Interview with Richard Falk, U.N. Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Israeli-Occupied Territories of Palestine

Richard Falk, the United Nations Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Israeli-Occupied Territories of Palestine, is sceptical whether the negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, guided by the U.S., would produce results, unless the Hamas is taken on board and Israel returns to the pre-1967 position. The best hope for Palestinians is a ‘legitimacy war’ similar to the campaign that undermined the apartheid government in South Africa, says the Professor Emeritus of international law and practice at Princeton University. The text of an interview he gave The Hindu in Thiruvananthapuram, while in Kerala’s capital city for a conference on climate change:

Although you’ve been functioning as the U.N. Rapporteur to the Occupied Palestinian Territories since 2008, you’ve not been allowed to enter Israel or the Israeli-occupied areas of Palestine. How, then, do you propose to deliver on your mandate?

The U.N. is not regarded by Israel as a critical voice. They feel that they can ignore or refuse to cooperate with the U.N., even though as a member they are legally obligated to cooperate. They’re backed almost invariably by the U.S. government. So they feel diplomatically secure in being defiant towards the U.N. and the international community. This issue has become more pronounced in the last two-three years because of the Gaza war, which has led to a lot of international criticism and a sense of outrage about the degree to which Israel had used its military superiority against an essentially defenceless people who had no capacity really to fight back. It was more like a massacre than a war, in that sense.

Then the recent incident of the flotilla in the Mediterranean again showed that Israel feels it can act without regard to international law and to use its aggressive military style in international waters to interfere with a humanitarian mission that was trying to bring food and medicine and reconstruction materials to the people of Gaza that had been under a blockade for three years. So you have that basic relationship. And then, you have the somewhat troubled relationship between the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people, that of the people of Gaza not being really represented by the Palestinian Authority because Hamas is their elected government and they’ve been excluded from any kind of participation at the international level.

Then there’s also this sense that the Palestinian Authority is kept in power by U.S. and Israeli money and influence rather than by the will of the people on the West Bank and East Jerusalem. So it’s a very difficult set of circumstances. Then, on the Israeli side, you have this very extreme right-wing government that seems to want everything for itself that is supposed to be the subject of international negotiations. So one wonders what a peace process can achieve if the Israeli government is clear about its commitment to maintain and expand the settlements on the West Bank and East Jerusalem, to continue to occupy the whole of Jerusalem to re-establish borders that take away from the Palestinians their land. It’s now only 22 per cent of the historic Palestine. And if the present settlement boundaries and the security walls and the roads connecting the settlements are all taken into account, the Palestinians would lose 38 per cent of the 22 per cent they have. So they would have no land sufficient for a genuine Palestinian state.

And, finally, you have inside pre-1967 Israel, 1.3 million Palestinians who live as second class citizens in a self-proclaimed Jewish state and have been denied all kinds of rights. The international community has more or less forgotten them. And then, finally, you have the problem of four to five million exiled refugee Palestinians living outside the territory of the occupied Palestine, but still living in a condition that results from their expulsion from their homeland way back in 1948 or later in 1967. So those are the basic conditions. So, one has to wonder: why are these international negotiations taking place? It doesn’t seem to be the preconditions for negotiations. There’s the problem on the Palestinian side of representation, and on the Israeli side there’s the problem of the substantive position: do they really want to give up what they now possess?

I’ve just made a report to the U.N. which argues that the prolonged occupation combined with the expansion of the settlements amounts now to de facto annexation. There’s no longer just temporary legitimate occupation after 43 years. Israel has been establishing more or less permanent settlements throughout the whole of occupied Palestine. It is more realistic to look at it as a situation of de facto annexation, de jure occupation. So you have this tension between what is the factual reality and what is the supposed legal situation. At the present time I’m very sceptical [whether] inter-governmental diplomacy can achieve any significant result. And the best hope for the Palestinians is what I call a legitimacy war, similar to the anti-apartheid campaign in the late-1980s and 1990s that was so effective in isolating and undermining the authority of the apartheid government. I think that is happening now in relation to Israel. There’s a very robust boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign all over the world that is capturing the political and moral imagination of the people, the NGOs and civil society and is beginning to have an important impact on Israel’s way of acting and thinking. And Israel says itself, what they call the de-legitimisation project is more dangerous to their security than the violence on the part of Palestinian resistance. So it’s a big change that way in the overall situation.

Does this have any impact on the actions of Western governments?

It’s disappointingly ineffective in changing in any fundamental way the European or the North American approach to this issue, particularly in the U.S. where the Israeli lobby is so strong. President Obama, who came to Washington with a commitment to be more balanced in the conflict, has disappointed many people because he seems unable to resist the domestic pressures to always support Israel, no matter what they do, and to give continuous large-scale military and economic assistance to Israel. The United States gives half of its economic assistance worldwide to Israel. It has been doing that for many years, as you know. It’s a very distorted situation. Actually, American public opinion is ready to shift to a more balanced position, but the opinion in Washington, in Congress, in the so-called American think tanks, around the government and in the White House itself, is much more frozen in the past on this one-sided Israeli position. Basically, that’s the diplomatic situation at the present time, I think.

What about the European governments?

The European governments are partly following the U.S. leadership. And it is a sense, particularly during the economic recession, that they don’t want to have additional political friction. The public opinion in all of these European countries would favour a more balanced approach. Some of the important countries like Germany are very sensitive about the accusation of anti-Semitism. That probably plays a role in the European thinking of a false equation between being critical of Israel and being anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic. That’s used very much by Zionist pressure to make people believe that if you criticise Israel you are basically endorsing anti-Semitism, and anti-Semitism leads indirectly to an endorsement of Nazi policies and the Holocaust and all of those things in the historical past.

What do you expect the U.N. to do on the report that you’ve submitted?

As I said, I’m very sceptical that the U.N. as an inter-governmental body will be responsive to a political and legal analysis of the existing realities of the occupation. And my analysis, I think, is widely shared by independent opinion that has examined these issues; by the reliable NGOs that are active in the region and so on. It’s an intensely politicised issue at the inter-governmental level, and even within the U.N. bureaucracy. Ironically, even though Israel is very defiant towards the U.N., the U.N., in its bureaucracy, is quite deferential to Israel, partly through the U.S. influence within the organisation. So you’ve this double reality, that on the one side Israel makes a great public display of things saying that the U.N. is biased against it, and on the other side, it joins with the U.S. in manipulating the U.N. to do very little, if anything, that is effective in supporting the implementation of international law with respect to the occupation of the Palestinian territories. And this situation is accentuated by the degree to which the Palestinian Authority will not take any position that is deeply opposed by the U.S. or Israel. So you don’t have adequate representation for the Palestinian struggle within the U.N. system.

That seems to be a very crucial issue. You spoke about apartheid and the global legitimacy war that was fought against apartheid, successfully, by Nelson Mandela and others. But we don’t see that happening at the global level now. Isn’t that a little distressing?

Yes. Of course, one would love to have a ‘Palestinian Mandela.’ [The] Palestinian leadership has been disappointing, particularly after the death of [Yasser] Arafat. Israel is partly responsible for that. They’ve assassinated and imprisoned the most qualified Palestinians to be leaders. And they’ve deliberately either repudiated the kind of leadership that Hamas offers, or they’ve co-opted the kind of leadership that the Palestinian Authority offers. So one has a leadership vacuum that’s damaging in a legitimacy war because a legitimacy war really depends on gaining and holding the high moral ground, the way the Dalai Lama has done for the Tibetan people in their efforts to get more independence within China. The Palestinians don’t have that capability right now, but they do have a lot of public support around the world. It’s an important symbolic moral and political issue for many people, even in the United States. And in that sense they’re all having an effect... on boycotting products, especially those that come out of the settlements and the West Bank. I think there’s an effect. Cultural figures like musicians and artistes are refusing to perform in Israel.

You do have some of the same symbolic and substantive patterns of rejection of Israeli policies, like you had in the late-1980s and early-1990s for South Africa. But how this will play out in the future is very uncertain. As you say, although there are some similarities because… Since the occupation has many of the characteristics of apartheid, separate roads where only Jews are allowed to travel, passes that restrict the mobility of Palestinians, they can’t go even from one part of the West Bank to the other without passing through very difficult check-points. They can’t go to Gaza without a permit that is not restricted. They can’t leave the territory for education and other reasons. So there’s a kind of apartheid system there. But Israel is much more diplomatically capable so long as it has this U.S. backing, which is crucial to its taking the position that it has taken.

Then in its own internal politics it has moved farther and farther to the right. So it has a very extremist government in power, and even the Opposition is quite extreme. So you’ve a situation where the Israelis themselves are now talking about a one-state solution where Palestinians in the so-called occupied territories would be given Israeli citizenship, but it all would become a Jewish state. Palestinians, on their side, are saying that the settlement process is going too far and that the only thing that would work would be a single Palestine that is a secular democratic state where no religious identity would be given a privileged position. The idea of a Jewish state is an anomaly in the 21st century. It does not fit in the modern world where states have to accept the fact that there are different ethnicities, different religions and each is entitled to equal protection of human rights and participation in society. Israel is not set up that way. It is set up in such a way that the Jewish majority has formal and informal privileges and rights that the Palestinians and the Christian minorities do not possess.

Your position on the Palestinian question has been very clear. In fact, one would say your loyalties have been very clear. You’ve come under attack from the time of your appointment as U.N. Rapporteur, both from Israel and from the U.S., both within and outside the U.N. And also, your conceptualisation of the legitimacy wars has come under attack. Your comments on the Goldstone report too have come under attack. Now, how do you take these attacks?

I view them as part of this unbalanced approach. I think that if you look at the reality and say how my report has been accurate, or is it objectively the case that I’m reporting in a one-sided way, I believe that it would be clear that I’ve been objective and truthful. I’ve a Jewish background myself and I’d like to see a future in which both the peoples live in peace and justice. I don’t think you can find such a solution without justice for the Palestinian people, and on justice I’m critical often of the U.S. government, my own government. It doesn’t mean that because I’m critical of Israel I’m anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic. Some people accuse me of being a self-hating Jew. You know that it just isn’t true, it’s just propaganda. You’ve to live with that kind of criticism if you’re trying to be objective and professional within this territory. It’s a dirty game. And Goldstone himself, who I know quite well, is a life-long Zionist.

I’m not a Zionist. I don’t believe in the idea of a Jewish state, or any kind of state where a person has to take a religious stand. But he’s a life-long Zionist and when he made a report critical of Israel’s behaviour in Gaza, they attacked him more than me. They called him a self-hating Jew and all of those things. He had his family there. He had been on the board of the Hebrew University. He had much closer connections. So, if he could be attacked in this way, anyone on the planet can be attacked. He was the most pro-Israel person who had international credibility that you could have found in the world. I cannot think of anyone else. And yet he came under attack. Anyone with a fair mind would come to the same conclusion. In fact, it is better for Israel if someone like myself who has been critical for a long time, they can at least attack as biased. If I had had no past background, it would’ve been a little difficult for them to criticise. So they should be happy with me because I’m a better target for this kind of propaganda.

You’ve not been allowed to enter Israel since your appointment as U.N. Rapporteur. Then how were you able to prepare your report?

Well, there are a lot of people outside the country who come from there. There are very good NGOs that are reporting on different aspects of the situation, like the health conditions and the employment conditions there. It would not be anything that I could get if I were to go there myself. Anyway I would have to rely on the collection of data and information. Then the U.N. itself has offices in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza and they prepare very good reports on the conditions that exist there. So I have the information, and the patterns of behaviour are more or less matters of public record. The real challenge is to interpret the information that’s available or, in other words, to convert the information into knowledge. That’s really the challenge that I found as Rapporteur.

Coming to the Abbas-Netanyahu negotiations sponsored by the U.S., there’s the accusation that the Hamas is trying to torpedo the negotiations by mounting repeated attacks on Israel and Israelis… How do you respond to that accusation?

I think the Hamas has made it clear that unless it is included in the process of negotiations, it will repudiate the process, and it is acting in such a way as to show that. Without bringing them into the process, no negotiation can succeed. I don’t agree with the tactics of killing civilians and terrorist tactics. Of course, the armed settlers are an ambiguous category…

There were 37 reported incursions into Palestinian areas too in the last week of August…

You’ve to see what’s happening on both sides. There’s a tendency in the Western press to just look at Hamas’ violence and never look at the Israeli violence in the same way. And so, in all of these situations I think one needs a balance between the criticism of terrorism by those organisations of Hamas and state terrorism being organised on behalf of the government.

There was a time when Palestine was a very major foreign policy issue as also a domestic policy issue for governments in India. There is this accusation within this country, particularly from the Left, that of late there is a definitive pro-Israeli shift in the Indian stand…

I think there is no question that there has been a shift in the position. It has partly to do with the changing role of India within the world system. Its search for nuclear technology and its counter-insurgency warfare related to the Kashmir issue and the Naxalite issue have led India, I think, into a position almost quite supportive of Israel. And Israel, of course, has tried very energetically to promise that it can do things that would be useful for India and can help India with its problems. So you have a mixture of considerations that has led a more globalised India and left India more concerned with economistic criteria of statehood and progress than was the case with the Nehru era, which was more concerned with its moral standing in the world and its political relations with all the countries in the South, the Non-Aligned Movement, etc. India has moved away from that identity as far as I can tell.

It’s a loss for the world because India played a unique role in the Nehru era, creating a kind of moral voice in international affairs. You’re going back to the Gandhi legacy but Nehru carried it forward into the inter-governmental sphere. It’s missing now. Nothing has taken the place of India, either in the South or with the decline of social democracy in the North — Europe, Sweden, Scandinavia and so forth. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, you don’t have this moral voice in international affairs. Part of the problem of the Palestinians… diplomatically is that they don’t have the kind of strong governmental support that they used to enjoy in the South any longer. And, of course the Arab world is very conflicted itself [on] how to address the Palestinian issue. Their worries about political Islam, the connection of Hamas with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt... There are many problems, of course very complicated.

And the attempt to link it with the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran by the U.S… Isn’t this complicating matters quite a bit?

It’s complicated. But there would be a way of making it much simpler if you did not have this one-sided policy towards Israel. For instance, the larger good thing for the region is to establish a nuclear-free zone that would include Iran and Israel. But Israel persuades the U.S. to act as if it can keep the weapons, and no one else in the region is allowed to acquire it. It’s an unacceptable world where you have two types of countries — those that can have the weapons and those that are not allowed to have them. Going back a little, India always rejected a proliferation approach on this basis. They were prepared to join the nuclear disarmament process but not a proliferation regime. And I think that’s a correct view. You’ve to treat equals equally. You can’t have this discriminatory regime. So if you want peace and security in that region, including Iran, you’ve to create a regional security solution and you’ve to be just and fair towards the Palestinians. Those two shifts in policy seem to be the simple and larger goal if it wasn’t for this political inhibition that you can’t go against the political vision of the Israeli lobby and the Israeli government.

What could be driving the Obama administration into these sponsored negotiations? Is it just a sham dialogue where President Obama is trying to brush up his image, or is there some other motive as in the link-up with Iran?

I think it’s all of those. I think he came to Washington with the idea that he could show that he’s a different kind of leader. And one way of showing that was by being active in trying to solve the Israel-Palestine problem. From the beginning of his Presidency, from his Cairo speech of 2009, [he] seemed to open a new path. But then there was the backlash from the Israeli lobby in the United States and the government in Tel Aviv, and he backed down — which reinforced the image that the U.S. is more subject to Israeli influence than Israel is subject to U.S. influence. And now I think he wants to show he’s dedicated to peace, that he has done all that is possible, and that it’s the fault of the Palestinians that they’re not willing to accept what Israel has to offer. And generally I think there’s very little serious expectation that these talks would come to any meaningful result.

Talks’ve been on for the last 20 years. You’ve said in your report that Palestine is in a state of annexation. That is a fundamental issue here.

I agree.

Given that, how can there be a negotiated settlement unless Israel agrees to go to the 1967 borders…?

Yes, I think that the only negotiated settlement that would work in this time in history is a single democratic secular state. But that would require a Zionist government to abandon Zionism — which is not going to happen. So if you think a negotiated settlement has to produce a two-state solution, then there is no prospect that can come about through these kinds of negotiations.

How can anybody trust Mr. Netanyahu? His own government is divided. Mr. Lieberhman is totally against this. Mr. Netanyahu himself has always been against the Palestinians. So what’s the point?

The point is [the] public relations of Israel, the domestic politics of the U.S. It’s all a kind of cosmetic diplomacy to show a nicer face. The reality is quite ugly. Underneath all of this is the ordeal of the Palestinian people living under this prolonged occupation, who have been living under this prolonged occupation. Living 43 years under occupation is something unthinkable for those of us that have lived in open societies. I’ve met people in Palestinian refugee camps that are fifth-generation refugees. And you’ve no idea, the conditions have been very bad in Gaza. They are poor, too crowded. The addition of [the] blockade has made it a prison camp, with the guards on the borders and the internal prison conditions handled by the prisoners. Even British Prime Minister David Cameron used that terminology when he visited the region.

Do you think that your role as the U.N. Rapporteur, and the U.N. intervention, can at some point of time, may be not tomorrow or in a year, make a difference for Palestine? What can make a difference for Palestine?

I think there’s no one thing [that can by itself make a difference]. I do think that the struggle for the high moral ground is on in the U.N. The U.N. is an important arena of that struggle and my report, and the general debate within the U.N., is one battlefield within the legitimacy war. And it’s a place where, with all its limitations, the approach or the consensus in world public opinion can be registered and has been registered.

One of the reasons that Israel feels so vulnerable to criticism from the U.N. is that the U.N., despite the U.S. influence, still reports the reality. And it’s reality that they don’t want. They’re not afraid of anti-Israeli bias. They’re afraid of truth-telling. That’s what they want to oppose and resist. And so long as the U.N. is a place where you have some opportunity to report the reality as it is, it’s one way that the international community gets information and knowledge and forms its judgment and determines its policy. Churches and other groups are increasingly talking about divesting from companies that do business with Israel, that sell weapons to Israel, or that give them bulldozers for the demolition of houses. There’s a lot of that activity now going on, even in the United States.

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