Palestinian civil society has strongly and almost unanimously condemned the Palestinian Authority’s decision to delay action regarding the UN Fact-Finding Mission’s report, headed by justice Richard Goldstone, which investigated the recent Israeli war of aggression against Palestinians in the occupied Gaza Strip. A common demand in almost all Palestinian statements was for the UN to adopt the report and act swiftly on its recommendations to bring the report to the Security Council and failing meaningful investigation by responsible parties, take the case to the International Criminal Court in order to bring an end to Israel’s criminal impunity, and to hold it accountable before international law for its war crimes and crimes against humanity in Gaza and, indeed, all over the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Succumbing to US pressure and unabashed Israeli blackmail, Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Ramallah Palestinian Authority (PA), was reportedly personally responsible for the decision to defer council consideration of the Goldstone report. This dashed the hopes of Palestinians everywhere as well as those of international human rights organizations and solidarity movements, that Israel would finally face a long overdue process of legal accountability and that its victims would have a measure of justice. The PA decision — which delays adoption of the report at least until March 2010 — gives Israel a golden opportunity to bury it with US, European, Arab and now Palestinian complicity, and constitutes the most blatant case yet of PA betrayal of Palestinian rights and surrender to Israeli dictates.
History of betrayal
This is not the first time, though, that the PA has acted under orders from Washington and threats from Tel Aviv against the express interests of the Palestinian people. The historic July 2004 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), finding Israel’s wall and colonies built on occupied Palestinian territory illegal, presented a rare diplomatic, political and legal opportunity to isolate Israel just as apartheid South Africa was isolated after the ICJ’s 1971 decision against its occupation of Namibia. Alas, the PA squandered the opportunity and systematically — quite suspiciously, actually — failed even to call on world governments to comply with their obligations stated in the advisory opinion.
The whole clause on Israel and Palestinian rights that was to be discussed at the recent UN Durban Review Conference in Geneva was dropped after the Palestinian representative gave his green light. Efforts by non-aligned nations and former UN General Assembly president Father Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann to push for a UN resolution condemning Israel’s war crimes in Gaza and establishing an international tribunal were thwarted mainly by the Palestinian ambassador to the UN, causing several prominent diplomats and international law experts to wonder which side the official Palestinian representative was on.
The Mercosur-Israel Free Trade Agreement was almost ratified by Brazil last September after the Palestinian ambassador there expressed approval, only urging Brazil to exclude Israeli settlement products from the agreement. With prompt action by Palestinian and Brazilian civil society organizations and eventually by the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), this ratification was averted and the responsible Brazilian parliamentary committee recommended that the government refrain from approving the agreement until Israel complies with international law.
In all these cases and many similar ones, the instructions to the Palestinian representatives came from Ramallah. The PA government there has, however, illegally appropriated the PLO’s authority to conduct Palestinian diplomacy and set foreign policy, conceding Palestinian rights and acting against Palestinian national interests, without worrying about accountability to any elected representatives of the Palestinian people.
The PA’s latest forthright collusion in Israel’s campaign to whitewash its crimes and escape accountability came a few days after the far-right Israeli government publicly blackmailed the PA, demanding that it withdraw its support for adopting the Goldstone report in return for “permitting” a second mobile communications provider to operate in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
This collusion undermines the great efforts by human rights organizations and many activists to bring justice to the Palestinian victims of Israel’s latest massacre in Gaza, the more than 1,400 killed (predominantly civilians), the thousands injured, the 1.5 million who are still suffering from the wanton destruction of infrastructure, educational and health institutions, factories, farm lands, power plants and other critical facilities, and from the long criminal Israeli siege against them.
It is nothing short of a betrayal of Palestinian civil society’s effective boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, with all its recent, remarkable growth and achievements in mainstream western societies and among leading unions. It is also a betrayal of the global solidarity movement that has worked tirelessly and creatively, mainly within the framework of the fast-spreading BDS campaign, to end Israel’s impunity and to uphold universal human rights.
It is crucial to remember that the PA does not have any legal or democratic mandate to speak on behalf of the people of Palestine or to represent the Palestinians at the UN or any of its agencies and institutions. The current PA government has never won the necessary constitutional approval of the democratically elected Palestinian Legislative Council. Even if it had such a mandate, at best it would only represent the Palestinians living under Israel’s military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, excluding the great majority of the people of Palestine, particularly the refugees.
Israel’s strongest weapon, the PA
Only the PLO can theoretically claim to represent the entire Palestinian people, inside historic Palestine and in exile. For such a claim to be substantiated and universally accepted, though, the PLO would need to be revived from the grassroots upwards, in a transparent, democratic and inclusive process involving Palestinians everywhere and encompassing all political parties that are outside PLO structures today.
In parallel with this popular take-back of the PLO by the people and their representative unions and institutions, the PA must be responsibly and gradually dismantled, with its current powers, particularly the representation seats at the UN and other regional and international institutions, returned to where they belong: a revived and democratized PLO. Dissolution of the PA, however, must at all times avoid creating a legal and political vacuum, as history shows that hegemonic powers are often the most likely to fill such a vacuum to the detriment of the oppressed.
The fact is the PA has been gradually and irreversibly transformed since its establishment 15 years ago. It began as an often powerless, obsequious and coerced sub-contractor of the Israeli occupation, relieving Israel of its most cumbersome civil duties, like providing services and tax collection. Most crucially, the PA very effectively helped Israel safeguard the security of its occupation army and colonial settlers. Now, the PA has gone beyond those roles, becoming a willing collaborator that constitutes Israel’s most important strategic weapon in countering its growing isolation and loss of legitimacy on the world stage as a colonial and apartheid state. Israel’s hundreds of nuclear weapons and its fourth most powerful military in the world proved impotent or at least irrelevant before the growing BDS movement, particularly after Israel’s acts of genocide in Gaza. The almost unlimited diplomatic, political, economic and scientific support Israel receives from American and European governments and its unparalleled impunity have also failed to protect it from the gloomy fate of apartheid South Africa.
Even before Israel’s war on Gaza, many unions around the world had joined the BDS campaign. After Gaza, BDS leaped into a new, advanced phase, finally reaching the mainstream. Years of careful groundwork facilitated this, but international shock at Israel’s white phosphorus showers of death visited upon the children of Gaza cowering in UN shelters, and the universal feeling that the international order has failed to hold Israel accountable or even end its slaughter, or the ongoing ethnic cleansing campaign in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, has provided an enormous boost.
In February, weeks after the end of Israel’s Gaza bloodbath, the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU) made history when it refused to offload an Israeli ship in Durban. In April, the Scottish Trade Union Congress followed the lead of the South African trade union federation, COSATU, and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in adopting BDS to bring about Israel’s compliance with international law. In May, the University and College Union (UCU), representing some 120,000 British academics, reiterated its annual support for the logic of boycott against Israel, calling for organizing an inter-union BDS conference to discuss strategies to implement the boycott.
And in September, Norway’s government pension fund, the world’s third largest, divested from an Israeli military contractor supplying equipment for construction of the illegal West Bank wall. Shortly after that, a Spanish ministry excluded a team representing an Israeli college illegally built on occupied Palestinian land from participating in an academic competition. Also in September, the British Trades Union Congress, representing more than 6.5 million workers, adopted the boycott, ushering in a new phase reminiscent of the beginning of the end of the South African apartheid regime. According to concrete, persistent and mounting indicators, Palestinians are witnessing the arrival of their South Africa moment.
Amidst all this came the Goldstone report, quite surprisingly — given the judge’s strong connections with Israel and Zionism — providing the straw that may well break the camel’s back: irrefutable evidence, meticulously researched and documented, of Israel’s deliberate commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Despite its clear shortcomings, this report presented Israel with the daunting possibility of standing trial at an international tribunal, effectively ending its impunity.
In this dire situation, only one strategic weapon in Israel’s arsenal could fend off a crushing legal and political defeat: the PA. And Israel indeed used it at the right time, almost killing the Goldstone report.
Ultimately, the failure of the UN Human Rights Council to adopt the Goldstone report is another proof, if any is needed, that Palestinians cannot hope at the current historical moment to obtain justice from the US-controlled so-called “international community.” Only through intensified, sustainable and context-sensitive civil society campaigns of boycott and divestment can there be any hope that Israel will one day be compelled to end its lawlessness and criminal disregard of human rights and recognize the inalienable Palestinian right to self determination. This right, as expressed by the great majority of the Palestinian people, comprises ending the occupation, ending the legalized and institutionalized system of racial discrimination, or apartheid, and recognizing the fundamental, UN-sanctioned right of Palestine refugees to return to their homes of origin, like all other refugees around the world.
We simply cannot afford to give up on the UN, though. Human rights organizations and international civil society must continue to help the Palestinian struggle to pressure the UN, at least its General Assembly, to adopt and act upon the recommendations of the Goldstone report at all levels. If the UN fails to do so it will send an unambiguous message to Israel that its impunity remains intact and that the international community will stand by apathetically the next time it commits even more egregious crimes against the indigenous people of Palestine. This would gravely undermine the rule of law and promote in its stead the law of the jungle, where no one will be protected from total chaos and boundless carnage.
Omar Barghouti is a founding member of the BDS movement (www.BDSmovement.net).