Monday, June 08, 2009

U.N. Official Speaks Out on Israel and Palestine

Falk Says There’s No Solution Until World Public Opinion Changes


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Given the overwhelming advantage Israel has over the Palestinians in terms of state-of-the-art military weaponry and the unquestioning support of the world’s greatest armed power, the United States, the only chance for justice for the Palestinian people lies in a massive sea change in worldwide public opinion towards Israel, said University of California at Santa Barbara professor Richard Falk at the Four Points Sheraton Hotel on Aero Drive in San Diego June 5. Though his talk on “The Aftermath of the Gaza War and Prospects for Middle East Peace” had been scheduled well in advance of President Obama’s major speech on U.S.-Muslim relations June 4 in Cairo, Falk seized the opportunity to critique Obama’s speech and said it went farther than any U.S. President ever has — but still not far enough to bring about justice for the Palestinians.

Event MC Nasser Barghouti rattled off an impressive list of Falk’s credentials: retired professor of international law at Princeton University, visiting distinguished professor in global and international studies at UC Santa Barbara, chair of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and author of over 24 books, including The Costs of War: International Law, the U.N. and World Order After Iraq (2008) and Achieving Human Rights (2009). But Falk’s most significant title in terms of the topic of his June 5 talk is as the “special rapporteur” for the occupied Palestinian territories, elected by the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Falk’s central argument is the only way the Palestinians are going to be able to overcome Israel’s massive military advantage and the billions of dollars of U.S. aid that funds Israel’s war machine is through a massive campaign aimed at making Israel the sort of international pariah state South Africa became after worldwide publicity on the abuses of apartheid. He said that most Americans’ understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict is based on “a distorted narrative” promoted by U.S. politicians and the mainstream media. “The U.S. population, even more than Israel’s, is out of touch with regard to the reality of Palestinian suffering and the ease with which Israel has defied international law without consequences because of the power and influence of the U.S.,” Falk explained.

“We need as much political pressure as possible to get the truth across and challenge the pro-Israel narrative that dominates Congress and the media,” Falk said. “Citizens can and should give their elected leaders more space for a balanced, fair position — not anti-Israel, but deferential to international law, human rights and elementary considerations of justice.” Falk gave a specific analysis of the pro-Israel myths that have dominated U.S. media coverage and political response to the Israel-Palestine dispute in general and the recent attacks by Israel on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in particular. He said even “liberals and critics of Israel” had endorsed much of the pro-Israel view of the conflict and thereby were letting the Israelis off the hook despite their flagrant violations of international law.

First, Falk said, “It was widely accepted, including by our current President, that Israel attacked Gaza in response to a barrage of rockets, and that this was a justified response. The question therefore became not whether Israel had a right to ‘respond’ at all, but whether the ‘response’ was proportionate. The prior question is even more important: was the attack an act of aggression? Did a case for Israeli ‘self-defense’ really exist?” Falk said no, on the basis that for the last six months before the Israeli attack, “a temporary cease-fire had existed … and had cut violence between Gaza and southern Israel almost to zero. There were literally no rocket casualties.”

What’s more, Falk added, “The second overlooked fact was that the cease-fire was strongly supported by Hamas” — the political party/militia group legitimately elected to power in Gaza, but with which Israel, the United States and the European Union all refuse to deal because it will not officially recognize Israel’s “right to exist” — and that Hamas had offered to extend the cease-fire for 10 years or longer. “Israel ignored these frequent initiatives,” Falk explained. “The third overlooked fact was that it was Israel that broke the cease-fire with a helicopter-gunship attack on November 4, which killed six Palestinians and was clearly a provocation aimed at ending the cease-fire.”

Falk stressed that in discussing Israel’s transgressions against human rights and international law, he did not mean to let Hamas off the hook either. He said that the Hamas rocket attacks on Israel are “also a war crime,” but they don’t excuse Israel’s attack or provide a legitimate “self-defense” justification for Israel’s strikes against Gaza. What’s more, he said, the fact that Palestinian casualties outnumbered Israel’s by 100 to 1 shows which side is the real aggressor. “Hamas had no effective way to defend themselves,” Falk explained. “Israel had complete control of land, sea and air, and they could have extended those casualty totals without limit.”

The fact that Israel can kill as many Palestinians as it likes, limited only by the political reaction of the world community in general and the U.S. population and government in particular, “raises the question of whether the word ‘disproportionate’ has any relation to a power, especially an occupying power, that has the responsibility to take care of the civilian population of the territory it is occupying,” Falk stated. Indeed, he added that one of the cruelest aspects of Israel’s attack was that, with the cooperation of Gaza’s only other neighbor, Egypt (also essentially a client state of the U.S.; Israel and Egypt, in that order, are the number one and two recipients of U.S. foreign aid), the borders of Gaza were sealed on both sides so the Gazans had no place to go, and no option except to wait out the Israeli attacks and hope they didn’t get killed.

“The civilian population was locked into the combat zone and denied the opportunity to be refugees,” Falk explained. “Before the 1999 Kosovo attacks, one million Kosovars fled to Macedonia. That was also the case before the U.S. attack on Falloujah, Iraq [in November 2004]. But the only Gazans who were allowed to leave were the 200 or so with foreign passports. The rest were locked into the war zone, which is itself a war crime, separate from the attack. Israel should not be above the law, and for the first time there is a United Nations team investigating the war crimes — without the cooperation of Israel. They came in through Egypt and are headed by Richard Goldstone, the prosecutor in the Rwanda tribunals.”

During the question-and-answer period, Falk was confronted by an audience member who said Israel can no longer be considered an “occupying power” in Gaza since they unilaterally withdrew their armed forces from the territory in 2005. Falk called this “a common argument by Israel” and its apologists, but said it didn’t wash because “Israel controls every border of Gaza, it controls the sea and its air force flies across Gaza regularly. It is a legalistic argument to contend that Israel is no longer an ‘occupying power’ in Gaza, and if it is an occupying power, it has an obligation under chapter 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention not to impose collective punishment on the people. Withholding food, medicine and construction materials would constitute a war crime.”

Falk spent much of his talk analyzing President Obama’s speech in Cairo the day before, joking that “whoever organized this meeting must have had a crystal ball” since, in scheduling it the day after Obama’s major address to the Muslim world, they gave him the opportunity to critique Obama’s remarks. His review, not surprisingly, was mixed; he conceded that “no American president has made a more serious effort to address the conflict between Israel and Palestine in language at least somewhat more balanced” than the ardent pro-Israel rhetoric one’s accustomed to hearing from American politicians. He also praised Obama for referring to the Palestinians’ struggle against Israel’s occupation as a “resistance” and comparing it to the struggles against slavery and apartheid.

But Falk was disappointed in much of the speech as well. He praised Obama for avoiding the Bush-era proclamations of a “war on terror” or a struggle against “Islamofascism,” but he said that Obama’s references to “violent extremists” and a struggle against them “that must be carried on wherever that phenomenon exists” ignores, just as surely as Bush’s rhetoric did, the legitimate concerns that motivate the “extremists” and which they use as recruiting tools. If the U.S. continues to target “violent extremists” without acknowledging their legitimate grievances, Falk said, “we will be caught in an endless cycle of warfare and repeat the abuses of the past, even if the language is less troubling.”

Falk also faulted Obama for saying that the bond between the U.S. and Israel is “unbreakable,” saying that he said that as a way of reassuring the American political system that America’s one-sided pro-Israel policies will continue under his watch. “At the same time,” Falk conceded, “he did say that the Palestinians are faced with an intolerable situation and they experience daily humiliations, large and small — a truthful description of the lives of every Palestinian living under occupation. He said Americans should not turn their backs on the Palestinians’ dignity, opportunity and right to a state of their own. But he also emphasized that the Palestinians must ‘abandon violence,’ with no assertion that Israel must also abandon violence and abide by international law.”

Among the obstacles to peace between Israel and Palestine Falk listed are, first of all, the Israeli government’s continued expansion of the West Bank settlements in violation of international law; second, the “lack of Palestinian unity” and the refusal of Israel, the U.S. and the European Union to allow Hamas to speak for the Palestinians even in Gaza, where they’ve been elected to power; and third, the “extremist Israeli government” that emerged from Israel’s latest national elections. Not only is Benjamin Netanyahu, who has never acknowledged the right of the Palestinians to a state of their own, back in power as prime minister, his foreign minister is the Right-wing fanatic Avigdor Lieberman, whose party “came to popularity by challenging the presence of the 1.3 to 1.4 million Palestinians in Israel and questioning their loyalty.”

Lieberman’s party is pushing a law through the Knesset, Israel’s legislature, that would make it a crime, punishable by three years in prison, for anybody in Israel to commemorate the nakba, the anniversary of the Palestinians’ expulsion from the 78 percent of historic Palestine that constitutes the internationally recognized pre-1967 territory of Israel, Falk explained. “They have also put together an initiative to require every Palestinian seeking a government ID in Israel to affirm Israel’s status as a Zionist and Jewish state,” Falk said. “Netanyahu himself has said he will only meet with a Palestinian representative who accepts Israel’s identity as a ‘Jewish state’” — in other words, one who accepts that Palestinians in Israel will always be second-class citizens the way Blacks and mixed-race people in South Africa were legally stripped of rights under apartheid.

“Traditional diplomacy cannot solve this conflict,” Falk said, “but one thing often overlooked is the second war. There is the war on the ground in Palestine and Gaza, and also the legitimacy war that has to do with the contending claims of the parties to the conflict. Often the fate of the parties is decided in this legitimacy war. In Viet Nam, the United States had every type of military superiority, but it lost the war because of the anti-war movement and because the Viet Namese had a much longer time frame than the U.S. did as the occupying power. South Africa is the strongest example of a global political battlefield that beat one of the most powerful military and political states in the world and brought about something no one had expected: Nelson Mandela released from prison and the Afrikaner leadership negotiating a peaceful transition to a multiracial democracy.”

Falk’s advice to people concerned about Palestinian rights is therefore to use the international struggle against apartheid as a model and challenge the legitimacy of Israel’s policies through the weapons that turned the world against South Africa’s racist white government. That means calling for sanctions and boycotts of Israel, and divestment campaigns to get universities and other public investors to disinvest from companies based in Israel or doing business with it. (One key target of these campaigns is Caterpillar, which makes the special armored bulldozers used by the Israeli military to demolish Palestinian homes, farms and olive groves to make room for Jewish settlements in the West Bank.) It also means challenging the relentless pro-Israel bias of the mainstream U.S. media and bringing a more balanced view of the Israel-Palestine conflict to the American people.

Recalling the anti-apartheid struggle, Falk said, “These movements have an impact that’s never acknowledged until it reaches a transformative moment. It means not being smart enough to be pessimistic. There may not seem to be a rational reason for optimism, but reality often surprises us. We in America have a special responsibility [to the Palestinian cause] because our tax dollars have been used to create Israel’s war machine and this artificial ‘consensus’ that has allowed this injustice to persist.”