The BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights recently published Rights in Principle — Rights in Practice, which examines a rights-based approach to crafting durable solutions for Palestinian refugees. The Electronic Intifada contributor Adri Nieuwhof interviews BADIL director Ingrid Jaradat Gassner on the organization’s work and the new book.
Adri Nieuwhof: Can you introduce BADIL and yourself?
Ingrid Jaradat Gassner: BADIL is a Palestinian nongovernmental organization (NGO) based in Bethlehem, and was established in 1998. Our mandate is to support the Palestinian people, in particular displaced people, to defend their rights, in particular their right of return. I am a founding member of BADIL and I have been its director since the beginning.
AN: What was the idea behind the foundation of BADIL?
IJG: The initiative came to a large extent from a series of popular conferences in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip as well as a conference of Palestinians in Israel in the mid-1990s, following the Oslo peace process, which in a very clear way sidelined Palestinian refugees and internally displaced persons. It was unclear how the peace process and the negotiations would deal with this. A strong campaign was necessary so that Palestinian negotiators would take a firm stand against a peace deal that would violate the rights of the refugees. One of the recommendations of the conferences was that there should be a Palestinian civil organization that specializes in this, because this did not exist. There was a group of people working in NGOs who were familiar with the topic and they participated in setting up BADIL, as well as some of the organizers of the popular conferences, among which were many members of the refugee communities.
AN: Can you give a brief overview of Rights in Principle - Rights in Practice?
IJG: It is a special book for BADIL, because it sums up several years of our work. In the first years we had to try to get involved in the peace process, because it could have a huge impact on the position of refugees. We had to engage in this existing peace effort. One way was to work with community organizations, to make sure the voice of the refugees was heard and respected by the Palestinian negotiators. We made a quite sustained effort to engage our international activities on the rights of Palestinians more in the context of the negotiations. Slowly we started to realize that we were the black sheep in these forums — always making the claims on the right of return and restitution for Palestinian refugees. We decided we should create our own forum, because we were no longer willing to participate in these non-rights based forums. In 2003 and 2004 we held seminars on the role of international law, housing, land and property restitution, international protection, and putting rights into practice. At the same time we organized study visits for Palestinian refugees to other places where refugee crises were being or had been resolved in order to see how states and the international community tackle and resolve refugee situations in other contexts. Refugees from the occupied [Palestinian] territory, Lebanon, North America, Europe and internally displaced Palestinians from Israel participated in these visits to Bosnia and Herzegovina, South Africa and Cyprus. Those who could do so, also participated in “return visits” to their places of origin now located in Israel, in order to assess possibilities for return and reconstruction.
The idea of the book came about when we realized around 2004/2005 that the situation is not one where we could expect a substantial peace process would emerge again. We felt we had learned what states and civil society could do, but there was no longer a context to push for a rights-based process. At some point there will be negotiations. We felt it is important not to lose the knowledge we collected, so that our expertise can be used later.
It is a closing chapter book. At the end of the book we look back and show the lines where we are going from there, which is very different from the technical in-depth debate of the rights-based approach.
AN: How do you analyze the current situation?
IJG: The 2004 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the construction of the wall in the occupied West Bank was a kind of turning point. It made very clear that there was no political will to implement international law, or to be clear about what is right and what is wrong. How could we expect that Israel and other states would respect their obligations, if they can even ignore the highest opinion of the ICJ? We understood that it is basically civil society that creates the political will. We can change the thinking of decision makers, this absolute no-response of states. Many of us realized this in 2004/05. Organizations engaged in collective discussions on how we analyze the situation.
It was clear that this regime [Israel] does not respect international law, but continues to commit violations over and over again. We debated what is needed to change this. At this time civil society organizations in Palestine started to discuss what is today the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign to isolate Israel and to build pressure on other governments to take a position against Israel’s violations of international law.
We also analyzed the character of the regime which oppresses the Palestinian people. We got some help from independent human rights experts. Professor John Dugard helped us understand how colonization, apartheid and occupation can go together in one regime. In 2008 we had extensive, broad discussions and how the Israeli regime combined the three. It has become common to talk about Israeli apartheid today, although it is not yet clear for everybody what this means. Our challenge is to explain exactly why we say it is apartheid, what are the main characteristics of apartheid.
At the same time, we again found a situation where governments and UN institutions and bodies, people in the UN absolutely refuse to recognize that Israel is a colonial apartheid regime. They have the information — there is an unwillingness to engage. Until we reach a situation where powerful actors recognize that we live in a situation of colonialism, apartheid and occupation, not much can be done here. All the international interventions will not protect the rights of Palestinians, because they miss the root causes. All efforts of constructive engagement with Israel, like for example that of the European Union, will not work. What works is to treat Israel like apartheid South Africa was treated. Put pressure on Israel, isolate Israel until it understands there are certain rules they have to comply with.
Right now, [Israel is] building bantustans in the [West Bank], and there is displacement, the blockade of the Gaza Strip. We are moving farther away from a peace scenario. We are deep in a colonial apartheid scenario.
AN: You explained that we are in the post-peace process stage and you have explained that the Israeli regime combines colonialism, apartheid and the occupation. What are the implications for BADIL’s strategy? Or the Palestinian strategy?
IJG: Well, I think the main strategy is to build the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign as broad and as strong as possible. This is number one. It has proven to be very effective and there is potential for a bigger impact. Secondly, we have to raise awareness about this Israeli apartheid regime, even among our friends and campaigners we work with. Apartheid seems to be a bad word. We are convinced we can make a legal argument that apartheid is a crime under international law and that it applies to our situation. Thirdly, as BADIL we have to put effort at the same time into showing that positive scenarios can be developed. While we are struggling against the oppression, we have to develop a vision and show that our vision is practical and achievable.
AN: What type of support is needed in this fight phase from international organizations, citizens and social movements?
IJG: I think maximal activism and involvement in the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign is the most important. We would also like to see more emphasis, campaigning, raising awareness on the discrimination of Palestinian citizens in Israel and the Palestinian refugees. There is a tendency to focus on the campaign against the occupation. These other two sectors of the Palestinian people are also very much affected by this colonial, apartheid regime. We want to have solidarity with the entire Palestinian people.
Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate based in Switzerland.