Tag Archives: Gaza

Jewish Ethnicity, Palestinian Solidarity, Human Identity

23 Jun

 

 

[Prefatory Note: the following interview with Abdo Emara, an Arab journalist was published in Arabic; it is here republished in slightly modified form. The changes made are either stylistic or clarifying. There are no substantive changes from my earlier responses. I think it worthwhile to share this text because the questions asked by Abdo Emara are often directed at me in the discussion period after talks I have given recently.]

 

Jewish Ethnicity, Palestinian Solidarity, Human Identity

 

  1. Many believe that all Jews are completely biased in favor of Israel. Since you are Jewish this raises some questions. Why have you supported the grievances of the Palestinians? And why does not Israel welcome you on its territory since you are a Jew?

It is a rather well kept secret that from the very outset of the Zionist movement there were many Jews, including some who were prominent in their countries who opposed or strongly criticized Zionist ideology, as well as the way Israel was established and subsequently developed. After 1948, and even more so, after 1967, Israeli supporters, strongly encouraged by Zionist leaders and Israeli diplomats, have increasingly claimed that the Israeli government speaks for all Jews regardless of whether or not they reside in Israel. If this claim of universal representation is denied or resisted that person will be identified by Zionists/Israelis either as an anti-Semite or as bad, a self-hating Jew, or some combination of the two. I have increasingly supported the grievances of the Palestinian people from two perspectives, in my capacity as an international law specialist and as a human being opposed to the oppression and suffering of others regardless of whether or not I share the ethnic and religious background of such victims of abuse. I have taken these positions without any feelings of hatred toward Jews or alienation from the Jewish people, or toward any people due to their ethnicity or brand of faith. My understanding of identity is much more bound up with common humanity and action in solidarity with victims of abuse than with worrying about whether or not they happen to be Jewish. I have drawn wisdom and insight from Jewish traditions, especially by heeding Old Testament biblical prophets, but as well from contact with the great texts of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. At the same time I am appalled by some passages in the OT that appear to counsel and even celebrate genocidal onslaughts against the ancient enemies of the Jewish people.

 

  1. How is the pretext of anti-Semitism used to silence critical voices in Israel and throughout the Western world? And what are the most influential institutions that try to silence and discredit academic voices that reject Israel’s repressive policies?

With the support of Israeli lobbying groups and ultra Zionist pressure groups and activists, there is a concerted campaign in Europe and North America to defame critics of Israel by calling them ‘anti-Semites.’ Especially since the Nazi genocide, to be called an anti-Semite whether or not there is any responsible basis for such accusations has become one of the most effective ways to discredit and distract. Even when accusations do not silence a critic, as in my case, they have detrimental and hurtful effects. Above all, they shift the conversation from the validity of the message to the credibility of the messenger. In the Israel/Palestine context this takes attention away from the ordeal experience by the Palestinian people on a daily basis. Thus, allegations of anti-Semitism function as both sword (to wound the messenger) and shield (to deflect and inhibit criticism and opposition).

 

  1. How do you interpret the Egyptian policies toward Gaza since the Sisi coup? How can these policies be changed? What is their legal status?

I interpret Egyptian policies toward Gaza since the Sisi coup of 2013 as primarily an expression of renewed collaboration with Israel with respect to Gaza as intensified by the Cairo view that Hamas is inspired by and affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is enemy number one of the current Egyptian government. I am not familiar with the details of the Egyptian policy toward Gaza, although I know it imposes arbitrary and hurtful restrictions on entry and exit. Egyptian policies toward Gaza seem clearly to involve complicity with Israel’s worst abuses in Gaza, and entail potential criminal responsibility for Egyptian leaders and implementing officials. Israel seems clearly guilty of inflicting collective punishment on the civilian population of Gaza and for aiding and abetting the implementation of the unlawful blockade of Gaza that has been maintained by the state of Israel since 2007 with many cruel consequences for the Palestinians, including those needing to leave Gaza for lifesaving medical treatments.

 

  1. How do you evaluate Hamas’ new policy document?

I believe the Hamas document moves toward the adoption of a political approach to its relations with both Israel and Egypt. By a political approach I mean a willingness to establish long-term interim arrangements for peaceful coexistence with Israel and normalization with Egypt. Hamas expresses this willingness by indicating a readiness to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state on territory occupied by Israel since the end of the 1967 War. Such a shift by Hamas does not acknowledge the legitimacy of Israel as a state nor does it involve a repudiation of the 1988 Hamas Charter, although it does abandon the anti-Semitic rhetoric and seems more disposed to pursue its goals diplomatically and politically rather than by reliance on armed struggle, without giving up in any way rights of resistance, including armed resistance.

 

5- Did it became impossible for Palestinians to obtain their legitimate rights throughout international organizations in the light of the latest UN refusal of UN ESCWA report your good-self drafted?

The reaction to our ESCWA report, “The Practices of Israel Toward the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid,” did reveal a lack of independence and objectivity within the UN when placed under severe geopolitical pressure by the United States Government. It seemed clear that when the UN Secretary General ordered ESCWA to remove our report from their website, he was succumbing to pressure exerted by the United States, whose ambassador to the UN denounced the report without giving reasons as soon as it was released, presumably without it ever being read, and demanded its repudiation. Of course, the outcome was mixed. On the positive side, Rima Khalaf, the highly respected head of ESCWA resigned on principle rather than follow the directives of the SG, and the firestorm generated by the release of the report resulted in the text being far more influential and widely read than it might otherwise have been if treated appropriately. On the negative side, was the strong evidence that the UN is often unable to act effectively in support of the Palestinian people and their long struggle for their basic rights. The UN is geopolitically neutralized as a political actor even when Israel acts in flagrant and persisting defiance of international law and its own Charter.

 

6-Talk about the Trump-sponsored Century Deal between Palestinians and Israelis is increasing now … what are your expectations for such a deal? Will include what is said to be a “resettlement” of the Palestinians in Gaza and Sinai ?

 

Nothing positive for the Palestinian people can emerge from the wave of speculation that Trump will soon broker the ultimate peace deal. Israel is content with managing the status quo while gradually increasing its territorial appropriations via settlements, wall, security claims, and various demographic manipulations. Palestine lacks credible leadership capable of representing the Palestinian people. This partly reflects the low credibility and poor record of the Palestinian Authority and partly the deep split between Hamas and Fatah. Palestinian unity and credible leadership is a precondition for the resumption of genuine diplomacy. Geopolitical pressure should not be confused with diplomacy, and will not produce a sustainable peace even if the PA is force fed a one-sided outcome favorable to Israel that is disguised as a solution.

 

7- How does Israel see the current Egyptian regime? and to what extent did it feel comfortable towards Mohamed Morsi?

 

Israel seems quite content with the current government in Egypt, and the policies that Cairo is pursuing at home and in the region. This contrasts with its thinly disguised dislike of and anxiety about the Morsi government, and worries that Morsi’s Egypt would increasingly challenge Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, especially in Gaza, and possibly alter the balance of force in the region in ways contrary to Israel’s interests.

8- Does Israel hate the existence of a democratic regimes in the Arab region, especially the neighboring countries? And why?

 

Israel opposes the emergence of democracy in the Middle East for several reasons. The most obvious reason is that Arab governments to the extent democratic are more likely to reflect in their policies, the pro-Palestinian sentiments of their citizenry. As well, Arab governments that adhere to democratic values are more likely to act in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. Also, it is easier for Israel to work out pragmatic arrangements with authoritarian leaders who have little accountability to their own people and have demonstrated a cynical readiness to sacrifice the Palestinians for the sake of their own national strategic interests. This has become most evident in the kind of diplomacy pursued by the Gulf monarchies in recent years, dramatically evident during the three massive attacks on Gaza by Israel during the past decade that have devastated a totally vulnerable civilian population.

  1. Why do the far right think tanks- like Gatestone Institute and Middle East Forum which is known by its absolute support of Israel praise President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Why do these centers deeply praise him?

My prior responses make it clear that the Israeli policy community is pleased with Egypt governed by an authoritarian leader who adopts an agenda giving priority to the suppression of political Islam, taking the form in Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptian governance under Sisi is precisely what Israel would like to see emerge throughout the region, and if not, then the second option, is prolonged chaos of the sort that exists in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. As well, the reinforced sectarianism of Saudi Arabia is consistent with Israel’s view that Iran poses the most dangerous threat, not so much to its security, but to its agenda of regional influence.

 

  1. In your opinion, what is the most Arab country supporting the Palestinian issue?

I would say that none of the Arab countries is genuinely supportive of the Palestinian struggle at the present time. With a note of irony the most supportive countries in the region are non-Arab: Turkey and Iran, and their support is extremely limited. It is a sad commentary on the drift of regional politics that the Palestinians are without governmental support in the Arab world, a reality magnified by the fact that if the publics of these countries were in a position to make policy, the Palestinians would be strongly supported. In this regard, including in the West, Palestinian hopes for the future are increasingly tied to the interaction of their own resistance in combination with a growing solidarity movement in Europe and North America. The UN and traditional diplomacy, as practiced within the Oslo framework for more than 20 years have proved to be dead ends when it comes to protecting Palestinian rights.

 

Two Sides of the Palestinian Coin: Hunger Strike/Gaza

28 May

 

 

The Palestinian hunger strike protesting Israeli prison conditions was suspended on May 27th after 40 days, at a time when many of the 1000 or so strikers were experiencing serious deteriorations of health, most were by then hospitalized, and the holy period of Ramadan about to commence creating continuity between the daytime fasting of the faithful and the prior desperate protest of the strikers. What was perhaps most notable about this extraordinary gesture of a mass prolonged hunger strike was that it was treated as hardly worthy of notice by the world media or even by the United Nations, which ironically is regularly attacked by diplomats and the media in the West for being overly preoccupied with Israeli wrongdoing.

 

It needs appreciating that recourse to a collective hunger strike is a most demanding form of political resistance, invariably provoked by prolonged outrage, requiring courage and a willingness to endure hardship by participants, as well subjecting their will to as harsh a test as life offers. To continue foregoing food for 40 days is a life-threatening and heroic, a commitment never lightly undertaken.

 

With Bobby Sands as their leader ten IRA imprisoned hunger strikers starved themselves unto their death in 1981. The world watched in rapt attention as this extraordinary spectacle of self-inflicted death unfolded day by day. Without openly acknowledging what was happening before their eyes, hardened political leaders in London silently took notice of the moral challenge they confronted, shifting tactics abruptly, and began working toward a political compromise for Northern Ireland in a manner that would have been unthinkable without the strike.

 

The Palestinians can harbor no such hopes, at least in the near term. Israel deliberately clouds the moral and political embedded challenges by releasing videotapes supposedly showing ‘snacks’ secretly being eaten by the strike leader, Marwan Barghouti. This fact that this accusation was vigorously denied by his immediate family and lawyer is occasionally noted in the world media, but only as a detail that does not diminish the impact of discrediting the authenticity of the strike. Whether true or not, Israel succeeded in shifting attention away from the strike and avoids doing anything significant to improve prison conditions, much less take steps to end the severe abuses of the Palestinian people over the course of an incredible period of 70 years with no end in sight. Prison authorities immediately resorted to punitive measures to torment those prisoners who were on strike. Such a response underscores ‘democratic’ Israel’s refusal to treat with respect nonviolent forms of resistance by the Palestinian people.

 

At this same time as the prison drama was unfolding, Gaza was experiencing a deepening of its prolonged crisis that has been cruelly manipulated by Israel to keep the civilian population of almost two million on the brink of starvation and in constant fear of military onslaught. Supposedly the caloric intake for subsistence has been used as a benchmark by Israeli authorities for restricting the flow of food to Gaza. And since that seems insufficient to impose the level of draconian control sought by Israel, three massive military attacks and countless incursions since the end of 2008 have inflicted heavy casualties on the civilian population of Gaza and caused much devastation, a cumulative catastrophe for this utterly vulnerable, impoverished, captive population. In such a context, the fact that Hamas has retaliated with what weaponry it possessed, even if indiscriminate, is to be expected even if not in accord with international humanitarian law.

 

A leading intellectual resident of Gaza, Haider Eid, has recently written a poignant dispatch from the front lines of continuous flagrant Israelu criminality, “On Gaza and the horror of the siege,” [<http://mondoweiss.net/2017/gaza-horror-siege/&gt;, May 25, 2017]. Eid ends his essay with these disturbing lines:

“We fully understand that the deliberate withholding of food or the means to grow food in whatever form is yet another strategy of Israel’s occupation, colonization, and apartheid in Palestine, and, therefore, should be viewed as an abnormality, even a pogrom!

 But what we in Gaza cannot fathom is: Why it is allowed to happen?”

 

At the start of Ramadan, Haider Eid appeals to the world to stand up against what he calls ‘incremental genocide’ “ by heeding the BDS call made by Palestinian Civil Society.”

 

It is significant that Eid’s appeal is to civil society rather than to the Palestinian Authority entrusted with representing the Palestinian people on the global stage or for a revival of ‘the peace process’ that went on for twenty years within the Oslo Framework or to the UN that accepted responsibility after Britain gave up its Palestine mandate at the end of World War II. These conventional modes of conflict resolution have all failed, while steadily worsening the situation of the Palestinian people and nurturing the ambition of the Zionist movement to reach its goal of territorial expansion.

 

Beyond this, Eid notes that the authority of BDS is a result of an authoritative Palestinian call to which the peoples of the world are implored to respond. This shift away from intergovernmental empowerment from above to a reliance on empowerment by a victimized people and their authentic representatives embodies Palestinian hopes for a more humane future, and for an eventual realization of long denied rights.

 

It is appropriate to merge in our moral imagination the ordeals of the prisoners in Israeli jails with that of the people of Gaza without forgetting the encompassing fundamental reality—the Palestinian people as a whole, regardless of their specific circumstances, are being victimized by an Israeli structure of domination and discrimination in a form that constitutes apartheid and different forms of captivity.

 

It seems that the hunger strike failed to induce Israel to satisfy many of the demands of the strikers for improved conditions. What it did achieve was to remind Palestinians and the world of the leadership gifts of Marwan Barghouti, and it awakened the Palestinian population to the moral and political imperative of sustaining and manifesting resistance as an alternative to despair, passivity, and submission. Israelis and some of their most ardent supporters speak openly of declaring victory for themselves, defeat for the Palestinians. Regardless of our religious or ethnic identity we who live outside the circle of Israeli oppression should be doing our utmost to prevent any outcome that prolongs Palestinian unjust suffering or accepts it as inevitable.

 

What is unspeakable must become undoable.

 

 

A Gaza Centric History of Palestine: Past, Present, and Future

24 Sep

 

 

[Prefatory Note: The review below was initially published in the Journal of the Contemporary Thought and the Islamicate World (SCITIW REVIEW). http://sctiw.org/sctiwreviewarchives/archives/74 It is one of three remarkable books dealing with Gaza that I read this past summer. The other two are Mohammed Omer’s Shell Shocked: On the Ground Under Israel’s Gaza Assault (2015) (see my July 8, 2015 post, “Wartime Journalism: Mohammed Omer on Gaza”) and Max Blumenthal’s The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza (2015). Both of these books are accounts of the 2014 Israeli attack on Gaza by normatively engaged journalists. Omer giving an insider account that stresses the day by day experience of those exposed to such an onslaught that allows one to almost feel the excruciating pain, fear, and loss that Gazans felt during the attacks. Blumenthal also gives readers the benefit of his presence in Gaza and exposure to its courageous population, but he also includes valuable interpretative material. Their normative engagement is evident from their empathy with the Gaza ordeal of the Palestinians and understandable antipathy to Israel’s tactics and overall behavior. While discarding the liberal posture of neutrality, this high quality journalism under the most difficult and dangerous conditions in the sense of conveying the unfolding reality of important events in ways that deepen awareness and understanding beyond what mainstream media reports.

What makes Filiu’s book so important, beyond its extraordinary historical depth that allows readers to better grasp the tragedy that has befallen the Gazan people, is its persuasive insistence of the centrality played by Gaza throughout the experience of Palestinian resistance to Israeli dispossession and annexation, including the originality of the uprising known as the first intifada in 1987, and even more so an insistence that the Gaza holds the key to any kind of sustainable peace between Israel and Palestine. This is a striking view, given the extent to which both Israel and the world treat Ramallah and the Palestinian Authority as central, and Gaza as marginal if not altogether dispensable in the context of diplomatic negotiations and the outcome of the conflict.]

A Gaza-Centric View of the Palestine National Movement

 

Jean-Pierre Filiu, Gaza: A History, trans. John King, Oxford University Press, 2014, 440 pp., $29.95 US (hbk), ISBN 9780190201890.

The distinguished French historian, Jean-Pierre Filiu has produced a magisterial overview that recounts the ebb and flow of Gaza’s fortunes from ancient times up through the present. Although a member of the faculty of Sciences Po in Paris, Filiu is not a typical academic historian, having earlier served as a diplomat in Jordan, Syria, and Tunisia, published two novels, and even written popular songs, including one devoted to Gaza. Filiu’s pedigree training and scholarly contribution have earned him a deserved reputation as one of the world’s leading Arabists, and someone particularly expert on political trends in contemporary Islam. He has published several well-regarded books on the Middle East including The Arab Revolution: Ten Lessons from the Democratic Uprising (2011) and From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and its Jihadist Legacy (2015). The latter book poses the haunting question as to whether the political destiny of the peoples in the Middle East is to remain entrapped in the ongoing struggle between tyrannical leaders and Muslim fanatics. More than most commentators on the regional developments, Filiu perceptively realized that the democratizing hopes of the “Arab Spring” in 2011 would be short lived, and likely would be soon overwhelmed by a variety of counterrevolutionary forces intent on restoring an authoritarian status quo ante, however high the costs of doing so. The main motive of these counterrevolutionary elites was to avoid the twin fates of secular democracy and radical Islam.

Filiu’s authoritative treatment of Gaza starts with a useful background summary of its role as a trading center in the ancient world of the Middle East with a past traced back to the Hyksos people of the eighteenth century BCE. Readers are helpfully informed that Gaza, situated between Sinai and Negev Deserts and the Mediterranean Sea, became a major site of struggle for warring neighbors over the long arc of history, including Egyptian pharaohs, Persian kings, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Fatimids, Mamluks, Crusaders, and Ottomans. Filiu emphasizes the rivalry between Baghdad and Cairo with respect to Gaza as contributing to the frequent changes of fortune confronted by the city and region. A second chapter is informative about the generally unappreciated relationship of Gaza to hallowed figures in Islamic tradition. For instance, one principal mosque in Gaza is built to honor the memory of the great grandfather of the Prophet and another is dedicated to one of Muhammad’s close followers who accompanied him on his sacred journey from Mecca to Medina. Both of these men were prosperous traders who brought caravans of goods from Arabia for sale in

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the markets of Gaza. After presenting this early history, Filiu devotes the remainder of Gaza to Gaza’s experience in the continuing struggle over Palestine’s future that began in a serious way with the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the British Mandate established after World War I under the auspices of the League of Nations lasting until 1947 when Britain turned over responsibility for Gaza’s future to the United Nations.

The remaining fifteen chapters of Gaza narrate the tortured and tormented experience of Gaza, the scene of many dreams of liberation and peace, but also a place of frequent carnage and a continuing ordeal of massive suffering. Gaza, which covers 140 square miles, the size of several middle sized American cities, still plays a central role in the unfolding Israel/Palestine conflict. In this fundamental respect, Gaza is a detailed historical narrative of past and present, which also underscores the totally unresolved future of Palestine as a whole, leaving readers free to contemplate Gaza’s future through the sophisticated optic that Filiu provides.

Filiu has produced, in a manner that I find extraordinary, a study of Gaza’s history over this incredible sweep of time that manages to exhibit at each phase of the narrative an astonishing mastery of detail. Filiu presents us with the dizzying interplay of dominant personalities interweaved with accurate depictions of the many defining incidents that give substance to the complex history and experience of Gaza. Such a tours de force of scholarly achievement does not make for easy reading given the density of the material. As a whole, Gaza is somewhat overwhelming in its cumulative impact as a result of its long succession of unfamiliar names and recitation of one detail after another that are difficult for a normal reader to keep in mind. At the same time, beyond the weight of Filiu’s facticity is a wealth of interpretative knowledge that imparts an unprecedented understanding of the contemporary experience of Gaza and the part it has played for both Israelis and Palestinians in the unfolding conflict.

Despite this challenge posed by this seeming surfeit of names and events, a kind of pre- digital example of information overload, Filiu facilitates comprehension of the main narrative motifs by framing his central interpretative analysis through reference to illuminating conceptual themes. He proceeds chronologically assessing the unfolding Palestinian ordeal in three clusters of four chapters each: “1947-1967: The Generation of Mourning,” “1967-1987: The Generation of Dispossession,” “1987-2007: The Generation of the Intifadas.” The book concludes with a final chapter entitled “The Generation of the Impasse?” as if the currently blocked situation in the underlying conflict between Israel and Palestine that has dominated the lives of the Gazan people for several generations seems likely to continue to be their fate for the indefinite future. Filiu ever so slightly lightens this gloomy prospect by putting a question mark at the end of the chapter title, perhaps acknowledging that not even a master historian should pretend to foretell Gaza’s future with confidence or indicate with confidence hopes and fears that the impasse will be broken at some point.

With this framework Filiu brilliantly portrays the Palestinian ordeal as it has tragically played out during the 67 plus years since Israel came into existence as a sovereign state. There is no attempt by Filiu to write this contemporary history of Gaza from a detached point of view, that is, by suspending empathetic feelings and ethical judgments. The tone of the narrative and the spirit of Filiu’s personal engagement with the Palestinian tragedy is clearly conveyed on the dedication page: “To the memory of the thousands of anonymous who died in Gaza before their time though they had a life to live en famille and in peace.” In effect, without sparing Palestinians and their leaders harsh criticism for failures of competence in the course of his narrative, including their embrace of brutality and

corruption, Filiu laments Palestinian victimization and decries Israeli oppression. With such a perspective it is not surprising that Filiu is generally sympathetic with Palestinian resistance activities over the years.

In discussing partition, the plan proposed by the UN General Assembly to overcome the tensions between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, Filiu makes clear that the Zionist movement was pushing the British hard to endorse such a division during the latter stages of the mandatory period. For Zionist leaders partition seemed at the time the only available path leading to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, thereby achieving the basic Zionist project in accord with the Balfour undertaking. In angry contrast, the most representative Arab voices in Palestine were early united in their fervent opposition to partition ever since it began to be seriously considered by the British government, increasingly aware of rising tensions between the resident Arab population of Palestine and the successive waves of Jewish immigration. Already in 1937 Fahmi al-Husseini, the mayor of Gaza, warned British authorities against partition and any related attempt to promote the emergence of Jewish statehood. Filiu quotes al-Husseini to illustrate this depth of opposition: “It would be better for the British government to consign the inhabitants of Palestine to death and destruction, or even to envelop them in poison gas, than to inflict upon them any such plan” (46). As we know, such Palestinian wishes were ignored not only by the British, but also by the organized international community acting under the auspices of the United Nations. In response to the mounting tension in Palestine between Jews and Arabs, Britain went ahead and proposed partition, which was consistent with their typical colonial endgame and legacy in many other parts of their collapsing empire (for instance, Ireland, India, Malaya, and Cyprus). When the UN in 1947 did finally propose partition in General Assembly Resolution 181, the British surprisingly abstained, perhaps feeling that there was nothing to be gained at that point by further antagonizing the Arab world, especially given the persistence of British interests in the region, epitomized by the retention of the Suez Canal.

The focus on the complex dialectics of victimization and resistance in Gaza is at the core of Filiu’s interpretative standpoint. This emphasis likely represents the most enduring contribution of the book to our appreciation of both the scholarship and policy relevance of the Gaza Strip to the overall story of the Israel/Palestine struggle. What Filiu does convincingly is to challenge the mainstream view that Gaza is but an ugly sideshow of the main Palestinian dramas, generally regarded by both sides to be the West Bank and Jerusalem. Of course, the centrality of Gaza’s victimization has become internationally recognized, especially after the imposition of a blockade in 2007 when Hamas took over the government in Gaza and during the last seven years when Israel launched savage attacks in 2008-2009, 2012, and 2014 that eroded the carefully orchestrated public image of Israel as a benevolent political actor. What Filiu significantly adds to this image of Gazan victimization is the understanding that the broader movement of Palestinian national resistance has been centered in Gaza since the onset of the conflict with the Zionist project, and that this pattern of resistance continues in Gaza more than elsewhere in Palestine despite the severe and prolonged forms of collective punishment imposed by Israel on the Strip over the course of decades.

Even more challenging is Filiu’s controversial insistence that a sustainable peace between Israel and Palestine can only be achieved if Gaza will be accorded a decisive role in the process. Filiu underscores this belief in his drastic revision of thinking surrounding the peace process in the closing sentences of Gaza: “It is in Gaza that the foundations of a durable peace should be laid…The Gaza Strip, the womb of the fedayin and the cradle of the

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intifada, lies at the heart of the nation-building of contemporary Palestine. It is vain to imagine that a territory so replete with foundational experiences can be ignored or marginalized. Peace between Israel and Palestine can assume neither meaning nor substance except in Gaza, which will be both the foundation and the keystone” (340).

Filiu’s view of a peaceful solution challenges the view of most Israelis that Gaza, without figuring in Israeli biblical claims, and containing 1.8 million Palestinians hostile to Israel’s very existence, has no place in Israel’s conception of its own final borders or of an acceptable outcome of the conflict. Israelis generally regard Gaza as nothing more than a bargaining chip in any future peace negotiations. From Israel’s perspective Gaza is the one unwanted part of occupied Palestine (in sharp contrast, with Jerusalem and the West Bank), an assessment provisionally expressed by Israel’s “disengagement” from Gaza in 2005, which involved the withdrawal of IDF forces and the removal of Israeli settlers in a plan conceived and implemented by the Israeli hardline leader Ariel Sharon. Gaza continues to be viewed as a threat to Israeli security if ever allowed to become consolidated with the West Bank in a future Palestinian state and is viewed as a threat to Israel’s ethnocratic and democratic claims if incorporated into a single Israeli state encompassing the whole of historic Palestine.

With respect to Gaza, Israelis seem now to prefer either retaining control over a subjugated and devastated Gaza or inducing Egypt to resume responsibility for administering Gaza. The Egyptian government has made clear its unwillingness to accept responsibility for governing Gaza, which makes the unfortunate present situation the most likely scenario for the foreseeable future. In this sense, the whole burden of Filiu’s assessment is at odds with the manner in which Washington framed the “peace process,” which, as might be expected, seems based on an acceptance of Israel’s view of the marginality of Gaza with respect to the final resolution of the conflict.

Filiu’s mode of highlighting Gaza also challenges the views of the Palestinian Authority, with its capital in Ramallah, that gives its highest priority to ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, getting rid of as many Israeli settlements as possible. The Palestinian Authority seems to care little about the fate of Gaza, especially since Gaza fell under the control of Hamas in 2007, although its formal position continues to include Gaza as an integral part of a Palestinian state.

In this respect, Filiu’s Gaza-centric interpretation of the conflict between Israel and Palestine is by far the most original and controversial part of his historical account. It rests on a carefully documented narrative of Gaza’s role as the true center of Palestinian resistance and resilience throughout more than six decades of struggle. As Filiu mentions, the most perceptive of Israeli leaders, notably David Ben-Gurion, were nervous about the developing situation in Gaza from the earliest period of Israel’s existence, especially as Gaza became the default option for many Palestinians displaced during the nakba, the occasions of massive expulsion and dispossession that caused so many Palestinians to be driven from their homes, and to seek sanctuary in Gaza, the West Bank, and neighboring Arab countries. In Filiu’s view, throughout the war that produced the establishment of Israel as a sovereign state, “…Israeli units were systematically driving the Arab population out of the combat zone even when their villages offered no resistance to the advance of the Zionists” (62). The sadness and desolation of dispossession resulted in Gaza becoming early in the conflict dominated and radicalized by refugees and their profoundly alienating experiences. In the late 1940s Palestinian refugees amounted to more than 75% of Gaza’s total population.

The large refugee camps spread throughout tiny Gaza became focal points of ferment and eventually resistance, taking the initial form of the fedayin insurgent activities from the

1950s on. It was the fedayin fighters that found ways to penetrate Israel and inflict casualties particularly on soldiers and police, and later, on Israeli settlers in Gaza. This type of armed struggle inevitably prompted Israeli reprisal raids that were from their outset deliberately disproportionate. As Filiu observes, “[i]t was in Gaza that the fedayin were moulded, and the Hebrew State would soon make Gaza pay for it dearly” (94). This prediction was fulfilled in 1956, Egypt being displaced from Gaza, and Israel occupying the Strip for four months as an aspect of the Suez War, with accompanying massacres of Palestinian civilians being carried out by the Israeli military prior to a UN protective force being inserted to monitor the border. Filiu asks this provocative question: “Is there any doubt that the history of Gaza would have taken a different turn had a Palestinian entity been established there, under UN protection, in defiance of Israel, while maintaining special ties with Egypt” (105-106)? Although Filiu seems to have meant the question to be rhetorical, I am skeptical of any supposition that Gaza might have been spared Israeli fury even if the UN had agreed to sponsor and protect Gazan self-determination and sovereignty within the less crystalized climate of opinion in 1956. The political will to confront Israel has never existed on a global level or within the United Nations except to the extent of adopting a public discourse sharply challenging Israel’s policies and practices that is reinforced by periodic censure moves that were generally softened or opposed by the West.

As dramatic as the fedayin phenomenon, the outbreak of the intifada in 1987 that witnessed an unexpected mobilization of Palestinian civil society in Gaza, later spreading to the West Bank, challenged Israel’s capacity to maintain order in occupied Palestine. As Filiu persuasively argues, it was the fedayin and intifada that finally lent credibility and inspiration to the Palestinian national struggle, somewhat overcoming the humiliating failure of the pathetic international efforts by neighboring Arab states to challenge the existence of Israel. The failure of these several regional wars, culminating in the disastrous Arab defeat in the 1967 War, which greatly expanded Israel’s territorial identity, resulted in a second and permanent occupation of Gaza, with the war having the geopolitical effect of transforming Israel in American strategic thinking from being a heavy burden on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East to becoming a major strategic asset. Unfortunately for the Palestinians, “the rest is history.”

Filiu gives a fascinating portrayal of the rise of Islamism in Gaza, including a depiction of the charismatic leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by an Israeli missile in 2004. What Filiu’s discussion shows it that the early Islamic efforts in Gaza, inspired by and derivative of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, were devoted on principle to resistance activities within the law, focusing on a long range view of liberation by way of family values and education. It was only as a result of Israeli oppression in Gaza and a growing rivalry for popular allegiance with the secular coalition, the Palestine Liberation Organization under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, that led to the formation of the militant Hamas, and with this development, to extreme violence, highlighted by suicide bombing attacks within Israel in the late 1990s, often directed at the civilian population. Israel, at first, actually encouraged the political emergence of Islam, supposing that it would weaken what was perceived to be its principal adversary, the PLO, but as time passed, and Hamas tactics shifted to suicidal violence, Israel treated Hamas as a terrorist organization, and remains unwilling to back off such a view despite Hamas’ effort to pursue a political track for reaching its national goals since it took part in Palestinian elections in 2006.

Arafat is duly presented as the leading Palestinian liberation figure and international diplomat, but also deeply criticized by Filiu for the political innocence of his deferential approach to the United States and accompanying naïve hopes that Washington would deliver

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a just peace to the Palestinians after the Oslo Framework of Principles had been agreed upon in 1993. Filiu draws our attention to Arafat’s reaction to the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which brought tears to his eyes and the tormenting cry “It’s over, it’s over” (234)—meaning the prospect of a negotiated peace died with Rabin. Although Filiu does not evaluate Arafat’s reaction, it seems exaggerated, given Rabin’s acquiescence in expanding the settlement movement in the West Bank and Jerusalem and his “iron fist” policies in reaction to the first intifada.

One of the several virtues of Filiu’s historical approach is his willingness to employ evaluative language to describe Palestinian experience of victimization and Israeli tactics of oppression. He repeatedly refers to Israeli practices as imposing “collective punishment,” and as resulting in “massacres” of innocent Gazans, and of the experience endured by Gaza’s population as trauma, including “collective trauma.” At the same time, despite being highly critical of Israel’s approach, Filiu avoids any condemnations based on international humanitarian law or international criminal law. Filiu does not, unlike Ilan Pappé and other critics of Israel’s behavior in Gaza, speak of “genocide” or even “crimes against humanity.” In general, I conclude that Filiu’s sense of critical history with respect to Gaza does not accord significant relevance to international law.

In conclusion, Filiu provides a reader with a wealth of information, an historical perspective that greatly deepens our appreciation of the importance achieved by Gaza in the past, and above all, depicts the brutality of Israel’s behavior toward the people of Gaza and its failure to quell the spirit of Palestinian resistance. At the center of Filiu’s argument, beyond his assessment that the present period is best characterized as one of “impasse,” is the claim that Gaza remains the keystone for a sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians, a view shared by neither the formal Palestinian leadership nor by any influential Israeli, American, or European leaders, past or present. However this issue is resolved, Filiu is highly successful in making a reader appreciate Gaza’s illustrious past and the crucial role that recent generations of its people have played in keeping the fires of Palestinian resistance burning even in the face of Israel’s cruel, domineering, and oppressive behavior.

A few final comments on Filiu’s historiography. First of all, I wonder whether it was necessary to provide so much factual detail in narrating the history of Gaza; it seems to me that the main interpretative lines of assessment could have been developed as authoritatively, and with a gentler reading experience. Secondly, I think that the ethical forthrightness of Filiu’s approach lent added clarity to his interpretive perspectives, and was valuable as a matter of “full disclosure” of author to reader. If hidden from view, it would have raised questions about integrity and trust. And thirdly, the inclusion of prescriptive ideas in a work of contemporary history gives greater practical relevance to the understanding of the past being set forth. Policymakers on all sides would gain much from Filiu’s deeply considered argument for the centrality of Gaza to the Palestinian national struggle and to hopes for a sustainable peace that protects the rights of both peoples on the basis of equality.

 

Wartime Journalism: Mohammed Omer on Gaza

7 Aug

thI visited North Vietnam in 1968, and had meetings with its leaders in the midst of the ongoing war, which resulted in receiving the outlines of a proposal for ending the conflict on a basis more favorable to the United States than what was finally negotiated by Henry Kissinger seven years and many deaths later.  Because I was among the early anti-war visitors to Hanoi and may have been the first with a combination of academic credentials and some access to American decision-makers there was great journalistic interest inmy experience. I was approached on my return by mainstream journalists from major newspapers and TV networks, especially those who harbored growing doubts about the war, resulting in a series of interviews given prominent media attention for several days.

 

Yet I was deeply disappointed and disturbed by the experience, and the journalistic ethos that it revealed. The mainstream interest was totally focused on what I had been told by the North Vietnamese leadership about their receptivity to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. This preoccupation was, of course, understandable, but what I found so distressing at the time was a total disinterest in my accounts of the total vulnerability of the Vietnamese people to the onslaught of high tech weaponry, the resulting suffering and devastation, as well as the absence of military targets in the Vietnamese  countryside where the only structures were churches and hospitals. I was deeply affected by this exposure to the human fabric of warfare, as well as by the Vietnamese spirit of resilience and perseverance coupled with an absence of bitterness toward the American people in part a reflection of the way Vietnam was governed at the time. School children were taught that it is not contradictory to view the government of the United States as an enemy and yet maintain friendship with American people and the best of their national traditions. Throughout the war, I found it remarkable that Vietnamese school children were taught to regard the American Declaration of Independence as a step toward human liberation that deserved universal affirmation.

 

What I encountered in Europe and the United States when I tried to convey these impressions to journalists, especially those who were unashamedly liberal in their critical outlook toward the war, was a total disinterest in the (in)human face of the Vietnam War. Their concerns were confined to the realist agenda about how the war was going and whether the Vietnamese were serious about their posture of seeking peace via diplomacy on the basis of a political compromise rather than through victory on a battlefield outcome. The more I reflected on this, the more I came to realize that the journalistic ethos as applied to foreign policy was indifferent to the wartime suffering of the enemy population and a humanitarian catastrophe of massive proportions.

 

This deep seated indifference had several components. Above all, it reflected the nationalistic limits of empathy, which highlights sufferings of our side, and essentially ignores the losses of the other side, an extension of the friends/enemies dichotomy that underlies the realist paradigm. At most, the losses of the enemy other will be reported as statistics, but except in rare circumstances, without much human context to exhibit the terrible impact of war on the civilian population of a country that is subject to the sort of one-sided onslaught that afflicted Vietnam for so long.  A second explanation had to do with the imperial mentality that dominated Western journalism whether liberally inclined or not, which dissented from the war not because it violated the UN Charter or international law or was an affront to fundamental morality, but either because it was not producing a victory or was not worth the cost in American lives and resources. It is this realist calculus that is filtered through a nationalist optic that helps understand the peculiar form of liberalism that prevails in the United States and endorses the pernicious postulates of  ‘American exceptionalism.’

 

A third explanation had to do with the overt commitment of Western mainstream journalism to a style of reportage based on facts, nor feelings or opinions, both of which are distrusted because of their supposedly subjective character.  The primary journalistic claim in this tradition of professionalism is ‘the news without spin.’ In this respect, my post-Vietnam interviewers were acting ‘professionally’ given this canon as any display of empathy for Vietnamese suffering would be discrediting to their claims to stand outside the circle of controversy when reporting the news. Not that such disengagement was unbiased, hiding rather than acknowledging its nationalist and realist framings.

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All of which brings me to Mohammed Omer’s extraordinary Shell-Shocked: On the Ground under Israel’s Gaza Assault, published by Or Books (New York & London) in 2015.  The book consists of dispatches from the war zone by a young prize-winning journalist who has been telling the world about the Gaza ordeal for almost ten years, since his early 20s. Omer’s prior reporting earned him the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2007, recognizing the excellence of his reportage on Gaza (‘a voice for the voicelss’). After receiving the award in The Netherlands, Omer on his return home received a brutal reception at the Gaza border by Israeli security guards being beaten so severely as to endure serious injury that required specialized surgery. With the help of a Dutch diplomat and medical treatment Omer restored his health while studying in overseas universities, yet opting to return to Gaza rather than to enjoy a life abroad as an honored exile. Omer wrote this book while doing his best during the 51 day war of 2014, what Israelis called Operation Protective Edge, to tell the world about the war from the perspective of those enduring it, that is, the civilian population of Gaza. Shell-Shocked raises many issues worthy of commentary but here I will limit myself to issues bearing on the style and ethics of professional journalism.

 

In essence, Omer does not have the option of detachment from the ordeal of war in the manner of the liberal journalists who I describe above as covering the Vietnam War as an instance of failure for American foreign policy. Omer by choice and circumstances refused to be detached, but that does not mean that he cannot be trusted.  On the contrary.  As Omer explains, “..I’m a journalist, and I owe it to my people and the Israeli people to get to the truth. I choose to stay in Palestine, my beloved home, with my wife, son, mother, father, siblings. I am not willing to let Israel or Zionism exterminate me.” (28) He has a Dutch passport, and could leave, and lament the fate of Gaza from afar, and who could blame him for doing so. Obviously, the choice is not an easy or simple one. He observes at one point, “I wish I could airlift my wife and son (3 months) out of here. But this is my ancestral home; what else can I do?” (26) In describing the effects of the war, minimizes his own struggle to stay alive, courageously confronting life-threatening dangers on an hourly basis so as to fulfill his role as the eyes and voice of the Palestinian people enduring the ultimate horrors of war.

 

Part of what separates Omer from even the most empathetic of foreign journalists, for instance Max Blumenthal, is his embeddedness in the history and realities of life in Gaza. Even if he were to leave, his family would be surviving under the heavy weight of the Israeli assault. He can never escape emotionally from his deep attachment to Gaza. Again his words are the best evidence of the authenticity and importance of his journalistic witnessing: “..I am offended, not only as a human, as a Palestinian in Gaza and as a father, but also as a journalist in Gaza. To get a story, I navigate a sea of body parts and blood each day, much it the remnants of people I know: my neighbors, friends and community. Unlike international reporters, those of us from Gaza don’t simply report. We live and die here.” (23) Of course, the last part of this passage is not entirely fair. Many brave international correspondents have risked their lives and paid the highest price on some occasions. I recall the great French reporter, Bernard Fall, being blown up by a mine while walking on a Vietnam beach, or more recently, the grisly 2014 TV beheading of the American journalist, James Foley, but Omer’s distinction still generally holds. The outsider who enters such a cauldron of political violence puts his life at risk, yet in almost all circumstances, can after awhile withdraw from the combat zone, resuming normalcy, although some journalists are subject to a kind of ‘fever of war,’ and only feel truly human when in the close vicinity of mortal danger. I remember Peter Arnett telling me in Hanoi on my second trip there in 1972 that after covering many major wars he only felt fully alive when doing first-hand war journalism, but the New Zealand born Peter, although animated and brave, never allowed the suffering of the civilian population to get to him, managing a detachment in the Western style, supposedly letting the facts do all the talking.

 

In important respects, this is also what Omer does, but with an undisguised sharp normative edge. The book consists of describing the daily ordeal experienced by the citizens of Gaza living under the fury of the Israeli attacks with no way of finding secure sanctuary, often relying on their own words to give the details of their struggles for survival and to recount their harrowing loss of loved ones. In this spirit Omer makes the reader almost feel what it must be like not to find food on the shelves of the neighborhood store or not to afford the spike in prices that follows from growing scarcities or not to have safe drinking water for growing children or not to be able to escape the confines of one’s house, which is itself never out of the danger zone.  And most of all, what it feels like to cope with the unspeakable death and maiming of family members and neighbors as a result of Israeli military tactics. These graphic descriptions of what the 51-day war meant for specific residents of Gaza constitutes the basic reportage of Shell-Shocked.

 

One expects that within this frame of witnessing Omer reports as accurately as possible, without exaggeration or invention. From what I know of Omer (he is a friend who I have known and admired for seven years) and of the situation in Gaza from other sources, I am utterly convinced that Omer is adhering to the highest standards of accuracy in reportage, relying heavily on descriptions of the scene and the witness of those who have endured the worst  losses of loved ones, homes, livelihood. As well, his local affiliations are neutral. Omer does not belong to or identify with any political party or association. He is embedded in Gaza by life circumstances, being a member of the victimized society with deep family and community affinities, and by this identity disposed toward ending the occupation of Gaza, achieving self-determination for the Palestinian people, and the achieving a durable and just peace for both peoples.

 

Omer never pretends that he has no personal stake in this conflict. In introducing his book Omer gives the reader a sense of his outlook: “As for myself, I try to remain optimistic, no small feat in ruined shell of what was once a beautiful and self-sufficient coastal enclave. Our reality is predicated upon Israel’s determination to drive us from our homes for good.” (7)  More than this, Omer observes critically that “[v]ery few in the mainstream media ever talk about the right of the people of Gaza to defend ourselves, or even just to exist.” (10) Note in the tangled syntax of this sentence that Omer gets trapped between describing the right that pertains to the people and a right that belongs to himself as one of the people.  Making his political viewpoint even clearer, and from the Western journalistic ethos unacceptable, Omer acknowledges his support for BDS as raising the costs of occupation for Israel, and besides being a tactic that is lawful and nonviolent. Omer also affirms the inclusiveness of his hopes: “Speaking personally I would like to see a single state where equity and tolerance are the only way forward for Israelis and Palestinians.” (11)

 

Omer also makes it clear that Israel understands that from its perspective that such journalistic depictions of the effects of the war both complicate and even undermine their propagandistic portrayals of good versus evil. Omer quotes a Beirut-based TV camera man, Abed Afifi, who reacts to the intentional targeting of a journalistic colleague with these words: “Such [an] attack is meant to intimidate us. Israel has no bank of targets, except civilians and journalists.” (55) He goes on to insist that “[A]ll these attacks on civilians should not stop us from working—the world has to see what Israel is doing in Gaza.” (55) And so it has to some degree, thanks to the efforts of Omer, Afifi, and many others.

 

Given the Israeli use of precision missiles against clearly marked TV vans, the inference of deliberate targeting seems hard to avoid. Israel has half acknowledged this by claiming that the journalists targeted are not ‘legitimate journalists,’ a claim refuted by Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch, pointing out that such an attack is a violation of international humanitarian law even if the journalists can be shown to be partisan. In effect, the subjectively motivated journalist is by choice and hostile perception a kind of warrior, seeking to help win that part of the war, often the decisive part, waged for control of the psychological terrain governing ‘hearts and minds,’ and hence ‘illegitimate’ in the eyes of the side relying on a military onslaught to impose its will.

 

Finally, I return to my central comparison between objectively styled journalism that prevails in the West and the subjectively styled approach taken by Mohammed Omer and other journalists who work from a vantage point within the orbit of extreme victimization. I recall my friend, Walden Bello, the noted author and political figure from the Philippines, saying that he didn’t have to determine whether imperialism was real or not as he experiences its reality on a daily basis, which shaped and conditioned his observational standpoint. For Omer, the reality of violent oppression does not have to be determined as it is experienced in the most intense possible ways.

 

Some years ago, in collaboration with Howard Friel, I was the junior co-author of two books highly critical of the manner in which the New York Times handled foreign policy debates and reported on Middle East issues, especially the Israel/Palestine conflict. [The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports U.S. Foreign Policy (2004) and Israel-Palestine on Record: How the New York Times Misrepresents Conflict in the Middle East (2007). We reached two main conclusions: (1) the Times systematically excluded the relevance of international law whenever it was seen as impinging on American choices in the pursuit of foreign policy goals; (2) the selective presentation of evidence sought to maintain a pro-Israeli consensus and to minimize the actualities of Palestinian victimization, a pattern very evident in the news coverage, but also in the type of opinion writers who were published and those who were excluded. In this regard, the claim of objectivity and detachment were sham, and devices used to manipulate and indoctrinate the reader, a phenomenon brilliantly depicted by Noam Chomsky in his studies of ‘indoctrination in a liberal society. I remember telling my students during the height of the Cold War that if you were a Russian in Moscow you learned how to discern realities by reading between the lines but if you were an American in Washington it required much greater sophistication to gain a comparable appreciation of the news from the New York Times or Washington Post, despite their widely accepted claims of being ‘papers of record.’

 

In this sense, I learn more about the news and the infrastructure of opinions that are shaping its editorial assessments from the avowedly conservative Wall Street Journal than I do from reading these liberal, more sympathetic, papers of record. And without doubt I learn more from Mohammed Omer about the realities of what happened during those 51 days in Gaza than I do from the mainstream media with its hidden biases and posture of apolitical detachment. That this learning corresponds with my political and ethical inclinations makes the experience moving and congenial as well as informative, and I encourage all with concern for Palestine’s present and future to read Omer’s brave book that can also be appreciated as a documentary compilation of testimony by the residents of Gaza caught in the maelstrom of a particularly cruel military onslaught and who yet manifest that quality of sumud that has made Palestinian resilience such an inspiring human reality amid the doldrums of the early 21st century. Mohammed Omer deserves the last word: “I have written this book as a way of preserving and passing on stories that need to be told.” (11)

 

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UN Gaza Report Part II: Israel’s Counterinsuurgency Apologist: Colonel Richard Kemp

6 Jul

 

Retired British colonel, Richard Kemp, has been an ardent supporter of Israel’s three major military operations in Gaza conducted over the last six

years. He has collaborated on several occasions with the two notoriously pro-Israeli NGOs, UN Watch and NGO Monitor, serving on the Advisory Board of the latter and appearing as star witness under such auspices at the UN, most recently at a two-day side event at UN Headquarters in Geneva devoted to condemning the UN Commission of Inquiry Report on the Gaza War of 2014.

 

There is no doubt that Col. Kemp has the credentials to speak as a counterinsurgency specialist, having served as commander of British forces

in Afghanistan and elsewhere, where he acknowledges close cooperation with Mossad and the influence of Israeli tactics. In fairness, Kemp writes from such a militarist view with little effort to assess the relevance of international humanitarian law, treating ‘military effectiveness’ as determined by military commanders as the defining criterion of legality for a challenged battlefield practice. In his own words, “[i]t’s the dispassionate military perspective that I bring.” Of course, such an outlook ignores the relevance of international criminal law, which is to superimpose accountability as a constraining framework on this ‘military perspective.’ Actually, Kemp doesn’t so much ignore international criminal law as to (mis)interpret its rules so as to vindicate the tactics of the counterinsurgent side while condemning those of the insurgent.

 

On June 25, 2015 the New York Times published an opinion piece by Kemp assessing the UN Report. What I find scandalous and perverse on the part of this self-claiming authoritative media source, is to publish such a harsh and partisan dismissal of a prudent and overly balanced report without any kind of offsetting piece. I can only imagine the furor that would have been provoked if the NYT had published a piece by an expert in international criminal law, say William Schabas or John Dugard, calling for the indictment and prosecution of Israel’s political and military leaders on the basis of the Report. At least, if such a piece had been published alongside the Kemp article, NYT readers could have been exposed to the realities of controversy flowing from these UN allegations that Israel (and to a far lesser extent, Hamas) was guilty of war crimes.

 

Kemp begins his article with the claim that “..it pains me greatly to see words and actions from the UN that can only provoke further violence and loss of life.” As is ‘law’ imposed on the powerful and not their weaponry is responsible for violence and the loss of life in Gaza. We are not told exactly why reaches this perverse conclusion, but presumably Kemp believes that the condemnation of Israel’s use of indiscriminate and disproportionate force would embolden Hamas, and Palestinians generally, to continue to claim a right of resistance. What Kemp (and Israel) obviously seek is a circumstance in which whatever the dominant military forces do is validated by its effectiveness and what a population under domination does in opposition is condemned with the implication that resistance to Israel’s prolonged occupation is inherently unlawful.

 

Kemp’s puff piece is filled with bland endorsements of Israel’s most blatant propaganda. For instance, Kemp asserts, in complete disregard of the evidence, that Israel imposed the blockade on Gaza “only in response to attacks by Hamas.” While it is common knowledge, even in Israel, that the blockade has been maintained since 2007 as a ‘collective punishment’ imposed on the civilian population of Gaza, having little to do with security, which was mainly sustained by way of rigorous monitoring of all crossings to and from Gaza, and with Egypt’s cooperation at Rafah during the Mubarak era and since Sisi’s ascent. Kemp has nothing to say about Israel’s frequent lethal incursions into Gaza that have accompanied the occupation since it started in 1967, and he uncritically supports Israel’s distorted one-sided timeline that claims Israel only attacks in retaliation for missiles and mortar fire from Hamas, and never initiates violent interactions by on its own. Kemp also never refers to the ceasefires broken by Israel, as in the leadup to Operation Cast Lead at the end of 2008. Instead, as Kemp has written elsewhere of this earlier brutal attack on a vulnerable, cage population, “I can only say this: during Operation Cast Lead, the IDF did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in the combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare.”

 

Most disturbingly, Kemp writes in a condescending manner as follows: “The report is characterized by a lack of understanding of warfare,” as revealed by its failure to compare what Israel is doing with what the U.S. and Britain have done in Afghanistan, Iraq. In Kemp’s words, Israeli tactics are no different than those used extensively by American and British forces in similar circumstances.” What is most dangerous about this counterinsurgency worldview is its implicit reasoning that allows such conclusions to be set forth in good faith by professional soldiers. To begin with, Kemp is essentially correct that the counterinsurgency wars waged by the U.S. and Britain have relied on similar tactics, but does that make Israel’s pattern consistent with international law and morality? Most international law assessments of these uses of modern weaponry against densely populated civilian areas consider such tactics to be severe war crimes, not models to be invoked as validation.

Kemp’s state of play is revealed here: converting past crimes into authoritative precedents to justify present crimes, or to transform crimes into legitimate counterinsurgency tactics.

 

Beyond this, Israel’s tactics are worse in some instances than those of its predecessors. Whereas in Vietnam, the United States used its far less precise air power to inflict heavy casualties on the Vietnamese civilian population it refrained from attacking urban population centers as Israel did in the Gaza attack of 2014, as well as the earlier ones. Even in Falluja, the worst instance of American firepower directed at a city believed to be a center of insurgent opposition in Iraq to American occupation, the population was given ample time to vacate the city after warnings of impending attack. In contrast, except for the 800 Palestinians that held foreign passports who were allowed to leave Gaza, the remainder of the civilian population in Gaza was locked into the combat zone, losing even the desperate option of fleeing to safety by becoming a refugee. Col. Kemp, invoking his counterinsurgency experience and knowledge, never sees fit to mention such a damning ‘detail.’

Nor does he bother to point out that the whole of Gaza was a combat zone, and that civilians, including women and children, had no place of sanctuary and safety, other than to seek refuge in UN facilities and mosques, which then were turned into targets because of Israeli claims that weapons were stored in these places.

 

Parroting the worst elements of Israeli hasbara, Kemp sets forth this grotesque characterization of Hamas tactics: “Unable to inflict existential harm on Israel by military means, Hamas sought to cause large numbers of casualties among its own people in order to bring condemnation and unbearable diplomatic pressure against Israel.” To make such an extreme allegation without bothering to cite evidence is to portray Hamas as seeking the genocidal annihilation of its own people. This is an odd accusation in view of the evidence that Hamas became gained more popular support from the Gazan population after this Israeli attack than before, presumably because of its steadfastness under the most severe of pressures. Also, Kemp withholds comments on the repeated and strenuous efforts of Hamas to seek the renewal of the ceasefire prior to the initiation of the Israel onslaught in early July of 2014.

 

In effect, Kemp is appraising Israel’s behavior on the basis of the ‘new normal’ prevailing among counterinsurgency hawks that have led the West into war after war in its futile effort to defer the death of European colonialism, and its American sequel. What is done by the West is justified by military effectiveness (although without noticing that these wars have all been eventually lost), what is done by the forces of national resistance is criminalized if not demonized as ‘barbarism.’

 

 

It is not surprising that UN Watch and NGO Monitor organized an elaborate side event at the Palais des Nations in Geneva last week that featured Richard Kemp as its lead speakers, but included an array of other counterinsurgency specialists, with no attempt whatsoever to bring to bear the perspectives of international humanitarian law except in the spirit of Israeli apologetics. For description of this event held on June 29-30 see the home pages of either UN Watch or NGO Monitor. It is notable that unlike the response to the Goldstone Report in 2009 that featured denunciations of bias and personal attacks, the orchestrated reaction to COI report is more sophisticated, relying on a variety of substantive reports that set forth Israel’s claims of justification, a media blitz, along with major advocacy efforts by Israel’s well-trained NGO poodles.

 

A welcome contrasting vision, closer to law, morality, and reality is offered by Max Blumenthal in his new book, The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza (2015). David Swanson, the noted anti-war activist, titles his review of Blumenthal’s book, “the 51-day Genocide” <http//davidswanson.org/node/4815> As Swanson puts it in his review of the book, “I can think of a few other words that characterized the 2014 assault on Gaza in addition to ‘war,’ among them, occupation, murder-spree, and genocide. Each serves a valuable purpose. Each is correct.”

 

Parodies of Parity: Israel & Palestine

14 May

Parodies of Parity: Israel & Palestine

 

As long ago as 1998 Edward Said reminded the world that acting as if Palestinians were equally responsible with Israelis for the persisting struggle of the two peoples was not only misleading, but exhibited a fundamental in misunderstanding of the true reality facing the two peoples: “The major task of the American or Palestinian intellectual of the left is to reveal the disparity between the so-called two sides, which appears to be in perfect balance, but are not in fact. To reveal that this is an oppressed and an oppressor, a victim and a victimizer, and unless we recognize that, we’re nowhere.” [interview with Bruce Robbins published in Social Text (1998)] I would rephrase Said’s statement by substituting ‘any engaged citizen and morally sensitive intellectual’ for ‘the American or Palestinian intellectual of the left.’ We do not need to be on the left to expose the cruel hypocrisy of suppressing gross disparities of circumstances, or more to the point, blocking out the multiple diplomatic, military, material, and psychological advantages enjoyed by Israel as compared to the Palestine. “It is elementary, my dear Watson!” as Sherlock Holmes so often exclaimed, or at least it should be.

 

Unfortunately, a principal instrument of the mind numbing diplomacy of the United States is precisely aimed at avoiding any acknowledgement of the disparity that at the core of the encounter. As a result, the American public is confused as to what it is reasonable to expect from the two sides and how to interpret the failure of negotiations to get anywhere time and again. This failure is far from neutral. It is rather the disparity that has done the most damage to peace prospects ever since 1967: This pattern of delay has kept the Palestinians in bondage while allowing the Israelis build and create armed communities on occupied Palestinian land that was supposedly put aside for the future Palestinian state.

 

Beyond this appeal to intellectuals, Said’s message should be understood by everyone everywhere, and not just by Americans and Israelis, although these are the two populations most responsible for the prolonged failure to produce a peace based on justice. Elsewhere, except possibly in parts of Western Europe, such a discourse as to shared responsibility for the ongoing struggle is not so relevant because the ugly forms of Israeli exploitation of the Palestinian ordeal have become increasingly transparent in recent years. Only in America and Canada has the combined manipulations of hasbara and the Israel Lobby kept the public from sensing the extremities of Palestinian suffering. For decades Europeans gave Israel the benefit of the doubt, partly reflecting a sense of empathy for the Jewish people as victims of the Holocaust without giving much attention to the attendant displacement of the indigenous Arab population. Such an outlook, although still influential at the governmental level, loses its tenability with each passing year. 

Beyond this, there are increasing expressions of grassroots solidarity with the Palestinian struggle by most peoples in the world. It is a misfortune of the Palestinians that most political leaders in the world are rarely moved to act to overcome injustice, and are far more responsive to hegemonic structures that control world politics and their perception of narrowly conceived national interests. This pattern has become most vividly apparent in the Arab world where the people scream when Israel periodically launches its attacks on Gazan civilian society while their governments smile quietly or avert their eyes as the bombs drop and the hospitals fill up.

 

In Israel, the argument as to balance also has little resonance as Israelis, if they pause to wonder at all, tend to blame the Palestinians for failing to accept past Israeli conflict-resolving proposals initiatives made over the years. Israelis mostly believe that the Barak proposals at Camp David in 2000 and the Sharon ‘disengagement’ from Gaza in 2005 demonstrated Tel Aviv’s good faith. Even Netanyahu, at least when he is not seeking reelection, and is speaking for the benefit of an American audience disingenuously claims Israel’s continuing dedication to a peace process based on seeking a two-state solution while he explains diplomatic gridlock by contending that lacks a Palestinian partner in the search for peace, and never deigns to mention the settlement archipelago as an obstacle.

 

Looked at objectively, by assessing behavior and apparent motivation, it is the Palestinians that have no partner for genuine peace negotiations, and should have stopped long ago acting as if Israel was such a partner. That is, Israel inverts the Said disparity, contending that the public should point its finger of blame at Palestine, not Israel. Of course, this is hasbara in its impurest form. Israel never made a peace proposal that offered Palestinians a solution based on national and sovereign equality and sensitive to Palestinian rights under international law. And as for Sharon’s purported disengagement from Gaza, it was justified at the time in Israel as a way to deflect international pressures building to pursue a diplomatic solution and it was managed as a withdrawal that didn’t loosen the grip of effective control, leaving Gaza as occupied and more vulnerable than it was when the IDF soldiers patrolled the streets. Since 2005 the people of Gaza have suffered far more from Israel’s military domination than in all the years following 1967 when occupation commenced, and it should be clear, this outcome was not a reaction to Hamas and rockets. Hamas has repeated sought and upheld ceasefires that Israel has consistently violated, and offered long-term arrangements for peaceful coexistence that Israel and the United States have refused to even acknowledge.

 

Where the equivalence argument is so influential is with the Obama administration and among liberal Zionists, including such NGOs as J Street and Peace Now that are critical of Israel for blocking progress toward a two-state solution. It is a blindfold that obscures the structural reality of the relationship between the two sides, and believes that if Israel would make some small adjustments in their occupation policy, especially in relation to settlements, and if the Palestinians would do the same with respect to refugees and accepting Israel as a Jewish state, then a negotiated peace would follow as naturally as day follows night. In effect, Israel is expected to curtail unlawful settlement activity in exchange for Palestine suspending its rights under international law affecting the situation of several million Palestinian refugees. As is widely known, Jews from anywhere in the world have an unconditional right to immigrate to Israel, whereas Palestinian living abroad with deep residence roots in the country are almost totally banished from Israel including if their purpose is to resume residence so as to live with close family members.

 

In Ramallah back in March 2013, and speaking to a Palestinian gathering, President Obama did forcefully say that “The Palestinians deserve an end to occupation and the daily indignities that come with it,” and this will require “a state of their own.” Obama even then acknowledged “that the status quo isn’t really a status quo, because the situation on the ground continues to evolve in a direction that makes it harder to reach a two-state solution.” Such a display of circumlocution (“..continues to evolve in a direction”) so as to avoid clearing mentioning Israel’s continuous encroachment on the land set aside by the international consensus, is for a discerning reader all that one needs to know. The unwillingness to challenge frontally Israel’s unlawful and obstructive behavior is underscored by Obama’s reassurances given to a separate Israeli audience in Jerusalem on the same day that he spoke guardedly to the Palestinian, with such phrases as “America’s unwavering commitment,” ‘unbreakable bonds,” “our alliance is eternal, it is forever,” “unshakeable support,” and “your greatest friend.” No such language of reassurance was offered the Palestinians. His two speeches left no doubt that Israel retained its upper hand, and could continue to rest easy with this status quo of simmering conflict that had worked so long in its favor.

 

The Secretary of State, John Kerry, ploughs the same field, calling on both sides to make “painful concessions.” Obama in his Jerusalem speech illustrated what this concretely might mean, assuming that the two sides were equally called upon to act if peace were to be achieved. The Palestinians were called upon to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, while Israel was politely reminded in language so vague as to be irrelevant, “Israelis must recognize that settlement activity is counterproductive.” To ask Palestinians to recognize Israel is to affirm as legitimate the discriminatory regime under which the 20% Palestinian minority lives, while asking the Israelis to recognize that the counterproductive character of settlement expansion is to misunderstand Israeli intentions. If their goal is to avoid the establishment of a Palestinian state then being ‘counterproductive’ is exactly the result being sought. Besides asking the Palestinians to abridge their rights while requesting Israel to admit that their settlement activity is not helping the diplomatic process is to appeal to their self-interest, and avoid a demand to cease and reverse an unlawful, likely criminal, activity. The false equivalence is a metaphor for the deformed framework of diplomacy that has unfolded largely as a result of the United States being accepted as the presiding intermediary, a role for which it is totally unsuited to play. This lack of qualification is admitted by its own frequent declarations of a high profile strategic and ideological partnership with Israel, not to mention the interference of a domestic Israeli lobby that controls Congress and shapes the media allocation of blame and praise in relation to the conflict.

 

Kerry expresses the same kind of one-sidedness in the guise of fairness when he calls on the parties to make compromises: “..we seek reasonable compromises on tough complicated, emotional, and symbolic issues. I think reasonable compromises has to be a keystone of all of this effort.” What kind of compromises are the Palestinians supposed to make, given that they are already confined to less and less of the 22% of the British Mandatory territory of Palestine, and since 1988 have sought no greater proportion of the land. Kerry’s approach overlooks, as well, the defiant refusal of Israel to act in good faith in relation to the 1967 Security Council Resolution 242 that called upon Israel to withdraw without claiming territory through its use of force or by taking advantage of being the occupying power. In the interim, while being unwilling to do anything concrete to implement its view of decades that Israeli settlement activity is ‘counterproductive’ the United States proclaims and proves its readiness to oppose any Palestinian attempt to gain access to the UN to express its grievances, an effort which Obama denigrated as “unilateral attempts to bypass negotiations through the UN.” The Palestinian Authority has repeatedly made clear that it favors a resumption of direct negotiations with Israel, despite being at a great disadvantage within such a framework, and insists persuasively that there is no inconsistency between its seeking greater participation in international institutions and its continued readiness to work toward a diplomatic solution of the conflict. If Israel and the United States were sincerely dedicated to a sustainable peace, they would encourage this Palestinian turn away from violent resistance, and their increased effort to push their cause by persuasion rather than missiles, to advance their cause by gaining respectability through joining institutions and adhering to lawmaking treaties instead of being confined in a prolonged rightless lockdown euphemistically disguised as ‘occupation.’

 

In the end, we cannot see the situation for what it is without reverting to theSaid insistence that the relation between oppressor and oppressed is a paramount precondition for sustainable peace. Unless the structural distortion and illegitimacy is acknowledged, no viable political arrangement will be forthcoming. From this perspective the Kerry emphasis on ‘reasonable compromise’ is as mind numbingly irrelevant as it would have been in seeking a peaceful end to racial struggle in apartheid South Africa by demanding that ANC and Nelson Mandela become amenable to compromise with their racist overlords. Peace will come to Israel and Palestine, and be sustained, if and only if the oppressor becomes ready to dismantle its oppressive regime by withdrawing, not merely by disengaging Gaza style. At present, such a readiness is not to be found on the Israeli side, and so long as this is so, direct negotiations and these periodic calls issued by Washington to resume direct talks have one main effect–to free Israel to realize its ambition to establish ‘Greater Israel’ while keeping the Palestinians in chains. This ambition has not yet been explicitly embraced by the Israeli leadership, although only those who refuse to notice what is happening on the ground can fail to notice this expansionist pattern. Israel’s new coalition government even more rightest and pro-settler than its predecessor makes Israel’s ambition to end the conflict by self-serving unilateral action less and less a well kept state secret.

Interview with William Schabas, former Chair, UN Commission of Inquiry for 2014 Israeli Attack on Gaza

16 Feb

[Prefatory Note: I am posting an interview conducted by email in recent days with Professor William Schabas in the immediate aftermath of his resignation as Chair and Member of the three person Commission of Inquiry appointed by the UN Human Rights Council last August to investigate allegations of violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law, as well as state crimes associated with Israel’s military attack on Gaza (code named by Israel as Operation Protective Edge) of July-August 2014. The depleted commission now consists of the remaining two members (Mary McGowan Davis of the United States as the newly designated Chair, and Doudou Diène of Senegal) and is due to submit its final report to the HRC in March; Professor Schabas, a distinguished specialist in international criminal law with a worldwide reputation is on the faculty of Middlesex University in London, had participated fully in planning the inquiry, the gathering of evidence, listening to witnesses. His exclusion from the drafting of the report deprives the Commission, and hence the HRC and the international community, of the member with the greatest professional credibility and reputation for no acceptable reason.

 

As has so often been the case when Israel faces the prospect of criticism it mounts an array of charges of bias directed at both prominent individuals and their institutional sponsors. This was my experience as Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine during the entire period of 2008-2014 in which I was subject to continuous defamatory attacks, spearheaded by UN Watch, a notorious NGO that avoids the message while mounting a furious attack on the messenger, seeking to blacken my reputation by writing letters of personal denunciation to a variety of prominent persons, who took such tactics far more seriously than they deserved. Israel officially charged me with bias at the time of my appointment, including issuing a Foreign Ministry declaration of non-cooperation, implemented in December 2008 when I tried to enter Israel on a HRC mission on behalf of the UN and was expelled after being held in a detention cell overnight.

 

In September 2009 when the Goldstone Report was issued after an inquiry similar to the one that Scshabas was chairing, prompted by the 2008-09 Israeli attack on Gaza (Operation Cast Lead). Richard Goldstone, a prominent liberal figure at the time but also a dedicated Zionist with close personal and professional connections to Israel, was put under pressure from the outset to decline the appointment, and Israel as in this case refused to allow the UN to enter Israel to carry out its fact finding mission in the most efficient manner. Although the Goldstone Report was fair and balanced, it was viciously attacked from the first moment of its presentation as ‘a blood libel’ against the Jewish people, and Goldstone personally was vilified by Israel’s most prominent political leaders, including the Prime Minister and President. This relentless pressure led Goldstone to retract on his own a crucial finding of the report as to the deliberate use of force by the IDF against Palestinian civilians, an action mainly discrediting of Goldstone himself, as the finding of the report continued to enjoy the support of the other three distinguished members of the inquiry group, including by Christine Chinkin of LSE, one of the world’s leading experts on international humanitarian law.

 

William Schabas’ resignation has its own disturbing specific context, although it bears the imprint of Israel’s determination and skill in mounting campaigns of bias to discredit whoever has had the professional willingness to present unpopular truths concerning allegations of state crimes by Israel arising out of its controversial uses of force in Gaza and overall unlawful occupation administration. As explained in the interview, Schabas was responding to Israeli charges of bias from the outset of his appointment, but with a recent emphasis on the fact that he had some years ago prepared as a modestly paid consultant a short technical report for the Palestinian Liberation Organization on the international law questions associated with a possible Palestinian application for membership in the International Criminal Court. Schabas’ attackers had gained enough traction in recent weeks to induce the President of the HRC to propose referring the question of Schabas’ bias to the UN Legal Affairs Office for resolution. Rather than see the work of the COI diverted and delayed by this side issue, Schabas chose to resign. As is usual in these cases, when a person who stands forth in public for truth and principle as Schabas has done since the beginning, there follows a flow of hate mail and death threats that appear to be the work of pro-Israeli extremists who consider critics of Israel as ‘Jew-haters’ or worse. It is important that those of us who seek a sustainable and just peace for the region stand in solidarity with William Schabas who knowingly stepped into this toxic environment because of his lifelong commitment to strengthening the role of international criminal law in protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty. It is a shameful reality that Israel has been so successful in mounting these campaigns within the United Nations against its more visible critics, and by so doing divert needed attention from its own persistent and flagrant wrongdoing from the perspective of international law. ]

 

 

Interview with William Schabas, recently resigned under pressure as Chair of the Commission of Inquiry appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to Investigate Allegations of State Crimes associated with Israel’s military attack on Gaza, code named Operation Protective Edge

 

  1. When you accepted the position of Chair of this Commission of Inquiry into allegations of criminality directed at Israel and Hamas in relation to Israel’s military operations in Gaza during July and August 2014, what were your hopes and worries? Were these borne out by your actual experience?

 

This was not the first time I have been asked to do something by the High Commissioner for Human Rights. I have never said no when asked. I am a loyal and enthusiastic supporter both of the High Commissioner and of the Human Rights Council. Thus, when initially requested by the High Commissioner if I would agree to have my name submitted as a candidate for the Commission and then by the President of the Human Rights Council if I would agree to be a member of the Commission I did not hesitate. I considered it an honour that both of them thought I could do this challenging job of participating in the Commission. I should add that I was never asked whether I would be the Chairman and only learned that I had been selected for that job when the announcement was made.

This was not the first such Commission. In particular, in a sense it follows in the footsteps of the Goldstone Commission. But there have been other inquiries since Goldstone and a huge amount of work conducted by special procedures of the Human Rights Council and by other UN institutions over the decades. When the most recent Commission of Inquiry was established, I think I believed that we would be a small piece in this much bigger mosaic of initiatives. I hoped the Commission would contribute both to justice and peace but my expectations were modest. On more than one occasion, I said that the difference between this Commission and its predecessors was that this time the International Criminal Court was standing in the wings. The State of Palestine had already begun ratifying international treaties. It acknowledged that accession to the Rome Statute was on its agenda.

 

  1. How did the work of COI proceed? Were you pleased with the workings of the undertaking as a whole? Do you expect that your resignation will have effects on the conclusions of the report, the reception of its findings, and their likely implementation?

 

I need to be very careful here because the Commission has not been very public in its activities. It has gathered a huge amount of material. It has also met with many individuals – victims, experts, human rights activists, UN officials, representatives of governments, diplomats – but these ‘hearings’ were not open to the public. Some of those who met with the Commission, in particular a delegation of Israelis that travelled to Geneva in January 2015, publicized their meetings with the Commission. But as a general rule, the identity of those who met with the Commission has not been divulged.

I regret not being able to contribute to the drafting of the report. That job was only beginning at the time of my resignation. I am confident that the professional staff of the Commission, consisting of a dozen specialists, and the two Commissioners will produce a fair and effective report.

Although Netanyahu has called my departure a victory, my own sense is that he has shot himself in the foot or, as they say on this side of the Atlantic, scored an own goal. His strategy seems to be based on the idea that he will be able to prevent the report from appearing. But I think he is very wrong here. Instead of keeping his powder dry, he has fired one of his best pieces of ammunition in order to eliminate me. Now, it is harder for him to attack the Commission and its report.

 

  1. Can you explain your rationale for resignation more fully? Were you influenced by the experience of Richard Goldstone and the Goldstone Report?

Were you not aware when you were approached that these issues of supposed ‘conflict of interest’ would be used to challenge your credibility in a defamatory manner? Was the decisive factor the unanticipated response of the President of the Human Rights Council to the contention about your consultancy with the PLO on Palestinian statehood?

 

There had been calls for me to resign from the moment I accepted the mandate in early August 2014. I did not ignore them but I concluded that they were not substantial. I do not think that I was biased or that there was a reasonable apprehension of bias. The allegation about the legal opinion I delivered to the PLO in October 2012 only emerged in late January. It seems the Israeli ambassador raised this informally with the President of the Human Rights Council who then drew it to my attention and asked me to explain, which I did. Subsequently, Israel made a formal complaint. The President proposed that legal advice from the United Nations in New York be requested in order to determine the procedure to follow in examining the complaint. The five-member Bureau of the Council agreed to this. Within minutes of its decision, I submitted my resignation.

I think that when there is an inquiry or investigation into the impartiality of a member of a tribunal or similar body, it is problematic for that body to proceed with other matters until the issue of impartiality is resolved. It was my own assessment that it would be difficult for the Commission to continue to work until my status had been determined. That was likely to take weeks. At best, it would distract the Commission from its important work at a crucial phase. At worst, it would prevent the Commission from completing its report by the March session, as it was required to do. Although I would have preferred to fight and defend myself from the unfair charges of conflict of interest, I considered that I had become an obstacle to the Commission completing its mandate. The least bad solution was for me to get out of the way.

Your question seems to imply that I should have seen all of this coming and extricated myself from the business much earlier. I cannot say I did not consider this in August when I saw how brutal and vicious the attacks on me had become. An important difficulty then was that already one of the three members who had been appointed had taken the step of withdrawing. Amal Clooney had initially been named along with myself and Doudou Diene. It seems there was some kind of misunderstanding. Within a few hours of the announcement of her appointment, she said that she could not serve. For me to withdraw subsequently would, I thought at the time, have been disastrous for the Human Rights Council. Bear in mind that the conflict in Gaza was still raging at the time. I decided that I would tough it out. I did not accept the charges of bias. It is easy today to second guess this. I should add that despite the nasty attacks from predictable directions, there was great support for the Commission of Inquiry. In September, the President of the Council reported to the plenary Human Rights Council. UN Watch and its friends howled about the composition of the Commission but there was no reaction from the members of the Council. In particular, on various occasions the European member states, who had abstained in the resolution establishing the Commission, reassured the three Commissioners of their support for its work and its activities.

 

  1. In retrospect, do you find any substance to the charges of bias or conflict of interest? How can one be both an expert on this subject-matter and not have some pre-existing opinions? Should not the proper test be one of professionalism and objectivity with respect to the evidence and applicable law? For instance, would a person who had been critical of Nazism or apartheid be rendered unfit to investigate allegations of crimes against humanity or racism?

 

The word ‘bias’ gets thrown around a lot in this discussion. My attackers constantly claimed that I was ‘biased’. All that they meant was that I had an opinion different from their own. When one talks about bias in the context of judicial independence and impartiality, the issue is not whether the individual in question has opinions that have been expressed in the past. Everyone has opinions. Some conceal them. Others, like myself, wear them on their sleeve. But bias only occurs when an individual charged with a task requiring fairness and impartiality is unable to set his or her opinions aside. There is absolutely no evidence to support such a charge against me on this basis.

Lawyers often talk about ‘perception of bias’ or ‘fear of bias’. This is more subjective. It will occur when someone has a close personal relationship with a litigant or when financial interests are involved. There is reasonable concern that someone placed in such circumstances would have difficulty being impartial. But again, there is nothing of the sort in my situation.

Until the issue of the legal opinion that I provided in 2012 for the PLO arose, the only serious charges against me concerned a couple of statements I had made about Netanyahu. They were presented out of context to suggest that I had some kind of obsession with the man. In one case I was reacting to Netanyahu’s attack on Richard Goldstone. Netanyahu had said that Goldstone was one of the greatest threats to the survival of Israel. I said that I thought Netanyahu was the greatest threat to Israel’s survival. In the other I was talking about double standards at the International Criminal Court. I cited Desmond Tutu, who had criticised the African focus of the Court and said that he wanted to see Tony Blair brought before it. I said that my choice would be Netanyahu. Otherwise, I had not really thought much about the man. I of course stand by what I said. I have never said that I regretted making those remarks. I have never retracted them. I had a right to say them.

Could the UN have found someone who would be qualified to work on a Commission of Inquiry who did not have opinions about Israel and Palestine? Perhaps. Is there a thoughtful, well-informed individual on the planet who does not have an opinion on this?

The Israeli complaint about the legal opinion I had done for the PLO precipitated the chain of events that led to my resignation. Israeli called it a blatant conflict of interest. That is simply wrong. I did the opinion about two years before my appointment. It concerned Palestinian accession to the Rome Statute. I’ve done this for other governments too, helping them to address the legal issues involved in joining the International Criminal Court. I’ll gladly do it for others too, including Israel and the United States, if they ask me. The legal opinion for the PLO was the work of a recognised expert in the field. Although the PLO later acceded to the Rome Statute, it seems it was unimpressed with my legal advice because it did not accede in 2012. But that’s the nature of a legal opinion. Political leaders respond to other imperatives, which is quite understandable. I was not giving the PLO political advice. I was not their advocate or lawyer. I was simply providing a technical service. From beginning to end the whole matter lasted a couple of weeks. I received the request by e-mail and delivered the opinion by e-mail. I was paid a modest amount for my work. This is not a conflict of interest.

I have been struck by the failure of those who have challenged my presence on the Commission to engage with the legal authorities. For example, in 2004 Israel applied to have Judge Elaraby removed from the International Court of Justice in the advisory opinion on the Wall. The application was dismissed almost unanimously by the Court. Judge Elaraby had been a senior diplomat in Egypt and had frequently expressed views about Israel and Palestine. Judge Elaraby had been legal advisor to Egypt for part of his career. He certainly gave legal opinions to Egypt about the conflict over the years.

An Israeli academic friend of mine has drawn my attention to Hersch Lauterpacht, who was a strong supporter of Israel. He even wrote a draft of the declaration of independence, and provided advice to the Zionist movement and the State of Israel at various times. He was elected a judge of the International Court of Justice. Lauterpacht sat in the Israel v. Bulgaria case, which was dismissed at a preliminary stage but with Lauterpacht in dissent. Israel didn’t object that time.

Your reference to a person with views on Nazism is of interest because this was precisely the argument raised by Eichmann against the Israeli judges. There was never any suggestion that the three judges, all of them German Jews, did not have strong views about the Holocaust. It was assumed that they did. How could that not be the case? The Supreme Court of Israel ruled that professional judges would set aside their opinions and judge in an impartial manner.

 

  1. On the basis of this experience, would you accept future assignments from the HRC or OHCHR? Were you a victim of a campaign of defamation waged by UN Watch, NGO Monitor, etc.?

 

Of course I will continue to serve the Human Rights Council and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. These two institutions are central to the international protection of human rights.

The charges of bias against me were nothing more than a witch-hunt, something reminiscent of McCarthyism. Shortly after I was appointed, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach published full-page ads in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post attacking my appointment. These were full of vicious lies. They dealt with matters that had nothing whatsoever to do with the mandate of the Commission. For example, I was described as a ‘friend of Iran and its genocidal former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’. This is simply a lie. In 2012, I was a member of the Iran Truth Commission that condemned the Iranian regime for gross violations of human rights. In 2011, I accompanied filmmaker Sandra Schulberg to Tehran in order to show her film Nuremberg, Its Lesson for Today. I spoke there about the Holocaust to young Iranians, confronting denialism and anti-Semitism in the lion’s den, so to speak.

 

  1. Overall, what did you learn from this experience that bears on the role and limitations of the UN? Is the Israel/Palestine conflict a special case? What can be

done to depoliticize the process of such fact finding and policy making undertakings? Did the approach of the Canadian Government of not backing its own citizens play a role in making you more vulnerable to the Israeli pushback?

 

I think that Israel and Palestine is indeed a special case in UN activity because of the highly politicized context. Fact finding commissions dealing with Syria, Libya and North Korea simply do not confront the hysteria associated with Israel and Palestine. Israel argues that it is a victim of double standards at the Human Rights Council. But it is a beneficiary of double standards at the other Council. This is a nasty, toxic matter. But the job must be done. I hope that those who will be called upon to pursue these issues within the United Nations will not be intimidated by stories of the intense and vicious attacks to which I was subjected, including death threats and unceasing abuse on the internet, much of it quite vile, violent and even racist. The language employed by Israel’s leaders contributes to this terrible atmosphere and, at least indirectly, incites the more fanatical participants. Last week, Foreign Minister Liberman likened me to Cain, a man who murdered his own brother. I must confess to having punched my brothers a few times, when I was much younger, but I have never murdered anyone! The Israeli representative to the UN described me as ‘Dracula’. But such analogies only contribute to the violent tone of the discussions.

Canada’s foreign minister, John Baird, denounced my appointment. I’m a Canadian citizen who has served his country in a variety of ways. I am an Officer in the Order of Canada, one of the country’s highest honours. The current government of Canada is run by a nasty, right-wing bunch who have greatly tarnished the country’s once rather noble position in the field of human rights. Their reactionary positions are well known within the Human Rights Council and, more generally, the United Nations. It would have been an embarrassment if Baird had approved of my appointment.

 

  1. On balance, how would you compare this COI with that chaired by Goldstone? My impression is that with Goldstone, there was a posture of noncooperation, but no public campaign until the report was issued, and then an ugly multi-level campaign took shape, and led to his partial retraction and total discrediting (especially as he acted without the support of the other three members with whom he apparently did not even consult). How should such COIs be structured in the future? (you may know that my successor as SR had no prior knowledge, and has made the position almost invisible, which may have been the intention).

 

I wish I had a good answer to your question. It is tempting to say that in the future, the UN should vet appointees in the way that US government officials vet judicial nominees and similar appointments. As you know, there is no shortage of judges in the US who get through congressional approval because they don’t seem to have ever had an opinion about abortion or capital punishment and similar issues. Maybe the UN can identify a similar cohort of human rights experts who have never had opinions on important issues. Given that the nature of human rights work involves participating in various forms of activism, that may prove more difficult than similar exercises in the US judiciary. And it is also likely to eliminate some of the best qualified candidates from the pool.

What I would like to see is more pushback on these wrong and unfair charges of bias and conflict of interest. Some clarification on what is and what is not acceptable would make things clearer. I would like to see some UN guidelines that spell out the fact that the mere fact of having expressed opinions about a situation or a crisis does not disqualify someone from being a member of a Commission of Inquiry or serving in some similar function. It could also be made clear that providing a legal opinion in the past on a matter not directly related to the subject-matter of a commission is not a conflict of interest. The charge of bias seems far too easy to throw around. When it gets before courts, as it did in the International Court of Justice and the Supreme Court of Israel, it doesn’t get much traction, however. Let us get more clarity on this within the UN so that demagogic charges of bias can be knocked out early.