. Such attacks are clearly intended to shut down criticism of Israel by subjecting to withering abuse anyone who dares to violate the Zionist taboo.

 

            Perhaps, the most important part of Friel’s engaging book is his depiction of Dershowitz’s advocacy of the ‘preventive state’ as overcoming an earlier essential postulate of liberal democracy, the presumption of innocence. In the preventive state that Dershowitz posits as necessary and hence desirable, we all become for the government legitimate objects of suspicion, and the higher goals of counter-terrorism. Such a line of analysis mandates the state to act preventively rather than reactively, and hence to employ the full coercive apparatus of the state to identify potential enemies of the state before they have the opportunity to act. For a more challenging rendition of this argument than offered by Dershowitz I strongly recommend reading Philip Bobbitt’s Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-first Century (2008). This reinterpretation of the balance between security and freedom reverses the traditional emphasis of the rule of law upon reactive forms of security, its logic being used to rationalize torture, as well as preventive detention of individuals and preventive warfare against states, non-state actors, and even individuals, perceived to pose future threats. Such rationalizations undermine the unconditional criminalization of torture and completely upend the UN Charter effort to confine the role of force in international relations by limiting its legal invocation to situations of self-defense against a prior armed attack by a state. The launching of the disastrous war against Iraq in 2003 was a clear international example of the preventive state in action as are the kill lists compiled weekly for drone attacks on individuals resident in foreign countries. Another facet of such a posture is embodied in the indefinite detention of numerous individuals in Guantanamo for years without charges and absent credible incriminating evidence.

 

            Of course, rigid legalism is not the alternative to a rejection of the preventive state, but an exaggeration of the terrorist threat is tantamount to willing the end of political democracy as it has evolved over the centuries. We have seen that even a supposedly liberal president, Barack Obama, has endorsed an authoritarian approach in numerous areas of governance including reliance on drone warfare and support for virtually limitless global networks of surveillance. The treatment of such whistleblowers as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden is also emblematic of the preventive state, directing public attention to the unlawful release of information while declining to acknowledge or remedy the crimes of state being exposed. Needless to say, Chomsky is acutely alert to these dangers, and has long stood for the maintenance, even the enhancement, of traditional liberties of the individual despite alleged security claims to the contrary.

 

            Friel has given us a brilliantly analyzed comparison of two vivid engaged and intelligent activists who personify the alternative scenarios available to the United States, the choice of which is of great consequence for the rest of the world. Only a determined advocate of unfreedom and injustice could fail to side with Chomsky in this debate about the political future of the planet. In this larger view, the Dershowitz defense of Israel against the most responsible of critics, is but an illustration of his broader alignment with repressive tendencies at home and abroad despite his feeble pretensions to the contrary.  Clearly Chomsky is the winner in this contest if fairly umpired, both in terms of coherence and acceptability of worldview, as well as the ethics of public discourse. Dershowitz, apparently propelled by the awkwardness of his convictions, seems always ready to adopt the Darth Vader tactics that Dick Cheney unabashedly favored, coyly acknowledging that it meant going to ‘the dark side.’

 

            Let me observe finally, and with due allowance made for my own stake in this effort to assess the comparative merits of style and substance on the part of these antagonistic titans, that Howard Friel has once again contributed a necessary book for all those dedicated to the pursuit of justice in relation to Israel/Palestine and more generally in international life.* A cardinal virtue of Friel’s approach is to recognize and explain the role of international law with respect to sustaining world peace and attaining global justice.  

 

* In this spirit I highly recommend Friel’s earlier expose of the Danish climate skeptic, Bjorn Lomborg, in his book The Lomborg Deception: Setting the Record Straight about Global Warming (2010) and of the mighty New York Times in The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misrepresents U.S. Foreign Policy (2004), of which I was the proud co-author.