Interview responses by Richard Falk to questions regarding his Annual Reports as Special Rapporteur for the occupied Palestinian Territories on behalf of UN Human Rights Council 3Jul10 July 17, 2010

Interviewed by C.J. Polychroniou, a freelance journalist, mainly published in Athens  -  3 July 2010

CJP: Upon whose request was this report submitted and what are its main findings?

RF: As Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories (West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip) on behalf of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), I have an obligation to submit annually two reports, one to the HRC and the other to the General Assembly. The most recent report was to the HRC, covering the period June-December 2009, and is addressed to Israeli violations of human rights law and international humanitarian law in the course of its occupation of the Palestinian territories occupied during the 1967 War. It does not cover violations of human rights law by the Palestinian Authority (PA) on the West Bank, nor by Hamas in Gaza. The report’s presentation to the HRC had been originally scheduled for presentation and discussion in March 2010 but was postponed at the initiative of the (PA) that had sought revision of the original text. Some modifications were made, but the PA continued to be dissatisfied, but their attempt to postpone again the consideration of the report was rejected by the parliamentary official who determines the HRC agenda. The report was presented and discussed at a session of the HRC on June 14, 2010. There was no serious friction although the substance of the report was generally criticized by the representative of the United States, who also complained that the framework of inquiry was biased because it only referred to Israeli violations.

The report’s major findings can be described in summary form:

  • urgent emphasis was placed on the continuing humanitarian catastrophe resulting from the Israeli blockade of Gaza, which continued to deny the civilian population basic necessities in sufficient quantities and shut down the flow of goods and materials in such a way as to destroy 90-95% of the Gaza economy, causing massive poverty and widespread unemployment. This blockade, established in June 2007, constitutes collective punishment that is unconditionally prohibited by Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention dealing with the rights and obligations of belligerent obligation. Israeli officials have not defended the blockade on security terms, which would be impossible, but as an initiative intended to undermine the authority of Hamas as the governing presence in Gaza or to supply leverage to negotiate the release of the single Israeli military personnel held captive. Such national goals do not provide a legal or moral justification for subjecting the 1.5 million civilians in Gaza to the rigors of this blockade;
  • importance was attached to the Goldstone Report (the outcome of a HRC fact-finding mission, headed by Judge Richard Goldstone, to assess the allegations of war crimes made with reference to both Israel and Hamas after the Israeli attacks of December 27, 2008-January 18, 2009), especially to the implementation of its main recommendations calling on the Government of Israel and Hamas to conduct investigations of their own to assess the findings of the Goldstone Report, including taking appropriate action to establish accountability for those individuals whose conduct seemed to violate the laws of war. The issue remains as to whether these political actors are willing to carry out investigations that meet international standards. So far the Israeli and Hamas responses, although self-described as investigations, amount to little more than rationalizations for the behavior undertaken. Thus the HRC, and the UN more generally, is challenged to see whether it can overcome geopolitical pressures mounted within and without the UN to have the Goldstone Report buried. It was my conclusion that the report was extremely fair to Israel, even leaning over backward by giving Israel the benefit of the doubt and by limiting the investigation in ways that overlooked some important Palestinian grievances. If the UN allows the Goldstone Report to die, then it will further confirm the existence of double standards in relation to the enforcement of international criminal law. There will be serious international attempts to impose some mechanism of accountability for geopolitical ‘losers’ (for instance, Serbia under Milosevic; Iraq under Saddam Hussein), but important states and their friends will be given an exemption from the accountability. One law exists for the powerful, another for the weak and vulnerable. This is not a healthy message to convey, but it reveals the weakness of the UN as a reliable partner in the search for justice.
  • attention was also given to disturbing signs of accelerated Israeli settlement expansion on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. The whole settlement process is a violation of Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention that prohibits an occupying power from transferring parts of its population to an occupied territory. Not only are settlements unlawful, but their continued development, reinforced by a network of expensive roads sends a signal that Israel is deliberately undermining the possibilities of a two-state solution to the conflict. Ever since occupation began in 1967 Israel has been responsible for creating ‘facts on the ground’ that would enhance their bargaining position at any negotiating table. Now that there have been 43 years of occupation it becomes more illuminating to refer to the settlement phenomenon as ‘creeping annexation.’ Even aside from the settlements, occupation that is so prolonged should at some point be viewed as close to de facto annexation, despite the de jure persistence of a formal condition of occupation. Finally, an Israeli acceptance of a ten-month freeze on settlement expansion can be looked upon either as an Israeli sacrifice for peace or as a cynical acceptance of a peace process that Tel Aviv will short circuit as soon as it raises Palestinian rights as understood by international law.
  • other serious issues were also addressed in the reports: settler violence against Palestinians resulting in death and injury, the destruction of property, and the vandalizing of mosques. This was combined with clear reluctance of the Israel Occupation Forces to provide adequate protection, in some instances no protection at all, to Palestinian civilian society as is required by international law; house demolitions carried out in East Jerusalem and the West Bank in ways that violate basic rights and induce fear and intimidation (arriving with heavy military backup in the middle of the night, giving residents a few hours to move out, and abusing family members, including children); wall demonstrations: Palestinians in the period under review continued to mount weekly nonviolent demonstrations against the continued construction of an Israeli separation wall on occupied Palestinian territory. This wall was declared unlawful by a 14-1 majority in the International Court of Justice in its advisory opinion of 2005, later endorsed overwhelmingly by the UN General Assembly. Not only has Israel defied the legal conclusions of the highest judicial body of the UN, it has consistently used excessive force, causing deaths and serious injuries to Palestinian demonstrators and their Israeli and international supporters.

CJP: Why does it cover only the period up to December 09?

RF: (see above)

CJP:  Is the ongoing war on the part of the PA against you related to  internal Palestinian politics?

RF: I would not want to describe our past tension as a ‘war.’ It is true that a core concern of the PA was the manner in which I described the political realities in Gaza, particularly objecting to explicit references to the role of Hamas. I am hopeful that future relations will be smoother.

CJP:  Did PA seek in any way to influence the findings of the report?

RF: The precise nature of their objections to my text are confidential. I think it is fair to say that the PA would have welcomed less emphasis on Gaza, more on East Jerusalem, and especially greater stress on adverse developments on the West Bank. I intend to do this in my next report, due in August, and scheduled to be presented to the UN General Assembly in October.

CJP:  Since the Israeli attacks on Flotilla Freedom, relations between  Turkey and Israel have deteriorated even further. Is this a real  friction or a PR game on the part of Turkey?

RF: The Turkish-Israeli relations have to be seen in a larger frame.

Ever since the AK Party came to power in Ankara in 2002 there has been a drift toward a more pro-active Turkish foreign policy with Arab governments, and more generally with the Islamic world. This became more pronounced after the European Union made it clear that the prospect of Turkish membership was doubtful, if not altogether non-existent. Turkey was also disturbed when Turkish Cyprus accepted the Annan Plan for the solution of the Cyprus conflict and Greek Cyprus voted against it, the perverse result was the admission of Greek Cyprus to the EU.

On another track the relations of Turkey to Israel and the United States had seemed to be on a downward slope ever since 2003 when the Turkish Parliament refused to give permission for the use of its territory to mount an invasion of Iraq. Israel’s aggressive policies toward neighbors also engendered opposition from the Turkish Government, although it should be appreciated that Turkey tried to contribute to conflict resolution in two ways: by proposing the treatment of Hamas as a political actor after it prevailed in the Gaza elections of January 2006 and by doing its best to broker negotiations between Syria and Israel, looking toward the withdrawal of Israel from the Golan Heights. Two major Israeli undertakings definitely disturbed the Erdogan government and Turkish public opinion: the heavy devastation of southern Lebanon and parts of Beirut in The Lebanon War of 2006 and Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-2009 a heavy land, sea, and air attack on the essentially defenseless and beleaguered population of Gaza. Prime Minister Erdogan was harshly critical of Israeli tactics, and had a well publicized encounter with Shimon Peres at the 2010 World Economic Forum. This was followed by the humiliation of the Turkish ambassador to Israel who was made to sit in a physically subordinate position during a diplomatic meeting in Tel Aviv.

On the Israeli side, what was undoubtedly the most irritating Turkish initiative, was the effort to promote an accommodation with Iran, especially with respect to its nuclear program. In particular, the deal that Brazil and Turkey reached on May 17 with regard to handling Iran’s low enriched uranium so as to reassure peaceful uses seemed to enrage the United States and Israel as both were pushing hard for a less diplomatic, more confrontational approach that centered on gaining widespread support in the UN Security Council for a further tightening of sanctions.

It is against this background that the May 31 attack on the Freedom Flotilla should be understood. This attack seemed to be partly a response by Israel to recent Turkish initiatives, especially to Iran, and a signal to Ankara not to interfere in the future with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Israel undoubtedly underestimated the hostile international reaction to their lethal night time attack on a flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian cargo to the long suffering people of Gaza. To attack the Turkish vessel, Mavi Marmara, in such a frightening manner, killing nine passengers, including a Turkish American, was a major miscalculation even leading Israel to give up, at least on the surface, the blockade of Gaza. It was the blockade, and the failure of governments and the UN to do anything about it for almost three years, that gave rise to the flotilla in the first place, and to the underlying Free Gaza Movement that had sent a series of single ships on earlier similar symbolic missions. This incident should be marked down and remembered primarily as a great, although costly in lives, victory for civil society activism, and has in the aftermath greatly expanded and deepened the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Campaign.

At the same time, there is nothing to suggest that the Turkish-Israel-United States strategic triangle has been broken apart. There are confirmed reports of private Israel/Turkish talks, encouraged by Washington, designed to restore cooperation and diplomatic normalcy. It is too soon to tell whether Israel will meet Turkish demands for an apology for the attack on the Mavi Marmara, compensation for the families of the victims, and a formal lifting of the blockade, or on the contrary, Turkey will accept a compromise.

At the same time, it would be premature to speak of regional realignment with respect to fundamental policy concerns.

CJP:  Turkey’s new strategic orientation can’t be merely around  commercial interests. Is Turkey after some form of integration in  the Middle East?

RF: Under the leadership of the brilliant statesman, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey has pursued the most creative foreign policy of any major state over the course of the last several years. There have been several components: continued efforts to become an eventual member of the EU; resolution of all conflicts with neighbors; encouragement of conflict resolution in the broader region (Israel-Palestine; Bosnia-Serbia; Caucuses); seeking a Cyprus solution; continuity with independence in relation to earlier alliances; economic and cultural cooperation throughout Middle East and Central Asia, a neo-Ottoman sense of Turkey’s regional and global roles.

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