By Richard Falk
In a little noted initiative the General Assembly on November 26, 2013 voted to proclaim 2014 the International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. The UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People was requested to organize relevant activities in cooperation with governments, the UN system, intergovernmental organizations, and significantly, civil society. The vote was 110-7, with 56 abstentions, which is more or less reflective of the sentiments now present in international society. Among the seven opponents of the initiative, in addition to Israel, were unsurprisingly its three staunchest supporters, each once a British colony: the United States, Canada, Australia, with the addition of such international heavyweight states as Micronesia, Palau, and the Marshall Islands. Europe and assorted states around the world were among the 56 abstentions, with virtually the entire non-West solidly behind the idea of highlighting solidarity with the Palestinian people in their struggle for peace with justice based on rights under international law.
Three initial observations: those governments that are willing to stand unabashedly with Israel in opposition to the tide of world public opinion are increasingly isolated, and these governments are under mounting public pressure from their own civil societies that seeks a balanced approach that is rights based rather than power dominated; the West, in general, is dominated by the abstaining governments that seek the lowest possible profile of being seen as neither for or against, and in those countries where civil society should now be capable of mobilizing more support for the Palestinian struggle; and the non-West that is, as has long been the case, rhetorically in solidarity with the Palestinian people, but have yet to match their words with deeds, and seem ready to be pushed.
What is also revealing is the argumentation of UN Watch, and others, that denounce this latest UN initiative because it unfairly singles out Israel and ignores those countries that have worse human rights records. Always forgotten here are two elements of the Israel/Palestine conflict that justify singling it out among others: Israel owes its existence, to a significant degree, to the organized international community, starting with the League of Nations, continuing throughout the British Mandate, and culminating with the Partition Plan of 1947, as set forth in GA Res. 181. The latter overrode the decolonizing principle of self-determination with a solution devised and imposed from without; such antecedents to the current Israel/Palestine situation also expose the colonialist foundations of the current struggle as well as call attention to the settler colonial elements that are associated with Israel’s continuous expansion of territorial, resource, and ethnocratic claims far beyond what the Western dominated international community had proposed, and then approved of, after the end of World War II.
To be sure there were delicate and complex issues all along that make this problematic role of the international community somewhat more understandable. Up to 1945 there was a generalized acceptance of European colonial administration, although in the Middle East, colonial legitimacy was balanced for the first time against an obligation by the colonial powers to prepare a dependent people to stand eventually on its own, an ambivalent acknowledgement of the ethos of self-determination if not yet in the form of a legal norm. This affirmation of self-determination, as an alternative to colonial rule, was the special project of the American president, Woodrow Wilson, who insisted that such an approach was a moral imperative, especially in dealing with the regional aftermath of the Ottoman Empire that had long ruled over many diverse ethnicities.
Beyond this, the Jewish experience during the reign of fascist regimes throughout Europe, culminating in the Holocaust, created a strong empathetic urge in Europe to endorse the Zionist project for a Jewish Homeland in Palestine. As is known, this empathy although genuine in many quarters, also exhibited a deferred sense of guilt on the part of the Western liberal democracies that had done so little to challenge the genocidal policies of Hitler and the Nazis, refusing to act at all until their national interests were directly engaged by German aggression. European support was also forthcoming because the Zionist proposed solution for the Jewish Problem, which has long been present in Europe, could be enacted elsewhere, that is, at the expense of non-Europeans. This elsewhere was far from empty and was coveted by others for various reasons. Palestine was a land long lived in mainly by Arabs, but also by some Jews and Christians, and associated centrally with the sacred traditions of all three monotheistic religions. Normally in the modern world, the demographics of residence trump biblical or other claims based on claims of national tradition, ethnic identity, and ancient historical presence. Yet despite these factors, there were ethical reasons in the aftermath of such extreme victimization of the Jewish people to lend support to a reasonable version of the Zionist project as it had evolved in the years since the Balfour Declaration, even if from a variety of other perspectives it was deeply unfair to others and disruptive of peaceful relations, and throughout its implementation, produced an unfolding catastrophe for most non-Jewish Palestinians.
Taking account of this historical and moral complexity what seems evident is the failure of the UN to carry out its responsibility in a manner that was effective and responsive to the human circumstances prevailing in Palestine. The UN overall record is quite disappointing if considered from the perspective of accommodating these contradictory clusters of consideration in a manner that was reflective of international law and global justice. The military prowess of Zionist forces in Israel inflicted a major defeat on the Palestinian people and neighboring Arab governments, and in the process expanded the territorial dominion of Israel from the 55% decreed by the UN in its partition plan to 78% where the green line established an armistice arrangement in 1948. Such an outcome was gradually endorsed by a geopolitical consensus, exhibited through the admission of Israel to the UN without any solution to the underlying conflict, leaving the Palestinians out in the cold and allowing Israel to constitute itself within borders much larger than what the UN had a mere year earlier decreed as fair.
This situation was further aggravated by the 1967 War in which Israel occupied all of the remaining territory of historic Palestine, purporting even to annex East Jerusalem while greatly enlarging the area of municipal Jerusalem by incorporating land belonging to the West Bank. Since 1967 this Palestinian territorial remnant has been further decreased by the massive settlement phenomenon, including its network of settler only roads, carried out in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law, by the separation wall constructed and maintained in defiance of the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice, and by a variety of moves to change the demography of East Jerusalem. In other words, Israeli forces on the ground in what had been Palestine have undermined the vision set forth in the partition plan which was itself a controversial UN solution to the conflict that was rejected by Palestinians and by neighboring countries.
Despite much propaganda to the contrary, the Palestinian leadership has over most of the period of their struggle, shown an unusual readiness to abandon maximal goals, and put forward forthcoming proposals in recognition of the realities of a situation that had become unfavorable for the realization of their earlier hopes. Palestinian willingness, expressed formally since 1988, to accept Israel as a legitimate state within the green line borders of 1967 remains more than twenty-five years after its articulation an unacknowledged and unreciprocated major initiative for peace. That such a proposal has been ignored and continuously undermined by Israel with de facto Western acquiescence, and in the face of feeble UN rhetorical objections, displays the inability of the UN to fulfill its responsibilities to the people of Palestine.
As might be expected, Palestinians have long become disillusioned about the benefits of having UN authority and international law on their side. Over the years the backing of international authority has failed to bring about an improvement in the life circumstances and political position of the Palestinian people. The UN is helpless, and designed to be helpless, whenever a UN position is effectively resisted by a combination of military force and geopolitical alignment. Israel’s military capabilities and American geopolitical leverage have completely nullified the expressed will of the United Nations, but have not overcome the sense of frustration or excused the Organization from its failure to act responsibly toward the Palestinian people.
In light of this background, the wonder is that the UN has done so little to repair the damage, not that it has done so much, or more than it should in relation to Israel/Palestine. Arguably, yes, there are a variety of other situations in which the abuse of human rights has been worse than what is being attributed to Israel, but the rationale for focusing on Palestine is not only a question of the denial of rights, it is also an issue of fundamental justice, of the seemingly permanent subjugation of a people, partly due to arrangements that were devised and endorsed over a long period of time by the organized international community. Yet, witnessing the dire current emergency plight of the people of Gaza, makes it perverse to contend that the human rights challenges facing this large and vulnerable Palestinian community is not among the worst human rights abuses in the entire world, and makes us wonder anew why the UN seems unwilling and unable to do more!
We can hope at the dawn of 2014 that the UN will be vigorous in giving the International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People a political meaning that goes beyond words of empathy and support. There is an opportunity to do more. The UN resolution calls for working with civil society. Recent moves in America to join boycotts of Israeli academic institutions and in Europe to hold corporations responsible under international law for dealing commercially with Israeli settlements are major successes of civil society activism, being led by the BDS Campaign that has the important legitimating virtue of Palestinian leadership and backing. The UN can help build a momentum in the global solidarity movement that encourages nonviolent militant forms of coercive action that alone will give ‘solidarity’ a good name.
Palestinians are starting to win the Legitimacy War that is being waged against unlawful Israeli policies and on behalf of the attainment of Palestinian rights. The turning point in world public opinion can probably be traced back to the way Israel waged the Lebanon War of 1982, especially the avowed reliance on disproportionate force directed at residential neighborhoods, especially in south Beirut, a tactic that became known as the Dahiya Doctrine. The tipping point in shifting the Israeli collective identity from that of victims and heroic underdogs to that lawless perpetrators of oppressive warfare against a totally vulnerable people came in Operation Cast Lead, the sustained assault with high technology weaponry on the people of Gaza for three weeks at the end of 2008. After these developments, the Palestinians were understood more widely to be a victimized people, engaged in a just struggle to gain their rights under international law, and needing and deserving an international movement of support to offset the Israeli hard power and geopolitical dominance.
Israeli leaders and think tanks try their hardest to discredit this Palestinian Legitimacy War by falsely claiming that it is directed against the legitimacy of Israel as a state rather than is the case, against the unlawful policies of the Israeli state. This is a crucial difference, and the distinction seems deliberately obscured by Israeli propaganda that inflated what Palestinians are seeking so as to make their activism appear hyperbolic, with unreasonable and unacceptable demands, which makes it easier to dismiss than by addressing critically the Palestinian grievances in their actual form. It is to be hoped that the International Year of Solidarity in its work clarifies this distinction between Israel as a state and Israeli policies. Within such a framework the UN will deserve credit for contributing to victories throughout the world that advance the agenda of the Legitimacy War being waged by and on behalf of the Palestinian people, and by so doing, move the debate somewhat closer to the realization of a just and sustainable peace for both peoples.
– Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. Visit his blog.