Interview with Richard Falk

Interviewed by Yousef M. Aljamal

(Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has authored and edited numerous publications spanning a period of five decades, most recently editing the volume, International Law and the Third World: Reshaping Justice – Routledge, 2008. He is currently serving his third year of a six year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.)

How and why did you get involved in Palestinian Activism?

I suppose my interest in the Palestinian struggle is rooted in my professional identity as an international law teacher and writer, and my personal identification with the victims of the strong and abused. My friendships with Edward Said and Eqbal Ahmad also pushed my professional support for the Palestinian struggle for justice in the direction of activism. And finally, my way of thinking about being a Jew led me to affirm the call for justice by Old Testament prophets. I was never a religious Jew in an institutional sense and never supported the Zionist project.

What is the legal status of the Palestinian territories?

The overwhelming international consensus is that the Palestinian territories are ‘occupied territories’ that are subject to administration by Israel as the occupier, but in accord with the Fourth Geneva Convention and the First Additional Protocol of 1977. This occupation that has lasted since 1967 goes beyond what is envisioned by international humanitarian law, and in the West Bank has in many aspects evolved into a form of unlawful de facto annexation, and in East Jerusalem this development is explicitly claimed by Israel through its effort to annex the part of the city occupied in 1967. Gaza, experiencing an unlawful blockade since mid-2007, continues to be occupied and criminally administered by Israel, but it has not experienced either de facto annexation or been the subject of Israel policies of either ethnic cleansing or territorial claims.

Of course, from Israeli official and societal perspectives, the West Bank and East Jerusalem are both regarded either as biblically part of Israel or at worst ‘disputed’ territories whose future is supposed to be resolved by negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

What is the significance of obtaining membership at the UN and its bodies?

Only states can become members of the UN or its various agencies such as UNESCO. If Palestine became a member it could participate in all General Assembly activities and vote on resolutions, it could also be eligible to be elected to the Security Council for a two-year term. If it was admitted as a member by the International Criminal Court it could file criminal complaints about abuses on by Israel on its territory.

Palestine was admitted to membership in UNESCO over the vigorous opposition of Israel and the United States. The U.S. has laws that require it to withhold funding from any UN actor that allows Palestine to become a member, and has already punished UNESCO by refusing to pay its normal dues that amount to more than 20% of the overall budget of the agency.

It would be a political defeat for the Palestinian Authority to not follow through on its bid to have Palestine accepted as a state by the UN.

Of course, regardless of whether or not a state, the impact on the resolution of the conflict with Israel is not likely to be a significant. 

Do you see parallels between the US civil rights movement and what the Palestinian people are going through today?

I think all social and political movements that rely mainly on nonviolent forms of resistance have some similarities. I see a closer parallel with the anti-apartheid movement and the Palestinian struggle because both tried to globalize their grievances and build solidarity movements, waging legitimacy wars against their adversary.

Is two-state solution is a valuable choice? Why?

It is of course up to the legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people to decide whether a two-state solution is viable at this time, given Israeli continuing settlement expansion and appropriation of West Bank resources. I believe no solution to the conflict is sustainable unless is goes a long way to realizing Palestinian rights under international law.
What do you think of one-state solution?

From a detached perspective a one-state solution seems most promising, and most in keeping with ideas about human rights and equality between different ethnicities. A one-state secular political community would be a kind of ideal solution. The problem is that such an outcome seems non-negotiable, given the overwhelming sentiments within Israel, and if it were to come about under present conditions, it would be premised on a hierarchical arrangement that would subjugate Palestinians permanently. This type of one-state solution is increasingly advocated by rightist Israeli political figures.

What lessons can Palestinians learn from the American Civil Rights movement in terms of how to succeed in their own struggle?

The only important learning could be the effectiveness of militant nonviolent tactics and the relevance of inspirational leadership (Martin Luther King, Jr.), as well as split in outlook within the established order. At this point there is neither inspirational Palestinian leadership nor a relevant split within the Israeli establishment.

How can the Arab Spring affect the Palestinian Cause?

The Arab Spring is encouraging to Palestinians in two ways: it suggests that no oppressive political order is invulnerable if confronted by a mobilized and fearless population, and may stimulate a new cycle of Palestinian resistance activity; it seems likely to bring changes in the political leadership in several Arab countries that is likely to be more supportive of the Palestinian quest for justice, and more willing to confront and oppose Israeli policies and practices.

What is the legal status of Jerusalem, Gaza and Palestinians living in 1948′ lands in the International Law?

International law supports Palestinian claims in all three settings of the occupations, as well as in relation to the claims of Palestinian refugees. Israel is obligated to withdraw and dismantle settlements if international law is implemented.

Is war on Gaza considered a war crime? What Palestinians can do legally about it?

The attacks of 2008-09 involved the commission of Israeli war crimes, including crimes against humanity, a position confirmed by the Goldstone Report and numerous independent fact finding reports by NGOs. The U.S. and Israel have been successful in blocking any effort to impose accountability on Israeli leaders for this pattern of criminal behavior. In theory, the Palestinian Authority could push its statehood bid at the International Criminal Court, and then seek to file complaints against Israel for alleged crimes, but the Palestinian political leadership seems politically opposed to taking such steps at this time. Therefore, it seems likely that Israeli criminality in relation to Gaza will persist in the form of collective punishment, prohibited by Geneva Convention IV, Article 33, so long as the closure of Gaza is maintained even if less severely than in prior years.

The geographical separation between Gaza and the West Bank and the prevention of families from visiting each other is a restriction to the Freedom of Movement. How does the International Law handle this issue?

It represents an unlawful interference with civilian life for a society subject to occupation that cannot be reasonably justified by security claims of the occupier. As such, it represents a violation of both international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

Is it fruitful to sue Israel before national courts? Does this pose a threat to Israel’s leaders?

I am not sure about this. I think it depends on the kind of case. I believe the suit by the parents of Rachel Corrie is helpful from the perspective of public opinion, and maybe some of the efforts to obstruct the completion of the unlawful separation wall. At the same time, such suits create a false impression that Israel is a genuine constitutional democracy in relation to Palestinian grievances. I do not think that such law suits pose a threat, but are at most an annoyance to Israeli leaders.

What is the legal status of Palestinian Prisoners? Are they considered war prisoners in Geneva Convictions?

From the perspective of Israel, in Gaza, Palestinian should be treated as prisoners of war as Israel claims that subsequent to their 2005 disengagement they are no longer an occupying power, and that their relationship to Gaza is one of ‘war.’ From the perspective of international humanitarian law the Palestinian territories are ‘occupied,’ and if Palestinians are detained and imprisoned, it is a relationship governed by Israeli military administrative law and institutions, but subject to Geneva constraints and human rights standards.

Do you have a message to the Palestinians?

I salute the steadfastness of the Palestinian people. The currents of history flow in favor of Palestinian self-determination, but the prospects are not favorable given present realities. But many situations that seemed rather hopeless experienced drastic and unexpected changes that came about rapidly creating new opportunities for a just outcome to the conflict. I do not put much faith in diplomacy at this stage, and the Palestinian hopes seem more realistically connected with popular uprisings and the global solidarity movement, in effect, waging a legitimacy war that could escalate to the point of becoming the first ‘global intifada’ in history.

-Yousef M. Aljamal works with the Center for Political Development Studies [CPDS] , a Gaza based non-profit organization facilitating Palestinians representing themselves "in the tongues of its own people" to convey their own message to the world and enhance Palestine’s presence in world forums and international organizations.

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