The Palestinian Authority is trying to prevent United Nations agencies from effectively subsidizing Israel’s forcible transfer of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
The Electronic Intifada has learned that UN officials are due to meet in coming days to allocate “emergency” funds to pay an Israeli lawyer who has been representing Bedouin communities in their years-long struggle against efforts to forcibly remove them from their land in the occupied West Bank.
The lawyer had previously been paid by the Norwegian Refugee Council. But in a confidential memo seen by The Electronic Intifada, the Norwegian Refugee Council says it ended the funding after it learned that the lawyer was negotiating the communities’ forcible transfer, a violation of international law, with Israeli occupation authorities.
The meeting of UN officials to approve the replacement funds was postponed last week after the Palestinian Authority issued a directive to international agencies and diplomats warning that “the facilitation of forcible transfer constitutes a war crime.”
A copy of the PA directive obtained by The Electronic Intifada is below.
Signed by Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the directive states that “any organization, individual or otherwise actor found to facilitate and/or fund the forcible transfer of any Palestinian community without the informed consent of the community and the consent of the State of Palestine will be found in violation of Palestinian and international law.”
Erekat specifically warns that “International and local nongovernmental organizations, including United Nations bodies, that support these initiatives are in violation of their own mandates to provide protection to protected persons.”
Any individual or organization that funds, facilitates or takes part in negotiations that ultimately result in the transfer of Palestinian communities “will be held accountable as assisting in the commission of a war crime,” the directive states.
A source familiar with the details of the situation told The Electronic Intifada that the Norwegian Refugee Council decided to terminate its relationship with the lawyer after learning that he had been negotiating with the Israeli Civil Administration – the military body that rules Palestinians in the West Bank – over the terms for the forcible transfer of the Abu Nuwwar community near Jerusalem.
The lawyer has represented a number of communities in similar situations near Jerusalem and in the South Hebron Hills area of the occupied West Bank for years.
In March, the Norwegian Refugee Council set out its detailed concerns about the lawyer’s activities in a confidential nine-page memo shared with diplomats and aid officials.
It notes that in January 2016, the Israeli government filed a response to a petition by Bedouin communities challenging Israeli demolition orders against them.
The Israeli state attorney’s legal filing, a copy of which was obtained by The Electronic Intifada, states that Brigadier-General Dov Sedaka was appointed by the Civil Administration a year earlier to “negotiate” with the community over its transfer from its current location.
Sedaka held some 20 meetings with members of the community and the Israeli attorney funded by the Norwegians. But the state’s filing says that the negotiations were “not fruitful” because the Israeli lawyer had stopped representing the communities and a lawyer from the Palestinian Authority had taken his place.
Since April 2015, Israel “has specifically targeted the Abu Nuwwar Bedouin community for transfer to al-Jabal West,” a forced resettlement township, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported in January. The land the community lives on is located in the southern part of E1, a large area east of Jerusalem where Israel is expanding its settlements.
Israeli settlement of E1 would effectively sever the northern and southern parts of the occupied West Bank from each other. According to the UN report, an Israeli official told dozens of families that Israel “would not permit the Abu Nuwwar community to remain in its current location.” Since 1998, Israel has issued some 200 demolition orders to the community. Only a handful are currently stayed by court orders, meaning that large-scale demolitions can happen at any time.
According to the Palestinian Authority directive, there are about 3,000 Palestinian Bedouins living in communities east of Jerusalem under threat of forced, mass displacement. They are in Area C, the approximately 60 percent of the West Bank where Israel retains full control under the 1993 Oslo accords.
“One lesson learned was of the illegal Israeli forcible transfer of Palestinian families from the al-Jahalin tribe,” the PA directive states, referring to a Jerusalem-area community forcibly transferred since the late 1990s to make way for the expansion of the Maaleh Adumim settlement.
The 150 families were relocated to an area next to a garbage dump. More families will join them if Israel is not stopped.
The source welcomed the PA directive, but noted that Palestinian officials have rarely advocated for the threatened communities, some of the most marginalized in the West Bank.
The Norwegian Refugee Council’s decision to end its ties with the Israeli lawyer did not halt the matter, however.
The lawyer has continued to represent many of the Bedouin communities and, according to the source, set up payment plans in which families paid him lump sums, or all the adult males in a particular village paid a monthly fee.
The source acknowledged that the lawyer has argued that his negotiations are in the best interests of his clients. But according to the Norwegian Refugee Council’s legal analysis, Palestinians who are under threat of forcible transfer cannot truly and freely consent because they live in an inherently coercive environment.
This is why the Norwegian body decided it had no choice but to end its relationship with the lawyer because otherwise it would be in breach of international humanitarian law and international human rights law.
The Norwegian Refugee Council prepared a plan to fully brief the affected communities about their rights, and to offer them alternative representation that it would pay for.
But in recent months, UN officials stepped in with a plan to fund the lawyer’s highly problematic work. A UN budget, awaiting final approval, allocates a total of more than $307,000 for the project. This includes $77,500 for lawyer fees and $118,000 for an Israeli nongovernmental organization to do planning work with threatened communities.
The money would come out of emergency funds managed by the UN humanitarian coordination agency OCHA to meet unforeseen crises faced by Palestinians.
Two UN entities involved in the plan to fund the lawyer – the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and Robert Piper, the Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory – are defending it despite the concerns of the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Palestinian Authority. They are spinning the potential funding as filling a “gap” in legal aid.
“In mid-April 2016, [the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights] became aware that, since February 2016, up to 20 Bedouin refugee communities in the Jerusalem periphery at risk of forcible transfer were no longer receiving donor supported legal aid and were accruing their own legal bills,” the UN agency’s spokesperson Rupert Colville wrote to The Electronic Intifada. “This financial burden would in our view increase their vulnerability and exposure to forcible transfer.”
“With partners, the Humanitarian Coordinator and OHCHR are exploring the option of reinstating free legal aid to the communities,” Colville added. “This option is not linked to an individual lawyer but is to give the communities financial support to be represented by a lawyer of their choice as per legal aid standards.”
“The humanitarian community provides assistance independently and impartially, and following the ‘do no harm principle.’ This course of action is entirely consistent with international law,” Colville stated.
Robert Piper, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator, sent a similarly worded response to The Electronic Intifada, adding, “It is critical that a solution is found quickly for this legal aid gap and the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator has been exploring solutions to this crisis in consultation [with] the Government of Palestine [the Palestinian Authority] and all parties concerned.”
But the source who spoke to The Electronic Intifada pointed to serious problems with the UN response, stating, “They’ve turned this into an issue of legal representation even though they know that the legal representation is based upon negotiating forcible transfer. What a joke.”
“Instead of working to stop the forcible transfer, which they know will happen, and instead of pressing Israel to end these policies, they view this as a need to fill a ‘legal aid gap’ with the very who lawyer has been negotiating their transfer,” the source said. “Clearly, they believe in the efficacy of the Israeli legal system – a system that has demonstrated its ruthlessness with the most marginalized communities by demolishing homes, schools, solar panels and water cisterns.”
The source emphasized that there is no “legal aid gap” because plenty of international organizations, not least the Norwegian Refugee Council, are willing to pay for lawyers.
There is no rationale for the UN to step in with funding, except to pay for a lawyer that other organizations are not willing to pay for because they consider his activities to be aiding and abetting forcible transfer.
It would be a painful irony if a UN humanitarian fund meant to aid Palestinians in need ends up helping Israeli occupation authorities perpetrate a war crime.
Translation provided by Dena Shunra.