The text of my remarks delivered in Cairo at the joint UN/Arab League ceremony marking the observance of the 2012 International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, 29 Nov 2012, some 10 hours prior to the historic vote in the UN General Assembly.
Your Excellency, Dr. Nabil Elaraby, Secretary General of the League of Arab States, H.E. Barakat Al Fara, H.E. Amre Dou Al Atta, Dr. Mohammad Gimi’a, Bishop Macos, Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:
It is an exceptional honor and challenge to speak on such an occasion. We meet at a tense historical moment with heavy potential consequences for the Palestinian people and for the peoples and governments of the region. I along with many others throughout the world share Nelson Mandela’s view that the denial of Palestinian rights remains the “the greatest moral issue of our time.” This 2012 International Day of Solidarity with the People of Palestine possesses a special significance. A ceasefire ending the latest orgy of violence afflicting the two societies, but especially affecting the people of Gaza, has been agreed upon just over a week ago, and appears to be holding. And in a few hours the Chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is scheduled to ask the UN General Assembly to recognize Palestine as a non-member observer State within the UN, a status similar to that of the Vatican. When this initiative is approved later today it means an upgraded status for Palestine within the UN System, including probable access to other organs of the UN.
Meeting here in Cairo on this occasion has an added resonance. It was the Egyptian government that played such an instrumental role in producing the ceasefire in Gaza, and it is the democratization of Egypt that has done more to improve Palestinian prospects than any other recent regional or international development. It also raises expectations that Egypt will in the future exert its influence to bring this conflict that has lingered far too long to a just end by working toward a peaceful solution based on the recognition of Palestinian rights under international law. Nothing would better convey to the world that the Arab Spring represents a regional declaration of independence from the dominion of external influence. In doing so it would enlarge upon the earlier historic achievement of unexpectedly bringing about the downfall of a series of dictatorial regimes reigning throughout the Middle East.
Those innocent Palestinians who lost their lives and were injured during the latest Israeli military attack upon Gaza should be remembered and mourned on this day as martyred victims of Israel’s latest onslaught. This attack was carried out with ferocity and using the most modern weaponry against an essentially entrapped and acutely vulnerable people. We should be thankful that this latest violent interlude has come to an end, and all of us should resolve to work toward the good faith implementation of the ceasefire agreement not only with respect to the violence, but in its entirety. Such an implementation would uphold what was achieved through the energetic and flexible diplomacy of Egypt, and other regional forces.
There are already disquieting signs that Israel is downplaying the conditions set forth in the ceasefire text, especially those pertaining to a prohibition on future targeted assassinations and on establishing the mechanisms mandating the opening of the Gaza crossings. The blockade of Gaza imposed by Israel in mid-2007 is nothing other than the collective punishment of the entire Gazan population, and hence a flagrant violation of Article 33 of the 4th Geneva Convention. If the ceasefire agreement is faithfully carried out the blockade will finally be brought to an end, after more than five years of punitive closure. Goods and persons will be able to flow in both directions across the borders between Israel and Gaza. This is unlikely to happen without concerted pressure from Israel’s neighbors. Israeli officials are whispering behind the scenes that nothing more was agreed upon, despite the clear language of the brief ceasefire text, beyond the cessation of the violence. The Israeli claim is that everything else was a mere pledge to discuss, without any obligation to act. Such a disappointing of the Palestinian expectations must not be allowed to happen. Without implementation of the full agreement, this ceasefire will evaporate in a cloud of smoke, the rockets soon will again fall on Israel, and Gaza will again become a killing field while the world once more looks on helplessly at this awful spectacle of an ultra-modern war machine killing and maiming at will, and once more terrifying with unforgiveable impunity the entire civilian population of Gaza.
Such a situation presents the regional and world community with both a responsibility and an opportunity. As I have suggested, without pressure brought to bear Israel is unlikely to implement the ceasefire. There are levers of influence that can be pulled, and if they are, it will convey a new seriousness on the part of Arab governments, to take concrete measures to enforce the international legal rights of the Palestinian people. States such as Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with Israel that can be suspended due to fundamentally changed circumstances or diplomatic relations downgraded or even drawn into question. The more affluent Arab governments could commit to supplying UN agencies with funds to offset any refusals to pay the normal assessed financial contributions of Israel and its friends. There are many concrete steps that can be taken if the political will to do so is present.
Shockingly, Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador at the United States, declared a few days ago that in this recent attack, “Israel was not confronting Gaza, but Iran.” He added that the attack on Gaza should be understood as ‘a rehearsal’ for militarily engaging Tehran. Such an acknowledgement is tantamount to a public confession by a high Israeli official to commit crimes against humanity, spilling Palestine blood so as to play what amounts to a war game to test how effective the Iron Dome would likely be in dealing with Iranian rockets expected to be released in the aftermath of an Israeli attack, if in fact Israel actually goes ahead with such a military venture at odds with the UN Charter.
This assertion by someone of Ambassador Oren’s stature reinforces the call to the UN Human Rights Council to form a high level fact-finding mission to Gaza that evaluates allegations of war crimes on all sides of the struggle as was done with mixed results after the Gaza War of 2008-09. Such a step has been proposed in a letter of 22 November 2012 to Navi Pillay, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, from the highly respected director of the Palestine Centre for Human Rights, Raji Sourani. I believe firmly that it is our responsibility as citizens of the world, and especially those of us associated with the UN, to do whatever necessary to avoid having flagrant violations of international humanitarian law being swept under the diplomatic rug. Further, it my hope that this time, unlike the unfortunate experience with the Goldstone Report four years ago, that whatever recommendations are made to the UN do not get buried beneath the weight of geopolitical influence, but are carried out in a timely and diligent manner. The UN to be credible and relevant to the aspirations of the Palestinian people must at this time move beyond its authoritative and oft repeated affirmation of inalienable Palestinian rights under international law to the undertaking of concrete steps designed to implement those rights.
Ambassador Oren’s comments are revealing in another way. They are an extreme example of Israel’s frequent reliance on ‘a politics of deflection’ to divert attention from their highest priority concerns. Such deflection takes various forms. On a simple level it means attacking the messenger to avoid the message, or claiming that the UN is biased so as to avoid discussing the abuses alleged. Such a pattern was epitomized by the recent unlawful and criminal attack on journalists in Gaza, in effect eliminating the messenger to prevent delivery of the message. On a more complex level it means shifting attention away from the real drama of the occupation. Periodic attacks on Gaza totally redirect the attention of the world away from Israel’s expansionist projects. It should be clear to all by now that Israel’s highest priorities in Occupied Palestine are associated with their controversial and unlawful settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel builds an unlawful security wall on occupied Palestinian territory, in the course of which it seizes additional Palestinian land, and when the World Court declares this unlawful wall should be torn down and Palestinians compensated for the harm done, Israel callously attacks the highest judicial body of the UN and carries on with its construction efforts without suffering any adverse effects.
Similarly, Israel continuously expands its settlements and has made a recent major move to legalize its approximately 100 ‘outposts,’ smaller settlements that had been previously illegal even under Israeli law. The attention of the world is guided toward Gaza, while settlement building gets a free pass. The passage of time is not neutral. For Israel is allows expansionist policies to move forward uninterrupted, for the Palestinians it diminishes ever further their prospects for realizing their primary goal of sovereign territorial statehood. It is part of the Palestinian tragedy that the international community and the media are so easily manipulated. Responsible action requires vigilance, and it is a positive step in this regard that the HRC authorized a fact-finding mission to assess the settlement phenomenon from the perspective of international law and human rights standards. This is a concrete step that represents an effort to refocus world attention where it belongs. Make no mistake. Every additional settler, every new settlement outpost, is one more nail in the coffin of the two state consensus.
In considering the Palestinian situation, it is misleading to become preoccupied, as is the case with the Western media, with pinning the blame on one side or the other for a particular breakdown of the precarious armed truce that exists. More relevant is an appreciation of the broader context. As Sara Roy, a Harvard specialist on Gaza, reminds us, “The current crisis is framed in terms devoid of any real context. The issue goes far beyond which side precipitated the terrible violence that has killed innocents on both sides. The issue—largely forgotten—is one of continued occupation and blockade, a grossly asymmetrical conflict that has deliberately disabled Gaza’s economy and people.” (Boston Globe, Nov. 23, 2012). This defining reality of the occupation applies, of course, to all of occupied Palestine, but the asymmetry of human loss is particularly evident in relation to Gaza, and is partly conveyed by a comparison of the grisly statistics of death: more than 160 Palestinians, and 5 Israelis. According to figures compiled by the Israeli human rights NGO, B’Tselem between the ceasefire established in January 2009 and the outbreak of this recent cycle of violence not a single Israeli had been killed, while Israeli violence was responsible for 271 Gazan deaths.
Looking at the overall casualty ratios, the Israeli journalist, Gideon Levy, writing in Ha’aretz (25 Nov 2012), observes the following: “sometimes numbers do reflect reality, and this reality can no longer be ignored. Since the first Qassam rocket fell on Israel in April 2001, 59 Israelis have been killed – and 4,717 Palestinians. The numbers don’t lie, as they say in less lethal fields, and this proportion is horrifying.” It should help us realize that Israel had an alternative to this turn once more toward mass mechanized violence directed against an occupied people enduring a siege that is crippling its society materially and bringing the mental and physical health of the Gazan population to a point of near collapse.