Angela Goldstein is policy officer at the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), an Israeli organization that opposes house demolitions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and re-builds demolished houses as a political act of resistance. She is also a member of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, an international body established at the request of the United Nations that monitors displacement by armed conflicts across the globe. Goldstein is one of the people behind the Free Gaza Movement, which recently sent a boat to the coasts of the closed Gaza Strip. She strongly believes in cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians to increase prospects for peace. In 1981 she immigrated to Israel after having lived in South Africa. Her father is originally from Lithuania. We had a conversation with her on house demolitions, the work of ICAHD and the Israeli occupation policies in the West Bank.

The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions was founded by the anthropology professor Jeff Halper in 1997, when the Oslo peace process was in decline and Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister after the assassination of Rabin. ICAHD consulted with Palestinians on what they considered to be the most critical issue to be working on. One issue that was coming up all the time was house demolitions. The extent of the practice was found to be shocking. Since the beginning of the occupation over 18000 Palestinian homes have been destroyed. Almost every Palestinian family has an experience with house demolitions. ICAHD now uses the issue of house demolitions as an action tool to resist the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Goldstein: Ten years ago we didn’t understand how powerful it would be as an issue to be working on. Each demolition is a microcosm of the occupation: why they are demolishing a particular house in a particular area exposes how the wider occupation works and how the process of house demolitions is contributing to the wider occupation. We want to unmask the way Israel frames the occupation as a conflict of security. The policy of house demolitions shows exactly the opposite. In more than 90% of the cases the families whose house was demolished didn’t have a security record. House demolitions gives us a perfect opportunity to present an alternative view to the occupation.

Then why are the houses being demolished?
Goldstein: Israel is hiding behind bureaucracy: ‘Everywhere in the world illegally built houses are being demolished.’ But why would Palestinians put all their life savings into an illegal construction? Because they cannot build legally. No Palestinian will get a building permit in East Jerusalem and over half of the West Bank in the so called Area C. Therefore people are forced against their will to become criminals. The territorial carving up of the West Bank into three Areas was created by the Oslo peace accords in 1993. It institutionalized the occupation. It allows Israel to execute deliberate demographic policies in Area C, forcing people out of the areas where Israel wants to extend its control into the enclaves of Area A. It’s a slow and long term policy of putting Palestinians as a surplus population in controllable ‘warehouses’. Naomi Klein launched this concept of ‘warehousing’ in her new book ‘The Shock Doctrine’.

What is so special about Area C?
Goldstein: House demolitions are a widespread phenomenon in Area C, because all settlements are, army bases, nature reserves, industrial sites and by pass roads are there. House demolitions go hand in hand with land expropriation for settlements expansion. Many foreign donor agencies are funding projects to build infrastructure for Palestinians in Area C, while Israel is building infrastructure for its citizens and demolishing Palestinian infrastructure in the same area, even those structures built with donor money. Thousands of Palestinians are displaced and homeless and thousands more are under threat of being displaced.

Is that why you rebuild houses?
Goldstein: Yes and no. We discovered the huge impact a house demolition has on the victim family: divorces, breakdown of families, kids’ school standards drop. The home is very much the center of Palestinian life. The family is the main institution in Palestinian society. So resisting demolitions and rebuilding homes allow us to express our solidarity with the victims. When I hear a house is about to be demolished, my heart sinks to my stomach. We are ultimately powerless to help the victims here and now. But the main goal of physically resisting a demolition is to win time for journalists and human rights activists to arrive on the scene. And rebuilding of homes is more a political act of resistance to the occupation, then it is an humanitarian act. The victims know they are the victim of a policy. We are resisting against this policy. But one of the biggest dangers is that we get used to it as a political act of resistance, while for each family it’s a tragedy. We have to remember our acts of resistance against the occupation involve victims.

How many of the 18000 demolished homes have you rebuilt?
Goldstein: A tiny fraction of it. We rebuilt over 150 homes in plenty of in the West Bank. Recently we rebuilt a home in Anata, a village close to Jerusalem and one in Al Baqa’a, a farming village in a fertile valley close to Hebron, where people live a very traditional lifestyle. Al Baqa’a is in the way of territorial contiguity between two Israeli settlements. Every single house in the village is either totally demolished, partly damaged or has a demolition order. Settlers are progressively moving the fence around Kyriat Arba, one of the settlements, to take more land.

What does a demolition look like?
Meir Margalit (co-founder of ICAHD; during a visit to a demolished house in East-Jerusalem): There is no budget to destroy all houses built without a permit, because this is basically every Palestinian house in area C. This adds to the insecurity and arbitrariness of the demolitions: you never know when the bulldozers will come. Not even the delivery of a demolition order means your house will be demolished soon. The order leaves you the choice: if you do not demolish the house yourself within a specified period, the state will do it for you. From the moment you get the demolition order, you live in constant insecurity or fear. It can happen tomorrow or in 10 years.

In case of an actual demolition, the victims carry the costs of the demolition of their own house. The moment you know your house will be demolished is the morning of the demolition. The neighborhood is surrounded by police and soldiers. You are given some time to take your belongings. If you resist, you are arrested, sometimes violently, for obstructing the police. The border police is there to protect the demolition process. Children are witnessing all this. One of the basic things parents give to their children is a safe home. A demolition leaves children traumatized for the rest of their lives.

After a demolition the belongings remain scattered on the site and all that’s left of a family’s private life is concrete and steel. Some of the displaced people move in with an already overcrowded family, some move out to the city to rent expensive apartments. In August I spoke with a family whose father got a heart attack after the demolition and died. The mother was left behind with 5 children. She had no income and was still forced to rent an apartment. A demolition creates financial, psychological and sometimes physical distress, like heart attacks. Israel is creating the conditions for terror. We wreck people’s lives in their most private intimate environments.

For Amnesty International, it’s clear that only an end to human rights violations can produce sustainable peace. What is obstructing this?
Goldstein: When young soldiers or innocent Israeli’s die, politicians give speeches saying we will crush terror with more violence, knowing well that we are creating further conditions for terror. The main interest is controlling the West Bank in order to change the demographic and physical nature of the area to force the Palestinians into a ‘modus vivendi’. In this way we would avoid having to recognize their rights and having to deal with the issues they consider crucial. I don’t think this militaristic way of operating is wise. It is not going to contribute to security or a stabilization of the whole region. It is based on using fear to lead Palestinians and Israeli’s into acceptance of the status quo. The Israeli public is not empowered. They think, I presume, if we have major control of most of the West Bank, then we are safe even if behind our backs they are hating us. A policy of structural human rights violations will empower our enemies to make war against us, instead of our own population to make peace. Slowly Israel is not getting away with human rights violations anymore. That’s why we have to document every violation.

Is that what you do with the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center?
Goldstein: On behalf of ICAHD I am part of a working group within the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center of the Norwegian Refugee Council. We monitor and document each case of displacement by house demolitions, land expropriation for building of the wall or settlements, and get legal assistance for the victims. I will be working more on legal research, trying to find statistics and details on the policies through research. The idea is to gather detailed evidence of deliberate displacement, ongoing on a systematic basis, to initiate legal cases and maybe eventually go to the International Court of Justice. The world should know about this issue.

At least Tony Blair should know about it. For the Middle East Quartet he’s in charge of ‘boosting the Palestinian economy’. Is he aware that Area C is critical for the economic development of the Palestinian territories?
Goldstein: When he first arrived here filled with energy from bringing peace to Northern Ireland, he was surprised about the extent of the closure of the West Bank. After a while, he hit rock bottom. Now he’s aware, but his mandate does not give him real teeth. In trying to set the conditions for the Palestinian economy to develop, he has to side with the Israeli security establishment. I was at one of his press conferences recently and the removal of a checkpoint was presented as a major achievement. Earlier, there was also agreement on the construction of an industrial park in the Jenin-district in Area C. He’s also working towards improving tourism to Bethlehem. It sounds wonderful, but they are not making any real progress, because the closure-infrastructure is even upgraded. The Israeli authorities are spitting in his face. He’s quite committed, but there are rumors he is going to resign. He’s also trying to organize planning rights in Area C, but it’s minimal. Israel is not planning of giving up all of area C under a final status agreement.

There will be ‘land swap’ to compensate the land not given up by Israel?
Goldstein: What we see today, is clearly a process of dividing the land, not by negotiations, but by a unilateral process on the ground. Sharon was the main architect of this policy. Israel is taking the land it wants and afterwards guaranteeing land swap by negotiations. Offering some sand in the Negev next to Gaza will not compensate the farmers of Jayyus in the north of the West Bank who lost their farmland and water resources. Viability is the issue, not some mathematical exercise and holding on to area C is undermining the possibility of a viable Palestinian state.

In 1988 Palestinians acknowledged Israel on 78% of historic Palestine. Any Palestinian will see through the percentages that are presented as  magic solutions today:  Israel offers 93% of the West Bank, a so-called generous offer. But from the perspective of the Palestinians this is 93% of the 22% they have left. Palestinians know very well that they need access to Jerusalem, that they need sustainable and independent access to water resources, that they need access to their farmlands, that they need to travel easily from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to Ramallah. For the Palestinians, no percentage could cover these needs up, but this is exactly what these percentages do towards the international community and world public opinion: give the Israeli offer a semblance of reasonability and cover up the core issues at stake.

Why is Area C so important for the viability of a Palestinian state?
Goldstein: Area C is running all through the West Bank, impacting heavily its territorial contiguity. Israel is now building the infrastructure for Palestinians to have ‘transport contiguity’, a concept introduced by Sharon. Israeli planners are currently thinking out a whole system to ensure Palestinian fabric of life in several areas of the West Bank while not impacting and interfering with the settlements on the ground. Palestine will be an island surrounded by Israel and given tunnels under Israel to allow for the fabric of life to continue. This will not allow a viable state, according to us. We need to do research to develop benchmarks on what ‘viability’ means. Otherwise we are just consciously or unconsciously setting up an apartheid state without self-determination.

Even if Israel only keeps Maale Adumim and lets go of all the other settlements, which would be presented by Israel as a incredibly generous offer, it could still not be accepted by the Palestinians, because the E1 area is critical to a viable Palestinian state. The West Bank would be cut into two with Israel in-between. Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jericho and Jerusalem, 4 Palestinian cities who are close to each other but Maale Adumim is in-between.

How do you raise awareness within Israeli society?
Goldstein: This is a very difficult job. When Gazan settlers’ homes were demolished and the settlers were not given the compensation they were promised, it was an issue. The widespread policies of demolitions of Palestinians’ homes is not, even if this happens on a daily basis. How much we lament the destruction of Jewish homes and we just cannot empathize with Palestinians. ICAHD wants to bring the soul and the heart back to Israeli society.

Clearly a wider mission than many other Israeli peace organizations. What is the place of ICAHD in the peace movement and how are you perceived by the Israeli public?
Goldstein: We are branded as radicals because we lose trust in the two-state solution, but it is the Israeli policy that is making two states impossible. Organizations such as Peace Now are not entirely fair to the Israeli public. They let Israelis believe that a land swap will bring peace. Peace Now is the standard in the Israeli peace movement, it has swallowed the mainstream and it determines the limits of the peace discourse. We are outsiders.
 
Many Israeli organizations operate only within an Israeli context and never come into contact with Palestinians. They do nothing to break down the walls of fear between the two peoples. They prepare Israeli society for the final separation from the Palestinians, while we work towards a rapprochement with the Palestinians. We emphasize what unites us and not what divides us. We want to enable Israeli society to see the Palestinians as humans. This sounds obvious, but it is crucial. Because many Israelis do not see Palestinians as individuals with rights, the Israeli government can violate the human rights of the Palestinians without much protest.

What is your vision for the future?
Goldstein:
We must dare to dream of a region without borders. It is a small country. Some Palestinians living in enclaves surrounded by the wall actually live 15 kilometers from the finest beaches in Israel. They cannot go there. Look at the European Union, where borders have disappeared. You do not even know why you really needed them. The separation logic goes back to the traumas that the Jewish people suffered in the past: the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, suicide attacks. We can only hope that future generations in Israel will have to live through less traumas and will open up to the world.

ICAHD:
18,000 Homes destroyed by Israel since 1967:
http://www.18000homes.org/
Constructing Peace (foto’s): http://picasaweb.google.com/ICAHD2007
Interview Jeff Halper (ICAHD): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZJc7i0bGGk
Jeff Halper, Warehousing a “Surplus People”:
http://www.icahd.org/eng/articles.asp?menu=6&submenu=1
Norwegian Refugee Council: http://www.nrc.no/?did=9167645
Internal Displacement Monitoring Center: http://www.internal-displacement.org/idmc/website/countries.nsf/(httpCountries)/78C5F977D946B388802570A7004CD702?OpenDocument&count=1000

 

 

 

Michel Warschawski is a journalist, writer, peace activist and founder of the Alternative Information Center (AIC) in Jerusalem, the first joint Israeli-Palestinian organization. The AIC is a news organization that disseminates information, research, and political analysis on Palestinian and Israeli societies as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while promoting cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis. Warschawski, son of the main rabbi of Strasbourg, is one of the first Israeli’s who built alliances between Israeli’s and Palestinians in the 80’s. He was one of the first peace activists who engaged in direct talks with Palestinian armed groups. As the border lines hardened, he became targeted by Israel’s notorious intelligence agents. Finally he was arrested, incarcerated, and interrogated for 20 days. We had a talk with him about the past, present and future of Jerusalem, one of the main obstacles to peace between the Israeli’s and the Palestinians.

Warschawski has a special bond with Jerusalem. At the age of 16, he moved from Strasbourg to the holy city to study the Talmud. He lives in Jerusalem since 1965, for almost 45 years. From the very first until today he is in love with the city, but the present state of the city saddens him deeply. 41 years ago East Jerusalem was annexed to Israel. Over the years, the facts on the ground changed the city completely.

Warschwaski: The charm of the city before the annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967 was that it used to be quite disconnected from the rest of Israel. It was very different in its geography, but also in the way the people were living the political environment. Jerusalem used to be a small provincial city without pretensions. Now it is a suffocated city with one third of its population living under occupation and one third being settlers in East Jerusalem, a part that Israel has illegally annexed. Jerusalem should be a sovereign Israeli city and a sovereign Palestinian city. That would mean the end of any Israeli presence in East Jerusalem. That is my dream.

Is it realistic? How do you think Jerusalem will look like in ten years?
Warschwaski: Unfortunately, there will be no Jerusalem. Or at least not the Jerusalem we all love. Jerusalem is being destroyed by the drive to build more and more settlements in East Jerusalem. What was in my eyes the most beautiful city in the world, is now a huge real estate project, a building site. More and more apartments are being bought by rich foreign Jews, who do not live here. Big parts of the city are become ghost neighborhoods. The city is being destroyed by the policy of the settlements and by the speculations of real estate agents. I think UNESCO should declare Jerusalem as a city in danger. According to the UN Jerusalem should be a international city, under the responsibility of international community . This is not only because of political reasons, but also simply to protect it as a city. Not as a Israeli or Palestinian city, but simply as a city. It is a city in danger.

Did you ever feel the hope there could be a solution?
Warschwaski: Israel had a tremendous opportunity during the Taba negotiations in 2001, when Arafat was ready for some kind of exchange of territory helping Israel to solve the problem of the settlers in the settlements blocs around East Jerusalem. These settlements are in an area that Israel calls Jerusalem, but that is actually part of the occupied West Bank (Maale Adumim, Givat Zeev, Pisgat Zeev,…). The Palestinians were ready to exchange this territory, where most of the Israeli settlers are housed, for an equivalent of territory in Israel. The affinity the Palestinians have with Jerusalem does not include Pisgat Zeev or Maale Adumuim. That’s why Arafat was able to make this offer. He offered a part of the West Bank, not a part of East Jerusalem. But it was a one-time offer. I doubt any other Palestinian leader in the near future will have the legitimacy to make such an offer to Israel that would be accepted by the Palestinian people.

If Israel would’ve accepted the offer, Israel would have been released from the need of evacuating hundreds of thousands of settlers. Now it’s too late. It will take much more time to solve the Jerusalem issue now. It’s like buying a car, you cannot keep on bargaining. Once there is a lowest offer, under which you cannot go. Any expansion of settlements going on as we speak, further endangers a final solution.

Israel is putting at risk the future of the settlement blocs by expanding them?
Warschwaski: Exactly. The E1 area is the main challenge. E1 is the area between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim, one of the biggest settlements deep in the West Bank. E1 remains the last open space in the West Bank on which a modern city of East Jerusalem could be further developed, which could connect East Jerusalem to the rest of the West Bank to make it a viable capital of Palestine. E1 will be built up though with Israeli settlements according to the new Israeli plan, thereby making that scenario impossible. That’s why Palestinians will no longer be in a position to repeat the offer of Arafat to give the settlement blocs to Israel, because they would need something in return, being an East Jerusalem connected to the West Bank as their capital.

For this reason, the recently announced plan to build thousands of new homes in the settlements around East Jerusalem would put the future of the settlement blocs in danger, because it would eliminate the possibility of land swap. The dream of a solution in which no settlement would have to be destroyed would become obsolete. It will be ‘either or’: either settlements will have to be destroyed, or there will be no solution. E1 is a disaster for keeping the settlement blocs under a final agreement. Architects and planning specialists like Bimkom are warning against E1. They say: “If you want a solution for the settlement blocs around East Jerusalem at the cheapest possible price, don’t build in E1.”

The proposed route of the wall coincides with the municipal borders of Jerusalem, what is behind this?
Warschwaski: The question of the wall and its route, is not specific to the issue of Jerusalem. It is trying to fix a potential border, integrating most of the settlements blocs. The Israeli government denies until today that the wall is for annexation purposes. But it is clear that the route for the wall is answering the needs of the annexation. Borders will be negotiated in due time. This is still what Israeli government says when there are European diplomats on visit. In reality it was not accidental how the route was chosen.

Prime minister Olmert has the two state solution in mind. Under what pressure is he to expand settlements in East Jerusalem?
Warschwaski: The reasoning of Olmert is: ‘As long as we are not obliged to freeze, the longer time will pass, the more we can try to keep and expand it.’ Sharon was the architect of this policy that is still carried out today: ‘What ultimately will fix our borders is, where we are planting our last tree.’ This is the policy of facts on the ground. The more settlements we build, the more bargaining power we’ll have. We are pushing the border as far as possible.

How come Israel keeps on creating illegal facts on the ground without any considerable pressure from the international community or from the Israeli public?
Warschwaski: Why there is no pressure from the international community, I should ask you. Why are your governments in Europe not trying to implement what is their own official position, including the official position of US, that the annexation of East Jerusalem was never recognized? Somehow this attitude reflects the way the international community approaches the whole Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The EU and the US are not able to put necessary pressure on the Israeli government in order to make it abide by international law. Israel is left in a state of impunity, which is the last thing Israel deserves or needs. In that sense, the international community carries a huge responsibility for the continuous Israeli violations, concerning East Jerusalem in particular.

But at Annapolis, the Israeli government agreed to freeze settlement construction under US pressure. Today still the US is pretty openly criticizing Israel’s settlement policy. What kind of pressure is needed in order to make Israel stop the expansion if they don’t even listen to the US?
Warschwaski: Facts, not words. The official position of the US, that the annexation is illegal and harms the peace process, has never impressed Israel. The only time the Israeli government has frozen the settlement expansion, was when the US cut the money or withdrew loan guarantees during the old Bush administration. Immediately the Israeli government decided to stop the expansion. The whole Israeli public became obsessed by this pressure. It provoked the end of the Shamir government and new elections. The Israeli public will only be aware when a decision of expanding new settlements will have some impact on its life because of international pressure.The US should say they mean business and not only make statements to calm down the Egyptian or Jordanian governments. It has to be a concrete ultimatum: ‘Stop construction or we cut the money.’ I guarantee you, the day of the ultimatum there will be no more construction.

What about the Israeli public? It is not holding its leaders accountable to what they are doing in East Jerusalem either.
Warschwaski: The Israeli’s, like any other public worldwide, will not act against actions and decisions of their government if those actions do not have a direct impact on their lives in economical terms, in terms of security and in terms of international isolation. Israel can occupy and settle East Jerusalem without any price to be paid. Why should the Israeli public be aware? There is no direct reason or interest to protest. The Israeli public does not react and shape opinions according to what may happen, but to what is actually happening. And the general feeling in Israel is ‘we can go with it, no one will put any kind pressure on us now, why should we bother? This summarizes well the position of most of the Israeli public.

‘By increasing the pressure on Israel, you alienate the Israeli public instead of keeping it close. By improving relations with Israel, you also increase the confidence of the Israeli public in the EU.’ What would you say of this argument?
Warschwaski: I’ve heard this argument before, it is simply nonsense. It is a propaganda argument that doesn’t reflect the reality. All through the last 40 years, every time there was some kind of pressure from the outside, the same evening the government was discussing on how to act. The Israeli government and the Israeli public are extremely sensitive to international criticism and the international public opinion, believe me. For example: the same day the EU decided to put the issue of products from the settlements disguised as products from Israel on the agenda, the Israeli government convened a meeting to decide how to react to this. 

How does the Alternative Information Center suffer from this context?
Warschwaski: The duty of the Alternative Information Center is not only to convince the public that its government is violating fundamental rights of Palestinians, but also that there will be a price to pay in the future. This is why I am very angry towards the international community: Israel can violate almost any international obligation it has, and still not be sanctioned. On the contrary, they are embraced by the EU and the international community. This makes the international community co responsible for the policy of occupation and annexation. When the Israeli public doesn’t see a price to pay, it is very hard for us to do awareness raising.

Do you see a role for human rights organizations like Amnesty International in keeping the pressure high, especially on a highly difficult issue such as Jerusalem?
Warschwaski: Absolutely. The Israeli’s are far from indifferent to the reports of Amnesty. Reports of Amnesty reach the Israeli public through opinion makers, the media, the politicians, the intellectuals, … They are very much aware of these reports. The media is also usually giving quite good coverage to Amnesty reports. The work of human rights organizations is necessary to make sure the Israeli’s understand that whoever is violating the rules of the international community, has to be punished or at least has to be considered as someone who doesn’t behave well. This is why reports of Amnesty are important, because they are reminding the Israeli public that everything is monitored.

Amnesty International should say: “Amnesty might not have the authority to punish Israel, the UN today might still be weak when it comes to enforcing international law, but everything is registered for history and you may have to pay one day.” You cannot imagine how sensitive the Israeli generals are today for The Hague Tribunal. Every time before they go to Europe senior officers who may be accused of war crimes are checking with a special department in the ministry of Defense the laws and regulations in the country if someone would make a complaint for war crimes. The international community does have levels of pressure, through the work and monitoring of human rights organizations. It is a lie that the Israeli’s are indifferent to international criticism. It is propaganda that international criticism is making the Israeli’s more tough.

If there are 200.000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem, which is according to Israeli law part of Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, then why can’t the Palestinian population influence the policies of the Jerusalem municipality?
Warschwaski: Because they boycott the elections. Since 1967 the Palestinian population has not as a whole, as a community participated in Jerusalem municipal elections. They don’t accept elections under occupation. They lose an influence on what’s going on in Jerusalem, yes. But it’s a Palestinian decision and it’s a good one. The questions is: how can you be most efficient in defending your rights. Participating or not? In my opinion, the price to be paid by participating in the election (creating confusions, creating even a greater division in the Palestinian population, greater than it already is) is higher than the benefit from such elections.

In the western media, also in Belgium, we see a lot of bad vocabulary on the settlements in Jerusalem, that they are neighborhoods.
Warschwaski: Part of political struggle is a struggle on vocabulary. How you call everything. When you stop calling the West Bank ‘occupied territory’ and you call it ‘Judea and Samaria’ (the traditional Biblical name), then you have lost more than just words, you have lost the battle. Speaking about Jerusalem, it is extremely important to make it clear and stress it again and again, it is occupied East Jerusalem.

June 26th, 2008, Skype interview

http://www.alternativenews.org
http://www.alternativenews.org/blogs/michael-warschawski
http://www.francoisxavier.net/article.php3?id_article=393&artsuite=0
http://www.afsc.org/israel-palestine/profiles-of-peace/michel-warschawski.htm
http://www.alternativenews.org/f.a.q./about-the-aic/

Norman Finkelstein is an internationally recognized scholar on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Finkelstein was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1953. His mother, Maryla Husyt Finkelstein, is survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Maidanek concentration camp. His father, Zacharias Finkelstein, is survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz concentration camp. Until recently he taught political science at DePaul University, Chicago. His books include The Holocaust Industry and Beyond Chutzpah Finkelstein unites scholarly rigor with moral outrage

Norman Finkelstein follows human rights organizations closely and writes extensively on Israel’s human rights abuses. Often he cites Amnesty reports, also in his latest book Beyond Chutzpah. At the same time, he argues that human rights organizations should pause and reflect from time to time on their communications about human rights violations in conflicts, in particular in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Finkelstein speaks openly and does not shy away from controversy. I discussed with him the role of the EU and of human rights organizations in the in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. He is not afraid to call the EU hypocritical when it continues to give massive financial aid, without throwing in the political weight it could have to solve the roots of the conflict.

Finkelstein: There is a human rights clause in a lot of the EU trade agreements that is not implemented at all and completely ignored when it comes to Israel and this is shameful. As to why EU member states do not call for the implementation: every state has its priorities and Palestinian life is simply not that important in the EU. Under pressure of domestic Jewish organizations politicians and the public turn a blind eye to Israel’s human rights abuses. Each state has its own incentives to ignore the Palestinian question, whether it’s a domestic lobby, whether it’s fear of the USA. But it’s a fact that the EU ignores its own organizational instruments, especially economic treaties.

The official EU policy on Israeli human rights abuses is one of dialogue. The Commission’s view is as follows: “Suspending the Association Agreement, which is the basis for EU-Israeli trade relations but also the basis for the EU-Israel political dialogue, would not make the Israeli authorities more responsive to EU concerns at this time. Keeping the lines of communication open and trying to convince our interlocutors is hopefully the better way forward.” What are your thoughts on this?
Finkelstein: This is nonsense. This was the exact argument that was used for a long time to deal with the apartheid regime in South Africa. They call it ‘constructive engagement’. There’s no need to talk now. There’s no need to dialogue. What is there to dialogue about? There is a need to impose sanctions. That’s the very beginning. Israel is economically very dependent on the EU: the EU is Israel’s number one trading partner. Israeli leaders are not stupid. If the EU only starts threatening to suspend the Association Agreement, they will start calculating. We’re not even talking about controversial sanctions like a cultural boycott. We’re talking about provisions that are right there in their own trade agreements. The human rights clause is being grossly violated. The whole thing of having a human rights clause is not to talk about it, but to do something about it.

It is not only nonsense. It is also pure hypocrisy. Why does Israel gets a soft treatment and Hamas gets the full blow of boycott and sanctions, while Israel’s human rights record is much worse? Since the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000 there have been 4700 Palestinians killed and 1045 Israeli’s killed. On both sides, as Amnesty has written, the overwhelming majority were civilians. So Israel’s record of killing civilians is about 45 times worse. When you kill that many civilians, it becomes hard to argument that it’s only out of self-defense. It becomes state terrorism. Leaving aside house demolitions, confiscations, curfews, collective punishment, torture, etc. We’re just looking at fatalities and clashes. Why do you recognize Israel? Why aren’t there sanctions imposed on Israel?

The standard answer is because Hamas must first recognize Israel.
Finkelstein: On the Palestinians, mainly on Hamas, numerous unreasonably demands are imposed, like the demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel as a state for the Jews. But think for one second: it’s crazy to try to impose the legitimacy of a state for the Jews in Palestine on the surrounding Arab world. Would any American go to a Cherokee Indian and impose on him to recognize the legitimacy of the English settlers and the American state on Indian land? Basically you ask people who were kicked out of their homes, to recognize explicitly the legitimacy of the ones who kicked you out.

But first of all, Hamas has officially accepted the settlement of the conflict along the 1967 border. Secondly, give me one Israeli document where Israel has recognized a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. Is there any official who has ever recognized it? This is pure hypocrisy. You apply the principle to one side. These are the kinds of demands that are literally insane. It’s about making demands which you know the other side will not accept, and thereby assuring that you could continue to annex the land and take over everything. They could solve the conflict tomorrow, but they don’t want to solve the conflict because Israel doesn’t want these 1967 borders. This is never said out loud, but this is a fact. It’s like Jimmy Carter said: peace will come to the Middle East when Israel accepts international principles and the concept of legal borders, when Israel is prepared to determine its borders according to these principles. They don’t want to. So they keep on making unreasonable demands, which they know are unreasonable.

You hold a strong plea for international law. But what should we do when international law doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on Israel. For example, the advisory opinion of the ICJ will never be translated into a binding UN security council resolution.
Finkelstein: Well, in that case the EU could turn to its provisions in its trade agreements and act decisively upon the findings by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and B’tselem. The EU has provisions that allows it to force Israel to give an effect to international law. But the EU isn’t doing anything. We only impose these provisions on the weak.

You think ‘urging’ Israel to change its policies won’t get us anywhere?
Finkelstein: All you have to do is look at the track record: is there any evidence in the past that Israel changed its policies because it was ‘urged’ to? Dialogue is necessary with people misunderstanding each other. You have dialogue to clarify misunderstanding. There is no misunderstanding here. Israel itself knows exactly what it’s doing. It know it’s illegal. The EU knows. It’s not a misunderstanding. What’s the point of a dialogue? To tell them it’s wrong? Well, they already know it’s wrong.

Then why does the EU maintains its soft approach?
Finkelstein: There are numerous reasons. One is indifference to Palestinian suffering. There is also an element of racism. The Western world likes stupid Arabs. With Arabs who are intelligent, who do not back down, they have a real problem. The West doesn’t hate Hezbollah because they are terrorists. Half of the states in the world are terrorist. They don’t like the fact that they’re smart, dignified and resistant. The EU is also accomplice to Israeli crimes. Israel wants peace. Nobody wants war. Most people don’t think of war as a desirable human activity. But Israel wants its own version of peace.

The EU is accomplice to Israel’s unilateral imposing of a solution and it thereby even promotes impunity. There are sins commission and sins of omission. The EU is not doing what they are supposed to do. They go on trading with Israel as Israel is committing these atrocities. It’s also the EU’s present relation to the US, the pressure of domestic organizations that work for Israel’s interest and the theory that sanctions against Jews is the Nazi boycott all over again. This is what the Nazi’s did. Don’t you remember 1934, they imposed an economic boycott. This kind of crazy arguments are very effective.

Jewish suffering is being used for political purposes. This is one of your main arguments.
Finkelstein: Exactly. The claim is, that if you suffered more, you shouldn’t be held to the same standards as anybody else. That your suffering gives you unique rights. It’s like the security argument. Everywhere else in the world it’s being considered preposterous to occupy someone else’s territory because of security. But Jews are allowed to derive from elementary principles. Why? Because of the holocaust. That I find unacceptable. The holocaust industry says you can’t compare the holocaust to anything else. But this is the end of history!

History is all about compare and contrast. Compare and contrast the French and the Russian revolution. By refusing to compare the holocaust to anything else, the holocaust industry keeps us from learning from it. I have a real problem with measuring human suffering. I think it was Plato who said, that if you take two happy people and it’s impossible to prove that one is unhappier than the other. Someone who has been in prison for 30 years and survived and someone very wealthy who has been in the prison of his self-torment up to the point of committing suicide. Who was more unhappy? Who suffered more. I don’t know. How do you measure it? I don’t want to get into that. It’s not my business. Nobody has the courage nowadays to speak ordinary truth. Amnesty is pretty cowardly too. They are very cautious when it comes to Israel. Also Human Rights Watch research and publications on the Lebanon war. It was disgraceful.

Then what is, according to you, the role of human rights organizations in this highly sensitive conflict, where human rights fall victim to ‘security considerations’ more than anywhere else? And how they position themselves?
Finkelstein: I think the most striking thing about human rights organizations is, how completely detached their language is from what is actually happening. There is a huge gap between the language used and the reality that it refers to. Take the striking case of Gaza. You constantly use the word ‘disproportionate force’. Is that really what’s going on? Is that really only what’s going on. The only problem is the disproportionate. If Israel would us proportionate force, everything would be fine. Is that really the only problem? Or is the real problem that Israel is committing an atrocity?

You are criticizing the laws of war now.
Finkelstein: International law is the minimum we have. But it’s the very minimum. Let’s not forget international law is not holy. It allows for so much suffering, it allows for so much killing. The idea of laws of war is like etiquette for cannibals. Human rights organizations shouldn’t always stick to its technical, bureaucratic dehumanizing language. The use of language is of vital importance to explain the world what’s going on on the ground. By using technical language, you will not reach the public and you will not have the impact you’re looking for.Why is someone like Jimmy Carter courageous enough to use the word ‘atrocity’ to describe the horrible situation in Gaza. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have never found it in them to use language like that. I think this is very odd.

Of course I am aware of Amnesty’s strong work on individuals and in this way they do show the human side. But I don’t think that’s the issue here. Take the issue of Gaza again. What is going on in Gaza, the blockade, is state terrorism, it’s not merely ‘collective punishment’, it’s pure state terrorism because it’s aim is political. But you never see it described as terrorism. If terrorism means the targeting of civilians to achieve political goals, what are the Israeli’s trying to achieve in Gaza? They’re trying to get the Palestinians to get rid of Hamas. That’s exactly the targeting of civilians to achieve a political goal.   

Still you cite Amnesty quite a lot in your writings.
Finkelstein: Correct. But I also know Amnesty has a terrible record when it comes to the Israel/Palestine conflict, a shameful record. After 1991 it started to get better. But now they’ve all gotten terrible again. Up until 1979 Amnesty refused to denounce Israeli use of torture. From 1967 on, Israel was systematically and methodically torturing Palestinian detainees. From 1987 until 1993 Israel tortured, according to Israeli human rights organizations like B’tselem, tens of thousands of Palestinian detainees. Amnesty refused to write about it. The most it would recommend was that Israel should look into the question of torture. Only in 1991 they raised the issue, when they put out their book on Israel’s military courts. Amnesty acknowledges now in its most recent publication on torture, that Israel had been torturing Palestinian detainees since 1967, which is true.

When it comes to Israel, Amnesty becomes afraid that jews decide to pull the money from the organization. Jews as liberals finance liberal organizations like Amnesty. In the last report of Human Rights Watch on the Lebanon war, they claimed that Israel targeted civilians by mistake. How is it possible to drop 4,6 million cluster bomblets in South Lebanon indiscriminately on villages and HRW couldn’t figure out if it was a war crime. It didn’t find evidence of a war crime.

You write about anti-semitism and the misuse of the argument. Let me quote you in one of your articles on your website: “Although the subject of many reports by human rights organizations, Israel’s real human rights record in the Occupied Palestinian Territory is generally not well known abroad. This is primarily due to the formidable public relations industry of Israel’s defenders as well as the effectiveness of their tactics of intimidation, such as labeling critics of Israeli policy anti-Semitic.” Also Amnesty is being accused of anti-semitism Is this strategy of the misuse of these arguments a big threat to human rights work?
Finkelstein: The threat is as big as people are cowardly in giving in to the threat. Carter is pretty good. People keep calling him an anti-semite and actually his record and arguments are getting better. If you have a clear conscience, the anti-semitism thing won’t bother you and you go your way. It’s as strong a weapon as you allow it to be. The real threat is that Amnesty and other human rights organizations are becoming apologists for Israel. And then you have those who say that it is not enough of an apologist to satisfy Israel’s supporters. 

What should organizations who work for peace and human rights do against these false accusations that serve only to weaken their call for justice?
Finkelstein: The answer is very simple. Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that we’re anti-semitic. How does that change the facts? Do they become different, just because I’m anti-semitic? And if we are anti-semitic, how does that explain all the other human rights organizations, including the Israeli human rights organizations? B’tselem reached the same conclusions as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. Are they all anti-semites? So either everyone is anti-semitic, or maybe they’re telling the truth.

What about the security argument?
Finkelstein: The security argument does not justify just about any action. International law says that a state cannot use force unilaterally. The US used terrorist tactics against Cuba since 1959. Does that mean Cuba gets the right to annex Florida, as Israel claims the right to occupy and annex the West Bank because it is under a security threat? The US invaded Nicaragua. Does that give the right to Nicaragua to occupy Louisiana? You have to see what security allows for. And it doesn’t allow for answering to security threats with occupation or annexation. Under security, a state has the right to build border protection, deploy troops, build checkpoints on its own side of the border. And I’ve got news for you: in July 2004 the International Court of Justice ruled that the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza are occupied Palestinian territory. It’s not Israeli territory. You’re not allowed to deploy troops on somebody else’s territory without their permission. These are very obvious principles.

You speak of uniting the many against the few, what do you propose very concretely?
Finkelstein: Let’s look at what the consensus is today and unite the many around this consensus. Let’s look at the UN General Assembly, let’s look at the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, let’s look at what human rights organizations say and they give us a sense of what’s the consensus among the many. We should organize around this consensus. That’s the way you change things. God helps those who help themselves. Unless we demand power for ourselves, unless we won’t enforce our will based upon reasonable principles that can be understood by the many, things won’t change.

If you would’ve told me thirty years ago that Nelson Mandela would be the president of South Africa, if you would’ve told me thirty years ago the US would have a black president, if you would’ve told me a guerilla army of 1500 could force one of the four most powerful armies in the world to defeat, I would’ve told you ‘you’ve lost your mind’.  People who organize, can get their act together and force change. But by staying indifferent, nothing will change.

You said the Lebanon war has been a turning point for Israeli’s and the broader Middle East. Why is that so?
Finkelstein: It was the first time it was Israel urging the UN to enforce a resolution. All of a sudden Israel became dependent on the rule of law, because its power is weakening. It was for Israel a very poor showing. And the other side is getting more efficient and more organized. Israel has throughout its history depended on two facts: that its adversary is corrupt. That their Arab adversaries are stupid. For a long time this has in fact been true. Now Israel begins to see its adversaries not corrupt and quite intelligent. That’s causing them a very big problem. Hezbollah has a strict model of being organized, no empty slogans, no promises you can’t fulfill.

You seem to talk about Hezbollah as if they are morally superior.
Finkelstein: I don’t want to talk in terms of moral. Simply look at their record. Their record is better! Of course we don’t know what their record would be like if they ever gained state power. Look at the Lebanon war. On the Israeli 160 killed, 25% civilians (33 civilians). On the Lebanese side 1200 killed, 80% civilians. It’s just a fact that the record of Hezbollah is much better. Take the case of cluster bombs and bomblets. Hezbollah has been accused by Human Rights Watch of using 3000, Israel 4,6 million. Or take the Amnesty International report on damage done to civilian infrastructure. Israel in the millions, Lebanon in the billions. Whichever way you look at it.

Will a Palestinian state under the two state settlement be viable enough, according to you?
Finkelstein: It’ll be a garbage state, trapped between Israel and Jordan. It won’t have much independence. I don’t have any illusions about it. It will end the occupation, which is a good thing. Beyond that, not much. People will still be miserable, corrupt leaders. But it will be a first step. It sets the parameters.

http://www.normanfinkelstein.com

May 19th, 2008, Ghent