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Bahar Mirhosseini – WNN Interviews

Noura Erakat on Al Jazeera America news

Legal scholar and Palestinian American human rights attorney Noura Erakat. Image: Al Jazeera America

(WNN) New York, U.S., AMERICAS: Since July 8 2014, increased military aggression against occupied Gaza by aerial attacks and a ground invasion from Israel has placed the world’s breath on hold. Through the lens of photographers and journalists the world has witnessed images of maimed and murdered Palestinians in the arms of running relatives. Others have been wrapped in sheets on ambulance stretchers or standing by buildings that have been completely destroyed. One recent photo image is of a young girl who can be seen wading through a bombed out building gathering up her schoolbooks. This is an image that brings hope and sadness to both sides of the conflict.

It’s the act of witnessing conflict up-close in our modern digital age that is on the eye of a large and stunned world audience as hard-to-see images can be seen in large HD screens on home computers, on hand-held mobile phones or ipad tablets that can be tucked under an arm. This is where seeing an image has its most virulent impact and where legal teams may be looking carefully in court for human rights abuses.

Everyone knows the Israeli/Gaza conflict is not new. It maps a long history of turmoil in the region. But those who have taken a close look at conditions for Gazan civilians who have been forced to face or flee a bomb, with nowhere to go, is an untenable situation.

WNN reporter Bahar Mirhosseini talks here with human rights attorney, advocate and legal scholar Noura Erakat.

Palestinian-American professor and lecturer on international human rights law at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., Erakat is also co-editor for Jadaliyya, an independent ezine which tracks Middle-Eastern life and culture. Jadaliyya also tracks international law policy that examines the impacts of local government and foreign intervention on Arabs in the Middle East. Since its beginnings in September 2010, the publication has garnered a large and respected global following, including numerous members of the news media.

Sharing legal insights and analysis Noura has appeared on a multitude of media broadcasts and television shows including MSNBC show “All In With Chris Hayes” and more recently “Ronan Farrow Daily.” Erakat has also appeared on Fox Network’s “The O’ Reilly Factor,” as well as Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now!” through Pacifica Radio and U.S. Public TV. NBC news “Politically Incorrect,” PBS show “THIRTEEN,” as well as BBC news, Al Jazeera America and National Public Radio (NPR) have also been part of her public appearances.

In 2009 Erakat served as Legal Counsel for a Congressional Subcommittee in the United States House of Representatives. As a legal scholar and expert on the current situation in Gaza, Erakat’s insight is invaluable for those who want a deeper level of understanding of the long range legal impacts on Palestinian civilians, as well as Israeli authorities, in the region.

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Bahar Mirhosseini for WNN: On July 22, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu held a press conference where the UN Secretary General, admonished both Palestinians and Israelis with the same message:  “stop fighting” and “start talking.” The next day the UN held a special session in Geneva regarding human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories, where UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay called for the lifting of Israel’s blockade on Gaza.

In an independent investigation into the situation in Gaza, through a recounting in documentation of Israel’s airstrikes on a center for people with disabilities in Beit Lahiya, along with members of the Al Shuja’iya neighborhood and the Al Aqsa hospital, Pillay conveyed, “there seems to be a strong possibility that international humanitarian law has been violated in a manner that could amount to war crimes.”

What is your response to this?

Noura Erakat: The discrepancy that we are seeing between the UN Security Council’s admonishment and the human rights community is one that reflects the layer below politics.

What we are seeing in the UN Security Council is sheer politics where the idea is to establish an immediate cease fire calling upon both sides, despite the lack of parity, to end their military engagement. The Security Council reflects the politics of the five permanent members, the rotating members, and the role that the U.S. plays in providing impunity for Israel to conduct these operations under the veneer of self defense, a claim which does not apply here.

While Geneva will still call Hamas rocket fire a violation of humanitarian law as well, because it does not have targeting capabilities which means that it is Ipso Facto indiscriminate and could for example amount to war crimes, the difference is that Geneva is going further by saying even after the cease fire is over [that] Palestinians will continue to suffer as a result of the structural violence from the blockade and occupation this ensures that Palestinians can not live and can not live well in the Gaza strip.

By 2020, according to the World Health Organization, the Gaza strip will be unlivable. It will not have access to water. It will not have access to electricity. It will not have access to fuel. It will not have functioning hospitals. And it will not have access to medicines.

We are talking about a situation that means Palestinians cannot survive.

I applaud the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the European Union for highlighting that a cease fire [does] not just involve ending of military fire–the ground and aerial offensive–but also involves lifting the siege. Otherwise Palestinians remain under attack.

BM: With the more than a hundred billion dollars in aid from the United States to Israel, as a legal scholar, does this violate the Arms Export Control Act or any other U.S. laws?

NE: It is not the amount of aid that the U.S. has sent but rather the number of years that the U.S. has sent aid without scrutinizing whether or not Israel is in fact in compliance with U.S. law, such as compliance with the Arms Export Control Act, the Mutual Assistance Act, and the Foreign Assistance Act.

Those laws stipulate that receipt of foreign aid shall use those funds to further human rights, coexistence, and the well being of all. Israel has demonstrated that it has used that funding precisely to demolish Palestinian homes, to ensure the [unequal] maldistribution of water, to build settlements in settlement blocks, and to purchase weapons from the United States in order to attack civilians.

These amount to human rights violations because they are violations of humanitarian laws, specifically the laws of war on distinction, proportionality, necessity, as well as the Fourth Geneva convention on the law that obligates an occupying power to protect civilians under its occupation. Israel has violated the laws of war and the Fourth Geneva Convention.

The reason that these violations continue to go unchecked in the United States is that the lawmakers do not consider the grievances of the Palestinians as legitimate concerns. Instead, they consider them as aggressive and they consider them as outside the law.

As far as the U.S. is concerned, the law of occupation does not apply because Israel has insisted that the Fourth Geneva Convention does not apply to the West Bank and none of the Gaza Strip.

Rather than challenge this based on an international legal analysis, the U.S. administration as well as Congress, accept as a political matter these laws do not apply, and therefore you have a conundrum where U.S. law is violated because international law is not recognized as applying in this situation, where politics trumps all.

BM: With this most recent Israeli attack on the people of Gaza, do you see any shift in mainstream media coverage?

NE: There is certainly a palpable shift, year after year there is more of a shift, in part because Israel’s attacks, frankly, are so blatantly unjustified.

In this situation Israel claimed that it attacked the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian population because of Hamas rocket fire. But it provoked this war very explicitly by blaming Hamas for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli settlers although even after 600 Palestinians have been killed, Israel has yet to produce evidence that demonstrates this is in fact the case. For those who are paying attention, this issue has not been lost.

In addition citizen journalism, through Twitter and Facebook, has done wonders to bring attention to the issue; to publish pictures where pictures have not been published; and create the story before any editorial policies can block it.

When major newspapers like the The New York Times or the The Washington Post run pieces that, for example, only mention the death of Palestinians in the passive voice, rather than saying explicitly that Israel had killed them, social media has been a tool where citizen journalists have been able to respond and create enough noise so that the The New York Times has to change their headline in response to that kind of pressure.

That said, I think that there has been a palpable shift.

However I still do not think that mainstream media coverage is critical enough on Israel because it starts from the baseline that Israel is acting is self-defense; that it is attacking Palestinians because they had to; and that it is attacking Hamas rather than from the starting point that Palestinians are a population under occupation.

Mainstream media coverage begins from the point that Israel is under attack, condemns the excessive nature of the attack, but not the fact that Israel violates as a matter of structure its own obligations and it inflicts a violence upon Palestinians even in the absence of this type of military warfare.

Child's bicycle in bombed out home in Gaza, November 19, 2012

A child’s bicycle can be seen in a bombed out home in Gaza City, November 19, 2012, shows the innocent victims who can be greatly impacted under conflict. Image: Derek Stoffel/CBC City, November 19, 2012. Image: Derek Stoffel/CBC

BM: In the arc of Israel’s military occupation, looking into the increased aggression that began on July 8th, why is it happening at this time? Why then and why now?

NE: This was a point in time where Israel found itself in a very weak position. Specifically regarding Bibi Netanyahu’s domestic political considerations: he had failed to prevent the rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran on nuclear power. He had failed to foil the unity agreement between Hamas and Fatah. He had failed to preserve the ascending presidency of Reuven Rivlin within his own government.

And the peace process had broken down with even U.S. officials blaming Israel’s settlement expansion as the culprit for the failure of that peace process. All of these added together created a situation that severely diminished Netanyahu’s own domestic political standing as well as Israel’s international standing.

Unfortunately, the Palestinian population have become the cannon fodder, the expendable bodies, that have been subject to Israel’s domestic political work. So when Netanyahu found himself in this position, there is almost no cost to go ahead and detract from those issues by beginning a military assault on the Gaza Strip and the 1.8 million Palestinians there.

BM: In this increased military assault, have governments in the Arab world come to the aid of Palestinians? Why or why not?

NE: Unfortunately not at all. This reflects a serious and deep fracture within the Arab world today that is continued in the aftermath of continuing Arab uprising, civil war in Syria, [and an] Iraq which has not found stability and has yet to recover from the U.S.’s debilitating sanctions and invasion in 2003. There remains a regional proxy war between powers, like for example Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

We see Saudi Arabia, and now Egypt which is under Sisi’s dictatorial government, in what looks like collusion with Israel in order to oust Hamas and increase the power of the Fatah political party. The problem with this is that they again perpetuate the idea that the Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip is expendable.

Qatar has been one of the few countries that have come to the aid of Palestinians in Gaza explicitly and have offered funding for all of the public service employees in the Gaza Strip.

But the U.S. has told it [Qatar] explicitly that it cannot fund these public workers because it [Qatar] would be funding Hamas and therefore aiding and abetting a terrorist organization. So we find ourselves in a situation where there is paralysis within the Arab League and not for a lack of compassion for Palestinians, but for these domestic political considerations.

It seems like politics has trumped all in these situations at the expense of humanitarian considerations.

BM: What should be the role of Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority be during this crisis?

NE: It should be a unified voice with all Palestinians that this is a massacre against the Palestinian population and all attacks amount to war crimes.

Mahmoud Abbas has said as much and has called this a genocide. Fatah has now endorsed Hamas’s conditions for a truce and we are seeing improvement on that front.

The Palestinian Authority, and more specifically Palestinian Liberation Organization, should engage in a full frontal diplomatic attack against Israel using all diplomatic, legal, media and grassroots means in order to isolate Israel and to highlight the human rights violations, systematic and otherwise.

BM: If there is a temporary cease fire what should Hamas propose as a short term plan for peace?

NE: Hamas has already offered ten points which are very basic of what should be the conditions for peace. All of these conditions affirm life.

They involve lifting the siege, allowing Palestinian fisherman to fish off the coast of Gaza beyond three nautical miles, creating an airport and a seaport, allowing Palestinians to move freely and have access to medical aid. All of these terms are absolutely critical.

In my opinion, a cease fire means ending all aerial and ground offensives, for Hamas and Israel, as well as lifting the siege immediately. Both military fire as well as the siege need to be lifted immediately.

BM: What do you think would be a practical and sustainable long term solution to the issue of Israel’s ongoing military occupation of Palestinians?

NE: There is no solution beyond ending the occupation. Israel is trying to maintain the occupation and what we see going on now is the symptomatic results of that.

Israel must end its occupation. It must end its settlor colonial apartheid rule. There is no sustainable solution beyond that.

Palestinians and Israelis live inextricably with one another. The only distance between them is not a physical distance but a legal and socio-political distance which allows the Jewish Israeli population to enjoy benefits that make them superior to the Palestinian population. Any regime that we have seen historically that bases its constitution on such stark discrimination either on religious, ethnic, or racial grounds is neither sustainable nor in compliance with human rights norms.

So the end to this once and for all is the ending of this occupation, the ending of settlor colonialism and the ending of apartheid rule.

BM: As a legal scholar and an advocate what is your message to the American people?

NE: The American people have tremendous amounts of agency as well as an obligation to do something about this because they are tax payers and are actually funding the siege and attack on Gaza.

The U.S. is funding Israel 3.1 billion dollars a year. That means that we are not only part of the problem, but we must be part of the solution.

I encourage U.S. taxpayers to protest the provision of this aid in the face of ongoing human rights violations, our government’s intransigent support for Israel and a lack of responsiveness to constituent concerns.

I also encourage Americans, U.S. Residents, U.S. Citizens and others to engage in boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel until and when it complies with international law and human rights norms.

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At least 16 people were killed and more than 200 injured Thursday when a school used as a United Nations shelter came under fire in Gaza. Palestinian families displaced by the assault had reportedly gathered to move to a safer area when the school was hit. Palestinian officials have blamed Israeli tank shelling, while Israel has suggested militant rockets were at fault. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has declined to directly accuse Israel, but says it gave the school’s coordinates to the Israeli army numerous times. “Within Gaza, there is no safe place,” says Christopher Gunness, UNRWA spokesperson. “If the parties to this conflict have shown themselves callous enough to be able to hit a clearly designated, clearly marked U.N. compound where hundreds of people have come to take sanctuary, we cannot guarantee anymore the safety of our installations.” Gunness says the number of people now seeking shelter amidst the violence has swelled to 150,000. Since the original bombing of the UNRWA school, two other UNRWA schools were also bombed before a proposed 72 hour ceasefire was put into place today on Tuesday August 5, 2014.
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For more information on this topic:

Human Rights and Alternative Legality in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” Harvard University, April 2014;

Operation Cast Lead: The Elusive Quest for Self Defense under International Law,” Noura Ekatat, Rutgers University, Fall 2009;

Towards gender equality in humanitarian response: Addressing the needs of men and women in Gaza – A guidebook for the humanitarian sector,” UNIFEM (now UN Women), October 2013.

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