Testifying against Israel’s apartheid

October 10, 2012

Gary Lapon and Daphna Thier report from New York City about the Russell Tribunal on Palestine and its two days of hearings into the crimes of the Israeli government.

NEARLY 1,000 people gathered in the Great Hall at Cooper Union in lower Manhattan on October 6 and 7 to hear two days of testimony on the complicity of the U.S. government and the United Nations in Israel's past and present crimes against the Palestinian people.

The testimony took place before the Russell Tribunal on Palestine. Modeled on a tribunal to investigate U.S. war crimes in Vietnam organized by British philosopher Bertrand Russell, the Russell Tribunal on Palestine is an effort, embraced by renowned writers and thinkers, to expose the barbarism and oppression against Palestinians carried out by the Israeli government and its allies.

A statement from the Tribunal said that this session in New York City was the last of four that "[aimed] to bring attention to the complicity and responsibility of various national, international and corporate actors in the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and the perpetuation of Israel's impunity under international law."

The New York session focused particularly on the role of the UN and the U.S. in supporting or failing to prevent or punish Israel's crimes.

IDF soldiers interrogate a Palestinian youth at a West Bank checkpoint
IDF soldiers interrogate a Palestinian youth at a West Bank checkpoint

Since it has no legal authority, the tribunal relies on its "members' prestige, professionalism and commitment to human rights." The jury for the New York session included activists, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, legal professionals and scholars, and prominent intellectuals, ranging from Native Americans to African Americans born in the Jim Crow South, to people from South Africa and Northern Ireland.

The week before the New York session, it was announced that musician Roger Waters, best known as a member of Pink Floyd, had joined the jury. Waters said in an interview that he had joined the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel a few years ago after he was contacted about canceling a concert planned for Tel Aviv. "It's an absolute tragedy that Palestinians have been thrown off land their families have been living on for thousands of years," Waters said.

This tribunal session was held in the U.S. to call attention to the American government's role as key funder and enabler of Israel's crimes, but also to connect the struggle of the Palestinians with that of African Americans and Native Americans.

Harry Belafonte, who attended the Saturday session, said the connection between civil rights for African Americans and justice for Palestinians is "a link that I've always recognized...In the midst of our struggles from the civil rights movement to the liberation of South Africa, we have found great synergy in our interests as oppressed people of color. Both benefited from the presence of each other and we continue to experience the need for one another."

Organizers of the tribunal aimed not only to shed further light on Israel's crimes, but to build connections between struggles against oppression across the globe and inspire others to act in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

THE FIRST day of testimony began with Israeli historian Ilan Pappé discussing the impact of early Zionism on Palestine, leading up to the ethnic cleansing that preceded the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

Pappé testified there was a thriving Arab society in Palestine prior to the creation of the state of Israel. He said early Zionist colonizers viewed the native Palestinians as "usurpers" and "foreign agents," assigning them the Orwellian category of "alien native." These racist ideas remain "at the heart of Israeli Zionist policies towards the Palestinians," Pappé said.

The Zionist movement decided "to ethnically cleanse Palestine...a crime against humanity [such] that only genocide is above it," he said.

Immigration lawyer Susan Akram detailed the Palestinian refugee crisis and the unwillingness or inability of the United Nations to resolve it. There are now 6.8 million Palestinian refugees--half of the world's refugee population--most of them people who were expelled in 1948 and their descendants.

Akram explained that while the UN believes all refugees have the right to return to the homes from which they were expelled, it has not acted to force Israel to respect this right.

Pappé testified that while many falsely trace the beginning of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the 1967 war and Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, in reality, 1967 represented a continuation of the colonial project to establish "Greater Israel." In fact, the desire to take Gaza and the West Bank was a core Zionist aim that went unfulfilled in 1948, according to Pappé.

As law professor John Quigley testified, the U.S. "covered up what it knew about the run-up" to the 1967 war, which began with Israel's surprise bombing raids on Egypt. According to Quigley, neither U.S. nor Israeli intelligence believed that Egypt was going to attack Israel. Thus, the 1967 war wasn't defensive, as Israel and the U.S. have always claimed, but a war of aggression, in violation to the UN Charter that Israel is a signatory to.

Journalist and activist Ben White testified that the ethnic cleansing of Palestine is an ongoing process. He said the view that Palestinians within Israel represent a "demographic threat" is "commonplace among Israeli academics, think tanks, politicians, laypersons." White testified to the high rates of poverty among Palestinians, and that due to Israeli policy, "there is no practical means for the Palestinians to develop and independent economy."

Vera Gowlland-Debbas, of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, took up the question of the legal responsibility of the UN to enforce international and human rights law, including the issue of UN complicity in upholding a double standard for Israel.

She pointed out that when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the UN Security Council authorized the use of force, but the body has failed to act in response to Israeli crimes such as the construction of the separation wall in the West Bank or Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, the barbaric assault on Gaza.

Suzanne Adely, a lawyer in attendance at the tribunal and member of the National Lawyers Guild and Defend the Egyptian Revolution Committee in New York, said in an interview, "We can't just say it's a double standard. Actually, structures such as the UN have been intentionally created by capitalist and imperialist entities to perpetuate and control this system, not make it more just."

Raji Sourani, a leading Palestinian human rights attorney from Gaza, was supposed to testify about conditions under occupation. However, the U.S. State Department refused him permission to enter the country. Instead, Jeanne Mirer, president of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, spoke about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza that has resulted from the Israeli siege.

She described Gaza as an "open air prison for 1.6 million people...Closures imposed [by Israel] are illegal collective punishment." Mirer denounced Operation Cast Lead, during which Israel killed as many as 1,400 Palestinians, as an "illegal war of aggression." Some 95 percent of factories in Gaza are closed because Israel won't allow in necessary raw materials, unemployment is around 50 percent, 1.1 million Gazans rely on food assistance, and two-thirds live in deep poverty.

Mirer spoke ominously about Gaza's water supply, which is under threat because of a lack of sanitation equipment and supplies banned by the Israeli blockade. "If massive investments in water treatment and desalinization plants are not taken immediately, the whole population of Gaza will be subject to a water crisis of genocidal proportions in a very few years," Mirer said.

The end of Ilan Pappé's presentation stood out during the first day of testimony, as he made a passionate appeal for a one-state solution as the only just solution:

The idea of two states is a Zionist idea...do not shrink Palestine into 20 percent of its geography and do not shrink the Palestinian people into 50 percent of who they are. If we are going to seek a just and peaceful solution...we should include everyone who is affected and who was affected so that we can build together a stable future.

THE SECOND day began with Diana Buttu, a Palestinian-Canadian lawyer residing in Ramallah, who explained how the U.S.-brokered "peace process" has helped to legitimize Israel's crimes.

She explained how the Oslo Accords of 1993 aided the annexation of large parts of the West Bank to Israel and legitimized this in the eyes of the international community. According to Buttu, "34 separate countries established relations with Israel...so rather than Israel feeling disdain that it was still an occupier and a dispossessor, it was now suddenly being rewarded."

Katherine Gallagher a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, spoke about how the U.S. uses its veto power as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to protect Israel from accountability for its war crimes and other violations of international law. Of the 82 times the U.S. has vetoed UN resolutions, over half were to protect Israel.

Noam Chomsky testified via Skype on the history of the relationship between U.S. interests in the region and its policies regarding the Israel/Palestine question. He began by acknowledging the 30-year anniversary of the U.S.-backed Israeli war on Lebanon that left roughly 20,000 Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians dead, including the massacre of as many as 3,500 people at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

Phyllis Bennis, co-founder of the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation, testified that public opinion continues to shift in favor of those working for justice for Palestinians--but also that public opinion has limited influence on U.S. policy. "When we look at the history of the United States, we see the legacy of genocide, of slavery, of disempowerment," Bennis said. "But parallel to that we see another history...a history of resistance, right from the beginning."

Craig and Cindy Corrie, the parents of Rachel Corrie, the 23 year-old U.S. activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza in 2003, made a surprise visit to address the tribunal.

Cindy Corrie spoke about the need to focus on civilian deaths, speaking of several dozen Palestinians who have been killed by Israel for nonviolently protesting the separation wall in the West Bank. "They all must be remembered," she said. "We must have accountability."

Craig Corrie said, "If you back over my car, I know you can replace my car. But you run over my daughter, I don't know what justice means. You have to prevent it from happening. So we have to keep preventing and preempting in our justice."

AT A press conference held the day after the tribunal wrapped up, the jury's findings were announced. As in the previous sessions, the jury found Israel guilty of numerous violations of international law, including violation of the Palestinians' right to self-determination and refugees' right to return, as well as the "acquisition of territory through war."

The jury charged Israel with violating international humanitarian law prohibiting mistreatment, torture and prolonged administrative detention of Palestinians, and it confirmed the judgment of international activists that Israel is an apartheid state. "Because of their systematic, numerous, flagrant and sometimes, criminal character, these violations are of a particularly high gravity," the jury found.

The U.S. government has been guilty of complicity with Israel's crimes, according to the Russell Tribunal jury: "Since the Six Day War in 1967, the U.S. has provided unequivocal economic, military and diplomatic support to Israel in order to establish a qualitative military superiority over its Arab neighbors in violation of its own domestic law."

The U.S. was found guilty of "obstructing accountability for violations of the Geneva Conventions" and "abusing its veto power within the Security Council," and it was charged with "continuing to provide economic support for the settlement expansion" and "failing to condition military aid to Israel...based on its compliance with human rights norms."

The United Nations was convicted for its failure to prevent Israel's violation of international law, which the UN is legally mandated to uphold.

The jury called for civil and criminal litigation against the perpetrators of the many crimes about which it passed judgment--and for the reform of the UN, including abolition of the veto power for permanent members of the Security Council.

Finally, the Russell Tribunal jury called for the mobilization of activists and trade unions for justice in Palestine, and for worldwide involvement in the BDS movement against Israel until the country complies with international law.

Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, addressed the tribunal at the end of the second day. He called on unions in the U.S. to take a stand in support of the Palestinian people as they had against South African apartheid.

Vavi said in an interview that international solidarity on the part of unions and others is "absolutely critical. Any form of denial of human rights anywhere constitutes a reason for us to extend our hands of solidarity across borders."

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