The noise never stops: life in Palestine during the Israeli occupation – a conversation with Rana Shubair

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The noise never stops. The sky is filled with the buzzing of drones, echoing on and on, and with the sound of buildings collapsing as they are bombed. It’s not ...

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Tearing down the walls that colonise Palestine, a thousand bricks at a time

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What can we do as Palestine burns?

It is May 2021. Once again, Palestine is burning. Again, the US- and EU-funded Israeli military machine is in full throttle and again, the US – now led by Joe Biden – persistently blocks a UN Security Council Resolution, even to call for a cessation of violence. I am again writing, the latest of dozens of articles, feeling hopeless as people are killed and most of the world remains silent. I ask myself, again … what can I do?

Picasso’s painting of Guernica 1(937) with Palestine colours

In the weeks leading up to the violence that is now shaking Palestine, there has been “fear and fury” in Jerusalem. The pro-settler group Nahalat Shimon has been using lawfare to try and evict Palestinians from their homes in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah (at the time of writing, the case was on appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court). And the violence has spread across the country. Jewish-Israeli mobs have roamed the streets of the “multicultural” towns of Acre, Haifa and Lod, searching for those who are Palestinian – or who look “Arab” – dragging them from their cars and homes, and in one case beating an Arab man on live television. A smaller, but totally unacceptable number of Jewish civilians have also been killed in the mob violence.

Other mobs of Jewish-Israelis roamed through streets, chanting “death to Arabs” and smashing up storefront windows of Palestinian-owned shops in scenes that the organisation Jewish Voices for Peace described as reminiscent of the Nazi-led Kristallnacht.

Also in May, a massive crowd of Jewish-Israelis celebrated in the square outside the Western Wall, celebrating Jerusalem Day, gazing above the square as Palestinians fled a violent police raid of the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, one of the holiest places in Islam, during Eid-al-Fitr.

Netanyahu has firmly declared that he would “bring back sovereignty to Israel’s cities with an iron fist, if necessary”. The latest round of violence is no doubt a welcome distraction for the Israeli strongman who has been on trial in Israel for corruption and continually unable to form a government, leading to the country’s fourth election in two years.

And as if that were not horrifying enough, Gaza, too, is in flames – again. The territory is already struggling with a humanitarian crisis in the midst of a 15-year-long Israel siege of the territory. Enraged by the violence in Jerusalem at one of Islam’s holiest places, Hamas militants began launching mostly homemade rockets into sparsely populated Israeli towns. While the majority of the bombs were destroyed by sophisticated missile defence systems provided by the US government, some have managed to make it through. As of 13 May this year, a total of seven people – six Israelis and an Indian national – had reportedly been killed, including an Israeli child. There have been reports of Israelis fleeing with their terrified children to bomb shelters and safe rooms.

The Israeli military – the most technologically advanced on Earth – responded with its usual, brutally terrifying force, which Netanyahu vowed to continue. Once again, Israel’s massively well-armed military has targeted densely-populated civilian areas. By 13 May, the numbers of dead Palestinians was reported to be 113, the large majority of whom were civilians. According to the United Nations relief agency OCHA, these numbers include 14 Palestinian children.

So how did this all start?

To understand how this latest bout of violence started, one needs to face what facilitates these kinds of eruptions of violence, time and again. There are four points we need to understand, two of which squarely point to Israel, and two that point to the rest of the world.

First, Israel is a settler-colonial regime and the majority of Palestinians living in Gaza are refugees and their descendants. Some regard this regime as having started in 1967 when Israel occupied the territories of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem; others see this as having begun in 1948 when Israel unilaterally declared its independence after ethnically cleansing the territory of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and refusing them to return to their homes and livelihoods. One could go back even further than that, and certainly to the end of the first World War, when Ottoman Rule ended and Britain was designated to administer Palestine and prepare the territory for independence. This never happened. Regardless of when one considers this regime to have started, the main point is that it continues and expands until this day.

Second, Israel is an apartheid regime, both in the Palestinian territories that it continues to belligerently occupy and administer in a grossly unequal way that Al Haq, B’tselem, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations in a difficult-to-find report all describe as a situation of apartheid. Apartheid also exists in Israel itself, as affirmed in 2018 with a racist Nation-State Law that affirmed Israel as a homeland for Jews and Hebrew as the only official language (Arabic used to be included); it is described as a system of exclusionary constitutionalism.

Third, Israel is persistently supported, particularly by the European Union and the United States. Despite an International Criminal Court investigation of reported war crimes and crimes against humanity now taking place, US and EU support remains unwavering, including USD 3.8 billion of military aid that the US provides every year, which is more than its entire combined aid budget for every other country in the world.

Finally, there is widespread ignorance, with citizens and politicians confused by media reporting that – in its well-intended, but misguided efforts at “balance” – ends up favouring an Israeli perspective.

So, what can we do?

Hopelessness tends to lead to inaction. It is the human condition to turn a blind eye when the situation is just too awful, confusing, or far away. However, as Angela Davis powerfully reminded us in a statement posted on 17 May, people in the United States did not remain silent when George Floyd was killed from a police officer putting his knee in Floyd’s neck. And people should not remain silent now as Palestinians – and Israelis – have their lives cut short by yet another wave of violence. Davis condemned not only the violence in Israel and Palestine, but condemned the Biden-Harris administration for their complicity in it.

Clearly, the violence should stop immediately, and there should be justice, but what can those of us in The Hague, New York, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires, Karachi or Kuala Lumpur do?

First of all, recognise that this is not an even-sided conflict. It is massively asymmetrical.  Unlike Israelis, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank have no bomb shelters or sophisticated missile defence systems. They have no drones or fighter aircraft. In Gaza especially, which has been described as an open-air prison, people not only have nowhere to go; they rarely even have electricity, potable water or food nowadays due to the Israeli siege of Gaza that has been going on, and deepening, since 2016.

Second:  voice your anger and concern to family, friends, neighbours, and elected representatives. Let Palestinians tell their own story. Share the music of Shai Zaqtan of Nai Barghouti and others. Post your outrage on social media and make it visible in street protests. As the corona lockdown eases in many parts of the world, speak to others, including at community centres and in places of worship.

Finally, do what you can in your individual and professional capacity to support the Palestinian call for #BDS = Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.

Update: Since the article was initially drafted, the United Nations and Save the Children reported that “58 children[i] in Gaza and two children in southern Israel have been killed in the last week. More than a thousand people in Gaza, including 366 children, have also been injured.” Source, OCHA. At the time of the “ceasefire” on 20 May 2021, this figure was revised to “at least 232 Palestinians, including 65 children, who have been killed in the Israeli bombardment. On the Israeli side, 12 people, including two children have been killed.”

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.

About the author:

Jeff Handmaker

Jeff Handmaker is a senior researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and focuses on legal mobilisation.

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Legal mobilization to end impunity for international crimes by Jeff Handmaker

In 2014, on the 20th of July, the Israeli military targeted and bombed a home in a refugee camp in Gaza, killing several family members of Saad Ziada, including his mother and three brothers. Since this day, Mr. Ziada, a Dutch citizen and resident of the Netherlands, has persistently been seeking justice through legal mobilization. Ziada’s search for justice reveals the immense challenges faced by individuals and organizations seeking to hold individuals accountable for international crimes through different forms of legal mobilization.


It hasn’t been an easy journey. Ziada’s family were some of the 2000 killed, overwhelmingly civilians, during this large-scale Israeli military operation, which was extensively documented by United Nations investigators as well as representatives of Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organizations. Numerous reports, including extensive dossiers that have been submitted to the International Criminal Court in The Hague as part of a preliminary examination, allege that international crimes were committed during Israel’s 2014 military operation.

Holding individuals accountable who were allegedly responsible in either Gaza or Israel has been a non-starter. The Israeli government has not even acknowledged that crimes took place, let alone pursued investigations against the alleged individuals responsible for those crimes. Ziada has therefore been compelled to seek justice elsewhere.

The most common response to any crime committed by an individual is prosecution in the country where the crimes took place. Obviously, this is an unrealistic prospect in a country that is led by a government unwilling to even acknowledge that such crimes took place. But international crimes have a special character.

International crimes are described in the preamble of the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court as “unimaginable atrocities that deeply shock the conscience of humanity”. Accordingly, multiple alternatives to prosecute international crimes have gradually emerged on the basis of what is described as “universal jurisdiction”. These alternatives include prosecution by the International Criminal Court or other specialized tribunal and prosecution in a “third country” that may have little to no association with the crime committed or the nationality of the alleged perpetrator.

The person who is prosecuted for international crimes doesn’t even need to have committed the alleged crimes themselves. For example, the Netherlands prosecuted the Dutch businessman Guus Kouwenhoven in relation to his complicity in war crimes committed in Liberia. In 2017, the Dutch Court of Appeal found Kouwenhoven to be criminally liable for his complicity in these crimes.

Alongside criminal jurisdiction, there is the possibility to sue an individual who is alleged to have committed an international crime for damages in a civil court. This is currently the basis of the case that has been brought to the Dutch District Court in The Hague by Ziada. The case is being brought against two Israeli military commanders who were believed to have ordered the bombing, including the former General Chief of Staff of the Israeli military, Benny Gantz, who has been campaigning to become president of Israel.

Universal jurisdiction received significant attention in our 2019 book Mobilising International Law for ‘Global Justice’, particularly in a chapter by Aisling O’ Sullivan. O’Sullivan argued how the struggle for ending impunity for international crimes is locked in a struggle between two competing approaches: on the one hand, there is a desire to hold individuals accountable for the most heinous of crimes; on the other, there is a desire to maintain order between nations which can be disrupted by these kinds of criminal trials. What further complicates matters are the different power positions between states and the tendency to give “deference to the interests of powerful states” (p. 180).

Universal jurisdiction was also the topic of a seminar that I co-organized in 2010 with Professor Liesbeth Zegveld, the outcome of which was contained in an ISS Working Paper. One of the key observations at this seminar was that “while some governments show a willingness to prosecute these crimes, others see this as a ‘problem’ and even advising their nationals / soldiers not to travel abroad” (p. 14).

What we observed then as a “relatively new area of the law” (p. 15) is now gaining currency, particularly in the courts of the Netherlands. Zegveld, who is also a prominent human rights lawyer, has represented several individuals and groups who have been seeking justice for international crimes committed against them and their loved ones. This includes the family of three men, including Rizo Mustafic, an electrician, who were killed during a massacre in the town of Srebrenica in Bosnia-Herzegovnia by Serbian military forces in 1995. A Dutch military contingent was part of a United Nations military force stationed in Srebrenica at the time and was said to have mostly stood by while the massacre took place. In September 2013, the Dutch Supreme Court confirmed that the Dutch military commanders were partly responsible for not taking sufficient action to try and prevent the massacre.

Apart from the obvious political sensitivities involved in holding individuals accountable for international crimes, these kinds of cases are incredibly complex, not least the challenges of gathering evidence to prove what happened. There are also various cultural and other challenges associated with international criminal justice, particularly through international criminal tribunals, which I have discussed in other academic work.

Zegveld represents Ziada in the case that will be heard on 17th September, 2019. Will the outcome of this particular case of legal mobilization further advance the struggle against impunity for international crimes? There can be little doubt that international lawyers, human rights groups and concerned individuals around the world will be awaiting the outcome of this hearing with great anticipation.


Image Credit: Palestine Justice Campaign


JeffHandmakerISS
About the author:

Jeff Handmaker is a senior researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and focuses on legal mobilisation.

He is a regular author for Bliss. Read all his posts here.