What Hope is There?

Interview by Emanuel Stoakes

(An interview with Frank Barat – UK-based human rights campaigner, author and filmmaker – on recent events, Netanyahu and the current state of affairs for the Palestinian cause.)
 
A newcomer to the conflict wouldn’t think it would be quite so controversial: the President of the United States throwing his weight behind the virtual world consensus regarding the borders of a future Palestinian state.

That is assuming that such a neophyte to the political and humanitarian mess in the Holy Land possessed such a blithe naivety that he or she trusted that the majority world view (according at least to regular UN votes on the subject) might influence or press on the minds of those who possess the power to change things.

That it demonstrably does not, or rather, appears to matter little, is hard to doubt in the face of the noises coming out of Washington insiders and, loudly and unmistakably, out of Binyamin Netanyahu in the last few weeks.

According to the Washington Post, Obama insiders say that his position isn’t sincere anyway, stating there are is very little difference between the President’s real stance and that of George W Bush’s and that the 1967 borders line isn’t more than gambit to try to get things moving on the issue of peace talks.

Helpfully, thousands of new houses are to scheduled be built in the West Bank, an inconvenient coincidence no doubt, and what’s more, virtually every key Palestinian demand for a state is not on offer from Bibi, who appears to think that the framework for a future Palestinian state (and with it, peace) can be decided by way of an imperious unilateral declaration, not negotiation.

According to Netanyahu, and apparently the fawning US congress, the June 1967 borders are ‘indefensible’, Jerusalem will never be allowed to be shared in any meaningful way with the Palestinians, there can be no hope of the right of return for millions of refugees who still live in camps in neighbouring countries and the Jordan Valley must remain militarised (a de facto military occupation by the IDF), with Palestinians having no control over their own borders, and existing within a demilitarised state.

But then the threat of peace never appealed to Mr. Netanyahu, given that he has been filmed admitting that he stopped the Oslo accords (virtually nobody outside of Israel mustered the courage to report this) and that he at the time of that interview expressly stated that the Palestinian Authority has to be given ‘a blow…so many that it is impossible for them to bear’, in order to fall into line.

Even Bibi’s predecessor, the hated Mr. Olmert, the man who ordered the cynical Operation Cast Lead attack on the civilian population of Gaza, offered much more to the Palestinians than Netanyahu currently is. But there’s good reason why: Netanyahu and the pro-settler Beitenu Yisrael party (his Likud party’s coalition partner) won’t bite the electorate that votes for them- if there was to be any kind of generous compromise regarding settlements in return for peace, they wouldn’t stay electable.

What hope is there, then, for any peace? As for the outstanding option for peace: both parties renouncing violence and adopting the will of the international community in line with international law, who can enforce this?

Well, there is one interesting, but symbolic group that have taken it upon themselves to imitate what their view of justice might look like, adhering to international law. They are the Russell Tribunal on Palestine.

The group are the heirs to the original Russell Tribunals, also known as the International War Crimes Tribunal or Russell-Sartre Tribunal, organised by Bertrand Russell and Jean Paul Sartre that developed into producing investigative body and a mock trial in the 1960s, investigating war crimes in Vietnam.

In order to find out more, and to explore the current state of affairs with an experienced pro-Palestinian activist, I conducted the following extended interview with Frank Barat, a co-ordinator of the Russell Tribunal:

Frank, you are known for your work with the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, can you tell us a bit about this group and what they do, what their aims are?

The Russell Tribunal on Palestine (RToP) is an International People’s Tribunal created following the international community’s inaction regarding Israel’s recognized violations of International law.

The RToP proceedings, which comprise a number of sessions, deal with different aspects of the complicity and responsibilities of States, international organisations and corporations in the on-going occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel and the perpetuation of the violations of international law committed by Israel. They also aim to highlight the continuity and comprehensiveness of the Israeli policy that aims ultimately to render impossible the establishment of a Palestinian state.

”The legality of the Russell Tribunal comes from both its absolute powerlessness and its universality”. The RToP has no legal status, and draws its strength from the will of citizens who wish to put an end to the impunity that Israel enjoys while denying the Palestinians their most basic rights. It does not compete with other jurisdictions (domestic or international), but works in complementarity to enforce the law in Palestine.

On 1 -3 March 2010, the first international session of the RToP was organized in Barcelona, to consider the complicities and responsibilities of the European Union and its Member States in the on-going occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel and the perpetuation of the violations of international law by Israel, with complete impunity.

The conclusions of this first session emphasize the shortcomings of the EU and its member states in implementing international law (promoting the right to self-determination, the obligation to respect and ensure respect for international humanitarian law, universal jurisdiction…) and European law (the Association Agreement, respect for the rule of origin, arms exports to Israel in contradiction with the European code of conduct, products exported from the settlements, settlements participation in European research programs…). They were sent to all the European heads of government and foreign affairs ministers, to the presidents of the European Union, Commission and Parliament, to the United Nations, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the Arab League.

The second international session of the RToP took place in London, on the 20, 21 and 22 November 2010. It examined International corporate complicity in Israel’s Violations of International Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law.

The jury concluded that the concerned corporations are complicit in Israeli violations of international law – including war crimes. For this, corporations may be liable under civil or criminal law in domestic law courts, and Corporate actors may be liable under international criminal law and/or under domestic criminal law if they have taken decisions as a result of which corporations have become involved in assisting Israel’s violations of international law. States have an obligation to enforce existing law against corporations where they are acting in violation of international human rights and humanitarian law standards. The Tribunal also called upon individuals, groups and organizations to take all necessary measures to secure compliance of corporations with international human rights and humanitarian law standards.

The 3rd international Session of the RToP will take place in November 2011 in South Africa. It will deal with the applicability of the crime of apartheid to Israel in regards of its treatment of the Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinians Territories (OPT) and in Israel itself.

Egypt has declared that it is going to open the Rafah crossing- a big move, likely to cause a strong reaction from within the Israeli political establishment- what do you think the implications of this will be for Gazans and Palestinians in general, and, moreover, can / will it stay open?

Egypt announced on 25 May that Rafah border will be permanently opened from Saturday 28 May, from 9am to 9pm, everyday expect Fridays and holidays.

Let’s not forget that restrictions will still apply. All women and children under the age of 18 will be allowed to leave as well as all men over 40. For men between 18 and 40, a VISA will be needed, granted from Ramallah. So far, there is not an Egyptian bureau in Ramallah, able to do this. [The Egyptian authorities have recently said that they intend to open one soon.]

This is of course great news for the people of Gaza, some of them having been stuck in the Gaza Strip for decades with virtually no chance of ever leaving the small enclave. The opening of the border will definitely improve Gazans’ life. When you have been imprisoned in a cage for years, an opening, as small as it is, acts like a lifeline. The people of the Gaza Strip might feel a little bit more human, thanks to this. It is also important, in desperate situations not to feel abandoned, to feel like you have support from other people. The fact that the Egyptian uprising led to the opening of the Rafah border fantastic news. The Palestinians living in Gaza knew for years that the Egyptian people were and are supportive of their plight. The problem was that under the rule of the western backed dictator Mubarak, any uprising [they were some, contrary to what the mainstream media wanted us to believe] were dealt with brutal force, imprisonment, torture and often killings. Now that Mubarak has gone, thanks to the amazing steadfastness of the Egyptian people, things are different.

In the grander scheme of things, the opening of the Rafah border is also a huge blow to Israeli hasbara [propaganda]. For years, Israel and its allies [the US, the EU….] were able to say that “even the Palestinian Arab Brothers agree with us and think it’s necessary to have the borders closed. It’s not only us. If you are angry at the blockade, why don’t you boycott Egypt?”

This is now over.

Now Israel is back against the wall and there is no exit. The illegal siege of Gaza [collective punishment, forbidden under International Law] has to end.

The opening of the Rafah crossing is great news but in terms of standard of living, won’t change much. The people of the Gaza Strip will finally be able to have freedom of movement [an inalienable right under the UN charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights] but will still be lacking the resources and materials to live a normal life.

Will the border stay open? This will depend on the next government of Egypt but I assume that once opened it will be very difficult for any government to close it again.

What do you make of the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah? Why do you think it has happened at this time? What do you think the consequences will be?

It’s obviously a very important step forward, but we’re not sure yet, what the agreement will really mean in practice. Most mainstream commentators have called this ‘the re-unification of the Palestinian People’, which is of course, media talk and wrong. The Palestinian people have always been united. Fatah and Hamas are political parties, a completely different entity to the Palestinian people; whether you live in Europe or in the Middle East, there is a huge gap between the people, and their leaders.

Coming back to what the agreement will mean on a day to day basis, we have not had the answer yet. It seems so far that not many things will change. The P.A will still deal with security [in collaboration with Israel] and with potential ‘negotiations’ and Salam Fayad could remain PM. Not much of a change for the people of the West Bank then.

We have to wait for a unity government to be formed, a political program to be put together, to really know what this agreement means.

So far, its an announcement. Not much more.

The fact that is happened now is very relevant and easy to understand. The PA has lost any credibility it had left after the Palestine Papers [a series of leaked documents detailing past negotiations between the PA and Israel amongst other matters], Hamas is seen more and more as a repressive entity in the Gaza Strip, there is the prospect of the unilateral declaration at the UN in September and the ‘Arab Spring’ meant that both the PA and Hamas knew they had to do something quick, or face an internal uprising.

As for the consequences in the international community, nothing happened that was not expected. Israel condemned the move and said that it won’t deal with Hamas [even if they have secretly dealt with the party for years regarding Gilad Shalit, a kidnapped Israeli soldier], the U.S as usual, is following the Israeli line, and the EU issues statements that lack substance and mean very little politically.

Let’s hope, that the “Arab Spring” has meant that those actors [aka imperial powers] will have less and less relevance in Palestinians internal affairs.

Do you think that anti-semitism either within the Arab world or within the Pro-Palestinian Left is under-addressed? Certain statements in the Hamas charter are a case in point- added to other occasional statements made by anti-zionists that get publicly exposed. Many Jewish friends of mine seem to feel racism of this sort can infect political movements, especially the anti-zionist movement, do you think this an accurate viewpoint?

There is anti-semitism in the world, yes. Like there is racism in the world. It’s a sad reality. Most of the time it comes from a lack of education. Most racists do not like “the other” because they do not know “the other”. The same applies to Palestine-Israel. The Israeli government is making it harder and harder for Palestinians and Israelis to meet, and then, via the media, the education system…create a very distorted picture of the Palestinians and the Arabs in general. Which makes it very difficult for a young Israeli to feel anything else than hatred towards them.

The same applies to some part of Palestinian society.

Still, it is important to make the difference between a Jew and a Zionist. Not all Jews are Zionists, far from it, and some of the most ardent zionists are in fact, Christians. (The Christian Zionist movement in the US is huge).

The Palestinians will go to the UN in September, it seems very likely, to ask for recognition of their state. The US is considered almost certain to block this. Where will that leave the Palestinian cause?

This is not a done deal. Mahmoud Abbas said yesterday that they will go to the U.N, if they cannot find an agreement to go back to the negotiating table. I think that the P.A knows, that at the end of the day, they need negotiations more than a declaration of independence for their own survival.

The talked about UN declaration of a State, is a very dodgy concept under international law. Let’s remember that in 1988, Arafat already declared a State and nothing changed.

Another question is: What do the Palestinian need? A virtual State or freedom and an end to the occupation?

The argument put forward by the PA is that if the General Assembly votes for [it will], Israel will have to face international law and will be in a very tricky position. This argument is very weak. Syria and Lebanon are members of the UN, and have been for years. Has Israel stopped occupying parts of their land? Stopped bombing them? Started respecting International Law?

Of course not.

Also, the President of UN GA, Joseph Deiss, declared on Saturday 28 May that ‘US Veto would block a vote on Palestinian Statehood’ and that no State could become member of UN without recommendation from UN SC. Which in fact means that Mahmoud Abbas’ plan is now null. The US will definitely vote against as will probably do a few European countries [Obama has very openly said that he asked his European partners not to recognise the Palestinian State in September. And when a master gives orders….]. End of story then. Recognition by most members of UN GA will therefore be a strictly symbolic one. Is that really what the Palestinians need?

Israel does not care about International Law, and it won’t change if the GA recognises the Palestinian State. As long as the US keeps vetoing anything when it comes to Israel, Israel is fine.

The Palestinian cause will be left where it is now. A quite interesting place in fact. With the uprising in the Arab world, the people are slowly regaining power. Palestinian civil society, is slowly taking charge, regardless of what the politicians say. With the BDS movement growing faster and faster, and peaceful resistance spreading, one has to remain optimistic about the Palestinian cause.

Is the next assault on the Palestinians or an Intifada against Israel, inevitable?

The assault on the Palestinians, by Israel, has never stopped. People are being injured and killed on a weekly basis in Gaza. Fishermen are fired upon on a daily basis as are people cultivating their land. The assault is non-stop. In the West Bank, daily incursions by the Israeli Army, kidnapping, beatings…are also a daily occurrence. Inside Israel, more and more Palestinians are also been arrested, sent to jail, and never charged with anything.

If you’re talking about a large scale assault [ie Operation Cast Lead]. Yes, it is inevitable. Israel thrives on war, is addicted to it.

Can you comment on the impact of the sanctions on Gaza by the Israeli state on the civilian population- what do you think its aims are, whether they are likely to succeed, and the effect on the life of ordinary Gazans?

Like all sanctions [ie the example of Iraq pre-the second gulf war] the Israeli blockade [backed by the US and the EU] on Gaza has had a terrible effect on the civilian population.

Huge rise in prices, impossibility to rebuild after ‘Operation Cast Lead’, 80% of the water being undrinkable due to lack of material, 80% of people depending on aid to survive, and most people living under the poverty line. Most reports [from Amnesty international, Medical Aid for Palestinians, Human Rights Watch, The ICRC, Christian Aid, PCHR, PHR Israel] are pretty terrifying.

The psychological impact of the sanctions, and a people living under a constant state of fear has also been terrible. The population in Gaza is demographically one of the youngest on the planet. Nearly 55% of the people are under 18. Recent surveys conducted by The Lancet and other organisations have found out that 70% of the youth was depressed and had lost the will to live.

Success depends on what they was their goal in the first place. The official goal was to “destabilise Hamas”. This has not worked.

The real goal, was to “put the Palestinians on a diet, to starve them slowly”. If the blockade continues for much longer, this is likely to succeed.

Let’s reframe this a bit. We are talking of a people living under occupation, in something that is worse than a prison [prisoners have rights, even in jail], we’re talking about a population essentially made of refugees. This people, is being subjected to a crippling siege by its occupier, with the acquiescence of the International Community. Have you ever heard of something like this happening before?

Returning to current affairs, what do you make of Obama’s endorsement of a two-state solution on the June 1967 borders? Do you believe that he is sincere, and do you think he will succeed in getting this to happen?

Firstly, let’s remember that what Obama gave is called a speech. It’s a speech, and only that. We should stop relying on what politicians say. We should judge them on their actions. Words are useless. Even more when they come from the mouth of a politician that has started its re-election campaign.

Secondly, the important speech Obama gave was in front of AIPAC. Not the one he gave a few days prior to this.

Thirdly, Obama never said he endorsed a two state solution on the June 1967 borders. Quite the opposite actually. It’s called double speak. The mainstream media simply repeated Obama’ words, and it made the headlines. Obama said that the future Palestinian borders will be based on the June 1967 borders, with huge land swaps. Which in real talk means “the future Palestinian borders won’t be based on the 1967 line” [which should be called 1949 armistice line].

It is crucial to remember that in fact that Palestinian State has to be based on 1949 armistice line is not debatable. The UN Charter forbids the acquisition of territory through war. If the US and Israel disagree with this, they should leave the UN, or be kicked out of it.

So yes, I believe he is sincere at that his vision of a Bantustan-filled Palestinian State is a possibility and should not be discounted. I also believe that this won’t happen, thanks to Palestinian resistance, steadfastness and the support from the people, all around the world.

What do think of Netanyahu’s speech to congress recently, and the reaction to it by the American politicians in attendance (standing ovations, applause, etc.)?

Once again, this is nothing new. ¾ of the members of congress were at the AIPAC annual conference and support Israel regardless of what the State does.
Netanyahu really spoke in front of his congress. He got more standing ovations than Obama received during his State of the Union address.

What is scary is that Netanyahu’s speech was in fact the end of any possibility of negotiations and future peace deals. (no to 67 borders, no to refugees, no to Jerusalem as shared capital..) Some Palestinians rightly called it “a declaration of war”. The fact that congress raised in fawning unison hearing that is very dangerous.

On the other hand, Mark Twain once called member of congress “the smallest minds and the selfishest souls and the cowardliest hearts that God makes”. So….

If, hypothetically, the Palestinians agreed to all of Netanyahu’s demands, what do you think the result would be for them?

The Palestine Papers revealed that the Palestinians negotiators were pretty close to agreeing to every single Israeli demands…and more.

What did Barak, Olmert, Livni did?….They asked for more and more and more. This will never stop, and that is why, in my opinion, negotiations are useless.

One of the weakest [politically] occupied people in history cannot negotiate with a most powerful occupier. It does not make sense. There is always going to be one loser. It’s a reality.

It is even harder to negotiate with a government that repeatedly said that “you were not a people”, “you did not exist” and that in fact, want ‘Eretz Israel’, the Zionist dream, a state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river.

If the Palestinians were to agree to Netanyahu’s demands, they’ll end up either in Jordan or Egypt. Period.

What do you make of Hamas’ targeting of Israeli civilians (including children- thrown into stark relief recently by the killing of children on a schoolbus), their alleged torture of Palestinian political opponents in the light of human rights values that are held up by Western activists? Surely Hamas have committed indefensible acts, and should be the subject of moral scrutiny as much as Israel?

Yes, Hamas should be the subject of moral scrutiny as much as Israel….once Palestine is liberated. Hamas has committed, and still commits reprehensible acts, but Hamas has never been given the chance to properly govern. Once Palestine is liberated, then, yes, Hamas and Fatah will need to answer serious questions. Till then, I refuse to ‘judge’ a party that is also, as are its people, under occupation.

It is a lot more important to scrutinise the actions of country that calls itself “the only democracy in the Middle East” and its allies that while they value human rights in words, do completely the opposite in their actions (Coalition invasion of Iraq, Afghanistan, drones bombing in Pakistan, extra judicial killings all over the world, supporting dictators in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia….)

Do the IDF torture minors?

Yes they do and the mainstream media never talks about this, although it is well documented. More than 700 children are arrested or kidnapped by Israel each year and end up being subjected to torture in Israel jails.

The list of examples is too long so I’ll simply direct you to Defence for Children International reports.

On a personal level, have you been to the Occupied territories and Gaza? And if so, what was the overall impression that you took from visiting there?

I have regularly travelled to the West Bank in the last few years but never had the chance to visit the Gaza Strip. I know that it will eventually happen.

What I found, each time I visited, was that the Palestinian people were the kindest, friendly, most politically aware and most resolute and steadfast people I had ever met. I look forward to each visit immensely and often feel more at home in Palestine than in Europe.

This is what keeps me and thousands of internationals around the world, going.

Deep down, we know that those amazing people will one day have freedom. Helping them achieve this is a moral duty, an obligation, for anyone that cares about justice, human rights and wants to work for a world based on more humane values.

What do you think of the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority- given that they have been accused of complicity in the oppression of Palestinians by some commentators?

The P.A is a creation of the Oslo accords and its mandate ended in 1999. The question of legitimacy therefore needs to be addressed. In 2006, Hamas won the legislative elections with a big margin, which again, raise the question of the P.A legitimacy nowadays.

On the ground, the P.A and its security apparatus are more and more seen as the proxy of the Israeli Army. The street of Nablus, Jenin…are now patrolled by P.A forces and people are stopped at road blocks, not by the Israeli Army, but by their own security forces. Which really makes for an Orwellian situation. The P.A has also helped Israel in arresting and imprisoning members of Hamas in the West Bank.

But really, this is all part of the Oslo accords, which, as Edward Said put it, were created to make this occupation less costly and easier to run for Israel, an occupation by proxy, where the Palestinians do the job of Israel.

Do you unequivocally condemn Palestinian attacks on innocent civilians? Can acts of violence against children or civilians ever be justified if we are to criticize the same actions when they are committed by Israel?

Of course. Any acts of violence that targets civilians should be condemned, whoever commits it.

In your forthcoming book, "Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation" one assumes that you are to critique corporate "sponsorship" for want of a better word, of Israeli occupation. How deep does this relationship go, and how complicit are UK businesses (including arms companies), and perhaps more invidiously, the UK government in the unlawful actions of the occupation?

For more information about this, I will advise people to visit the Russell Tribunal on Palestine website and to buy the book when it comes out in October.

A project called “Who profits?” ran by some extraordinary Israeli and Palestinian women is collecting information on all corporations involved in the occupation. People should check out their website for more information.

There are those that hold that the settlements are not illegal under international law as the West Bank was claimed in a defensive operation and are negotiated territory. What is your response?

I have never heard such a statement. International Law is what it is, and it applies to all countries. There is no International Law for Israel and International Law for everyone else. The same Laws apply to everyone.

Under International Law, the settlements, that in fact should be called colonies, are illegal. Period.

The United Nations Security Council recently voted, affirmatively, on a resolution (vetoed only by the USA) saying so.

There is no debate about this.

However, the highest international court, a judicial organ of the UN, the International Court of Justice or the World Court, has declared the settlements are decisively illegal.

In 1967, Theodor Meron, legal counsel to the Israeli Foreign Ministry stated in a legal opinion to Adi Yafeh, the Political Secretary of the Prime Minister, "My conclusion is that civilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention."] The legal opinion, forwarded to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, was not made public at the time, and the Labor cabinet progressively sanctioned settlements anyway; this action paved the way for future settlement growth. In 2007, Meron stated that "I believe that I would have given the same opinion today."

Israeli statesman Moshe Dayan explicitly acknowledged the reality of the illegality of the occupation in the West Bank and Israel’s policy regarding it, according to Gershom Gorenberg in "The Accidental Empire." :

”We must consolidate our hold so that over time we will succeed in ‘digesting’ Judea and Samaria [aka the West Bank] and merging them with ‘little’ Israel,’ whilst ‘dismember(ing) the territorial contiguity’ of the West Bank, under the excuse that ‘that the step is necessary for military purposes…

Settling Israelis in occupied territory contravenes, as is known, international conventions…But there is nothing essentially new in that.’]

– Frank Barat is a Human Rights activist based in the UK. He is the coordinator of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine. He has edited two books, "Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel’s War Against the Palestinians", by Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe (out now) and "Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation" with Asa Winstanley (out in October). Frank urges everyone to check out this website: www.freedomoneworld.com/.

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