Tag Archives: Palestinian struggle

Human Rights, State Sovereignty, and International Law: An Interview

20 Sep

[Prefatory Note: The interview below conducted by my friend, journalist and author C.J. Polychroniou was initially published in the Global Policy Journal, on 11 September 2018, the 17thanniversary of the World Trade Center attacks and the 45thanniversary of the Pinochet coup in Chile that assassinated the elected president of the country Salvador Allende. Had I been asked, I might have commented on the fateful linkage between those two catastrophic events, both giving rise to massive suffering, with the earlier violent and sinister event enjoying the encouragement and possibly participation of the Washington deep state. The text printed below has been slightly modified for style]

 

 

Human Rights, State Sovereignty, and International Law: An Interview

We live in an era where virtually every government on the planet claims to pay allegiance to human rights and respect for international law. Yet, violations of human rights and plain human decency continue to occur with disturbing frequency in many parts of the world, including many allegedly “democratic” countries such as the United States, Russia, and Israel. Indeed, Donald Trump’s immigration policy, Putin’s systematic repression of dissidents, and Israel’s abominable treatment of Palestinians seem to make a mockery of the principle of human rights. Is this because of “faulty” forms of government or because of some Inherent tension between state sovereignty and human rights? And what about the international regime of human rights? How effective is it in protecting human rights?

  1. J. Polychroniou: Richard, you taught International Law and International Affairs at Princeton University for nearly half a century. How has international law changed from the time you started out as a young scholar to the present?

Richard Falk: You pose an interesting question that I have not previously thought about, yet just asking it makes me realize that this was a serious oversight on my part. When I started thinking on my own about the role and relevance of international law during my early teaching experience in the mid-1950s, I was naively optimistic about the future, and without being very self-aware, I now understand that I assumed a moral trajectory that made the future work out to be an improvement on the past and present, that there is ebb and flow, but overall a record of moral progress in collective behavior, including at the level of relations among sovereign states. I thought of the expanding role of international law as a major instrument for advancing progress toward a peaceful and equitable world, and endeavored in my writing to encourage the U.S. Government to align its foreign policy with international law, arguing, I suppose in a liberal vein, that such alignment would promote a better future for all while at the same time being beneficial for the United States, especially given the overriding interest in avoiding World War III.

 

My views gradually evolved in more critical and nuanced directions. As my interests turned toward the dynamics of decolonization, I came to appreciate that international law had been employed to legitimize European colonialism, including the exploitative economic arrangements that were imposed on many countries in the global south, whether or not they were colonies. I realized that the idealistic identification of international law with peace and justice was misleading, and at most only half of the story. International law was generated by powerful governments and economic elites to serve their overlapping interests, and was respected only so long as the vital interests of these dominant states were not being encroached upon.

 

The Vietnam War further influenced me to adopt a more cautious view of international law, and even more so, of the United Nations. I opposed the war at its outset from the perspective of international law, citing the most basic prohibitions on intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states and the core prohibition of the UIN Charter against all recourses to aggressive or non-defensive force. I did find it useful to put the debate on Vietnam policy in a legal format as the country was then under the sway of liberal leadership supposedly responsive to such considerations, but even back then subject to the logic of Cold War geopolitics and its silent partner, global capitalism. The defenders of Vietnam policy, seemingly motivated by Cold War considerations, relied on legal apologetics as well as claims that it was important for world order to contain the expansion of Communist influence throughout Asia, and that the real adversary in Vietnam was China rather than North Vietnam. The legal debate to which I devoted energy for ten years convinced me that international law on war/peace issues was opportunistically subordinated to geopolitics, including by the Western democracies, and besides, legal counter-arguments were always available to governments eager to invoke law to disguise their reliance on geopolitical priorities, especially in the realm of war/peace. In comparison, international law remains useful, effective, and even necessary for many routine transnational activities of people and governments, stabilizing trade and investment relations, but often in ways that favor the rich and influential, meaning that issues pertaining to such questions as maritime safety, international communications, and global tourism exhibit a surprisingly consistent adherence to an international law framework.

 

The U.S. global leadership role is unique in this respect in the period since 1945. In the early postwar period the U.S. seemed to be the champion of a law-regulated world order responsive to the UN Charter framework. This was never an accurate portrayal of American foreign policy as the Cold War prompted a variety of unlawful interventions after World War II, including assassination plots against foreign leaders perceived as leftists. After the Vietnam War the United States Government gradually quietly seemed to recognize that its foreign policy goals could not be achieved by relying on an international law approach, a recognition that became especially clear in carrying out its unconditional political commitment to support Israel however defiant of international norms and UN authority. The moves away from liberal internationalism accelerated during the conservative and nationalistic presidency of Ronald Reagan who was instinctively opposed to adapting American policy to an international law framework.

 

It was during the presidency of George W. Bush that international law was been further marginalized by being put aside or crudely reinterpreted whenever seen as an obstacle to a preferred course of action. The United States started spiraling out of control after the 9/11 attacks in the direction of redefining itself an illiberal democracy, a process reaching new heights during the Trump presidency when even the democratic foundational principles of the republic were increasingly drawn into question. This dynamic of mindless lawlessness has been reinforced by the global rise of ultra-nationalist political movements led by demagogic figures that have gained control of important governments throughout the world. For these movements, nationalist goals are always be given precedence without a second thought about legal or moral consequences. From these rightest perspectives international law should not be allowed to interfere with fidelity to a nationalist agenda. At the same time, the pressures exerted by migratory flows stemming from war torn regions, especially the Middle East and Africa, and from ecologically challenged habitats, have weakened mainstream support for human rights, and especially for those who seek relief by claiming a status of refugee or asylum seeker. Despite neoliberal globalization, and in some respects, as a reaction to it, the state system has become more statist than ever, with a corresponding retreat in humanitarian efforts to protect the human rights of vulnerable peoples, especially if they are regarded as strangers to the ethnic and religious community of a particular nation state.

 

In making this negative assessment, it is important not to overlook the central relevance of international law and human rights to civil society movements for peace, justice, and ecological sustainability. These normative sources of authority give peoples a legitimated discourse by which to oppose oppressive tendencies of the state or international institutions, and to project images of alternative futures that are more benevolent from the perspective of promoting a more satisfying shared destiny for the peoples of the world, with a special emphasis on protecting those who are most vulnerable. It is civil society that has tried to keep the humanside of human rights as integral to the protective mission of law, while governments are again limiting their view of rights to the rightsside as, at most, an entitlement of a national citizenry, especially those who are native born, and even here there is notable slippage by way of surveillance and meta-data scrutiny directed at the internal population.         

 

Q: Human rights are the cornerstone underpinning the rule of law, yet many governments throughout the world violate human rights with frightening frequency. Is there an inherent tension human rights and state sovereignty? Or, to phrase the question differently, do human rights challenge state sovereignty?

A: I believe the premise of your question is somewhat misleading. It may be appropriate to suggest that human rightsshould become the cornerstone of a global rule of law, and that it does function internally in this manner in a genuine democratic state. In international society the basis of an effective rule of law is mutual self-interest and reciprocity especially in the context of commercial and financial arrangemenst, maritime safety, and diplomatic relations. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) (UDHR) was drafted, largely under the influence of Western liberal internationalist values, shortly after World War II it was looked upon as a largely aspirational document with non-existent expectations with respect to compliance or implementation. This was partly signaled by labeling the document as a Declaration,which meant that it was without obligatory force. It has been my view that the UDHR would not have won widespread support from leading government had it been negotiated as a lawmaking treaty with the effect of eroding sovereign rights. In this sense, compliance with the norms contained in the UDHR depends on what I have called in the past voluntary international law.In effect, international human rights standards were brought into being only because they were understood to be unenforceable, but this initial cynicism was challenged over time by a series of unanticipated developments.

Several factors altered these low expectations in ways that have given a weak obligatory status to some norms encompassed by the international law of human rights. For one thing, human rights NGOs emerged such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. These civil society actors adopted as their mission campaigns to exert pressure by way of naming and shaming to induce compliance with human rights standards by governments. For another, the West found it useful to claim for itself democratic practices relating to human rights that were allegedly absent or deficient in the Soviet Union and East Europe, drawing a propaganda contrast between the free worldand the Soviet blocthat was centered on degrees of adherence to human rights in the liberal sense of individual rights in the political domain. Thus human rights became a valuable propaganda tool to convey what distinguished Cold War adversaries from one another in a self-serving manner. The Soviet Union countered Western allegations by claiming that human rights should be conceived more collectively in relation to societies as a whole and with an awareness of class differences, and thus emphasized adherence to economic and social rights as beneficial for the entire citizenry. This ideological difference, combined with the push for obligatory standards in international law, led to the artificial division of human rights into two parts, and their formulation in two separate treaties: Convention on Civil and Political Rights (1966) and Convention of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966). As might have been anticipated, the Western countries give their entire emphasis to civil and political rights, and deny any obligatory force to economic, social, and cultural rights, which are derided as unenforceable and inconsistent with the workings of market economies that sort out winners from losers without efforts to protect those who are victimized by market forces.

 

Against this background two important international developments lent practical political significance to these conceptual issues. First, the efforts of the countries in East Europe to gain freedom from Soviet rule, led to movements of resistance organized around demands for adherence to human rights by the institutions of the state. Secondly, the UN-backed Anti-Apartheid Campaign illustrated that human rights, if widely backed on a global level, can be a formidable instrument of soft power resistance to an oppressive regime of the sort that governed apartheid South Africa. In such contexts, international law and human rights played important roles in struggles by people against repressive conditions, and deserve appreciation by progressives who are otherwise dismissive of hypocritical legalism and moralism as the means by which the rich and powerful hide their reliance on naked power to achieve their selfish ends.

 

These developments suggest the emergence of human rights, but not yet its global acceptance as enforceable law. Particularly over the course of this century human rights have been under intense pressure from a number of sources. First came the American response to the 9/11 attacks in 2001 that produced a counterterrorist campaign that subjected suspects to torture and indefinite detention without charges or trial. Then came the migration and refugee crises that exerted pressures on various states to close their borders, despite the life-threatening denials of human rights entailed. Finally, came the rise of autocratic leaders who relied on scapegoats and fear-mongering to justify disregard of rights by governmental institutions, especially of all residents who lacked the panoply of credentials relevant to nationality and citizenship.

 

We can work toward a world in which there is a global rule of law that embodies human rights, but such a world does not now exist, and to be fair, never existed. Sovereignty based on territorial boundaries and international recognition, and given emotional content by nationalist and patrioteering ideologies, have all along tended to override human rights concerns whenever the two sources of authority clash. Despite the use of the word humanthe real perception of human rightsremains dependent for implementation on national procedures of implementation, which has meant national bias and selectivity.

 

Q: How does Donald Trump’s immigration policy square with human rights and international law?

A: Trumps behavior on immigration issues proceeds as if international humanitarian law doesnt exist, or at least doesnt count. His approach to Muslim potential immigrants or undocumented Hispanics living in the United States displays a monumental indifference and lack of empathy to whether such an identity should be respected and protected. Trumps sole criterion claims to be whether or not it is good for America with a pragmatic and selective approach to law enforcement (useful with respect to undocumented immigrants) and a total disregard for the values and norms of human rights. Overall, Trump has exhibited contempt for international law treaties that were considered when negotiated as major breakthroughs contributing to peace, security, and a sustainable environment. Among his most notable repudiations of law-oriented approaches to difficult international issues were his withdrawal from 2014 Climate Change Agreement, repudiation of the 2015 Nuclear Program (5 +1) Agreement with Iran, and refusal to take part in international efforts to develop a humane and collective approach to problems arising from global migration and refugee flows. Trumps ultra-nationalist and Islamophobic political agenda is self-consciously and deliberately insensitive to claims advanced on the basis of international law or simple morality. It is a view that accords preferences to geopolitical opportunism in all sectors of international life that give unreserved support to nationalist priorities while arrogantly refusing to take into account considerations of legality or of moral and political legitimacy.

 

Q: Ever since it’s creation as a nation-state, Israel has shown an absolutely brutal face towards the Palestinian people. Why is the so-called international community allowing Israel to continue with its inhumane stance towards the Palestinians?

A: I think the fundamental explanation for this long experience of Israeli oppressive practices and policies with respect to the Palestinian people flows directly from the essential nature of the Zionist project to establish an exclusivist Jewish state in a predominantly non-Jewish society, and to do so during the long twilight of European colonialism. This reality was further shaped by the Zionist insistence on seeking to be a legitimate modern secular state that respects human rights and formally operates as a constitutional democracy. Such Zionist goals meant that to be Jewish and to be democratic led directly to the forcible dispossession of as many as 750,000 non-Jewish residents of Palestine in 1947 in events differentially remembered by the Palestinians as the Nakba, or great catastrophe,and by the Israelis as the War of Independence. My point is that ethnic cleansing was embedded in the establishment of a majoritarian and exclusivist Jewish state from the moment that the  Israel came into being as a sovereign state, which was dubiously admitted to the United Nations. This insistence on being an exclusivist Jewish state was always embedded in the Zionist Project, but it was not acknowledged nor revealed until the passage of the Israel Nation State Law of the Jewish People a few months ago. This law removes any ambiguity, converting the de facto realities of an apartheid state into a self-proclaimed de jure framework.

 

There is a further issue of great importance. The idea of self-determination gained prominence during the period after World War II, gaining momentum as a result of a series of anti-colonial struggles involving countries throughout Asia and Africa. The Palestinian people could not be expected to submit to the Zionist Project without doing all in their power by way of resistance, and archival research has conclusively demonstrated that Palestinian resistance was anticipated by early Zionist leaders. These prospects and realities of resistance generated Israeli responses designed not just to uphold security, but to crush Palestinian hopes and lead to Palestinian submission to an acceptance of what was made to appear to be a lost cause.

The supposed Trump deal of the centuryis a geopolitical reinforcement of Israeli efforts to compel the Palestinians to accept an Israeli victory, and to content themselves with some improvements in the economics of everyday life attainable only under Israels political and cultural domination. Again, the cycle of resistance and repression is mutually reinforcing, and can be expected to continue until Israel is forced by pressure to recalculate its interests so as to reach a political compromise capable of producing sustainable peace based on the equality of the two peoples. This is what happened in South Africa, coming upon the world as a great surprise. It came about as a result of mounting worldwide soft power pressures that led the political leadership to accept the dismantling of the apartheid regime in the country as a lesser of evils. Until Israels political leaders reach such a point, there will be escalating patterns of Palestinian resistance, reinforced by international solidarity initiatives, giving way to interludes of intensified Israeli repression, and on and on, a vicious cycle seemingly without end, but one that will at some point yield to Palestinian pressures.

 

Of course, in the background until recently, was the relevance of the Jewish diaspora as creating a geopolitical situation that shielded Israel from efforts to implement either UN majority views on how to resolve the conflict or to exert inter-governmental pressures on Israel by way of sanctions. Zionism is a non-territorial world movement with a territorial base in Israel since 1948. With Trump in the White House Israel is assured of unlimited political support for its policies of brutality against the Palestinian people as well as for the realization of its maximal territorial ambitions. This development is accentuated by the broader developments in the Middle East that have led to a convergence of primary interests of Arab governments with the regional policies of Israel, which has meant a weakening of regional and international governmentalsupport for the Palestinian national struggle. The failure of the Palestinian movement to achieve political unity contributes further to the current ordeal being daily experienced by the Palestinian people as the excessive Israeli violence at the Gaza border in response to a largely nonviolent protest movement has recently demonstrated so dramatically in weekly killings and massive casualties that has gone on for many months.

 

 

Q: Numerous artists withdrew recently their participation from a music festival in Israel, apparently under pressure from the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Given that Israel is not facing the sort of international isolation that apartheid South Africa begun to face years before it’s collapse, is BDS of any concrete benefit to the Palestinian people, or merely a plain irritation for the Israeli government?

 

The growing impact of the BDS Campaign is a sign that global solidarity movement of support for the achievement of Palestinian basic rights is gaining political traction throughout the world. With the UN unable to implement its numerous resolutions based on upholding Palestinian rights under international law and the Oslo peace diplomacyabandoned after falling into a condition of disrepute, civil society has both the opportunity and responsibility to play a central role in creating the preconditions for a peaceful settlement of the conflict in a manner that recognizes the rights and equality of Jews and non-Jews. BDS is the spearhead of this form of coercive nonviolent efforts to obtain compliance with basic requirements of law and morality. It should be kept in mind that BDS was not an internationalist venture, but formed in response to a call for solidarity more than a decade ago by a large number of NGOs based in Palestinians and has continued to be led by Palestinians.

The frantic efforts of Israel and its supporters around the world to criminalize participation in BDS seems an over-reaction to the effectiveness of BDS as a tactic of opposition and a challenge to the legitimacy of Israel as an exclusivist or apartheid Jewish state. Such moves to defame BDS supporters and even to criminalize participation is posing a serious danger to free expression in the West, including at universities. It should be appreciated that BDS tactics are entirely nonviolent, although admittedly militant with a coercive intention, and based on transnational civil society enforcementinitiatives in settings where the institutions and procedures of global governance are unable or unwilling to protect the rights of vulnerable peoples. If such forms of free expression are suppressed it is a huge setback for democratic governance, as well as creating a dangerous precedent for the future.

 

The pronounced efforts to brand BDS as anti-Semiticis particularly regressive and unfortunate. By this insistence in defining anti-Semitism as embracing harsh criticism of Israel it directly challenges freedom of expression and weakens the capacity of society to promote social and economic justice. Besides this, by conflating criticism of Israel with hatred of Jews, Zionist opportunism is confusing the nature of anti-Semitism in ways that obscure real threats of ethnic hatred, which is as unacceptable to BDS supporters as it is to BDS attackers. The definitions of what sometimes called the new anti-Semitismby the U.S. State Department and by the British Labour Party are illustrative of this unfortunate trend.

 

At the same time it is important to appreciate the potential leverage exerted by the BDS campaign. Roger Waters, co-founder of Pink Floyd, recently called cultural and sports boycotts of Israel by world class artists and celebrity athletes as a game changer.He had in mind at the time the singer Lana Del Ray who had just withdrawn from scheduled concert appearances in Israel and the star Argentinian footballer, Lionel Messi, who captained the national team that cancelled a friendlywith Israel prior to the Moscow World Cup. Waters explains his animating motivation with these words tied to the wider struggle for human dignity:

“And as I say often on stage, when we all got together in 1948 in Paris, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed by the then-fledgling United Nations, it declares that all human beings all over the world, irrespective of their religion, ethnicity, or nationality, have a natural right to basic civil and human rights, and to the right of self-determination. And I believe that to be true. So this struggle is really only an attempt to implement those brave words from 1948.”

 

The long victimization of the Palestinian people is a stark reminder that the original undertaking to promote human rights in 1948 remains an almost invisible distant goal. In praising those who support boycotts Waters declared that it is simply “the right thing to do.” In so declaring he was explicitly invoking Archbishop Tutu’s influential remark that ‘neutrality in the face of injustice’ is morally unacceptable.

 

It is helpful to remember that most of the positive changes with respect to law and morality generally start on city streets with expression of outrage directed at prevailing policies. This was true of the civil rights movement in America, of the protests against Communist rule in Eastern Europe, of the Arab Spring, of the struggles for gay rights, and indeed it is descriptive of every notable positive development that has occurred during my lifetime. Yet one should not get carried away. We should not, however, uncritically glamorize movements from below. Fascism was responsive to populist frustrations giving rise to demagogues who stir crowds to frenzy with their demonic solutions to the ills of society, and most ominously, we such patterns presently gaining political ground in many countries. 

 

 

Q: You served for many years as United Nations Special Rapporteur for Palestinian Human Rights. What has been the role of the UN towards the so-called Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and where does international law stand over this matter?

 

My experience at the UN as Special Rapporteur helped me understand why the UN is important, yet extremely limited in its capacity to affect behavior due to its lack of independent political capabilities needed to implement its recommendations. This gap between capabilities and expectations was particularly apparent in relation to the Palestinian issue. In both the Human Rights Council in Geneva and the General Assembly in New York, the Palestinian struggle to achieve their rights was supported rhetorically by an overwhelming majority of states, yet it was opposed by important geopolitical actors, especially the United States. In concrete terms this UN majority was able to insist on fact finding inquiries into allegations of Israeli wrongdoing and to release reports extremely critical of Israels behavior, but the Organization was blocked as soon as it tried to implement any recommendations that would challenge Israels policies and practices. Such outcomes on the level of behavior give rise to impressions of UN irrelevance that are as misleading as are excessive reliance on the UN, as now constituted, to serve as a reliable vehicle for achieving the values of peace, global justice, and ecological stability.

 

In a positive manner, the UN was a crucial authority with respect to validating Palestinian grievances, and helped Palestine in its effort to win the Legitimacy War with Israel, which is important. Legitimacy Wars are foughtto get the upper hand with world public opinion by appealing to international law and international morality. In the early period of Israels existence, with the cloud of liberal guilt associated with the Holocaust still shaping political consciousness, the wrongs done to the Palestinian people were virtually erased from awareness in the West. In recent years, the soft power balance has been shifting in Palestines favor just as the hard power balance is more weighted in Israels favor than ever before. It should be appreciated that most political struggles relating to self-determination during the last century were won in the end by the side that won the Legitimacy War, and not the side with military superiority. This observation applies not only to the wars against European colonialism, but it also relates to many of the American regime-changing interventions as well as most graphically to the Vietnam War in which the U.S. exerted military dominance and yet lost the political struggle at the root of the conflict in the end. Explaining this apparent paradox would loosen the hold of militarism on the political imagination in this century.

 

Another aspect of my experience as a UN appointee, although not a UN civil servant as the position was voluntary and unpaid, was a bewildering mixture of independence and defamation. Even the Secretary General insulted me on more than one occasion but admitted that he lacked the authority to dismiss me. Only the Human Rights Council could do this if a majority of member states found that I exceeded my mandate. Throughout my tenure at the UN the HRC overwhelmingly supported my efforts as Special Rapporteur. At the same time, ultra-Zionist NGOs, UN Watch and NGO Monitor, were free to roam the halls, and release all sorts of defamatory material about me without losing their accreditation at the UN, and even having an unseemly leverage with several pro-Israeli governments, prompting diplomats representing the U.S., UK, and Canada to echo their attacks almost word for word.

 

My position at the UN was tricky in unexpected other respects, with pitfalls that I discovered only in the course of my experience. Perhaps, most significantly, I came to realize that the Palestinian Authority (PA), which represents Palestine at the UN and originally backed my appointment, pushed hard behind the scenes in my first years in the position to have me dismissed by the HRC, and further put me for awhile under rather intense pressure to resign. I only began to understand this when it became clear that the PA seemed to put greater stress on their rivalry with Hamas than with their struggle for Palestinian self-determination, and as well, were somewhat compromised by their quasi-collaborative relationship with Israel, especially with respect to West Bank security arrangements and access to international aid cash flows. What irritated the PA was my effort to present the role of Hamas fairly, especially as it related to developments in Gaza, and the initiatives taken by Hamas leaders to negotiate a long-term ceasefire with Israel. With the passage of time I did work out live and let live workable arrangements with the PA who were ably represented in Geneva and New York by Palestinian diplomats who were dedicated to achieving Palestinian self-determination but believed their effectiveness depended upon accepting UN constraints associated with an acceptance of the reality that it is the U.S. that calls the shots on many issues of concern to Palestine. In other words, I learned to be less judgmental without giving ground on my essential effort to discern and report the truth as I perceived it.

 

Finally, I was forced to accept the fact that although I did my best for six years to express the realities of the Palestinian situation, focusing on the denial of basic rights under international law, including the inescapable relevance of continuous unlawful Israeli encroachments on occupied Palestinian by settlements, the wall, disrupting mobility, and numerous other measures, the Palestinian situation on the ground got worse and worse with the passage of each year. Israel never adhered to international law treaty arrangements that obliged UN members to cooperate with the UN in the discharge of its official undertakings. When I tried to enter Israel at the end of 2008 on an official mission trip, I was expelled and detained in a prison cell for more than 16 hours. Despite this, the UN was itself timid and intimidated,  unwilling to mount a public protest or to secure my access throughout my term.

 

What I did achieve as SR was to facilitate some shifts in the public discourse on the Palestinian struggle within the UN itself and in relation to the NGO community and the attentive media. It became more possible to speak of settler colonialismin relation to the Zionist Project of establishing a Jewish state with the blessings of British Foreign Office in 1917 although the Jewish population of Palestine at the time was less than 6% and to use annexationwith reference to the expansion of the settlements established in violation of international humanitarian law governing belligerent occupation and even to refer to apartheidas the essential character of the manner in which Israel maintained control over the deliberately fragmented Palestinian people. It was these assessments that exerted enough influence to help explain the personal attacks on me as an anti-Semite and political extremist. It also led me to have very positive relations with many of the delegations representing countries supportive of Palestine and to receive private reassurances of support and even admiration from high-ranking UN staff members.

 

Q: If state sovereignty and international protection of human rights are incompatible, what is the way out of this conundrum?

 A: There are two obvious paths to achieve greater degrees of compatibility. The first path would involve stronger regional and global mechanisms to promote compliance with fundamental human rights standards. In a UN context this would require a major reform unlikely to take place in the foreseeable future, the elimination of the right of veto enjoyed by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council or at least an agreed renunciation of the veto in situations involving human rights as distinct from peace and security. In effect, this would lead to a weakening of geopolitical leverage within the UN and a corresponding strengthening of the Rule of Law, and more generally, of international law. Since such developments, although morally desirable, are implausible given the present political realities of international life, the best current hope to promote compatibility from withoutmay be at the regional level where shared values and interests are greater and geopolitical interference less pronounced. This regional option seems more available, for example, in Latin America than East Asia, although in the face of the global rise of autocratic patterns of national governance, the prospects for regional implementation of human rights standards are also not currently very bright.

 

The second path to compatibility is via stronger efforts at national implementation. Such a possibility seemed more realistic at times when constitutional democracy seemed the wave of the future. Now with the tide turning in autocratic and ultra-nationalistic directions the resistance to any domestic imposition of international standards seems doubtful if they clash with national policies and practices. To the extent that national political systems embody human rights standards as a matter of national policy the issue of compatibility is minimized, and in such circumstances there are few real tensions associated with the assertion of sovereign rights and national autonomy. When security crises, as in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, push leaders to take expedient measures in the name of counterterrorism, then as was the case in the United States, even torture becomes legalizedon the national level, and international treaty commitments to the contrary are ignored.

As the former High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Raad al Hussein declared in a speech at the observance of the 25thanniversary of the UN Conference on Human Rights and Development held in Vienna, human rights are experiencing a retreat across many fronts at the present time with few signs of any significant countervailing moves. The illiberal state, which almost everywhere is replacing the liberal state, no longer as a matter of course embraces humane values, with the weakening of a human rights as a result. To the extent that there continue to exist a robust constituency for human rights it is situated in civil society, and its transnational initiatives. In this regard, I would view the BDS Campaign in support of Palestinian grievances as essentially a popular movement dedicated to achieving basic human rights for a long oppressed people.

 

 

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Apartheid and the Palestinian National Struggle

28 Apr

Apartheid and the Palestinian National Struggle

 

Preliminary Observations

 

In this period when the centenary of the genocidal victimization of the Armenian people in 1915 is being so widely observed and discussed, it seems especially appropriate to call attention to the comparable victimization of the Palestinian people. This second story of prolonged collective victimization also received its jump start almost a century ago with the issuance by the British Foreign Office of the Balfour Declaration supporting the Zionist movement project of establishing a Jewish national home in historic Palestine. The most striking difference between these two experiences of severe historical wrongs is that the Armenian people are seeking acknowledgement and apology for what was done to their ancestors a century ago, and possibly seeking reparations, while the Palestinian people may sometime in the future have the opportunity to seek similar redress for the past but now their urgent focus is upon liberation from present daily structures of acute oppression. This Palestinian situation is tragic, in part, because there is no clear path to liberation, and the devastation of oppressive circumstances have gone on decade after decade with no end in view.

 

The political puzzle of the Israel/Palestine conflict continues to frustrate American policymakers despite their lengthy diplomatic engagement in the search for a peaceful future that satisfies both peoples. There are significant changes, of course, that have occurred as time unwinds. Perhaps, the most crucial change has involved the gradual extension of Israeli control over virtually the whole of historic Palestine with American acquiescence. This coincides with a growing and more vivid awareness around the world of how much suffering and humiliation the Palestinian people have endured over the course of the last century, and the degree to which this frozen situation can be blamed on the unlimited willingness of the United States to deploy its geopolitical muscle on Israel’s behalf.

 

My approach to the Palestinian struggle reflects four points of departure: first, regarding the long suffering of the Palestinian people as having become the primary international moral challenge of our time, which does not deny that there are other equally serious moral challenges, but none is so implicated in wider global patterns of past injustice or as salient in the political consciousness of the peoples of the world; secondly, believing that international law and morality should be allowed to provide essential guidance in determining the contours of a just and sustainable peace between these two long embattled peoples; thirdly, emphasizing the decisive liberating role of nonviolent civil society militancy in finding a solution for the conflict, achieving liberation from below by the mobilization of people, not the action governments as offering the most promising present scenario for ending the Palestinian ordeal; and fourthly, approaching the struggle for Palestine as matter of human wellbeing without privileging a particular ethnicity, nationality, and religion, that is, from a sense of shared humanity rather than from adversary perspectives of Jewish and Palestinian exclusivity.  

 

The Palestinian struggle is about far more than the ‘end to occupation,’ although the concreteness of the Israeli occupation of Palestine lends itself to visualization, as would Israeli withdrawal, and this partly explains why so many liberal activists equate peace with ending the occupation. Yet conceiving the conflict in this territorial manner is profoundly misleading. It ignores the depth and complexity of what is at stake for both Jews and Palestinians, but especially for Palestinians. I consider the Palestinian national struggle within its broader scope and less distinct parameters as a persisting struggle to achieve the right of self-determination. Self-determination is the solemn promise of common Article 1 in the two international human rights covenants made to all peoples in the world, in effect, a legal, moral, cultural, and frequently a political entitlement to determine collective destiny so long as the equal right of other peoples is not encroached upon. These 1966 covenants set forth the content of international human rights law in their most authoritative treaty form. The extended inability to realize this right is the core tragedy of the Palestinian people, informing the hardships and humiliations of daily life.

 

In some respects, even describing the Palestinian goal in the language of self-determination is too restrictive, and by itself, not very clarifying. Ultimately the preconditions and contours of a just and sustainable peace is what should concern us most. It is an outcome that controversially also addresses the overlapping and conflicting right of self-determination enjoyed by those of Jewish identity who are now long enough resident in Israel to possess their own legitimate basis for claiming self-determination. The key strategy of accommodation is to find the best formula for reconciling these basic competing claims of self-determination, and to reject as unacceptable contentions of their fundamental incompatibility or their resolution by force of arms. It is important at this stage to recognize that Israeli unilateralism and Zionist maximalism are making it increasingly difficult for the affected parties to find such a formula, much less give it life.

 

When considering the content of this underlying right of self-determination additional substantive concerns are disclosed, above all the fate of the several million Palestinian refugees many living for more than 50 years in miserable refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. If Palestinian goals or the requirements of peace are confined to the territorial language of ending the occupation, the plight of Palestinian refugees tends to be left in limbo or at best consigned to the periphery of peacemaking that implicitly denies any right of repatriation and leaves the refugee communities without adequate representation.

 

There are other challenges facing peacemakers, as well. Edward Said, and other sensitive commentators on the interminable Palestinian ordeal have repeatedly observed that one catastrophic dispossession, that of the Palestinians in 1948, in no way justifies seeking a second dispossession, this time of Jews. In effect, the illegitimacies of the past that have victimized the Palestinians and produced the present intolerable state of affairs, must be put to one side in peacemaking contexts, and the future framed by reference to how Palestinians and Jews can best live together when account is taken of all the circumstances of past and present, including the allocation of rights by the application of international law. This injunction of mutuality should not be interpreted as a readiness to forget the past, or to minimize its relevance. Rather it is an insistence that replicating past wrongs by superimposing on all of historic Palestine a new power structure that excludes or subjugates Jews is not ethically acceptable or politically feasible as goals of conceiving Palestinian empowerment. Said did insist, however, that grave past injustices endured by the Palestinians, especially the massive dispossessions of 1948 and again in 1967, must be confronted and acknowledged by Israel before any sustainable progress toward peace and reconciliation is possible. Similarly, there is no way of reconciling the contending claims of self-determination if Zionism clings to its demand of ‘a Jewish state’ and an exclusive unlimited right of return for Jews only.

 

The contention that Israel has become an apartheid state is highly relevant to grasping the fate endured by the Palestinian people over the course of the last hundred years. Most poignantly, if the quest for Palestinian self-determination continues to fail, the outcome of the unresolved struggle will almost certainly result in the further entrenchment of existing systematic structures of ethnic discrimination. Such structures possess the key elements of the international crime of apartheid. If this is so, it means that the very arrangement relied upon to sustain public order in Palestine and Israel is itself an ongoing international crime of utmost gravity. Apartheid is designated as a crime against humanity in the Rome Statute of 2002, the treaty that regulates the operations of the International Criminal Court.

 

In other words, the present and the future of the Israel/Palestine relationship cannot be understood in neutral, symmetrical, and static terms of both sides more or less equally thwarting the path leading to conflict resolution and enduring the same consequences if that path remains blocked. Unfortunately, this has long been the official American rebuke to both parties. John Kerry, the American Secretary of State, and President Barack Obama, never tire of telling Israel and Palestine that each must make ‘painful concessions’ if the deadlock is to be broken and peace to be attained. Such language conveys a fundamentally distorted image of the present reality because it refuses to take account of the essential and vital difference between the situation of the oppressor and the oppressed, a difference that becomes unmistakable if you experience directly the many dimensions of everyday inequality between the two peoples. [this point is often made by Edward Said. See for instance his last interview: “My Right of Return,” (with Ari Shavit), in Gauri Viswanathan, ed., Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews with Edward W. Said (Pantheon, 2001, 443-458, esp. 445-449.]

 

The imagery of deadlock and equal responsibility for the unsatisfactory present reality also falsely implies a static situation that would seem detrimental to both sides. This is a false image because with the passage of time Palestine loses, and Israel gains. This is so territorially, but also to live as the oppressor is consistent in most respects with living well, while living under conditions of oppression or as refugees in to varying degrees living badly. Of course, power shifts are common, and roles can be reversed, although this does not seem likely anytime soon.

 

The existing Israel and Palestine interplay is constantly evolving. This understanding leads me to have a quite different overview of the present situation that I will express in a deliberately provocative way–either the future will witness a further entrenching of the Israeli apartheid state or Israel will abandon and dismantle current apartheid structures and accept a Palestinian call for peace in accord with international human rights law, and more generally, agree on steps that need to be taken to realize the Palestinian right of self-determination. As previously stated such a Palestinian realization of self-determination must not be exercised at the expense of a complementary Jewish right of self-determination. This is not meant as an indirect endorsement of Zionist goals as articulated by currently dominant Israeli forces. It is obviously difficult to adjudicate between these overlapping claims of self-determination, and doing so most likely requires help from genuinely detached third parties. Putting this more concretely, a spiritual homeland for the Jewish people in ancient Palestine would could be maintained, but not the current Jewish state with its preferential ethnically framed nationality laws, making Israel what the Jewish leader Henry Siegman perceptively identifies as an ‘ethnocracy’ rather than a ‘democracy.’

 

Let me acknowledge, without delving into the matter, that the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the formal representatives of the Palestinian people in international venues, has been partly responsible for the confusion about these fundamental points by seeming to go along with both a territorial definition of the conflict and a solution based on the Oslo process despite it being tainted by the United States acting in the role of intermediary. The PA posits its primary goal to be the establishment of some kind of Palestinian state on the currently occupied territory of the West Bank, and indeed claims that such a state already exists, a position affirmed by the General Assembly in a resolution adopted on November 29, 2012. This also allows Israel and the United States to continue treating ‘the peace process’ as necessitating direct negotiations between the parties despite Israel’s multiple efforts to de facto annex portions of the West Bank at Palestine’s expense ever since the early 1990s. By now it should be evident that these direct negotiations have given the Palestinians zero benefits for the last 20+ years while bestowing on Israel a golden opportunity to pursue its expansionist agenda in violation of international law. The fact that Israel continues to lend rhetorical support to such a peace process sustains for many the illusion that its government favors a genuine effort to solve the conflict through diplomatic compromise. Washington does its part, going sheepishly along not only because it habitually defers to Israel, but because playing this particular diplomatic game enables the United States to continue portraying itself as patron of a process dedicated to producing peace.

 

 

 

Understanding Israel’s Recourse to Apartheid

 

At a conference at the National Press Club on April 10, 2015 in Washington devoted to assessing and depicting the Israel Lobby as it operates in the United States, the influential Haaretz columnist, Gideon Levy, painted a picture of the current Palestinian ordeal concisely with a few verbal brush strokes. He emphatically told the audience what every follower of this ‘peace process’ should have understood long ago: “The two state solution is dead!” What does that mean? According to Levy, neither Israeli motivation nor any practical possibility of moving toward Palestinian self-determination is present, even in that constricted and inadequate sense of territorial empowerment with respect to currently occupied Palestine. Israel’s main policies have long been subversive of the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestine, the major presupposition of the ‘two state solution.’ The centerpiece of this subversion is, of course, the settlement phenomenon—the establishment and continuous expansion of 121 settlements authorized by Israel (along with 102 so-called ‘settlement outposts’ that are formally unauthorized but are nevertheless officially supported and subsidized) that now provide unlawful homes for between 700,000-750,000 Israeli settlers. This massive encroachment on any future independent Palestine has been abetted by the multi-billion dollar construction of a network of settler only roads, and by building a separation barrier of several hundred miles many segments of which cut deep into occupied Palestinian territory. This notorious wall was authoritatively declared illegal by 14 of 15 judges of the International Court of Justice back in an advisory opinion issued in 2004, endorsed by the General Assembly, and summarily rejected by Israel.

 

Although Levy didn’t explain exactly what he meant by using the word ‘dead,’ it can be interpreted in two distinct ways: first, as Benjamin Netanyahu himself proclaimed in the recent Israeli electoral campaign, as long as he and the Likud Party control the government, Israel will never allow the formation of a Palestinian state in historic Palestine. This also seems to express the real views of a majority of Israeli citizens, and thus the utterance of views to the contrary by Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders for international consumption should be disregarded as a cynical move to placate public opinion; and secondly, even if the words were to be treated as sincere, the settlements, roads, and wall make a viable sovereign Palestinian state incapable of establishment even if Israel some day possesses the political will to bring it into being.

 

The two-state solution has long been what the NY Times columnist Paul Krugman calls a ‘Zombie Idea’, that is, a discredited idea that continues to be accepted as the way to solve a problem because it upholds the self-interest of some powerful political actors, thereby diverting attention from alternative solutions that could be burdensome for those who benefit from freezing the status quo; it is a zombie, as in being a ghost, which lives on beyond its natural death causing torment to those it haunts. In ghostly respect the two sate solution continues to be treated as the only solution for the convenience of the parties, including the United States, Europe, and the UN, despite their private awareness of its irrelevance. During my period as UN Special Rapporteur I was often privy to corridor conversations that acknowledged the absence of any hope for a two state solution, but in public it was business as usual with these same individuals expressing their fervent hopes that talks would soon resume and finally find common ground.

 

 

In the contrasting theater of ‘reality politics’ the prospects are for further Israeli unilateralism. This impression has been reinforced by the selection by the Knesset two years ago of Reuven (Ruvi) Rivlin as President of Israel. Rivlin is a rightest Likud figure long known for his unapologetic embrace of a one state solution that envisions the Israeli incorporation of the whole of occupied Palestine. Netanyahu, a wily politician, differs from Rivlin in fundamental respects, and despite both men belonging to the same political party, they disagree on key issues and are personal antagonists: Netanyahu has previously given lip service internationally to a diplomatic process built around bilateral negotiations, as well as expressing his provisional support on behalf of Israel to a two-state solution; somewhat surprisingly Rivlin, unlike Netanyahu, strongly opposes an apartheid approach to internal Israeli security. In its place, Rivlin offers the Palestinians a Faustian Bargain, if Palestinians agree to live in an orderly manner while foregoing self-determination they deserve to be treated as fully equal citizens within a Jewish state comprising Greater Israel, including a guaranty of unrestricted political participation that might even include a Palestinian victory someday in national elections. [elaborated in by David Remnick, “The One-State Reality,” The New Yorker, Nov. 17, 2014.] To obtain this equality of treatment, the Palestinians would be expected to accept this consummation of the Zionist Project in a form that was originally proposed by Ze’ev Jabotinsky the Zionist visionary who inspired the founding of the Likud Party!

 

It should be obvious that the Palestinians will never agree to such an outcome of their national struggle, which would amount to the acceptance of a humiliating political surrender. In the unlikely event that the Ramallah leadership of the PA ever dared to accept such a deal, perhaps disguised in its presentation by granting Palestinians some community and local rights of self-government, the Palestinian people are almost certain to reject it. Such an arrangement would not bring peace, but at most it would be seen as nothing other than one more ceasefire to be broken by a further cycle of renewed resistance.

 

In effect, combining the physical encroachment on any Palestinian expectations of a viable sovereign state of their own with the rightward drift of internal Israeli politics, makes the apartheid solution a near certainty whether in the form of a perpetuation of the present condition of irresolution or by adopting a version of the Israeli one-state outcome within which discriminatory structures will have to be maintained to uphold public order. In light of such futures, robust Palestinian resistance can be anticipated, and for Israel to contain and suppress it will require police and paramilitary structures of control at least as strong as has has long been operative in the West Bank, and in different modalities in Gaza, ever since occupation commenced in 1967.

 

Again referring to Levy’s Washington talk, he regards the cumulative impact of the occupation as having produced the “systematic dehumanization of the Palestinians.” Collective dehumanization is an almost sure sign of the presence of apartheid when those experiencing abuse are ethnically and territorially distinct, and have a sufficient demographic weight as to consider themselves as ‘a people’ rather than a victimized minority.

My own experience with Palestinians has certainly confirmed this dynamic of dehumanization, but it has also been coupled with shining instances of Palestinian humanization despite everything as well as with Israeli dehumanization associated with forcing its will by brute force on a totally vulnerable people being denied their most elemental rights.

 

At this point, a glance at history helps us appreciate the perversity of this emergence of apartheid in Palestine. It needs to be remembered that the Zionist project received its first decisive international endorsement in a strictly colonialist form, by way of an assurance in 1917 given by the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Alfred Balfour, to Lord Rothschild, the head of the Zionist Movement in Britain, that the British government would “view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” At this initial stage, a Jewish state, as distinct from a national home, was neither endorsed in the text nor envisioned as an overt goal, although Zionist leaders seemed to have had this in mind from the beginnings of the movement in the late 19th century. Even the limited idea of a Jewish homeland was qualified by the clause “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

 

The Balfour promise of a Jewish national home was intended to be fused with the British plan to govern the whole of Palestine primarily in pursuit of its strategic goals of safeguarding trade routes to India, and especially the Suez Canal. Britain resorted to its habitual colonial tactic of ‘divide and rule’ with respect to its administration of relations between Jews and Arabs. But as the peace diplomacy unfolded after World War I, the British were forced by the United States to roll back their overt colonial ambitions, and operate within the mandate system that entailed an international commitment to grant Palestine eventual national independence as a single independent state but also contained the Balfour promise of a Jewish national home. In actual fact, the British governed Palestine as a de facto colony during the mandatory period from 1920-1948, but their divide and rule approach backfired as the Jewish presence disproportionately increased and as Zionist statist ambitions became evident they began colliding with British policy. In the end Zionist extremists resorted to systematic terrorism with the goal of inducing the British to abandon Palestine. Palestine became ungovernable, and the British shifted from their divide and rule tactics to the advocacy of a partition plan that would divide Palestine into two national entities, one for Palestinians, the other for Jews.

 

After World War II, when Britain could no longer handle the burdens of administering Palestine, the UN was given the job of addressing these conflicting claims, and in GA Resolution 181 influenced by the British approach, a partition plan for Palestine was approved over the objection of Arab countries. In the UN plan, 55% of historic Palestine was awarded to the Jewish claimants, and the remaining 45% to the Palestinians. Jerusalem was given to neither side nor split, but was designated as a corpus separatum to be administered as an international enclave by the UN with the Trusteeship Council given the assignment.

 

There was no attempt by the UN to implement, or even consider, self-determination by consulting the will of the resident population in Palestine, which was then overwhelmingly opposed to partition. Partition was a paternalistic initiative of the international community that in effect ratified the settler colonialist approach of the Zionist movement as initially facilitated by Britain and later greatly strengthened due to developments in Europe, especially Germany. Not surprisingly partition was at the time rejected by the Palestinian majority population and accepted by the Zionists, resulting in the 1948 War, decisively won by the Jewish side. This battlefield outcome shrank the Palestinian remnant from 55% to 22% of the land, and also de-internationalized the city of Jerusalem, putting West Jerusalem under the control of Israel and East Jerusalem under the administrative authority of Jordan ; in the course of the 1948 war, there occurred the forcible dispossession of an estimated 750,000 Palestinians accompanied by the destruction and depopulation of as many as 531 Palestinian villages. The Palestinians recall and observe these events as the nakba, or catastrophe, a narration of national tragedy that combines the politics of dispossession with the tactics of massive ethnic cleansing.

 

Subsequent consequences, associated with refugee camps in neighboring countries, the 1967 War that resulted in Israel’s occupation of the rest of Palestine, and intensifying hostility toward Gaza, especially after 2006, are viewed by Palestinians as a continuation of the nakba, conceived now more adequately as a process through time rather than as a circumscribed event.

 

If we consider the sweep of developments over the course of the century a pattern emerges that continues into the present. Put simply: ever since the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the Palestinians have survived within a steadily diminished horizon of expectations, while the Zionist Movement was continuously widening its horizons. The unfolding of this dual process can be crudely expressed by reference to three periods: the first, lasting from 1917 to 1947, the mandate period during which the demographic balance of Palestine started shifting due to Jewish immigration, a dynamic accelerated by the emergence of Nazism that also increased international attention to and support for a Jewish homeland, and later, Israeli statehood; secondly, from 1948 to 1967 during a state-building period in Israel, with the West Bank and East Jerusalem administered as occupied territory in the aftermath of the 1948 War by Jordan and Gaza by Egypt; thirdly, from 1967 to the present when these Palestinian territories (as well as the Syrian Golan Heights) were shifted from Arab occupation to Israeli occupation, during which de facto annexation of portions of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Golan Heights took place. Gaza was first occupied and settled, with Israel ‘disengaging’ in 2005, but continuing to exert effective control over Gaza through its total regulation of borders, air space, and shoreline.

 

The UN is typically criticized for devoting too much attention to Palestinian grievances while overlooking other issues where the humanitarian urgency is as great or greater. This criticism that is frequently invoked by political leaders in Israel and the U.S. completely overlooks the degree to which the UN, and the League before it, have a special responsibility for the failure to resolve the conflict over Palestine. No where else in the world can such a humanitarian fiasco be laid so directly at the feet of the UN making it seem more appropriate to blame the Organization for doing too little or doing what it did ineptly, rather than blaming it for being obsessively focused on Israel’s wrongdoing with respect to Palestine and Palestinians.

 

 

 

 

The Politics and Ethics of Naming

 

Calling the Israeli domination of Palestinians within the various governmental zones of Israeli domination apartheid is one facet of the wider controversy. For ardent defenders of Israel the mere allegation of apartheid is inflammatory and viewed as so totally inaccurate as to suggest that anyone calling Israel an apartheid state is an anti-Semite. Israel defends its policies toward Palestinians in Israel and under occupation by invoking the democratic character of Israel in which Palestinians vote, form political parties, and enjoy membership in the Knesset. For Palestinians who live outside of Israel under occupation in the West Bank or Gaza, Israel justifies its policies by security considerations. And for the Palestinian refugees, Israel shifts blame to the Arab countries in which they are resident.

 

As the accusation of Israeli apartheid has become more and more mainstream pro-Israeli responses have become harsher. Even revered and eminent figures such as Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu after expressing their opinion as to the actual and potential apartheid character of Israel have been defamed. Despite this effort to intimidate the use of the terminology of apartheid to describe not only the occupation of the West Bank but also the discriminatory regimes operative in Israel itself and East Jerusalem, as well as the oppressive securitization of Gaza, is increasing. Apartheid as the descriptive label of Israeli policy toward the Palestinian people has been gaining acceptability throughout the world, including within the UN. It has also captured the imagination of many campus groups in the West that organize Palestinian solidarity efforts and justify the BDS campaign under the banner of ‘Israel Apartheid Week,’ believing that the idea of apartheid now better expresses the essential character of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian people than any other descriptive language. In retaliation, Israel and its NGO global network of support are seeking to criminalize civil society initiatives that flow from the apartheid analysis.

 

It is important to distinguish the political use of the terminology of apartheid in expressive and impressionistic modes from its legal usage in international law, although the two types of usage overlap. The legal conception of apartheid has evolved via the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid adopted in 1973. This treaty criminalized apartheid and made clear that the essence of the crime involved maintaining systematic regimes of extreme discrimination based on race or ethnicity, and although derived from the South African experience the crime was not limited to that particular type of discriminatory separation. The Rome Statute of 2002 that underpins the operations of the International Criminal Court categorizes the crime of apartheid within its broader classification of crimes against humanity in Article 7(1)(j). Article 7 provides a clear definition of apartheid as an: “..institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination of one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of managing that regime.” It is understood that ‘race’ is used here in a broad sense to encompass diverse ‘ethnicities’ or ‘religions.’

 

The political use of apartheid in relation to Israel does not attempt to pass legal judgment. It is rather an assessment based on the systematic character of structures of domination and discrimination that cannot be convincingly rationalized as either non-discriminatory or by reference to the reasonable requirements of Israeli security. In the background of the apartheid debate is the overarching idea of international humanitarian law as mainly set forth in the Fourth Geneva Convention to the effect that an occupying power has as its primary obligation the protection of civilians living in a society under occupation, subject only to the right of the occupier to adopt measures necessary to uphold security. The apartheid perception with respect to Palestinians is diverse and fragmented. This corresponds to the sub-regimes of control that Israel has established to deal with different segments of the Palestinian resident population.

 

The most clearly delineated apartheid structures are maintained in the West Bank where there is a pervasive subjugation of the Palestinian population by a regime of rightlessness as administered by Israeli military authorities, and to some extent since 1993 delegated to the Palestinian Authority. This regime gives rise to contrasts between the Palestinian experiences of everyday abuse and uplifting Israeli experiences of the rule of law and the stable life circumstances enjoyed by unlawful settlers. This bright line of discrimination is reinforced by the checkpoints, house demolitions, settler only roads, an intrusive separation wall, settler violence, and epitomized by the grossly unequal allocation of Palestinian water resources.

 

The 1.8 million Palestinians living in Gaza, especially since the Israeli ‘disengagement’ of 2005 followed by the Hamas electoral victory in 2006, have been subjected to the most severe sub-regime of discriminatory domination. The Gazan civilian population has been locked within the borders of Gaza and subject to periodic military attacks, chillingly described in Israel as ‘mowing the lawn.’ Jerusalem and pre-1967 Israel are administered by the government of Israel, and here discriminatory laws are based on nationality and administrative rulings limiting Palestinian rights and stability of residence, denying family unification, restricting employment and education opportunities, and imposing the domination of a Jewish state, creating a situation of pervasive human insecurity for the Palestinian minority. There are also about 1.6 million Palestinians living behind the Green Line within Israel’s 1967 borders as Israeli citizens, while being denied real equality due to this wide variety of nationality laws that blatantly privilege Jewish nationality.

 

In its totality, the Israeli apartheid system can be compared to the colonial governance approach of the British. The British derived security by ‘divide and rule’ tactics while the Israel approach can be summarized as ‘divide, dominate, and discriminate.’ In the first case, we have the traditional format of a colonial power, while in the second, the most obvious label is that of ‘settler colonialism,’ yet it must be particularized in relation to Palestine to be fully understood.

 

 

 

The Palestinian National Movement

 

The Palestinian struggle has gone through a series of overlapping stages during the course of almost a century. There was an early period of a building internal resistance by the native population to continuing Jewish immigration during the mandate period coupled with growing Zionist influence and militancy in Palestine. The British colonialist approach tended to support this buildup of the Jewish presence in Palestine, initially feeling more kinship with Jews as mainly fellow Europeans. This widening cleavage eventually led the British and then the UN to seek stability and conflict resolution via partition, dividing the two peoples territorially, with the hope of creating separate polities. The British reached the conclusion, which was endorsed by the UN, that Jews and Palestinians would never peacefully live together, and that separation was the only viable approach. This idea of partition, eventually accepted as a goal by many world leaders, including those representing the Palestinian people, has since the 1990s morphed into ‘the two state solution.’ Among its original flaws, aside from the arrogance of imposing a solution from without and above, was the dispersion of the native Palestinian population throughout all of Palestine, whereas the Jewish population was confined to certain portions of the country. This meant that even with dispossession many Palestinians would find themselves captive in the incipient Jewish state, and consigned to the status of a subjugated minority in what had been their homeland for countless generations.

 

The failure of partition led to a phase of Arab belligerency in relation to the Palestinian struggle. In wars waged in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973, it was the goal of neighboring Arab countries to liberate Palestine and Jerusalem by joint military action. These efforts were unsuccessful, resulting in a series of Israeli military victories, coupled with territorial expansion, and belligerent occupation.

 

The failure of such liberation from without was followed by a period of resistance from within, the formation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization under the leadership of Yasir Arafat. This rise of national resistance activity was especially pronounced in the years following the 1967 War, a period of nationalist resurgence by the Palestinian people. It was in this period that Palestinian armed resistance activity began being portrayed in the West as ‘terrorism’ and its suppression by Israel was welcomed, especially in reaction to internationalizing the Palestinian struggle through the staging of shocking violent incidents at the Munich Olympics, hijacking, exploding planes, attacking airports and passenger ships.

 

Armed struggle by Palestinians also was discredited and defeated by Israel’ effective counter-terrorist tactics and by its ability to tilt in its favor the media treatment of the conflict. In a spontaneous show of civil society activism, the Intifada of 1987 created a new previously unexpected challenge to Israeli dominance. In a show of populist unity and courage, ‘the war of the stones’ was defiantly waged by the Palestinian people. It communicated to the world the dramatic refusal of the Palestinian people to allow the occupation to be normalized. The inequalities in weaponry and suffering between the two sides began to shift the balance in the war of ideas and images, especially giving enhanced credibility to Palestinian narratives of victimization.

 

In response, the conflict once again became internationalized. The United States playing a leading role, culminating in the formulation of the Oslo Framework of Principles solemnized by Itzaak Rabin and Yasir Arafat with a historic handshake on the White House Lawn in 1993. Oslo diplomacy reflected the power disparity that exists between Israel and Palestine, and the naively bewildering trust of the Palestinian leadership in the good offices of the U.S. Government to deliver a decent agreement. It should not have been surprising that the diplomacy over these many years was of a one-sided variety that relied on fruitless periodic negotiations between the parties, with the United States serving as intermediary and wrongly assigning blame for failures to find an agreed solution to the inflexibility of the Palestinians.

 

The unwillingness of Israel even to stop settlement expansion during the negotiating sessions both exhibited the one-sidedness of the process and the underlying absence of political will in Israel to reach a fair settlement. Of course, there is an element of subjectivity with respect to the content of ‘fair,’ but international law could have offered guidelines had it been allowed to be relevant. And what is objectively clear was translating Israel’s unlawful ‘facts on the ground’ into new negotiating positions that continuously diminished Palestinian prospects. In retrospect, the Oslo diplomacy was based on the relative bargaining power of the two sides, combined with the intensity of their respective political will. It was also shaped by the American deference to Israel’s policy priorities, above all, its refusal to give ground on the right of return of dispossessed Palestinian refugees or to accept shared governmental authority in Jerusalem.

 

The intifada was the basis for what later became the legitimacy war strategy of struggle. The energy of Palestinian resistance shifted from top down to bottom-up, that is, to the agency of civil society. The formal authority or top-down Palestinian leadership is being bypassed. There is a rejection under existing conditions of both armed struggle and inter-governmental diplomacy, including via the UN. Major mobilization efforts are directed at delegitimizing Israeli policies and practices, as well as stimulating militant forms of nonviolent coercive support for Palestinian empowerment and liberation. This Palestinian version of a legitimacy war has been deeply influenced by the successful anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa, and has centered its actions in relation to a comparable BDS Campaign that responded to an appeal from a coalition of Palestinians NGOs in 2004, and has been gaining global momentum, including within the United States, especially, in the aftermath of the massive military onslaughts carried out against Gaza in 2008-09, 2012, and 2014.

 

Many sympathetic commentators believe that the Palestinians are winning this Legitimacy War, including the important Palestinian founder of the Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah. It is also the thesis of my book Palestine: The Legitimacy of Hope. I take note of the international experience since the end of World War II in which the side that prevailed in a Legitimacy War generally controlled the political outcome of conflicts, despite being militarily inferior. Recourse to a Legitimacy War strategy usually reflects two kinds of developments: a societal sense of moral outrage that combines with the refusal of governments and international institutions to promote a just solution.

 

This unfolding of the legitimacy discourse has definitely moved in a direction favorable to Palestinian hopes. In the years following World War II, Israel was seen as the David battling the Arab Goliath, with Israel scoring unexpected military victory after military victory against hostile larger neighbors accused of seeking to throw the Jewish people into the sea. The Palestinians were portrayed as ‘rejectionists’ that defied the UN’s plan widely deemed at the time in the West to be a reasonable compromise. This negative image of Palestinian political behavior was further strengthened by the portrayal of Palestinian resistance as ‘terrorism.’ This violence was widely perceived as unacceptably threatening the Jewish people, and reminded the world of the Holocaust and the fate of Jews during the Nazi period. Such a link between Jewish victimization in the Holocaust and the Palestinian/Arab struggle was strongly promoted through intense Israeli propaganda efforts. (hasbara)

 

This image, which remains strong in the West, and certainly is powerful in the United States where Israel is viewed not only as the most admirable and dynamic country in the region, but also as the most important strategic partner Washington possesses and a recipient of intense support in Christian evangelical circles. This strategic bonding was greatly facilitated by Israel’s military prowess as revealed in its victorious wars, especially the 1967 War, and given additional reinforcement through its long experience of counter-terrorism that was treated as a major Israeli contribution to American security policies in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

 

Concluding Comments

 

The basic drift of my argument is as follows:

            –UN authority was not able to obtain a solution;

            –armed struggle and international statecraft were tried, but both failed to resolve the conflict or improve the Palestinian position;

            –what this leaves is either Israeli unilateralism, carrying out the Zionist endgame of incorporating the whole of Jerusalem and the West Bank into Israel, and claiming to be the state of the entire Jewish people, or a Legitimacy War victory by the Palestinian people that induces a cycle of ‘new diplomacy’ on a level playing field;

            –in the interim, any further attempts to revive the Oslo diplomacy, even enjoying should they enjoy the cynical of the Netanyahu government should be resisted as a dead end that is more harmful to the Palestinian struggle than is facing the realities of Israeli expansionism.

 

Given this understanding of the conflict, and considering the extraordinary record of military assistance given to Israel by the United States government, the American people have an increasingly dishonorable connection to the conflict. The American indulgence of Israeli exceptionalism includes issuing a free pass to Israel when it secretly became a nuclear weapons state. American citizens have a special responsibility for the long ordeal of the Palestinian people. The Jewish philosopher, Abraham Heschel observed “[f]ew are guilty, but all are responsible.” The Legitimacy War scenario gives each of us ample opportunities to exercise our individual responsibility. We owe the Palestinian people and ourselves nothing less.

 

Memoir Sketch: Championing Lost Causes

27 Nov

 

 

By chance I was reading César Vallejo’s poem, “Black Stone on a White Stone,” in a translation by Geoffrey Brock, and was struck by the opening stanza:

                  I’ll die in Paris in the pouring rain

                  a day I have a memory of already.

                  I’ll die in Paris—I won’t try to run—

                  a Thursday perhaps, in Autumn, like today.

Without being literal, I was reminded that I could appraise my death while alive, and not leave a final reckoning to some solemn memorial event in which speakers are challenged to find humorous anecdotes to lighten the occasion, otherwise uttering honorific platitudes quite unrelated to the experiential core of my being.

 

I had been thinking quite a bit recently about ‘lost causes.’ Recently I gave a lecture at Columbia University on this theme, inspired by Edward Said’s seminal late essay “On Lost Causes” (1997) in which he ties together the ‘nobility of failure’ as portrayed in literature with his own unswerving dedication to the Palestinian struggle for a just peace. On that occasion, I was also stimulated by the approach taken, perverse in some ways, to this theme by Slavoj Žižek (In Defense of Lost Causes, 2009), especially his insistence that the best we humans can hope for is to choose the right kind of failure, and not be discouraged by apparent defeat or the distortions in practice of worthy goals. His paraphrase of Samuel Beckett’s electrifying guidelines seems relevant to my own wildly utopian dreams for a just world: “..after one fails, one can go on and fail better, while indifference drowns us deeper and deeper in the morass of imbecilic Being.” (p.7) Finally, Camus’ notorious imagining of Sisyphus as “happy” strikes a different note, that acceptance of futility is a kind of illumination as to the nature of life’s ceaseless struggle for a redemptive meaning that can only end in frustration. The final words of The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) tell us something about Camus’ understanding of life well lived as being nothing more or less than a process that continues, punctuated by the rhythm of defeat: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Whether a life has, or should have, meaning beyond this purely behavioral matter of continuation and persistence, seems a personal matter for Camus, but not for me or for most religions.

 

Camus seems to be making a less ambitious claim than either Said or Žižek who are talking not just about futility as the generic character of human experience, but about engagement in the pursuit of what might be called the public spiritual good, a purposive journey or pilgrimage that imagines as realizable a just peace on earth. This understanding has led me to propose a political identity that I label ‘citizen pilgrim,’ the quest for a desired end as defining our public life experience as an active participant in the ‘not yet’ character of an unknown future. Of course, the thirst for immortality or life after death is the ultimate lost cause.

 

Although stimulated by these kinds of reflections on the human condition, I make no claim to situate myself on such grand pedestals of celebrity. It is rather an exercise in self-perception from the perspective of a whole life that cannot be definitively apprehended until after death: A sort of embrace of the impossible. Because not yet being dead, there may yet be redefining moments that would call for reassessment. In this respect, we remain inherently mysterious to ourselves, as well as to others. Yet if we wait for the drama of life to end we have clearly waited too long. Our only impossible possibility is to contemplate our death as if it has happened already, a futuristic memoir, although if written at an advanced age, is only trivially futuristic as most of what stirs the heart and soul has already happened or, if fortunate as in my case, is happening.

 

If I try to capture some sort of provisional essence in relation to public life I am struck by the early prosaic attraction of lost causes. I could say, self-critically, that only lost causes have ever held my interest and attracted me deeply. As a child living in New York City, I chose mindlessly to give allegiance to the Brooklyn Dodgers (before they became a success story, and long before they took their show to the lush confines of Hollywood) and spurned the New York Yankees, perpetual winners and even the rather boring New York Giants, geographically more natural as I was living in Manhattan. Yet even while still a wavering and sullen adolescent neither pinstripes nor golf had any allure for me. At the same time, I was instructed by the misfortunes of my father. After divorced by my mother he pursued unattainable movie stars and others achieving warm friendships but never the enduring intimacy that he was seeking. Living through his disappointments as a child helped me avoid a private life of lost causes, although not entirely.

 

Later, when some sort of deferred adulthood arrived, I finally began to think, feel, and act politically. First, I had to shake off the influence of my father’s confusing blend of a loving nature with hardhearted conservative politics: empathy and tenderness at home combined with an abstract love of country and state that affirmed militarism and belligerence internationally and cruelty and reactionary politics domestically, truly, an ethos of winners accompanied by his mild forms of racism and patriarchy, even homophobia, but fortunately contradicted by a non-judgmental acceptance of the other in concrete circumstances. Then Cold War liberalism came into my life. It was ‘the group think’ of academic life during my maturing years in the 1950s and 1960s, believing in the moral superiority of our capitalist and individualist side while favoring a more cooperative world order provided the United States did the things it needed to do to hold onto its advantages of wealth and power. While realizing the limits and shortcomings of the liberal mentality I never felt comfortable with radical alternatives, especially if institutionally and ideologically defined. Hence, political loneliness.

 

My first political encounter with a lost cause was Vietnam. I became opposed to the war on a prudential basis that drew upon the kind of consensus realism that was the required 101 thinking that prevails among university faculties, especially on elite campuses. Later, by way of friends and afraid to seem afraid, I went to North Vietnam, and saw the war differently, that is, from the perspective of the victims and the relative purity of a peasant society. I saw my country, the United States, as the main global bully, killing and devastating at a distance remote from its own society (although subjecting young American combatants willingly and unwillingly to service in an immoral and strategically perplexing war). Yet underneath this transformed outlook, I remained enough of a realist toady to presuppose that the side with hard power superiority would win in the end, that in effect I was sadly championing a lost cause. (I remember Lyndon Johnson bombastic dismissal of North Vietnam as ‘a tenth-rate Asian power’ as hubris, yet not inaccurate according to battlefield metrics). I was unabashed in declaring my commitment to Vietnamese self-determination, but I expected that eventually the suffering and destruction would be too much to bear for the Vietnamese, and they would submit to Washington’s will. Instead, I overlooked the historically positive side of American impatience, the unwillingness to stay the dumb course, and so it turned out that it was America that was unwilling to endure further suffering and loss, although statistically it was losing far less than the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese advantage was their perseverance and a recognition that what was at stake for them was almost an absolute as compared with the United States for whom it was always a matter of calculating the balance between gains and losses.

 

When the Vietnamese finally gained victory, I was pleased by the outcome of the war, and even briefly believed that the anti-colonial tidal waves sweeping across the world were going to reshape the future in desirable ways. At the same time, with a less active engagement I was committed to the anti-apartheid struggle, having visited South Africa in 1968 as an official observer at a major political trial of the leading resistance figures in the de facto colonized country, then called South West Africa, renamed Namibia after political independence. I had earlier worked at the International Court of Justice in The Hague for most of a year on behalf of Ethiopia and Liberia in a case that was brought to establish that South Africa’s administrative role in South West Africa was incompatible with the extension of apartheid racism. South Africa’s racist claims were astonishingly supported by the decision, and this made me convinced that law and lawyers could not be trusted, and that there would be no liberation from apartheid without the torments of a long and bloody struggle. It never dawned on me or those in South Africa with whom I discussed these issues endlessly that there might emerge a relatively peaceful path to majoritarian democracy and multi-racial constitutionalism. As with Vietnam, the relatively benign outcome seemed a kind of political miracle, and as such, did not shake my belief that I was hopelessly destined to be a lifelong champion of lost causes. Yet it also made me realize that victorious outcomes may somehow control the end game of lost causes. In this respect, the lostness of lost causes is always in doubt, not rationally so much as existentially, and that makes all the difference between psychology and history. It also vindicates devoting energy to just causes, whether they seem lost or not.

 

In recent years my main public involvement has been with the Palestinian struggle for rights under international law, for peace and justice. This struggle increasingly has the aspect of being a classic lost cause, given the power disparities, Israeli land grabbing, and the Zionist ambition as embodied in Israel’s current leadership to control all or most of historic Palestine. And yet, a brief review of the outcome of international conflicts in the period since the end of World War II suggests that the side that usually wins in the end takes control of commanding heights of law, morality, and historical destiny, not the side that dominates the battlefield or is more adept at deploying the instruments of violence. Like Vietnam, from the perspective of ‘war’ the Israel-Palestine encounter has all the ugly elements of one-sidedness. The violent encounters are more accurately grasped as ‘massacres,’ ‘horror shows,’ or ‘atrocities’ than as warfare. From my after death vantage point, I will not waver in support for the Palestinian struggle, yet I lack the present capacity to depict a plausible victory scenario, hence it is an engagement with a lost cause coupled with the proviso that we never know for sure.

 

Recently, after a talk on Palestine in Dunedin, New Zealand a person in the audience posed a challenging question: “shouldn’t you distinguish between ‘a really lost cause’ and ‘a lost cause.’ At the time I agreed that such a distinction would be useful as hope is an essential element in political engagement for most people, and to give finality to lostness would annihilate hope. Yet later I wondered about whether I made this concession thoughtlessly, which amounted to the admission that really lost causes should be denigrated, and probably abandoned, as pure Chekhovian nostalgia. I thought about PIranadello’s plays celebrating fantasy at the expense of reality (e.g. ‘So It Is (If You Think So),’ 1917), and recalled my spirited friends devoted to the empowerment of indigenous peoples as in the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement. Such an engagement seems clearly to qualify as a really lost cause, and yet, the expression of the vision is itself an intrinsic good, ennobling, and liberating in precisely Pirandello’s sense, and humanly preferable to the denial of injustice as in the uncritical celebration of Columbus Day or Thanksgiving. Victories of the moral and spiritual imagination may be more valuable and redemptive in our lives even if their political embodiment seems forever beyond reclaiming.

 

For much of my professional life I have been devoted to the lost cause of eliminating nuclear weapons. At times, this lost cause has seemed as though it might not be lost, at other times it seems truly lost. Since we cannot know the future, our present assessments are unavoidably provisional, and it remains a moral imperative for me to remain engaged in the struggle for their elimination.

 

This dialogue with myself continues. Edward Said makes clear that when shifting gears from culture to politics, it is important to act responsibly in the latter settings of actual struggle where lives are at stake and suffering is real. He indicated that he was thinking of his own identification with the Palestinian struggle, which was radically different for this reason in his mind from a deep appreciation of the ethos that guided Cervantes to craft his great vision of the lost cause of medieval gallantry. I feel the same way, although less centered, embracing anti-nuclearism at the same time as affirming solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.

 

Toward the end of the Vallejo poem these lines complete this arc of thought:

                  I see myself, as never before, alone

 

                  César Vallejo is dead. Everyone hit him,

                  though he is not doing them the slightest harm

 

I identify with such a self-image, but only politically, not personally where I am the fulfilled recipient of various forms of sustaining love. And I am not yet brave enough to say (and mean) ‘Richard Falk is dead.’ Yet to contemplate death without the metaphysical painkillers of an imagined afterlife is to be finally alone. In a sense learning to die is equivalent to learning to live alone, and takes courage and fortitude.