Today’s most visible Israeli violation of Palestinian human rights is perhaps the siege of the Gaza Strip. Despite widespread condemnation and almost universal legal agreement that the siege violates international humanitarian and human rights law, the siege continues. International aid agencies have declared this to be a humanitarian crisis unprecedented in the history of Gaza—all because of Israel’s human rights violations. As the head of UNRWA has pointed out, “hungry, unhealthy, angry communities do not make good partners for peace.”
The list of Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights is endless. Yet the one Palestinian human, national and collective right about which there is almost no discussion within the human rights community is the Palestinian right to self determination. Human rights organizations too often claim this is a political issue.
However, we all know that common Article 1 to both the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, explicitly notes that “All peoples have the right of self-determination.” Self-determination is further a cornerstone of the UN Charter. While a frequent criticism of international human rights jurisprudence is that it focuses on the individual at the expense of the group, common Article 1 clearly demonstrates a theoretical if not practical understanding that human rights are both enjoyed within communities and enjoyed by peoples.
Unfortunately, however, international and Israeli human rights organizations do not address the Palestinian right to self-determination as a human right. In a report on human rights in the Middle East issued in wake of the 1991 Madrid Conference, the US-based group Human Rights Watch explicitly noted that it “does not address the issue of self-determination […] It believes that the right of self-determination is an essentially political right […] to avoid undermining the near-universal acceptance of human rights principles, Middle East Watch therefore concentrates its attention on the traditional core group of civil and political liberties.” While others, such as Amnesty International and the veteran Israeli group B’Tselem are not as direct about their own economically and culturally biased interpretations and promotion of international human rights, they also do not research and advocate explicitly for the Palestinian right of self determination as an internationally recognized human right that must be respected immediately and unconditionally.
It is an axiom that there can be no peace in the Middle East without respect for human rights. First and foremost, there can be no lasting peace and justice in the region without fulfillment of the Palestinian human right to self determination. Human rights organizations must be objective and impartial, campaigning for this essential human right as they do for the rights to freedom of movement and education, for example. Palestinian self-determination is a human right and must be recognized and campaigned for as such.
As a joint Palestinian-Israeli organization with a strong internationalist perspective, the AIC currently faces several challenges in promoting the rights of the Palestinian people, particularly their right to self-determination. As these challenges are shared variously by Palestinian, Israeli and international civil society groups, they can shed important light on the context in which we are currently working.
On the international level, there exist two primary challenges. The success of the United States and its neoconservative allies in initiating an imperialist war of recolonization, in which international law and human rights are manipulated and blatantly violated, and in which unilateralism trumps dialogue, multilateral negotiations and compromises, negatively affects local and international civil societies. This creates a situation in which countries such as Israel are able to violate Palestinian human rights with impunity. The ideology of this war is the so-called clash of civilizations and the enemy is identified as Islam and Muslims. Global acceptance of this situation renders working against racism and oppression, whether by Israel or throughout Europe, extremely difficult.
Secondly, much of the western international community is evading its moral and legal responsibility to hold Israel accountable for its human rights violations, particularly in the context of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Instead of demanding accountability from Israel, both to protect the Palestinian people and the sanctity of international law in general, the western donor community invests huge amounts of money in emergency and development aid in the occupied Palestinian territories. Even the World Bank has acknowledged that development is not possible under Israeli occupation, such that these financial investments with no concurrent work and equal financial investment in groups working for peace is counterproductive.
Within Israel, most local human rights and peace organizations must acknowledge that they have little influence within their own society and work to alter this situation. While the Oslo process globalized the Israeli economy and economically benefited a small percentage of the European Jewish society and ruling elites, most Israelis experienced accelerated impoverishment, a dismantlement of the social welfare net and heightened social marginalization. A future peace process that involves dialogue amongst only the elites, on both the levels of politics and civil society, while failing to directly include and address these victims of the occupation and peace process, is necessarily doomed to fail. The AIC believes that social exclusion is the root cause of rejecting a culture of peace in Israel, and marginalised communities often form the social base for authoritarian propositions.
Palestinian civil society, and the AIC within it, face several political challenges that must be addressed in our work. The Palestinian people democratically elected the Hamas to represent them, and the international community punished the Palestinian people for this democrat choice with an international boycott. The PA is now controlled by persons not directly accountable to the Palestinian people. The PLO has essentially been destroyed, with only Fatah and Hamas relevant on the political arena, while democratic forces have been significantly weakened. The Palestinian people understandably have little faith in the current political process, particularly as Israel continues its various occupation policies unhindered, and poverty is at an all-time high due to Israeli de-development of the OPT. How can we make our call for peace based on justice and human rights relevant in the Palestinian political scene, which is under massive international and Israeli pressure?
Many blame the AIC and other progressive forces for being utopian. How can you talk about justice when realpolitik is reality? They ask me. Yet the realpolitik of the Oslo process resulted in more suffering, poverty and dispossession, not peace. The people of the Middle East, not to mention the world, deserve regional peace, despite the difficulties. The time for respect of the Palestinian human right of self determination is now.