Palestine: Political violence is not the answer

The United Nations International Day of Solidarity with the Palestine People is observed on November 29 each year to give the widest support and publicity to the observance of the Day of Solidarity. Solidarity Day provides an opportunity for the international community to focus its attention on the fact that the question of Palestine is still unresolved and that the Palestinians are yet to attain their inalienable rights as defined by the UN General Assembly. Here's the text of remarks by Richard Falk delivered in Cairo at the UN/Arab League ceremony marking the observance of the 2012 International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. 

Excellencies, Distinguished Guests,

It is an exceptional honour and challenge to speak on such an occasion, at a tense historical moment of heavy consequences for the Palestinian people and for the peoples and governments of the region. I along with many others throughout the world share Nelson Mandela's view that the denial of Palestinian rights remain the "the greatest moral issue of our time". 

This 2012 International Day of Solidarity with the People of Palestine possesses a special significance. A ceasefire ending the latest orgy of violence afflicting the two societies, but especially affecting the people of Gaza, has been agreed upon just over a week ago, and appears to be holding. 

And in a few hours, the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is scheduled to ask the UN General Assembly to recognise Palestine as a non-member observer State within the UN, a status similar to that of the Vatican. If this initiative is approved, it means an upgraded status for Palestine within the UN System, including possible access to other organs of the UN. 

Meeting here in Cairo on this occasion has an added resonance. It was the Egyptian government that played such an instrumental role in producing the ceasefire, and it is the democratisation of Egypt that has done more to improve Palestinian prospects than any other recent regional or international development. It also raises expectations that Egypt will in the future exert its influence to bring this conflict that has lingered far too long to a just end by working toward a peaceful solution based on the recognition of Palestinian rights under international law. 

Nothing would better convey to the world that the Arab Spring represents a regional declaration of independence from the dominion of external influence. In doing so, it would enlarge upon the earlier historic achievement of unexpectedly bringing about the downfall of a series of dictatorial regimes reigning throughout the Middle East. 

Those innocent Palestinians who lost their lives and were injured during the latest Israeli military attack upon Gaza should be remembered and mourned on this day as martyred victims of Israel's latest onslaught. This attack was carried out with ferocity and the most modern weaponry against an essentially entrapped and acutely vulnerable people. 

We should be thankful that this latest violent interlude has come to an end, and all of us should resolve to work toward the good faith implementation of the ceasefire agreement not only with respect to the violence, but in its entirety. Such an implementation would honour what was achieved through the energetic and flexible diplomacy of Egypt and other regional forces. 

Collective punishment

There are already disquieting signs that Israel is downplaying the conditions set forth in the ceasefire text, especially those pertaining to a prohibition on future targeted assassinations and on establishing the mechanisms mandating the opening of the Gaza crossings. The blockade of Gaza imposed by Israel in mid-2007 is nothing other than the collective punishment of the entire Gazan population, and hence a flagrant violation of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. 

If the ceasefire agreement is faithfully carried out, the blockade will finally be brought to an end, after more than five years of punitive closure. Goods and persons will be able to flow in both directions across the borders between Israel and Gaza. This is unlikely to happen without concerted pressure from Israel's neighbours. 

Israeli officials are whispering behind the scenes that nothing more was agreed upon, despite the clear language of the brief ceasefire text, beyond the cessation of the violence. The Israeli claim is that everything else was at most a pledge to discuss, without any obligation to act. Such disappointment of the Palestinian expectations must not be allowed to happen. 

Without implementation of the full agreement, this ceasefire will evaporate in a cloud of smoke, the rockets will again fall on Israel soon, and Gaza will again become a killing field while the world once more will look on helplessly at this awful spectacle of an ultra-modern war machine killing and maiming at will, and once more terrifying with unforgiveable impunity the entire civilian population of Gaza. 

Such a situation presents the regional and world community with both responsibility and an opportunity. Without pressure brought to bear Israel is unlikely to implement the ceasefire. There are levers of influence that can be pulled, and if they are, it will convey a new seriousness on the part of Arab governments, to take concrete measures to enforce the international legal rights of the Palestinian people. 

States such as Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with Israel that can be suspended due to fundamentally changed circumstances. Or diplomatic relations downgraded or even drawn into question. The more affluent Arab governments could commit to supplying UN agencies with funds to offset any refusals to pay the normal assessed financial contributions of Israel and its friends. There are many concrete steps that can be taken if the political will to do so is present. 

Shockingly, Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador at the United States, declared a few days ago that in this recent attack, "Israel was not confronting Gaza, but Iran". He added that the attack on Gaza should be understood as "a rehearsal" for militarily engaging in a conflict with Tehran. Such an acknowledgement is tantamount to a public confession by a high Israeli official to commit crimes against humanity, spilling Palestine blood so as to play what amounts to a war game to test how effective the Iron Dome would likely be in dealing with Iranian rockets expected to be released in the aftermath of an Israeli attack, if in fact Israel actually launches such an imprudent attack at odds with the UN Charter.  

'Politics of deflection'

This assertion by someone of Ambassador Oren's stature reinforces the call to the UN Human Rights Council to form a high level fact-finding mission to Gaza that evaluates allegations of war crimes on all sides of the struggle as was done with mixed results after the Gaza War of 2008-09. Such a step has been proposed in a letter dated November 22, 2012, to Navi Pillay, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, from the highly respected director of the Palestine Centre for Human Rights, Raji Sourani. 

I believe firmly that it is our responsibility as citizens of the world, and especially those of us associated with the UN, to do whatever necessary to avoid having flagrant violations of international humanitarian law being swept under the diplomatic rug. 

Further, it is my hope that this time, unlike the unfortunate experience with the Goldstone Report four years ago, that whatever recommendations are made to the UN do not get buried beneath the weight of geopolitical influence, but are carried out in a timely and diligent manner. The UN to be credible and relevant to the aspirations of the Palestinian people must at this time move beyond its authoritative and oft repeated affirmation of inalienable Palestinian rights under international law to the undertaking of concrete steps designed to implement those rights. 

Ambassador Oren's comments are revealing in another way. They are an extreme example of Israel's frequent reliance on "a politics of deflection" to divert attention from their highest priority concerns. Such deflection takes various forms. On a simple level, it means attacking the messenger to avoid the message, or claiming that the UN is biased so as to avoid discussing the abuses alleged. Such a pattern was epitomised by the recent unlawful and criminal attack on journalists in Gaza, in effect eliminating the messenger to prevent delivery of the message. 

On a more complex level, it means shifting attention away from the real drama of the occupation. Periodic attacks on Gaza totally redirects the attention of the world away from Israel's expansionist projects. It should be clear to all by now that Israel's highest priorities in Occupied Palestine are associated with their controversial and unlawful settlement activity in the West Bank and ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem. 

Israel builds an unlawful security wall on occupied Palestinian territory, in the course of which it seizes additional Palestinian land, and when the World Court declares this unlawful wall should be torn down and Palestinians compensated for the harm done, Israel callously attacks the highest judicial body of the UN and carries on with its construction efforts without suffering any adverse effects. 

Similarly, Israel continuously expands its settlements and has made a recent major move to legalise its approximately 100 "outposts", smaller settlements that had been previously illegal even under Israeli law. The attention of the world is guided toward Gaza, while settlement building gets a free pass. The passage of time is not neutral. For Israel allows expansionist policies to move forward uninterrupted, for the Palestinians it diminishes ever further their prospects for realising their primary goal of sovereign territorial statehood. 

It is part of the Palestinian tragedy that the international community and the media are so easily manipulated. Responsible action requires vigilance, and it is a positive step in this regard that the HRC authorised a fact-finding mission to assess the settlement phenomenon from the perspective of international law and human rights standards. This is a concrete step that represents an effort to refocus world attention where it belongs. Make no mistake. Every additional settler, every new settlement outpost, is one more nail in the coffin of the two-state consensus. 

Numbers don't lie

In considering the Palestinian situation, it is a mistake to become preoccupied, as is the case with the Western media, with pinning the blame on one side or the other for a particular breakdown of the precarious kind of armed truce that exists. More relevant is an appreciation of the broader context. As Sara Roy, a Harvard specialist on Gaza, reminds us, "The current crisis is framed in terms devoid of any real context. The issue goes far beyond which side precipitated the terrible violence that has killed innocents on both sides. The issue - largely forgotten - is one of continued occupation and blockade, a grossly asymmetrical conflict that has deliberately disabled Gaza's economy and people." ( The Boston Globe , November 23, 2012). 

This defining reality of the occupation applies, of course, to all of occupied Palestine, but the asymmetry of human loss is particularly evident in relation to Gaza, and is partly conveyed by a comparison of the grisly statistics of death: more than 160 Palestinians, and five Israelis. According to figures compiled by the Israeli human rights NGO, B'Tselem, between the ceasefire established in January 2009 and the outbreak of this recent cycle of violence, not a single Israeli has been killed, while Israeli violence was responsible for 271 Gazan deaths. 

Looking at the overall casualty ratios, the Israeli journalist, Gideon Levy, writing in Haaretz (November 25, 2012), observes the following: 

It should help us realise that Israel had an alternative to this turn once more toward mass mechanised violence directed against an occupied people enduring a siege that is crippling its society materially and bringing the mental and physical health of the Gazan population to a point of near collapse. 

In my role as UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, I have tried to move in this proposed direction, that is, from rhetoric to action, in my most recent report to the General Assembly. I have recommended a boycott of those corporations that do business with unlawful Israeli settlements, naming several of the prominent corporations making profits in this unacceptable manner. 

We also voiced support for the ongoing international civil society campaigns of boycott originated by a coalition of Palestinian NGOs in a call that dates back to 2004. These are practical steps taken only after efforts by way of confidential communications with these corporations having failed to persuade them to live up to their legal and moral responsibilities to respect for human rights. This encouragement of civil society also recognises that other political actors have failed to live up to their responsibility as members of the organised international community. 

When Israel, a member state of the UN, fails to co-operate and is guilty of persistent gross violations of international law, then something should be done in reaction. It is notable and regrettable, that the most direct challenges to the unlawful blockade of Gaza have come, not from the UN or from member states in the region and beyond, but from civil society in the form of the Free Gaza Movement and the Freedom Flotilla. It is equally notable that the most serious challenges to Israel's archipelago of expanding settlements has been mounted by the BDS Campaign of solidarity with the Palestinian people and not by states or international institutions. 

Honour Rachel Corrie's legacy

We should also remember Rachel Corrie, in this connection, an American peace activist who was brazenly killed by an Israel bulldozer almost 10 years ago while trying to stop the demolition of a Palestinian home in Rafah. Rachel was an idealistic young woman who pierced the dehumanising myths surrounding the plight of the Palestinian people. In a letter to her mother back in Olympia, Washington, Rachel, just days before her death, wrote, "I have bad nightmares about tanks and bulldozers outside our house and you and me inside." 

It is such brave persons who bear witness to the daily ordeal being experienced by Palestinians, not just for days or months, or even years, but for decades and generations. It should not have been necessary for Rachel Corrie to sacrifice her life in this manner if the world system had done its job of enforcing the rights of the long oppressed Palestinian people. We who have witnessed and documented these realities of oppression must do our best to honour Rachel Corrie's legacy. 

The time has come for practical measures that back up UN assessments of Israeli unlawfulness. This unlawfulness is sustaining a cruel and prolonged occupation of Palestine that has over time assumed the character of territorial expansionism coupled with an apartheid structure of control. As many as 600,000 Israeli settlers are fully protected by the Israeli rule of law while Palestinian residents of the West Bank and East Jerusalem are held captive decade after decade without rights and without the protection of law. 

Such conditions are often worsened by prison detentions and lifelong confinement in refugee camps, either within Palestine or in neighbouring countries. It is an intolerable status quo, and has been for a period spanning several generations of Palestinians. The international community recently, with much fanfare, avowed "the responsibility to protect" as a new international norm intended to guide the UN in responding to situations of humanitarian catastrophe. Only the maliciousness of geopolitics can explain why the people of Palestine, and especially the residents of Gaza, have not been given the protection that they so desperately need and deserve. 

It seems time to challenge this maliciousness in the name of peace and justice, and the dignity of a people whose inalienable right of self-determination has been too long denied. A starting point might be the deployment of UN peacekeepers to monitor adherence to the ceasefire. The Palestinians are the most glaring example in this post-colonial era of a people who have not managed to gain their independence and national sovereignty despite almost 65 years of struggle, strife and humiliation. 

Prolonged occupation is a special condition that deserves a special recognition that it has not yet received. The occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza since 1967 exacts a terrible cost from the captive population. The framework provided by international humanitarian law, while helpful in situations of short term occupation, falls far short of its claims to offer the protection needed when an occupation extends beyond 10 years. One aspect of occupation is to silence those who represent the people of such a society. 

The UN General Assembly is being given an opportunity to take belated account of this situation on this very day by recognising and acknowledging Palestinian statehood, something 132 governments have already done by establishing diplomatic relations with Palestine. The very least that a people living for more than 45 years under occupation deserve is this right of access to the institutions of the world to present their grievances on a global stage, to have a voice, and if not a full-fledged seat at the tables of decision, at least a stool. Let us hope that the UN General Assembly will give us all something positive to celebrate on this International Day of Solidarity. 

Political violence not the answer

Let me bring these remarks to a close with several observations: 

I think the most important lesson that can be learned by all sides is that political violence is not the answer. It brings neither security nor liberation. Such learning is particularly important for the militarily superior side that often wrongly associates its future security with a willingness to make use of its military dominance. What recent history has shown, and not only in relation to Israel/Palestine, is that political outcomes are at sharp odds with military outcomes. The United States essentially won every battle in Vietnam yet lost the war. An Afghan saying makes the same point: "You have the watches, we have the time". 

What follows from this is obvious: if political violence begets more political violence, then it is time for the stronger side to turn to diplomacy, compromise, respect for law and rights. Until Israel appreciates that its security can only be achieved by turning to peaceful means, there will be insecurity for both Israelis and Palestinians, the dance of death will go on. It was only when the British made this switch that the conflict in Northern Ireland changed from being "irreconcilable" to becoming "negotiable", and a substantial peace followed. 

This is a time when the test of solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinian people needs to be expressed by deeds, by walking the walk, no longer being content with talking the talk. It is time for civil society actors throughout the world to lend robust support to the BDS Campaign. It is time for governments to consider the sort of economic sanctions so effectively imposed on the South African apartheid regime. It is time for the UN to accord recognition of statehood to any people that has been occupied for more than 10 years starting with the people of Palestine. 

It is time for the members of the Quartet, which includes the UN, the EU, Russia and the United States to explain to the world how it imagines a Palestinian state to be possible in light of Israel's continued settlement expansion and the related determined attempt to give East Jerusalem a distinctly Jewish character. Without such an explanation, it is bad faith, and a trap for the Palestinians, to urge a return to another diversionary round of negotiations, a roadmap to nowhere! 

In other words, it is time for us finally, wherever and whoever we are, to act responsibly toward the Palestinian people. The great Jewish religious teacher, Abraham Heschel, expressed this sentiment with memorable words: "Few are guilty, all are responsible". 

I want to give the last words to the extraordinary Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, some lines from his long prophetic poem, "Silence for Gaza", written in 2007, but more relevant today than when written. These lines refer to the plight of Gazans, but they apply as well to all Palestinians, whether living under the yoke of occupation, in refugee camps, or consigned to an involuntary diaspora throughout the world: 

            Enemies might triumph over Gaza (the storming sea might triumph
            Over an island… they might chop down all its trees) 

            They might break its bones.
            They might implant tanks on the insides of its children and women.
            They might throw it into the sea, sand, or blood
            But it will not repeat the lies and say 'Yes' to invaders.
            It will continue to explode
            It is neither death, nor suicide. It is Gaza's way of declaring that it
            deserves to live. It will continue to explode.
            It is neither death, nor suicide. It is Gaza's way of declaring that it
            deserves to live. 
                      [Translated by Sinan Antoon from Hayrat al-'A'id ("The Returnee's Perplexity", Riyad al-Rayyis, 2007]

Richard Falk is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.