Nobel Peace Laureate Stresses Need for Greater Civil Society Involvement in Push to End Occupation of Palestinian Lands, in Keynote Address to June Forum
Breaking decades of diplomatic paralysis would require greater involvement by civil society in pushing Governments to take action to end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, the 1997 Nobel Peace Laureate said today, the second and final day of the June Forum.
“Power never concedes without pressure,” Jody Williams, Chair of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, said in her keynote address on the role of civil society. As the Forum discussed the costs and consequences of the occupation born of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, she added: “If Governments do not take action, we will help them.” Erecting a “wall of shame” would require Governments to “come running” in order to salvage their reputations, she said.
“How many decades do people have to give diplomacy a chance?” she asked. “It’s an absurdity at this point.” The relationship between Israel and the Palestinians could only be described as a “total asymmetry of power”, she emphasized. How could a State say diplomacy must be given a chance even as it continued to steal land and vital resources, such as water, from the Palestinian people?
Waiting for meaningful action by Governments had not produced much, she continued, contrasting that with the crucial role played by boycotting and banning goods produced in the Israeli settlements built on occupied territory. A list of Governments and companies purchasing goods from those settlements would help people understand where they could make the biggest impact, she said, stressing that boycotting products from the settlements would hit Israel where it mattered.
“It is not that anyone wishes ill on the Israeli people,” she said, asking whether they would really feel inclined to change their stance and, more importantly, their Government’s policies, if they did not feel some sort of discomfort. Why would they do anything to change the situation when they were so comfortable? There was need to exert pressure on Israel and Israelis to end the occupation, she said, declaring: “Stigmatization, making people pariahs, brings about change.”
Ms. Williams said it was disturbing that the State of Israel did not allow Palestinian narratives to be heard, adding that it was such subjugation that allowed the occupation to continue. “Palestinian people have a right to tell their stories,” she affirmed, describing Israel’s entrenchment as an occupation of the mind. “Because people disagree with Israel’s oppressive policies does not make them anti-Semitic,” she added.
Recalling her personal history of activism spanning almost five decades, she said that it ranged from protesting against the United States war in Viet Nam to marching against that country’s intervention in Nicaragua. Emphasizing that she could not sit back when any Government treated others as less than human, she said such actions were becoming increasingly evident in the United States, particularly with President Donald Trump’s travel ban. Imposing a state of fear was less about security and more about silencing opposition and dissent, she emphasized.
The Forum also held three panel discussions today — on “Enforcement of international law and accountability: How to make a difference?”; “The Gaza Strip: an integral part of the State of Palestine”; and “Beyond occupation: in search of a just and lasting peace”.
Moderating the morning panel discussion, on “The Gaza Strip: an Integral Part of the State of Palestine”, was Robert Blecher, Senior Adviser and Acting Programme Director, Middle East and North Africa, International Crisis Group. It featured the following panellists: Majeda Alsaqqa, Programmes Director, Culture and Free Thought Association; Mohammed Azaiza, Field Coordinator, Gisha - Legal Center for Freedom of Movement; Noura Erakat, Assistant Professor, George Mason University; Tania Hary, Executive Director, Gisha - Legal Center for Freedom of Movement; and Nuriya Oswald, International Advocacy Coordinator, Al Mezan Center for Human Rights.
Mr. BLECHER opened the discussion by asking the panellists to describe the current situation in the Gaza Strip, focusing particularly on what was not known to most.
Ms. OSWALD, noting that international engagement usually occurred after serious spikes in violence, said there had been no sustained international engagement in Gaza. All the issues at hand should be understood in the context of human rights and international legal obligations, she added.
Mr. AZAIZA recounted his experience of living conditions in Gaza, reporting that millions of litres worth of sewage were dumped into the sea every day. New diseases were discovered every year and most of them certainly resulted from swimming in contaminated water. That impacted access to safe swimming for children lacking other recreation alternatives. Furthermore, the inconsistent electricity service affected hospital conditions as well as the agricultural sector, he said. “The lives of 2 million civilians in Gaza are not a game.”
Ms. ERAKAT said that, unlike the aftermath of a natural disaster, the effects of Israel’s naval blockade and land siege on Gaza were reversible. The blockade could be considered a political, human rights, humanitarian and military issue with appropriate solutions available for each analytical framework. What threshold did the crisis have to reach for the blockade to be lifted without preconditions?
Ms. HARY said Israel’s policy on Gaza and the West Bank was one of separation and distinguishing between residents of the two, but there was often no coherent policy. Rather, there were different tactics arising from inertia, which also functioned as a means of maintaining perpetual control over the West Bank. Such management reinforced those with annexation goals for the West Bank, he said, adding that the situation in Gaza was a cruel experimentation project to test the breaking point of 2 million Palestinians.
Ms. ERAKAT added that the absence of a coherent policy, in addition to inertia and containment, were, in combination, an attempt to separate the question of Gaza from the rest of Palestine while obfuscating the politics underpinning the situation.
Ms. ALSAQQA noted that although the situation of Gaza was very different from that of the West Bank, those living in the latter territory were not better off. The focus should be on accountability to stop the blockade. “I was born under occupation; I have never lived as a free Palestinian,” she said. Discussions, toolkits and reports issued by organizations were frustrating because many were benefitting from the situation. Palestine should not to be discussed as a humanitarian cause because everyone knew what was happening, she stressed. “We are not asking for a gift from the world; we are asking for our rights.”
Ms. OSWALD added that a narrative of Gaza as separate from Palestine was a dangerous aspect of the policy that hampered the Palestinian right to self-determination and a cohesive political system.
Mr. BLECHER then asked what options the panellists were pursuing in the political realm, accountability and other areas.
Ms. HARY said most Israelis were aware of the situation but did not see their Government as accountable. The problem was that no options were being presented to the Israeli public. There was much potential in Palestine, an important motivator for people who might be overwhelmed by the humanitarian situation, she said, adding that the courts were also an important platform, even though they were not the place from which to seek a remedy.
Ms. OSWALD noted that all cases documented by the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights had enjoyed complete impunity under Israel’s justice mechanisms. The Center would be satisfied if that country was willing to hold perpetrators of serious violations to account, but since that was not the case, they were working with the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, she said.
Mr. BLECHER then asked whether anyone should have faith in international justice mechanisms to secure a remedy for the situation.
Ms. ERAKAT said that structurally, the Court did not apply to the world, and several African States were withdrawing completely from the Rome Statute as a result. Therefore, its mechanism and structure were already unstable, she said. Other available mechanisms did not have to go through “political firewalls” to be effective, such as sanctions, but the political will to undertake them was missing.
In the ensuing discussion, a speaker from Al Mubadara said large parts of the international community were complicit in the blockade because they were allowing it to continue. It was misleading to blame Hamas because the restrictions had started in 1991, he pointed out. Israel and most of its people did not consider Palestinians equal human beings, a situation that could not be addressed by focusing on individual cases, he emphasized.
A speaker from Al-Haq asked about the role of natural gas in the continued closure of the Gaza Strip.
A representative of B’Tselem asked for comparisons to other crises of access around the world.
An independent activist asked whether civil society could launch a “mass case” against the blockade.
Ms. HARY noted that thousands of individuals saw their lives changed over time, but it was necessary to work in parallel to bring about policy change.
Ms. OSWALD said the Center for Freedom of Movement was pursuing cases of arms trade and major bombardment. Civil society’s role was to remind the international community that they were paying attention. On natural gas reserves, she said that was something to follow and understand as a political issue.
Ms. ALSAQQA reiterated that accountability was the path to change.
Mr. AZAIZA added that Gaza’s youth deserved a better life, adding that their education and economic potential must be considered.
The representative of Nicaragua said he agreed with the points made, adding that the situation had become a vicious cycle of building and rebuilding, which allowed Gazans merely to survive rather than realize sustainable development.
A participant from the United Methodist Church observed that, in the context of prior calls for sanctions against Israel, and the lack of will on the part of Member States to take action, it was up to civil society to ensure boycotts and divestment.
A participant from Combatants for Peace asked why Hamas had not been able to resolve the electricity and other problems.
Another participant noted that some of the points made implied that a two-State solution was the best one, and asked whether the panellists felt that was the case.
A participant from media outlet Arabic Daily/Al-Quds Al-Arabi asked whether it would be possible for a civil society delegation to visit Gaza regularly and report back to the United Nations.
Ms. HARY said Palestinian leaders were also engaging in an experiment on Gaza, using residents as bargaining chips in the political struggle. The electricity issue was not just about the Palestinian Authority finding money, but about exerting pressure to achieve political goals. That did not absolve Israel, she said, while emphasizing that other actors were also involved.
Ms. OSWALD cited Egypt’s humanitarian obligations in controlling the crossing at Rafah. She stressed that there could be no compromise on lifting the closures, because they defined collective punishment and constituted a serious violation of international law.
Ms. ERAKAT said it was dangerous to consider who was better able to manage Gaza because that meant, in effect, participating in the enclave’s administration rather than demanding that the closure be lifted. Israel was administering a one-State reality, increasing the onus on civil society to pick up the mantle where Governments had failed, she emphasized. Boycott, divestment and sanctions were the only significant methods of pressure in that regard.
The representative of Egypt said that the Rafah crossing’s function was regulated by the Access and Movement Agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which had been suspended some years ago.
Mona Khalil, Legal Adviser and Independent Diplomat, moderated the afternoon panel discussion “Enforcement of international law and accountability: How to make a difference?” It featured the following panellists: Wesam Ahmad, Head of Legal Research and International Advocacy, Al Haq; Dalit Baum, Director of Economic Activism, American Friends Service Committee; Muna Haddad, Lawyer, Civil and Political Rights Unit, Adalah; Hagai El-Ad, Executive, B’Tselem; and Omar Shakir, Israel-Palestine Director, Human Rights Watch.
Ms. KHALIL asked questions of each panellist, covering such issues as how to make a real difference in the Middle East; challenges faced by human rights organizations trying to access Gaza; how activists handle accusations of anti-Semitism; and the role of corporate responsibility and the international obligation to exert pressure on Israel.
Ms. BAUM, citing the “tremendous” international effort to promote business guidelines, including the United Nations’ own Global Compact initiative, said that such efforts arose from the idea that corporations must respect human rights. Corporations were, in fact, risk-averse and very sensitive to public opinion, he said, adding that no corporation wanted its logo or brand tarnished by controversy. Despite international efforts to develop guidelines based on human rights principles for corporations to follow, Governments still operated with impunity. Companies like Hewitt-Packard, which had very extensive guidelines on human rights, were still involved in oppressive Israeli actions, she noted. However, corporations were responding to threats of being placed on lists. “They need some kind of watchdog, and unfortunately it was civil society providing it,” she added. As for the “worst of the worst” companies, continually involved in human rights violations, she said they must face sanctions.
Mr. SHAKIR said Israel had maintained a generalized travel ban on Gaza for the last decade, and some 2 million people there were prohibited from travelling. “This is a blanket policy.” Organizations and individuals performing critical human rights work were not allowed to enter or exit Gaza, and that included local Palestinian groups as well as international organizations. Such policies were not driven by security needs but rather by the need to impose collective punishment. Israel had only once granted Human Rights Watch access to Gaza since 2008, he noted, adding, however, that it was not the only Power restricting access. Egypt was also doing so, and its actions had exacerbated the situation in Gaza, he said. Hamas had also failed to protect human rights workers, and in some cases had even engaged in harassing them. He warned against viewing Israel’s restrictions in isolation, pointing out that they were part of a larger polity intent on hampering the efforts of human rights watchdog organizations, including those inside Israel.
Mr. EL-AD, noting that it had been 50 years since the occupation and six months since the adoption of Security Council resolution 2334 (2016) — which called for a halt to settlement expansion — said that, unfortunately, Israel had not complied. Although Article 5 of that text also called upon all Member States to distinguish between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967, they had not complied either. “If Member States do not take the resolution seriously, then why should Israel?” he asked. It was time to review the compliance of Member States with that resolution. Recalling also that the text called upon the Secretary-General to report back to the Council on compliance, both reporting periods had yielded a short sentence essentially stating there was “nothing to report” on implementation of Article 5. While it was still early in the implementation period, now was the time to put substance and meaning into the resolution, he emphasized.
Ms. HADDAD, describing the status of several investigations examining the killing of Palestinian civilians, said almost 50 per cent of such cases were stuck in the examination phase, meaning they would not even move forward as investigations. It was clear that no one would be held accountable, she said. More recently, there had been an escalation of violence in East Jerusalem and the implementation of a “shoot-to-kill” policy. Israel’s Supreme Court, to which several cases had been referred, was highly unlikely to interfere in the decision and judgement of military and police forces, she said, noting that it was very rare for someone on the Israeli side to be held accountable. The situation was also bad for Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, she said, pointing out that there was no accountability even when Israeli officials concluded that excessive force had been used.
Mr. AHMAD, referring to the “absurd” argument that the work his organization was doing was somehow anti-Semitic, said Israel was using that term to shut down any criticism of its policies. “We must not be silenced by this attempt to silence criticism of Israeli policy by calling it anti-Semitic,” he added. It was very important to push back against attempts to transform the dispute into a religious conflict, which it was not. Israel’s criticism of the application of international law as somehow being anti-Semitic was dangerous, he warned, emphasizing that any attempt to silence the international law system was very short-sighted. “What is the alternative?” he asked. “What is the world to do if using international law is out of bounds, even with the State of Israel?”
In the ensuing discussion, other panellists joined the conversation on claims of anti-Semitism.
Mr. EL-AD called such accusations a propaganda line perpetuated by the Government. They claimed that diaspora Jews who rejected the occupation must be “self-hating” Jews and that non-Jews opposing it must be anti-Semites, he said. “This is not random, this is systematic and we need to reject it,” he emphasized.
Mr. SHAKIR noted the insidious attacks launched against Israeli human rights groups, adding that supporters of the Israeli authorities had sometimes infiltrated them. Palestinian human rights groups faced more severe challenges, he said, pointing out that deterring the work of activists had a severe chilling effect on ordinary Palestinians.
Ms. HADDAD said that although many civil claims had been submitted by residents of Gaza, Israel continued to claim exemption from any responsibility. The Civil and Political Rights Unit continued to challenge that claim in court, but “people are not optimistic”.
Mr. AHMAD, responding to a question about how to re-inspire cross-border action that could overcome religious, national and territorial divides, emphasized the importance of finding creative ways to overcome divisions. “Money knows no religion or politics or territory,” he said, noting Ms. Baum’s point on the need to hold businesses accountable. There was an economic structure in place that allowed the reaping of benefits by a select few in Israeli society, he said, stressing that it was important for Israeli citizens to ask whether the conflict was being perpetuated to line the pockets of a few, and whether the Jewish religion was being exploited for that purpose.
Mr. SHAKIR, responding to a question about how to keep young people inspired in a region fraught with tension, said there was hope because a number of States and organizations continued to speak out and engage. “History has a way of providing opportunity to overcome hopelessness.”
Ms. BAUM said that “stepping in” had given her hope, adding that she usually asked young people: “What are you working on to make the world better?” She said current events in the United States were giving her much hope because people were resisting and coming up with new ideas.
Responding to a question about immediate practical steps that Palestinian people could take to make the occupation exhausting for Israel, she said the occupation continued because it enjoyed tremendous support and impunity. “People of the world are obliged to stop that.”
Ms. KHALIL said it was up to the Israeli people to influence their politicians.
Mr. EL-AD said the world’s conscience had rejected slavery and apartheid, but had yet to reject the occupation. “That starts right here at the United Nations,” he vowed.
Moderating the second afternoon panel discussion — “Beyond Occupation: In Search of a Just and Lasting Peace” — was Helena Cobban, President, Just World Educational. It featured the following panellists: Mustafa Barghouthi, Secretary-General, Al Mubadara (Palestinian National Initiative); Diego Khamis, Youth Board President, Club Palestino Santiago de Chile; Jessica Nevo, Coordinator, Pre-Transitional Justice Programme, Coalition of Women for Peace, Zochrot; Rebecca Vilkomerson, Executive Director, Jewish Voice for Peace; and David Wildman, Executive Secretary, General Board of Global Ministries, United Methodist Church.
Ms. COBBAN opened the discussion by introducing the panellists and asking them to make opening remarks.
Dr. BARGHOUTHI said the occupation continued because of the imbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinians, United States support for Israel and the complicity of many in the international community. Popular Palestinian resistance, including diplomacy, was the way forward, he said, adding that boycott, divestment and sanctions constituted some of the most effective methods of resistance. They translated international solidarity into a material factor helping to change the balance of power, he said, calling for unity amongst Palestinians and for the reintegration of all Palestinians, including those in the diaspora.
Ms. NEVO said one of the issues facing peacebuilding was that arms were maintained by men, but peace was considered through the male perspective. The Coalition of Women for Peace sought to change that, she said, noting that Zochrot’s aim was to promote acknowledgement and understanding of the Nakba (catastrophe). Apology was a primary tool in the official discourse of responsibility around the world, she observed, encouraging Israelis to use official apology as a form of pre-transitional justice.
Ms. VILKOMERSON said that while the United States, including its Jewish community, played a key role in supporting the occupation, the Jewish Voice for Peace represented a broader shift in opinion. Increasing numbers of the American Jewish community who identified themselves as liberal had begun to express views sympathetic to Palestinians, she said. Noting that legal institutions were inherently political, reflecting the vast imbalance between occupier and occupied, she said it was the role of grass-roots organizers to envision new frameworks altogether. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement created pressure to tip that balance of power, and Jewish Voice for Peace sought to reach and convince those in the United States already fighting inequality in other areas to do the same when in relation to Israel and Palestine.
Mr. WILDMAN stressed the importance of naming the wrongdoing of individuals and institutions contributing to the conflict, citing his own contribution to arms shipments as a United States taxpayer. He recalled that the veto cast by the United States to block Security Council action against apartheid regimes around the world had made boycott, divestment and sanctions efforts the main recourse for civil society. However, such efforts only worked when those involved stayed the course, he emphasized.
Ms. COBBAN, affirming that boycotts did work, cited their use by Zionists in the United States to block discourse on the Palestine question.
Mr. KHAMIS said Israelis could not consider ending the occupation a concession or favour; it constituted compliance with international law. Israel’s policies to disconnect members of the Palestinian diaspora and make it difficult for them visit their homeland was a violation of their rights, he said, emphasizing that members of the diaspora must “keep the flame alive” and make visible the Palestinian people’s tragedy. He said that as a Chilean, he could demand that his country’s Government take action on the issue, and he urged others to do the same.
Dr. BARGHOUTHI added that civil society should also pressure Governments to recognize Palestine and contribute to the strengthening of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. He called for bringing more people to Palestine, saying there was no substitute for seeing the reality. “It only takes a few hours in Hebron to understand what apartheid means,” he added. It was also important to inform people about the correct narrative, because of Israel’s effort to falsify history as well as current events.
Ms. COBBAN asked Ms. Nevo how Zochrot’s work was affecting Jewish and Israeli thinking.
Ms. NEVO said denial played a key role in maintaining the colonial settler mindset. Zochrot countered it by trying to reinstate names that had been removed, including the names of villages. For example, the meaning of “Nakba” was now becoming mainstream in Israel.
In the ensuing discussion, a representative of Al-Awda: The Palestine Right to Return Coalition asked if the panellists would consider engaging in efforts to counteract the United States and Israeli role in prosecuting Palestinians involved in the anti-occupation movement. What steps could be taken in respect of donations to settlements?
A speaker from the Palestinian Federation of Chile said that country’s Jewish community was mainly Zionist and had accused her group of terrorism. She asked how to counteract that situation. She said that visiting Palestine was important to the Jewish community but she and her family had not been allowed to do so.
A representative of Save Israel Stop the Occupation recalled that Ms. Vilkomerson had discussed in an interview how the occupation also affected Israelis, noting that her statements today had been more pro-Palestinian. Turning to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, he asked whether it must the whole of Israel.
Ms. COBBAN explained that the movement was not centrally controlled, but those pursuing it could choose to boycott the State of Israel or the settlements.
Mr. WILDMAN, addressing the question of criminalization, said churches and others were challenging the tax-deductible status of groups making donations to settlements. Many Israeli generals were already afraid to travel to certain countries for fear of arrest and extradition, he noted.
Dr. BARGHOUTHI, addressing the matter of making terrorism accusations, said Israel provoked incitement against any activity supporting Palestine, but it was important not to be defensive in the face of such accusations. He urged the speaker to publish information about those prevented from entering Palestine because that practice was not well-known and constituted a grave violation of human rights. Noting that some people chose to boycott the settlements, he called for a complete boycott of Israel. In the case of South Africa, he recalled, the boycott had negatively impacted black South Africans as well because it affected their economy, but it had ultimately benefitted them.
Ms. VILKOMERSON added that the idea that pursuing boycott, divestment and sanctions would hurt Israel was a false assumption. In the case of South Africa, the movement had not sought the end of the State but its transformation. That was the kind of transformation called for in Israel.