Collective forgetting and the politics of the West Bank – an interview with Richard Falk

Daniel Falcone

CounterPunch  /  July 21, 2023

Daniel Falcone: With most Mideast current affairs, the reporting on human rights and the plight of Palestinians is usually geared towards a coverage of GazaJerusalem, and Israel proper. Could you provide a brief history of the West Bank and the significance of this landlocked occupied territory? In your estimation, is the region overlooked in terms of the reporting and coverage?

Richard Falk: You raise an important, indeed a vital question, by wondering why until quite recently the media focus on human rights issues, weak as it has been with respect to Israel overall, has mainly given attention to events involving Gaza and East Jerusalem, while backgrounding the West Bank. I think a partial answer has to do with the relationship of these three Palestinian territories occupied since the 1967 June War to the policy priorities on the Zionist agenda.

In effect, East Jerusalem was extinguished as a separate political entity shortly after a ceasefire was negotiated, and Israel quickly moved to enlarge the spatial limits of Jerusalem, declared the unified, enlarged city as the eternal capital not only of Israel but of the Jewish people, and so administered the city ever since.

This unilateral move in violation of the 1967 ceasefire was repudiated in the UN General Assembly and Security Council by large majorities of UN members but was never further challenged at the Security Council or the World Court (International Court of Justice). Jerusalem as capital of Israel became the operative reality for the country, but not for most of the world.

When the Trump White House in 2017 broke ranks and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announced its intention to move its embassy to Jerusalem the GA reacted by condemning the proposed diplomatic initiative as ‘null and void’ by a. vote of 128-9 (35 abstentions; 21 absences) [GA ES-10/10/29, Dec. 21, 2017; previously the Security Council supported a similar position by 14-1, but the U.S. blocked action by casting its veto]. The embassy was moved and as always, no adverse effects for Israel followed this defiance of International Law and UN authority.

When Biden took over the U.S. presidency in 2021, he did nothing to reverse what Trump had undertaken, which was a revealing confirmation that bipartisanship when it comes to Israel tends to disregard even its most disruptive departures from the UN consensus and the requirements of international law. At the same Biden reiterated the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution no matter how much Israel’s actions make such an outcome almost impossible to imagine, giving its advocacy of an increasingly zombie-like quality.

The UN as an Organization, never formally accepted, nor did it meaningfully challenge, this outcome of de facto revision of the Security Council 242 unanimous decision calling for Israeli withdrawal from all Palestinian territories occupied during the war, Successive UN Special Rapporteurs on Israeli violations of international law in the OPT continued to treat Israel as an Occupying State in East Jerusalem with full responsibility to uphold international humanitarian law as set forth in the 4th Geneva Convention on Belligerent Occupation, which angered Israel to the point of ending any semblance of cooperation with the UN, which ran counter to its obligations as a Member to cooperation in the discharge of activity authorized by UN procedures.

It needs to be recalled that the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) was understood as prefiguring the territorial boundaries of an independent Palestine state that was widely, and at first, genuinely believed to be the indispensable precondition for an Israeli/Palestine durable peace, with East Jerusalem being the capital of Palestine.

With respect to Gaza, although the same OPT designation as used for East Jerusalem and the West Bank was adopted after the 1967 War, its relationship to Israel and Zionism, or to the UN/US image of a peace process, was quite different than either that of East Jerusalem or the West Bank, which explains why under most readings of the. Zionist Project Gaza is not included in standard conceptions of a Jewish supremacist state for what was biblically regarded as the Jewish entitlement in Palestine, treated in most renderings of Jewish tradition as outside the ‘the promised land.’

Israel did occupy Gaza for many years after 1967, and even established several unlawful Jewish settlements in the coastal region of the Strip, Nevertheless, Gaza was never a territorial priority for Israel, which explains the implementation of Ariel Sharon’s 2005 ‘disengagement plan’ calling for the withdrawal of Israeli troops and the dismantling of the settlements. Again, from a UN/international standpoint, Israel’s plan of disengagement had no effect on Israel’s continuing responsibilities of Israel as an Occupying Power regarding the administration of the Gaza Strip, and in terms of Israeli control, amounted to little more than a redeployment of IDF occupying troops on the Israeli side of the border, shifting the modalities of control, but not their reality.

Gaza seemed mainly an economic and security burden for Israel, accentuated by the fact that it was seldom included among Zionist territorial objectives and besides was thought a difficult demographic pill for Israel to swallow given its civilian population of 2.1 million, with about two-thirds living as refugees in camps, mainly families of those dispossessed by the Nakba in 1948. Gaza has long been a thorn in Israel’s side, being the site of several radical forms of Palestinian resistance, including both the intifadas of 1987 and 2000, armed forms of resistance, and The Great March of Return (March 2017-December 2019). Hamas was partly enticed by Washington to participate in the 2006 Gaza elections being assured that this was a way of moving toward ‘peace.’ However, the Hamas electoral victory was not part of Washington’s plan, coming as a shock, as well as producing a harsh Israeli response awkwardly supported by the U.S., leading to the imposition of a comprehensive blockade in force since 2007, periodic large-scale military incursions causing much devastation and serving as a showcase for new Israeli weapons and counterinsurgency tactics, the scene of frequent targeted assassinations, and a deterrent warning to Arab neighbors and Iran to avoid provoking Israel or risk punishing military attacks as directed at Syria and Lebanon over the years.

When it comes to Israel proper, the settler colonial discourse is relevant and has been more recently relied upon to explain the. history of the struggle through the optic of the Palestinian narrative, featuring an apartheid regime of ethnic control and repression. Palestinians are effectively marginalized within Israel, being currently threatened by the prospect of a single Jewish supremacist state that incorporates the entire OPT, plus or minus Gaza. The only internal obstacle to carrying out this maximalist version of the Zionist Project seems to be the resistance mounted in the West Bank, typified by the deep attachment of the residents to what they feel and understandably believe to be their homeland.

The interplay of oppressive rule and tragic circumstances, given meaning and dignity by Palestinian sumud or steadfastness, and expressed by the common extreme sayings popular among WB residents: “If we had the chance, we would choose death over living under occupation” or “living from lack of death.” This situation is made more acute by the absence of proper Palestinian representation in international and domestic venues, as exemplified by the collaborationist Palestinian Authority (PA) and fragmentation arising from tensions between the PA and Hamas.

Given the extremist government in Israel since the beginning of 2023, this shift in attention. to the West Bank seems inevitable. Netanyahu’s coalition government has given a green light to Jewish settler violence and extremist strivings, apparently to bring an end to the conflict through tactics of state-endorsed terror, ethnic cleansing, dispossession, settlement expansion, and total demoralization of West Bank Palestinian communities. It represents the last desperate stage of settler colonialism in which the resisting native population is totally subdued, marginalized, and in some instances virtually eliminated as a presence (U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand) or the settlers are forced to compromise or abandon their plans, which in their terms, means to accept defeat or their own marginalization as in South Africa, Algeria, and Indochina.

Daniel Falcone: How would you gauge and evaluate the international responses to the West Bank, and the human rights abuses that take place there, in terms of the following: 1) political and legal institutions and 2) the press coverage around the world?

Richard Falk: We should not believe that the period before the recent Israeli government took over was free from systemic and severe human rights abuses by Israel in its role as Occupying Power of the West Bank. The issues of excessive forceunlawful settlementshouse demolitionsinternal mobility restrictionscollective punishmentsde facto annexationseparation wall, apartheid were all present ever since the occupation commenced in 1967, and each represented serious violations of international law.

At the same time, the extremists in the present Israeli government have scaled up the intensity, overtness, and blunt and defiant racism of preexisting Israel’s repressive policies and practices. To the extent that the Israeli government has responded to international criticism it has either lamely claimed ‘security’ or ‘counterterrorist’ justifications, but mostly shined a bright green light of hands-off approval to settler violence no matter how vicious and overt, as with the. genocidal burning of the Palestinian Village of Huwara on February 26, 2023. The attack on Jenin for several days was a horror show that was given scant coverage, given the magnitude and indiscriminate character of the Israeli violence, which runs completely opposite their duties as Occupying Power under international humanitarian law.

In effect, political and legal institutions in Israel have given their approval to these settler outbursts, which can only be seen as an attempt to make the West Bank unlivable for Palestinians, and thus should be interpreted as a campaign of ‘ethnic cleansing’ of a people long held captive in their own homeland. The use of the IDF to mount a major military operation, involving death and devastation, in early July against the refugee camp in Jenin was further confirmation that settlers were not lone wolf predators, but part of a public/private campaign to complete the Zionist Project by imposing Israel’s rule over the whole of Occupied Palestine except for Gaza, that is, a single supremist and exclusivist Israel state of the Jewish people, containing as few Palestinians as possible. There is renewed talk among this new brand of Israeli leadership favoring the reoccupation and resettlement of Gaza, possibly reflecting partly the extension of expansionist goals beyond the promised land and partly the realization of Gaza’s strategic position next to Egypt and access to offshore natural gas fields.

The main media coverage has focused on the violent events, and in the West given a typically misleading ‘both sides’ treatment of the issue of responsibility, blaming the Palestinians, especially Hamas and Islamic Jihad, for an upsurge of terrorist incidents while mildly criticizing Israel for over-reacting by entrusting the shaping of its security policies to such leading extremist figures as Itamar Ben-Gvir, currently the Minister of National Security. There is very little interpretative assessment to be found on the main media platforms as to why this Israeli intensification of repressive violence has been occurring now, and thus little public understanding of what underlies this new stage of Israel/Palestine confrontational politics.

It requires heeding a Zionist ideologue such as Tom Friedman of The New York Times to give a cynical realist account that makes overt what had long been common knowledge among independent commentators and UN diplomats that Palestinian statehood was never intended to become a reality but served Israel and the U.S. as ‘a shared fiction.’ [July 11, 2023], and to some extent, still does. The two-state mantra has served all along as the cynical keynote of the beguiling charade called ‘a peace process’ in which Washington has long helped Israeli leaders manage off-stage, a demeaning story well-documented by Rashid Khalidi in his pre-Trump Brokers of Deceit (2013).

In truth, Trump’s value added for Israel was to end the deceitful core of Washington’s ‘honest broker’ posture and bring U.S. policies into the bright sunlight of undisguised partisanship. In a new twist, Friedman proposes a revival of two-statism as still the most viable path to a sustainable peace, better for Israel and the U.S. than the present Netanyahu’s push for one-statism. In Friedman’s words, “it is vital that Biden urgently take steps to re-energize the possibility of a two-state solution and give it at least some concrete diplomatic manifestation on the ground.” [NYT, May 25, 2023.]

Put differently, the media coverage gives some attention to the trees (the violence) but seems mindless about the fate of the forest (the underlying scheme). The West Bank strength of Palestinian sumud, or steadfastness is an extraordinary display of resolve to remain attached to land and place. It is the background of the mounting Palestinian resistance to Israel’s effort to appropriate their land, olive orchards, and traditions. For the Israeli government it seems conceived as the overdue last act in a suspenseful political drama that has lasted too long. While most of the world, including the NATO West, is distracted by Ukraine and the challenges of climate change, this Netanyahu government apparently is seizing an opportunity to achieve two hard-right victories. In this unfolding situation, the Palestinians rally to stay engaged in a struggle that they remain determined to win eventually, having the flow of anti-colonial history, as well as law and morality on their side. Israel, in contrast, seems caught between a final fulfillment of the Zionist dream and a fear that its house of cards may collapse as happened elsewhere, especially in South Africa.

In these circumstances Netanyahu’s Israel is trying to impose an anti-democratic judicial overhaul of the Israel state to remove obstructions to institutionalizing autocratic populism that is pitting Jew against Jew in Israel in a deep struggle of marginal significance to Palestinian aspirations. Yet it keeps American leaders awake because the Jewish veneer of democracy is vanishing before their eyes and with it the credibility of the claim of ‘shared values’ and ‘shared interests,’ used to validate the continued large annual appropriations of U.S. taxpayer funds as well as the official posture of seeing no evil. Although the U.S. Congress seems undaunted as ever backing a resolution of continuing unconditional support for Israel by a vote of 412-9 on July 18th, that is after weeks of the judiciary overhaul protests and the brutal attack with drones and hundreds of troops on the densely inhabited Jenin refugee camp, cutting electricity and water, and ripping up many of its roads with bulldozers.

Daniel Falcone: The recent US-backed attack on the Jenin refugee camp on July 4, 2023, saw thousands fleeing for safety for those lucky enough to survive. One feature of the violence is the profound effect it’s having on women and children in the region and the society. Can you describe how the Israeli policies exist within a framework of sexism and childism as well as classism and racism?

Richard Falk: You pose very deep questions about this reality, climaxing recently, at Jenin. From the Israeli point of view, the most vulnerable among the Palestinians have been victimized throughout the prolonged occupation. Partly this reflects the fact that children often were the most visible and innocent of resistors, imprudently throwing their symbolic stones at their high-tech Israeli military oppressors, and thus encountering the security apparatus most directly and disturbingly, with a recent World Bank survey finding that as many as 58% of Palestinian children living under occupation are suffering from mental disorders of depression and PYSD. [Haaretz, July 16, 2023]

This all takes place in the context of a pervasive repressive social structure that encompasses class, race, religion, and gender hierarchical distinctions, and what amounts to the Orientalist erasure of the Palestinian people. It is notable that in Friedman’s recalibration of support for Israel, in effect, letting Israel be Israel without liberal softeners, there is not a word of empathy for the Palestinian ordeal or even the now acknowledged fiction of seeking a political compromise was all along a cruel, prolonged instance of ‘fake diplomacy.’ [See Philip Weiss, ‘”Apartheid” says Tom Friedman’, Mondoweiss, July 15, 2023]

Daniel Falcone: With the re-emergence of Elliott Abrams, can you comment on the path forward for the Biden Administration and talk about how the recent attacks move us further away from roadmaps to achieving peace in the West Bank?

Richard Falk: It has become clear that when it comes to human rights the Biden presidency is tone deaf, self-righteously condemning rivals for their violations while using its diplomatic leverage to. shield Israel and others from justified criticism. The appointment of Elliott Abrams to the Commission on Public Diplomacy should appall what’s left of the liberal conscience. It is well known that Abrams, as Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, knowingly fashioned a partial cover-up of the Al-Mazote 1981 massacre of over 1,000 left civilian opponents of the repressive government, by a U.S. trained death squad in El Salvador.

In subsequent roles, Abrams has been an unconditional supporter of Israel over the years backing its most controversial behavior. To select someone with Abrams’ record relative to human rights as a high-profile consultant on diplomatic policy is to drop the veil of liberal innocence altogether. It is, perhaps, a further indication that Friedman’s shift to ‘fake diplomacy’ is part of a broader revisioning of American political identity, although it makes even emptier Biden’s already vapid championship of an alliance of democracies.

Richard Falk is professor emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and a former UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights; he is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara

Daniel Falcone is an activist, journalist, and PhD student in the World History program at St. John’s University in Jamaica, NY as well as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America; he teaches humanities at the United Nations International School and resides in Queens