By Christopher Federici
On a clear autumn morning in lower Manhattan the 4th Session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine began amid a surprisingly calm atmosphere, despite lengthy lines weaving across the square in front of Cooper Union’s Great Hall.
The timing of this session is critical, as international attention has been focused on Iran’s nuclear program for months. If nothing else, this Tribunal serves as a reminder to an American audience of the harsh realities of the Palestinian condition.
Draped in a judicial veneer, successive Tribunals on Palestine have focused on the role of the international community regarding Israel’s persistent occupation of Palestinian territories. The New York session’s articulation of the complicity of the United States government and the United Nations in ongoing violations of international law adds to the existing findings of Tribunals in Barcelona, London and Cape Town regarding European Union and corporate complicity, as well as the crime of apartheid.
Before a sold-out auditorium, Tribunal coordinator Pierre Galand reaffirmed the formality of the non-binding proceedings with his introductory remarks admonishing the audience to refrain from outbursts or applause. Galand stressed the importance of preventing the “crime of silence” and he noted the “very effectively independent” status of the Russell Tribunal, which relies on a variety of financial donors, including municipalities, individuals and NGOs.
Galand revealed that Leila Shahid, the EU Ambassador from Palestine, had been denied visa entry by the U.S. Embassy in Brussels. I later confirmed that Raji Sourani, founder of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, was also denied a visa by the US authorities in Cairo, adding to the marginalization of Palestinian voices at the Tribunal. Huwaida Arraf, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement, cancelled due to illness.
However, with the judicial flare of a courtroom environment established, the long anticipated Tribunal was finally in session.
Impassioned Geneva Mayor Remy Pagani applauded members of the jury who have “risked their lives” in opposing fascism, racial inequalities and oppression.
We heard Stéphane Hessel, an energetic survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp, contributor to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and author of Indignez-Vouz!, speak eloquently of the privilege of living in a world supposedly governed by liberty and international law. His proclamation that Palestinian society has been “abused, abused and over-abused” for 60 years without representation was a testament to the vital need for sustained citizen mobilization.
The Tribunal’s first witness was Professor Ilan Pappé. With the disclaimer that it is “difficult to condense an historical analysis into evidence,” Professor Pappé proceeded to present five concise points essential to any discussion of the conflict between Israel and its Palestinian subjects.
The first of these premises suggests that Zionism’s exclusive focus on Palestine, a land already inhabited with an “Arab, Islamic and Middle Eastern” identity, constituted a form of late colonialism.
Pappé went on to note that the attitudes of early European Zionists toward Palestinians remain present today among many Israelis, chiefly that indigenous Arabs in Palestine were “foreigners” in a land awaiting Jewish liberation. “The idea of an alien native,” according to Pappé, “is exclusive to Zionism.”
His testimony noted that a Jewish democracy required a Jewish majority in Palestine, yet by 1948 only one-third of Palestine’s inhabitants were Jewish, and only 7% of the land had been purchased by Jews. These failures to establish the demographic and geographic foundations for Jewish democracy precipitated policies of ethnic cleansing, “a crime against humanity second only to genocide” according to Pappé, who noted that expulsions of Arabs had been prevalent since the 1930s, well before the rejection of partition by Palestinian leadership, an important point that disabuses the contemporary “immoral judgment” that Palestinians somehow brought the Nakba upon themselves by rejecting partition of their homeland.
Pappé’s concluding points related to the treatment of Palestinians within Israel between 1948 and 1966 and the conditions of occupation since 1967. Pappé suggested that the “same military regime” that oppressed one-fifth of Israel’s population between 1948 and 1966 was transferred to the West Bank in 1967. The Israeli army, thus, was “an already made mechanism” for systematic violations of human rights by the time of occupation.
In his closing remarks, Pappé included one of the most crucial comments of the entire Tribunal, the notion that the idea of two states is a Zionist idea, a flawed paradigm for peace that can never be accepted by Palestinians. He implored members of the Tribunal not to accept this reductive concept of a partitioned Palestine.
The subsequent testimony of the day hinged largely on establishing a narrative consistent with the Tribunal’s international law framework. Peter Hansen, former Commissioner-General of UNRWA, for example, discussed the UN’s role, criticizing its failings while stressing the importance of its monitoring activities in Palestine in keeping the analysis on the stage of the international community.
Later, Vera Gowlland-Debbas, former Rapporteur for the UNCHR, spoke at length on the failures of the United Nations to enforce its own resolutions, as well as the political inconsistencies of UN involvement, while Professor Susan Akram, a legal scholar on immigration and refugees, testified on the rights of Palestinian refugees under international law and the manner in which successive definitions –first established by UN Resolution 194, later by the UNRWA and finally under the 1951 Refugee Convention– have been misapplied in a manner that marginalizes Palestinian efforts to seek traditional refugee recourse, including right of return, restoration of property and compensation.
The sobering inference from this testimony is that the existing international legal framework is insufficient in addressing the Israeli occupation, as the establishment dominated by American and European elite is clearly disinclined to act upon its own mandate. Mired in cynicism, the entire mission of the Tribunal appeared futile with its strict emphasis on discussing a power structure that most speakers acknowledged provides little recourse for Palestinians.
Disillusioned by the apparent contradictions and inadequacies of the Tribunal, I searched for Ilan Pappé to discuss a critical insight he had offered in response to a question by Stéphane Hessel earlier in the day. He had mentioned a prevalent mindset within Israel that is unmoved by legal, moral or ethical critiques of Israeli policies. I asked him about this, and what more could be done. His answer was “the very structural skeleton of the narrative is not the problem apparently. We thought that Israelis, when they would know and would agree that this is what happened, that would inform their ethical and moral view. But this has not occurred.”
He went on to predict that as more western communities begin to offer “ethical evaluations” of Israel’s policies, the more Israeli society can be moved. The Tribunal constitutes a part of that progression, in his estimation.
The second day of testimony was less jurisprudential, with Diana Butto memorably providing the Tribunal’s first Palestinian narrative. The panel of jurists appeared more divided, with a tense sequence on the influence of AIPAC in US defense of Israel, projections on the future and finally David Wildman and Phyllis Bennis introducing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) as a tool of empowerment. The afternoon was also marred by a debate on the use of the term sociocide and the systematic destruction of a society’s culture, culminating in jurist Michael Mansfield antagonizing speaker Saleh Abd al-Jawad over the sensibility of introducing a new term when there is already such stagnancy over existing terms, such as apartheid and genocide.
Ultimately, the Tribunal appeared conflicted by stark contrasts between the desire to project a sense of procedural legality and the inescapable underpinnings of activism that drove the very desire to organize. This conflict, it could be argued, sullied the effectiveness of either initiative.
Returning to my discussion with Ilan Pappé, he expressed something that was conspicuously absent from most of the Tribunal testimony, the idea that the reformation of Israeli society will not come from legal or international institutions, but from the expression of western public opinion against Israeli policies.
Referring to successes of the BDS “tactic” in forcing a conversation within Israel, Pappé offered a sense of optimism painfully lacking throughout the Tribunal when he remarked, “I think that in conjunction with a Palestinian agency of solving the problems of representation, in conjunction with the solidarity movement activity on other issues and in conjunction with our role as Israeli Jews inside Israel to reeducate our compatriots, [BDS is] an important link in this matrix opportunity.”
– Christopher Federici is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He visited Israel and the Palestinian West Bank in the summer of 2006 during the Second Lebanon War and is currently pursuing his Masters in Middle Eastern Studies at the City University of New York. He has previously published articles on the failure of Israeli/Palestinian peace negotiations and the Goldstone Report. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.