Alkarama Human Rights Award to Shireen Issawi
[Prefatory Note: in this post I am presenting in the following order remarks that I made via Skype video recording at the 6th Annual Alkarama Award for Human Rights at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva, December 14, 2014, a letter written from an Israeli prison by the recipient of the award, Shireen Issawi, and a press release prepared by the Alkarama Foundation describing the full event, including notable presentation by Norman Finkelstein and Alfred de Zayas. The Alkarama website describes itself as follows: “Alkarama is a Swiss-based, independent human rights organisation established in 2004 to assist all those in the Arab World subjected to, or at risk of, extra-judicial executions, disappearances, torture and arbitrary detention. Acting as a bridge between individual victims in the Arab world and international human rights mechanisms, Alkarama works towards an Arab world where all individuals live free, in dignity and protected by the rule of law. In Arabic, Alkarama means dignity.”]
Remarks of Richard Falk
I wish that I could have been present to take part in honoring Shireen Issawi as a brave, resolute, and inspiring human rights defender who has dedicated her professional career as a lawyer to the long Palestinian national struggle for freedom, human rights, and self-determination. Even more, I wish that Ms. Issawi could be present to receive this award in person rather than sitting alone in her jail cell day after day, facing trumped up charges of resisting arrest when the real criminal offense was committed by the arresting officers in carrying out an abusive arrest in a manner calculated to invoke fear and trembling. We realize that the political situation in Palestine is perverted when the real criminals are administering the law while the truly innocent are sitting in the dock awaiting a punishment meted out by a biased judicial process. Shireen’s life story, that of the whole Issawi family, and indeed that of the Palestinian people as a whole, is an embodiment of this prolonged perversion of justice, and as we honor her on this day we also are seeking to remind the world that it is past time to end the Palestinian ordeal.
In my own experience as UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine in the period 2008-2014 I had my own slight taste of how the wheels of Israeli injustice grind on while most of the world averts its gaze. Arriving at Ben Gurion Airport in December 2008, with the intention of carrying out my mission of investigation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, I was detained for several hours at the airport before being transferred to a nearby makeshift prison where I remained overnight, expelled the following morning. The whole experience was not longer than 20 hours, but being confined with five other prisoners in a small cell that smelled of urine, was over lit and filthy, gave me an unforgettable glimpse of Israel prison life. It should be kept in mind that in my case Israel as a member of the UN had a treaty obligation to cooperate with the Organization so as to facilitate its official undertakings. Quite revealing as to the limits of international law, was the failure of the UN even to protest Israel’s breach of its duties as a UN member or my treatment as someone attempting to carry out a UN mission. An Israeli government spokesperson lied to the media by saying that I had been warned not to come to Israel as I would be denied entry. Contrary to this contention, the truth is otherwise. When we submitted our proposed itinerary of visits in Occupied Palestine to the Israeli mission in Geneva there was no objection or warning, and in fact, Israel issued visas to my two assistants knowing that they would be accompanying me. What is again emblematic is that the mainstream media wrote about the incident on the basis of the lies told by the Israeli Foreign Ministry and lacked the journalistic decency to check with me, and at least hear my side of the story or allow me to respond myself. One reason why this Alkarama event is so important is as counter to Israeli lies and hasbara (the systematic slanting of world news to support Israel’s claims), a bit of witnessing about real happenings.
My UN job was to assess Israel’s human rights record in its role as an occupying power governed by international humanitarian law, and specifically, the Fourth Geneva Convention, which is the principal treaty instrument for regulating belligerent occupation. In its general applicability, Geneva IV prohibits harming all those subject to the authority of an occupying power that are uninvolved in active resistance. This refers especially to the civilian population, but also extends to those detained in prisons and even to the treatment of wounded soldiers. Above all, it obliges the occupier to maintain human rights in territories under its administration, to provide decent living conditions for the occupied population, and not to change underlying conditions in a manner that allows the occupied society to resume its normal existence when the occupier leaves. As I became familiar with Israel’s policies and practices, I became more and more convinced that neither the letter nor the spirit of the Geneva Convention was being observed by Israel, which is a legalistic way of informing the world that the daily life of every Palestinian was nightmarish in myriad ways.
Overall, rather than maintaining a temporary occupation, Israel from the outset fundamentally encroached upon the future prospects of the Palestinian people to realize their rights in two fundamental ways: first, by building and expanding settlements for as many as 650,000 settlers, then by constructing a network of settler only roads to link the settlement blocs with Israel, and by building an ugly separation wall that turned out to be a thinly disguised land grabbing exercise. These developments were each flagrant violations of Article 49(6) of Geneva IV and in defiant disregard of the authoritative 2004 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice. Again the pattern observed is one of massive and severe Israeli violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights standards aggravated by a lack of political will within the UN or in international diplomacy to take any enforcement action designed to uphold Palestinian rights.
And secondly, by engaging in various forms of collective punishment of the Palestinian civilian population, thereby violating Article 33 of Geneva IV that unconditionally prohibits all forms of collective punishment. I will mention two of the most notorious practices, although there are many others that contribute to the ordeal of ordinary Palestinian lives, including closures, curfews, checkpoints, restrictions on mobility. The blockade imposed on the entire civilian population of Gaza since mid-2007 is a comprehensive and cruel form of collective punishment imposed by Israel as soon as Hamas assumed governing authority, which has been gravely intensified in its adverse effects by three major Israeli military onslaughts in the last six years against an essentially defenseless population, and exhibit the deliberate reliance by Israel on excessive and disproportionate force producing heavy one-sided casualties on defenseless Palestinians who have no place to hide and are denied an option to leave the combat zone, and thus are unable to exercise the default escape option of becoming refugees.
A second form of unlawful collective punishment involves house demolitions carried out against the family residence of those Israel convicted of security crimes. Due to an international uproar this practice was abandoned by Israel for ten years, but has been revived and applied in some recent cases, cruelly depriving a family of their dwelling place so as to allow the Israeli state to avenge an alleged crime of resistance committed by a Palestinian who is often no longer even alive.
In the background is an occupation that has gone on far too long, and in the process has become something other than a holding operation until agreed arrangements for withdrawal can be implemented. It should be recalled that Israel was instructed to withdraw from occupied Palestine in Security Council Resolution 242 unanimously adopted back in 1967, incorporating the international law principle that territory could not be acquired by a state through the use of force. Not only has a failure to implement this principle, but a contradictory process has taken place over the course of more than four decades, which has transformed ‘occupation’ into de facto ‘annexation’ and has distorted the IHL duty to protect an occupied people into an oppressive administrative structure of systematic discrimination, a clear instance of apartheid that is defined in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as a distinct crime against humanity.
The Palestinian people have struggled over the years, and have experienced many frustrations and defeats. Their early hopes of being liberated by their Arab neighbors were dashed in a series of failed wars. Their expectations that UN resolutions supporting their basic claims would be implemented were consistently disappointed. The energetic PLO efforts after the 1967 to gain freedom by armed resistance came to nothing so far as a lasting solution is concerned. And in the most recent period, the false optimism associated with the 1993 Oslo Framework of Principles and the handshake on the White House lawn led to a growing disillusionment among Palestinians that such a diplomatic path would ever produce a just and sustainable peace.
With such an anguishing experience of frustration, disappointment, and defeat, it is not surprising that the Palestinians would seek other ways to achieve their rights. This search in recent years has centered on nonviolent militancy, involving various forms of non-cooperation at home and pressures brought to bear on Israel through a global solidarity movement. The roots of this turn to nonviolence can be traced to the first Intifada of 1987, a popular mobilization from below that expressed impatience with diplomacy from above and the tactics used by their own Palestinian PLO leadership. It is in the last decade that this turn to nonviolence has gathered momentum, official endorsement, and caught on internationally by way of the Palestinian led BDS Campaign and through various expressions of resistance to the occupation that has included ad hoc recourse to violence by individual Palestinians acting on their own seemingly in pursuit of some kind of remedial vengeance, having lost faith in any peaceful outcome and finding the daily ordeal of their situation unendurable.
One of the most vivid forms of nonviolent resistance is expressed by the hunger strikes of abused Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons, including the extraordinary strike of Samer Issawi, Shireen’s brother, who reportedly refused food for an incredible 266 days. As with other efforts of Palestine to achieve a just peace, this turn to nonviolence has fallen below the radar screen of mainstream Western media that remains ever vigilant in magnifying the occurrence of every terrorist incident while by and large ignoring Israeli state terrorism, which is far deadlier in its humanitarian impacts. By honoring Shireen Issawi we repudiate such indifference to nonviolent resistance and at the same time invoke our commitment to nonviolence as the path to peace based on rights and justice, and also on the inalienable equality of the two peoples. In the end, it is less significant to talk about one state or two than to encourage discussion of how might these two peoples live peaceably together in view of all that has happened, is happening.
Let me end with some words of Reem al-Nimer from her brave book Curse of the Achille Lauro: “..I was once an active member of the Palestinian resistance and the wife of a Palestinian commando..Both Arabs and Jews are human beings. Both are entitled to a dignified life. The time has come when this bloodshed must end. We all have lives..The end of occupation and the termination of hostilities means that Arabs and Jews will need to accept the idea of living alongside one another. We have done this before 1948, and we can do it again. This is the foundation. This is the basis of peace.”
Shireen Issawi’s letter from prison accepting the award
In the name of God the Merciful,
I thank you for having awarded me the Alkarama Award, which I would like to share with all human beings carrying the flag of justice to enlighten, by the light of freedom, the night of injustice, as well as with all people who have adopted the just Palestinian cause, participated in their own way to support the march of the Palestinian people towards freedom, and the cause of Palestinian detainees in the occupier’s prisons, especially those conducting a hunger strike.
I obviously share this Award with my brother, Samer Al Issawi, “Samer Dignity”, who led the battle for freedom with an empty stomach, through the longest hunger strike in the history of mankind, and who unified us to become a single hand and a single voice before the injustice of the occupation, through his just battle for his freedom and his right to live in dignity.
I share the prize with my father and my mother, who taught us, me and my brothers, the love of our homeland and of dignity to continue on the path of freedom. Thank goodness the Palestinian people are not alone; other people share this struggle with him — whether those seeking their freedom, or those carrying our voice throughout the world for a better future where we will live freely and in a dignified manner, and where love will reign without bloodshed.
Some believe that the Palestinian people are defeated because they lives under occupation. Such an assertion is far from the truth; the Palestinian people are one of the proudest people who breathe and they feed on the love of their homeland. They do not feel defeated, they are defending their right to freedom and dignity; on the contrary, however inhumane the occupation is with its ability to block, kill and destroy, we must sustain the strength and courage to continue until we achieve our freedom. And that’s why the free men and women of the world gather around the just cause of the Palestinians, and brought their flag of freedom to the world, becoming their voice in the face of injustice.
The combination of the efforts of the legitimate Palestinian resistance against the occupation, and of the supporters of justice and freedom has united us as human beings through the silent language of faith in a trinity of virtues, which gives strength to our people — that is, the trinity of dignity, freedom and hope.
Humanity is the interest that we bear for each other, and our defense of the oppressed. The sense of freedom and its value can be understood only by those whose hearts beat for dignity and whose eyes shine with the hope that the sun will rise despite the darkness of the night. Let’s preserve our unity and our humanity to live in a free world where people can live freely with dignity and hope.
Shireen Al Issawi
Hasharon Prison, Israel
6 November 2014
16 December 2014 Item title
2014 Alkarama Award Honours Palestinian Lawyer’s Commitment to Non-Violence as the “Path to Peace”
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Geneva, 13 December 2014
On 11 December 2014, the Alkarama Foundation presented its 6th annual Award for Human Rights Defenders in the Arab world to Palestinian human rights lawyer and activist, Shireen Issawi, in recognition of her courage and bravery in defending Palestinian prisoners and advocating for their rights. The ceremony held at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva focused on the Palestinian people’s strategy of non-violent resistance, a story largely under-reported in the mainstream media.
Speaking at the event were UN and international law experts, Richard Falk, Norman Finkelstein and Alfred de Zayas, as well as Palestinian Member of the Knesset, Haneen Zoabi, and Swiss political personalities, Ruth-Gaby Vermot-Mangold and Guy Mettan. In the absence of Shireen, arrested by the Israeli authorities on 6 March 2014 as part of a crackdown on lawyers defending Palestinian prisoners, the Award was presented to her parents, Layla and Tarek Issawi.
Opening the ceremony, Rachid Mesli, Alkarama‘s Legal Director said: “Thousands of Palestinians are arbitrarily detained by simple administrative decision, including numerous children. […] It is for denouncing these violations and having dedicated her life to justice and freedom for the Palestinian people that Shireen Issawi also finds herself in jail today, accused – like too many Arab activists in their respective countries – of supporting terrorism or terrorist organisations.”
“Shireen Issawi’s nonviolent resistance forms a link in the chain of a long, honourable tradition. It includes not only names familiar to all of us, such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but also, and more significantly, the nameless Palestinians who waged a heroic mass nonviolent struggle against the Israeli occupation during the first intifada, that began 27 years ago, on 9 December 1987,” said expert of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Norman Finkelstein. “Shireen Issawi’s unbendable will in a righteous cause serves as a luminous example, not just for Palestinians, but also for everyone struggling to make the world a better place.”
“Shireen Issawi is a brave, resolute and inspiring human rights defender who has dedicated her professional career as a lawyer to the long Palestinian national struggle for freedom and self-determination,” added former UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, Richard Falk. “By honouring Shireen Issawi we are expressing our commitment to nonviolence as the path to peace based on rights and justice, and on the equality of the two peoples. […] As we honour her, we are also seeking to remind the world that it is past time to end the ordeal of injustice inflicted on the Palestinian people as a whole.”
“Israel annexed the territory of East Jerusalem but not the Palestinians who were born and live there,” explained Haneen Zoabi, recently banned from all parliamentary activity for six months for having suggested that the Palestinian resistance was a legitimate struggle. “One third of the city’s residents are people without citizenship. They live in a country that views their territory as its own but does not view them as part of it.”
“In 1989, after the fall of the Berlin wall, we said ‘never again’ walls that separate peoples. Now there are walls everywhere, walls that not only separate two peoples and two cultures, but also make the building of a lasting peace impossible,” continued former member of the Swiss Parliament and the Council of Europe, Ruth-Gaby Vermot-Mangold. In a moving speech, she recalled the many instances where the international community had said “never more” such as after the Shoah, which had led to the adoption of an international human rights system – a system which no one should ever take for granted. “[In Switzerland] we are free; but it is from you [Shireen] that we learn how important it is to fight for the protection of human rights.”
In a letter written from her solitary cell on 6 November and read by her mother, Layla Issawi at the Alkarama Award ceremony, Shireen stated: “Some believe that the Palestinian people are defeated because they live under the occupation. Their hypothesis is far from the truth. Those who defend their inalienable right to freedom and dignity are not defeated. On the contrary, however inhumane the occupation and its ability to arrest, kill and destroy are, these men must have the strength and courage to continue until they get their freedom.” Thanking “all the free men around the world gathered around the just cause of the Palestinians,” Shireen pleaded for “a world in which people can live free, with dignity and hope.”
Speaking on behalf of his daughter, Tarek Issawi echoed his daughter’s words: “We, in Palestine, defend the dignity of our people, despite the injustice imposed on us by the colonisation. We are certain that our struggle is just, and thank all the free people of this world for their continuous support.”
Closing the ceremony, the UN Independent Expert on the Promotion of a democratic and international order, Alfred-Maurice de Zayas praised Shireen and her family’s “courage and perseverance” and emphasized the essential right of the Palestinian people to self-determination: “All international law experts have recognised the right to self-determination, a binding right, enshrined in the UN Charter, in Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and in Article 1 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The UN General Assembly has recognised the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and this repeatedly. Alas, for the past 67 years, you have suffered expulsion, occupation, humiliation and injustice. But you have kept your honour, your identity and your will to live. Men and women of good will wish you a free and independent State where you will finally be able to exercise your rights and join all the other nations of the world in international solidarity. I hope you get justice and peace in a near future. You deserve it.”
The ceremony attracted over a hundred people at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva and watched by a further 150 people on Alkarama’s live webcast.
For more information on the award, please click here: http://bit.ly/1r46pdh
Or watch this 12min documentary here: http://bit.ly/16oeBgk
You can also watch the whole ceremony on the following link: http://youtu.be/wLKqde508L8
For photos, quotes or an interview with any of the speakers, please contact:
– Colombe Vergès, Media Coordinator on firstname.lastname@example.org / +41 79 129 79 15
– Hassan Nouhaili, Arabic Media Editor on email@example.com / +41 22 734 10 06