Interview with Gaza rights defender: “Siege began in 1967”

Mahmoud Abu Rahma

BRUSSELS (IPS) - For the first time since September 2006, Mahmoud Abu Rahma, a leading figure in the Palestinian human rights group Al Mezan, has been granted permission to travel outside Gaza.

More than 30 applications to leave the Strip had previously been turned down by the Israeli authorities and it was not until German diplomats made representations on his behalf that he was finally allowed to visit Europe.

Rahma has been calling on European Union (EU) diplomats to hold Israel accountable for its attacks on innocent Gazans during the war it waged in late 2008 and early 2009. Yet convincing the EU to take a more robust line against Israel is an arduous task; only five of the EU’s 27 countries have supported the report on the Gaza war by a United Nations investigative team led by Richard Goldstone, a retired South African judge. The report found that there was no justifiable military objective for Israel’s targeting of civilians in that offensive.

David Cronin: Why have you been prevented from leaving Gaza for three-and-a-half years?

Mahmoud Abu Rahma: There was one occasion when we had a meeting with the [Belgian] ministry of foreign affairs here. The Belgian ambassador intervened and the Israelis informed him that the director of my organization and myself would be allowed to cross Erez [the main crossing between Gaza and Israel]. And the next day they cancelled the papers. But other than that, we usually hear words like “rejected” without any explanations. Or “rejected for security reasons.” More recently, we starting hearing the term “no sufficient grounds to grant a permit.”

The Israeli policy now is that movement is allowed only for humanitarian reasons. They have this definition about minimum humanitarian needs, which is not in international law, but it has been adopted by the Israeli high court. And it is being implemented everywhere.

But this time the German embassy and many other embassies intervened and I managed to leave — eight days late.

DC: Do you have any criminal convictions or are there any other reasons why Israel would consider you a security threat?

MR: One of the very problematic developments since the siege started in Gaza in 2007 has been the rulings by the Israeli high court of justice. First, Israel declared Gaza as a “hostile entity,” which is a novelty in international law. There are enemy countries, enemy states; these terms are familiar. We don’t know what the Israelis meant by this but the Israeli high court of justice accepted the Israeli government’s opinion that Gaza was a hostile entity and Israel had no legal responsibilities towards Gaza, except for the minimum humanitarian needs. After that — and more worrying still — the Israeli government declared before the high court that every Palestinian qualifies as a potential terrorist, a threat towards Israel’s security. And the court accepted that. This is very, very problematic. So it’s not just me, nobody is allowed to leave unless they qualify as a humanitarian case. I’m a human rights worker and don’t qualify as such. If I have meetings in Europe, I will not die if I don’t do that [attend them]. That’s the logic behind this.

I am not aware of any problems that would qualify me as a security threat except for the fact that when I was 16, I was injured by the Israeli army when I was throwing stones at the Israeli soldiers during the first intifada [Palestinian uprising]. I was injured another time, allegedly — the Israelis said — because I was masked. I was taken into prison then for two months. I was 17 then.

DC: Your website describes recent Israeli attacks on Gaza that have gone largely unreported on news bulletins in Europe. Do you think the situation could easily explode into one of more serious violence?

MR: Of course, it could explode at any time. There is so much anger among the population in Gaza. Israel’s reactions to any attacks emanating from Gaza are really harsh. The last press release we issued described a missile attack [by Israel] on a house, where three children were injured. This is commonplace.

That’s why we focus more and more on accountability because there is a possibility the conflict will erupt another time. And we want to be sure that all the parties comply with the rules of international law. If the conflict erupts again, civilians must be protected. What has happened to civilians for decades is more than enough. Without accountability, civilians will continue to be harmed.

During the years of intifada, we could see the policy of home demolitions or extralegal assassinations. On the border of Rafah [the boundary between Gaza and Egypt], houses were systematically destroyed, row by row by row, creating thousands of families who are still homeless to this day — most of them.

You can also find cases where a person who is wanted by Israel is assassinated by means of missiles from an airplane. And the missile hits maybe a car so the person is already dead. And then two or three minutes later, people would try to put the fire out and the medics come and the Israelis can see clearly what is [happening] on the ground. And then they fire another missile. This is completely not acceptable.

We could see many other systematic violations of human rights. I have visited many places in Gaza. I couldn’t understand why hundreds of homes in one neighborhood were destroyed a couple of days after the Israeli army took full control of the area. There was no fighting whatsoever in the area. And then bulldozers were sent in and engineering teams were taking their time to bring down homes with explosives. I don’t know why the east Gaza industrial zone was completely destroyed. Not one single industrial plant has been left standing.

These are violations of human rights and international law that cannot be tolerated. Israel has security concerns and interests that emanate from the fact it is occupying the occupied territories. International law allows Israel to take actions to ensure its security. However, these actions must be in line with international law.

People can live without peace for another 50 years. It will be devastating, it will not be what everyone wants but they can live. However, they cannot live with these kinds of policies where there is no respect whatsoever for human life and human well-being and where suffering is imposed intentionally on people as a means to put pressure or achieve political gains.

DC: You have been drawing attention to paragraph 75 of the Goldstone report, which says that treatment of Gazans could amount to persecution. Why is this so significant?

MR:: Most people think that the siege of Gaza, the blockade, started in June 2007. But I would say that the blockade started in June 1967. The first Israeli military order after the “Six-Day War” announced that the Gaza Strip was a unit and the West Bank was another unit and that they were two closed military zones. No one was allowed to leave or to enter these zones without a special permit from the Israeli military authorities. Now, this has not changed. I came here with a special permit from the Israeli authorities. So it still applies.

It is true that in June 2007, Israel announced that Gaza was a “hostile entity.” They cancelled what is known as the custom code, so no imports can go directly to Gaza. We don’t exist anymore on the economic map. The siege has been stepped up since then and it is hitting the population very hard.

This paragraph [in the Goldstone report] took note of the consequences of the Israeli policy of siege and blockade on Gaza. It particularly found that there are a series of violations of economic, social, cultural and political rights that are very complex, that do not allow people to move freely but also not to access life-saving services or goods. This has created a very complex situation for the entire population. People who were hit by it were not allowed proper legal remedy in Israel. If a state has a policy and civilians are affected, there should be some kind of recourse for these people. But this has been denied as the Israeli high court has tended to take the side of the Israeli government. The report found that the massive human rights violations, together with the denial to civilians of any legal remedy, amount to persecution. Persecution is a war against humanity. Goldstone went even farther than that and said this could warrant forming a special tribunal to investigate this particular issue.

What is unfortunate is that most of the United Nations and human rights organizations have not focused on this, although the siege on Gaza is a very immediate priority.

DC: Only five EU countries voted in favor of Goldstone when it was discussed by the UN General Assembly last year. What message do you have for the other 22 EU governments who either opposed the report or abstained?

MR: We view the Goldstone report as more or less balanced. It’s not perfect but it’s one of the most important reports. It tells Israel what international law obliges it to do. And it tells the Palestinians also what international law obliges them to do.

What is important is that accountability can be ensured so that we make sure that these inhuman violations of international law do not happen again. Eighty-three percent of the people killed [in the 2008-09 assault] were civilians and noncombatants, people who should be protected by international law and not targeted directly. This is why the Israeli high court’s ruling that accepted the view that any Palestinian could be a suspected terrorist is too dangerous because it could allow this way of thinking where conflict occurs.

DC: Some EU countries are major customers of the Israeli arms industry. Does that make them complicit in crimes perpetrated by the State of Israel?

MR: I don’t want to say that the EU has been complicit but what I can say is that the EU has not done enough when it could have. Logic from a human rights point of view is based on the ethical rule that says if you can, you ought to. So if you can practice influence and change the situation to the good, then you have an obligation, moral as well as legal, to do something about the situation. And from our point of view, the EU has not done enough.

DC: Passports from several European countries are known to have been used in the killing of a senior Hamas figure in Dubai recently, allegedly by Mossad, the Israeli secret service. And yet the official European response to this abuse of passports seems to be quite weak. Would you agree?

MR: First, as a human rights organization we condemn all acts of assassination, whether it be by Palestinians or by Israel. So this extra-legal killing was a crime. There has been some kind of a strong response on the part of Interpol. However, I agree with you that the diplomatic response from the states that have been involved [in the passport affair] has been pretty weak. There has been some summoning of ambassadors for explanations. And that’s it.

DC: Have there been any improvements in the living conditions in Gaza over the past year? Or is the situation getting worse?

MR: Much worse, I would say. What we see in Gaza is a continuous process of de-development. All the sectors are going backwards. The economy is in its worst situation ever. The environment is in very bad shape because the sanitation system has not been rehabilitated for a long time. Pollution is leaking into the aquifer because of the kind of weapons that have been used. Poverty is increasing, so is unemployment. And the siege continues. So the situation is dramatically worse than it was last year.

DC: You have been documenting the use of pilotless drones — also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — by Israel. Is there a case for banning these weapons?

MR: Based on our documentation on the number of drone attacks on Gaza during last winter’s war and based on the number of victims that have been documented and based on how most of these victims were actually civilians — many of them were children — the weapons that killed most civilians last winter were drones. They failed [in] distinguishing civilians and combatants. They are precision weapons but they are operated by one person who is sitting behind a computer and seeing a small screen. Sometimes decisions have to be made with haste so with the very open rules that the Israeli army operated under during the war, these weapons have caused too much damage to civilians. And I think you can make a case that this documentation and other documentation coming from Afghanistan and other places where this terrible weapon has been used deserve serious [attention] by the international community to see what can be done about this weapon. Our documentation takes me to only one direction: this is a cruel weapon that must not be used in wars where civilians are involved.

DC: You have been monitoring human rights abuses by Hamas in Gaza. Does that work distract you from the bigger issue of the Israeli occupation?

MR: All the duty-holders have obligations. We document human rights abuses by all duty-holders, regardless of their identity.

The situation is too complex in Gaza. I can hold the Gaza government directly responsible for the torture of a prisoner by its police. It’s their choice: to torture or not to torture. Nobody else is interfering. But when it comes, for example, to the right to education, why construction materials are not allowed into Gaza by Israel, how can I blame the local authorities for not respecting the right to education?

Palestinian human rights organizations have a clear vision. They want a Palestine that is independent, where people enjoy its self-determination and live in a democracy, and where Palestinians respect the dignity of Palestinians. So even if we have a Palestinian state tomorrow, we will not quit our work.

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