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36 Years of Occupation: Reality, Rhetoric and Rights

June 7th, 2003

On June 6, 2003, Nadia Hijab, co-chair of the US Campaign to Ed the Israeli Occupation, spoke at the United for Peace and Justice Organizers Conference during a plenary session entitled "Views from the Global South."

The text of her comments follows. Yesterday marked the 36th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Unless we have experienced it, we are unable to imagine what it is like to live under occupation. What can we do, what should we do to end the occupation and achieve a just Israeli-Palestinian peace? Especially since we now have the only superpower putting its weight behind a Road Map designed to end the occupation, with Bush personally taking a lead. And we have Sharon actually using the O word and saying the occupation must end, as though he has only just noticed that he has troops and tanks on the land of another people. Maybe we should sit back and trust Bush and Sharon to do the right thing. The reality is that the Road Map makes our activism even more urgent. And what is especially urgent is to distinguish between reality and rhetoric. The Road Map rhetoric is about ending the occupation and a viable Palestinian state. The reality is that Israel is building a Wall separating it from the West Bank. This Wall is being built well inside the West Bank, destroying some of the best agricultural land and trapping thousands of West Bank Palestinians in a closed military zone. The Wall will be 360 kms long: three times as long and twice as high as Berlin wall. Israel is planning another wall will also cut through the Jordan valley between the West Bank and Jordan. According to various calculations, when the wall is finished it will leave less than 50% of the West Bank for the so-called Palestinian state. The massive gap between rhetoric and reality on the ground is just one thing wrong with the Road Map. Another is the way the Road Map deals with Israeli settlements, which are supposed to be negotiated along with other final status issues like Jerusalem, borders, and refugees, in the third and final phase. But the settlements are illegal under international law. So what the Road Map does is put the occupation up for negotiation. But there should be no negotiation about occupation. The Road Map focuses almost exclusively on Israeli security needs as though the Palestinians were not living in constant terror of invasion and attack by Israeli security forces. Even more outrageous, it makes the occupied Palestinians responsible for the security of the occupying Israeli soldiers and settlers. The Road Map focuses on reform of Palestinian institutions, when what the Palestinians desperately need is not a smoothly functioning bureaucracy but freedom from occupation, and the kind of leaders who will lead to freedom. Worst of all, the Road Map puts the occupier and the occupied on the same level. So here we have the occupier—the 4th strongest military power in the world with the only nuclear capabilities in the region—in a position to dictate the pace and timing and conditions of progress to the occupied at every stage. So, yes, we still need to be active if we want to end the occupation. And we must be active. The citizens of the United States are responsible because the US pays for Israeli occupation. Israel gets the largest amount of US foreign aid, $3 billion/year plus loan guarantees, even though its actions daily violate international law. The US supplies Israel with the weapons to maintain the occupation, which it often uses in contravention of the US Arms Export Control Act that limits their use to self-defence. And the US uses its power of veto at the UN to prevent the deployment of an international protection force that could protect the Palestinians—as well as the Israelis—until the occupation is ended. The failure of the international community to live up to its obligations under the Geneva Convention and to protect the civilian population is what gave birth to the International Solidarity Movement and to heroines like Rachel Corrie from Washington State, who was killed by an Israeli armoured, US-made Caterpillar bulldozer, while trying to provide protection using non-violent means. So, yes, US citizens must be active in the struggle to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine. And how much more so US citizens who are part of a movement for peace and justice? The question is: how do we work to end the occupation? And the answer is simple: by drawing on the same principles and values that we uphold in our daily lives and that have given birth to this national movement, and by holding our government to account for putting those principles into practice. What are these principles and values? I have sat with several groups of Americans and asked them to list the ones that are important in their daily lives, and that they believe they can practice because they live here in the US. Here is the list they come up with: freedom, equality, education, pursuit of happiness, diversity and tolerance, opportunity, respect for the rule of law, secularism, democracy. Now of course these are not just American principles and values, they are universal. And, in fact, they are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. I am mentioning the Universal Declaration not because it is the most powerful document in the history of humanity. It is that, of course, because it draws on many religions and philosophies to establish the minimum standards that human beings everywhere must have to live in dignity. The reason why the Universal Declaration is so important is that these rights have been translated into law, in a number of international conventions. And the US has signed many of these conventions before it stopped signing them altogether and then started un-signing treaties like the one that established the International Criminal Court or the Kyoto Treaty to protect the environment and stop global warming. Countries that sign on to these international laws give them the force of law within their borders. In other words, these international laws can be used to protect the citizens of the state that has ratified them. We in the US may need to turn to international law to protect the rights that people here hold dear, given the changes in national legislation to curtail civil liberties. Now the problem is that very few people are familiar about international law even though it is not a complex area. I am not a lawyer but because I believe in human rights I have become familiar with the international conventions dealing with civil and political rights, with economic, social and cultural rights, with the rights of women, with the rights of children, and with treaties dealing with the environment. I believe it is vital for any movement that wants to achieve peace and justice to invest during all of its work in educating people on this international legal framework and its meaning for their lives. Here are the advantages of investing in such an education: 1. The same set of laws applies to any foreign policy issue as well as to domestic policy issues—not just to poverty, racism and discrimination in the 3rd world, but to poverty, racism and discrimination here in the US. So investment in education on human rights and the law pays off big time. 2. Using the framework of international law is actually the easiest way to get people to join the national movement—people quickly respond to it because it is rooted in the principles and values of their daily lives. 3. Using the framework of international law will save activists hours of endless discussion and frustration about what positions they should take: there are minimum standards out there agreed by governments everywhere. Let us hold Government here accountable for applying them. 4. Applying international law helps us to cut right through the rhetoric—and the lies—and get to the reality of an issue. Take Iraq and the debates some people have had about Saddam being a dictator and that we must do something for the Iraqi people? Well, yes, but under the UN Charter and international conventions that have been agreed by all nation states there are simply no legal grounds for this war. It is as simple as that. But people will not see the simplicity of this argument unless we make the investment in popular understanding of human rights and international law. 5. Finally, applying international law helps us to see clearly through a veil of blood—and specifically the veil of blood cloaking the Israeli Palestinian conflict as we decide how to move forward in that region. This is especially important for Israel and Palestine, because this is the conflict where our emotions most come into play, and where hours and years are spent in frustrating debates and negotiations on platforms as anyone who is on the UFPJ discussion listserv knows. Here is what international law says about Israel and Palestine. There is no such thing as a legal occupation. Occupation may happen in wartime but it is supposed to be a temporary phenomenon during which nothing is done to change the character of the occupied territories. This is very clearly set out in the Geneva Conventions that both Israel and the US have signed. Instead, we have 200 settlements and 400,000 settlers and annexation of East Jerusalem. During occupation the rights of the civilian population must be protected—instead we have home demolitions, collective curfews, closures of schools and universities. There should be no negotiation about occupation. Israel must withdraw soldiers and settlers: not one soldier, not one settler, should be left. There are two other key UN resolutions that apply to the conflict—181 provides for two states, Palestine and Israel—and 194 provides for the right of return or compensation of refugees. These two resolutions have already been accepted by Israel when it joined the UN. So the question is not whether to apply these but how. The fact is that international law and UN resolutions protect not just Palestine but also Israel, which was given birth through 181. As we defend the rights of Palestinians to freedom and self-determination, we must also be sensitive to the possibility of anti-Semitism, which I believe is on the rise because of Israeli actions in the occupied territories and the fact that it claims to speak on behalf of the Jewish people. We can counter this by quoting the many brave Israeli and American Jews who speak out for human rights and against the occupation. In the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and in many other areas, governments will not apply the law unless they have to. Through the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, we are trying to hold the government of the US accountable for applying international law to the Israeli Palestinian conflict: no more, no less. Human rights and the law are the framework of all our work—and it works: 68 groups from all over the US are now part of the Campaign coalition. We are working for an end to aid to Israel until it ends the occupation. International protection for the Palestinians until the occupation is ended. And a just and comprehensive settlement negotiated on the basis of UN resolutions and international law. To sum up, the challenge for citizens in the US is to first, better understand international law, second educate about the law, and third hold our Government accountable for human rights at home and abroad by organizing until we are powerful enough to change policies that violate international law. We must take hold of and own the law. If we do not uphold the rule of law, they will rule us through the law of the jungle. We cannot let that happen.