The moral clarity of Richard Falk

“The Palestinian struggle for self-determination has become the great international moral issue of our time,” the international law expert Richard Falk declares in his latest book, Palestine: The Legitimacy of Hope (Just World Books).

Falk calls it “the last major anticolonial struggle.”

In this wide-ranging book, the professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University embraces the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, advocates abandoning the two-state solution and argues that the best way of understanding Israel is as a settler-colonial state.

He notes that the importance of BDS lies in the fact that it is Palestinian-led and that Israel has “no intention of allowing a viable Palestinian state to be established.”

He also introduces a new lexicon to avoid the obscurantism that language can often lend itself to. Occupation, he argues, should be called what it is — annexation.

Israel’s “democracy” is in reality an ethnocracy, human rights “violations” are better described as crimes, home demolitions represent ethnic cleansing and Israeli military doctrine is a form of state terrorism.

Falk writes that he is not yet ready to use the word “genocide” to characterize Israel’s behavior but “genocidal” is implicit in where its policies seem to be heading.

Falk recently completed a six-year stint as the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the West Bank and Gaza. A rapporteur, derived from the French, is an investigator assigned to a deliberative body, in this case the UN Human Rights Council, to which Falk reported from March 2008 to March 2014.

Nearly all of Palestine: The Legitimacy of Hope is based on articles that Falk wrote while he was special rapporteur.

The book is divided into seven chapters, each with an original introduction that provides a framework for what follows. The seven chapters range in topic from peace negotiations to hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners and the massacres in Gaza to the role of international law and global solidarity movements.


In these writings, Falk demonstrates that he is more than just an expert on international human rights. He is also an astute political observer and a compassionate and compelling moral voice.

The central theme of the book is that Palestinians are waging — and winning — a struggle for their legitimate right to self-determination. It is, in effect, a “soft power” struggle of global public opinion and Palestinian resistance, both violent and nonviolent, against the “hard power” of Israeli military superiority backed by the economic, political, military and diplomatic support of the world’s lone superpower, the United States.

Falk weighs in on the role of the global Palestine solidarity movement in support of this struggle. In a striking example of humility, he apologies for coming across as “unwittingly paternalistic” by appearing to approve a Palestinian shift toward nonviolent resistance strategies. “No outsider,” he writes, “has the moral authority or political legitimacy to tell those enduring severe oppression how to behave.”

Elsewhere, he elaborates: “It seems important to understand, especially for non-Palestinians, that it is the Palestinians who should retain control over the discourse on their struggle, vision and strategy. It is up to the rest of us … that we not encroach on this political space and appreciate that our role is secondary.”

Falk underscores that the military methods used by Hamas and its allies should be “viewed in the context of the internationally recognized right of peoples to use all necessary means to resist foreign military occupation … unlawful blockade, collective punishment and [the] regime of state terror” imposed by Israel.

At the same time, he is unequivocal about condemning violence directed at civilians and says militants waging armed struggle must also respect the norms of international law, even when Israeli violence is often purposely meant to provoke a violent Palestinian response.


Falk is at his most passionate when he writes about the Palestinian prisoner hunger strikers. He excoriates the liberal New York Times columnists Nicholas Kristof and Thomas Friedman for relentlessly calling for a “Palestinian Gandhi.”

Yet when Palestinians held under Israel’s system of administrative detention — a misnomer for imprisonment without trial or charges — went on hunger strike to protest this absence of due process and brutal prison conditions, those same liberal voices said nothing.

The fact that many of the hunger strikers belonged to Islamic Jihad undoubtedly played a role in this silence, Falk notes.

Even though a hunger strike is quintessentially nonviolent, demanding, as Falk writes, “the finest qualities that human beings can ever hope to achieve,” neither The New York Times nor other outlets of Western liberal media acknowledged that their long-sought Gandhian moment had arrived.

It is also refreshing to see that Falk is not utopian or idealistic about the role of international law. He readily acknowledges that geopolitical interests take precedence.

Despite the fact that Palestinians have international law on their side, they have nevertheless steadily lost ground to Israel’s brand of settler colonialism and the US role of neo-colonial supporter.

Yet Falk approaches the issue dialectically, showing that invoking international law is nevertheless a vital part of the Palestinians’ struggle and — along with BDS — can help bring about the same type of pressure that ended white minority rule in South Africa.

Like all books that rely on newspaper articles or blog posts for the bulk of their content, Palestine: The Legitimacy of Hope is very much in the moment, caught up in the particular event that inspired that day’s or that week’s commentary.

When transformed into a book, the perspective of time is sometimes lacking, including the historical background that would identify patterns and lend even more weight to the arguments being made.

Despite this minor caveat, the importance of this book is that it does, indeed, legitimize hope.

Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He is active with Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace-Portland Chapter and the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign.




I agree with Falk on everything (the weakness of international law, his preference for one democratic state, his reluctance to use the word 'genocide', and his moral outrage against the Israeli ethnocracy) except: What is this whole thing about being 'unwittingly paternalistic'? I don't see the problem.
When an outsider like myself says, 'I support one democratic state' this means two things: (1) the solution seems to me to be the best one ethically, implementing the rights of ALL Palestinians, and (2) that I am supporting those Palestinians (and Jewish Israelis) who support one democratic state. (That would be Ali Abunimah, Ghada Karmi, Ilan Pappe, Radi Jarai, etc...)
With due respect, a question to Falk and others: How can one be a paternalistic meddler when one has zero power over the Palestinians? When no Palestinian anywhere has to listen to a word you say? One hears the phrase 'telling the Palestinians what to do'. How can I 'tell' the Palestinians what to do when I'm just one guy expressing support for a particular solution, to whom nobody has to listen?
I have a suspicion that behind Falk's disclaimer is perhaps fear that he might really have a paternalistic attitude. Otherwise, there is no need to even bring it up (sort of 'Methinks the lady doth protest too much'). I mean, a person like Falk does have some power. Less than, say, Kerry, who opposes him fundamentally. But the rest of us? We don't feel paternalistic in the least, or that we know better than some group usually called 'the Palestinians'. We know we don't have a vote in the next elections for the PNC!
Fact is, the Palestinians are just as healthily divided in their opinions as any other social group. To say I am 'in solidarity' with them does have a certain broad meaning, yes, but when it gets more specific, you have to devote your resources to some things, and a fortiori to some Palestinians (and Jewish Israelis) and not to others. I don't feel like putting even a minute into supporting the approach of the PA, for instance, or of Palestinians who want a single sharia state (yes, a few exist).
We outside supporters have to pick and choose, otherwise our support remains both vague and tied to specific Israeli crimes, devoid of any vision of the future that might give motivation. I find that it serves Palestinian interests even the broadest sense when I can argue with fellow Westerners and when they say, 'Yeah, but it's such a mess, what do you think is the solution?', I mention One Democratic State. It gets them on board instead of further remaining resigned to a hopeless mess with no light at the end of the tunnel.
Even if in the end the Palestinians have to make compromises, at this point it seems to me to honour them as a group to support the refugees and those in Israel as well as those in WBG. This is part of the dialogue amongst those in the Western countries. They (we) can maybe eventually change their governments' positions, as with South Africa. In contrast to that case, unfortunately, there is no single Palestinian position that seems to command near-universal support of all Palestinians. So we have to pick and choose - or remain rather ineffectual.
None of the Palestinians I know personally have ever asked me to shut up. If they thought I was meddling they were too polite to say it. They see me as a human being first, as a non-Palestinian second. It is a fact that Palestinians 'own' their movement. If governments, those in power and with money, try to dictate to them, that's a different thing. But Falk is not in power, so I hope he quits worrying about this and thinking he has to excuse himself every time he expresses his opinion. Just go for it, Richard! Look at your position as supporting those Palestinians and Jewish Israelis who share it. Our audience is here in the West, and till now, by being timid, perhaps out of fear we might be seen as encroaching on Palestinian moral territory, we haven't convinced a single country to really disown Israel.