December 15, 2023
Hypothesis of genocide? Lights and shadows of international law, interview with Francesca Albanese, United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories
The voice of Francesca Albanese, interviewed by Michela Grasso e Chiara Pedrocchi
Q: Hi Francesca, would you like to (re)introduce yourself for those who haven't seen the last instagram live we did together and tell us a little about what it means to be Special Rapporteur of the United Nations for the Occupied Palestinian Territories?
A: My role consists of reporting on the human rights situation in Israel and in the Palestinian territory occupied by Israel since 1967: the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where approximately 4-5 million Palestinians live without citizenship and without rights. This assignment was given to me by the Human Rights Council in May 2022.
Q: Your book-testimony in conversation with Christian Elia, “J'accuse. The October 7 attacks, Hamas, terrorism, Israel, apartheid in Palestine and the war” recently came out. We know that you started working on it in May 2023, when attention to the "Israeli-Palestinian" issue was close to zero. Do you want to tell us something more about this publication?
A: This book was conceived a few months ago as part of a new editorial line by RCS Fuoriscena, a very courageous publisher who asked me to talk about Palestine, without the difficulties that are often encountered in Italy, where very little is understood about it since there is no context of reference. The publisher asked me to talk about this context and to explain it through my personal experience. The work was then accelerated by the events of October 7th, launching us into the present. Therefore, the book starts precisely from the present to talk about Palestine in a conversation with Christian Elia. The book discusses various themes: October 7th, terrorism, Hamas, the Israeli colonial project, the apartheid system that transformed the Palestinian territory into a powder keg and much more. The title was chosen by the publisher taking inspiration from an article by the philosopher Roberta Monticelli, author of the book's postface, where she described my commitment as a "J'accuse". Just as Zola, in the 1940s, accused French society of racism and anti-Semitism, this book aims to be a call out to those who do not allow the truth to emerge.
Q: What is the role of international law in this context? What can it actually do to stop what's happening?
A: International law is a very important and very powerful tool in these situations. The problem is that it is up to individual states to enforce it; unfortunately in international dynamics the law of the strongest often prevails. For example, in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the West remained united in condemning Russia's illegalities and violence, which allowed the introduction of economic, diplomatic and political measures to harm Russia. These are the tools that international law can employ when it is violated. None of this exists in relation to Israel because it is protected by states that consider themselves its allies. In reality this attitude is making the situation worse. The hatred fueled towards the Palestinians, the hatred to which entire generations of Israelis have been educated is so deep-rooted that it has thrown the country into a very strong crisis where calls are made for the killing of all the people in Gaza and the expulsion of all those Palestinians who do not want to abandon their homes.
Q: Do you think the cease fire can be extended? What will happen when all this is over?
A: In my opinion the ceasefire must be extended and rendered permanent. First of all, to date (Nov 27th 2023, ed) over 16,000 people have died in Gaza, including 7,000 children, not counting the thousands of people under the rubble. Gaza is reduced to ruins, 50% of the infrastructure has been destroyed, it will take years, if not decades to rebuild it. And what has been achieved? What is the military outcome of this 50-day campaign that brought the Palestinian population of Gaza to its knees? There has been no real advantage, it is not clear how much Hamas has been weakened, on the contrary, it seems that consensus has increased. The fighting must stop but it is important for the international community to take a stand. The only way to prevent the situation from getting even worse is to guarantee equal rights to all those living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, including the Palestinians. This can happen in different ways; in the form of two states or one. In the first case it means withdrawing Israeli troops from the West Bank, ceasing the annexation of Jerusalem and much of the West Bank and lifting the siege of Gaza. Furthermore, we should have an international presence that deals with peacekeeping and the protection of both Palestinians and Israelis.
Q: These days we are bombarded with images of squares full of people defending Palestinian rights, yet governments continue to support Israel: how is it possible for such a disconnect between public opinion and institutions to exist?
A: There is a very strong disconnect, even more evident in countries like Italy, France or England. Not to mention the United States, where American Jews are leading this revolt against the status quo, and against a totally amoral political system. In the face of all these deaths, how can we continue to talk about self-defense? We must make governments understand that we do not live in dictatorships but in democracies, and they must respond to the will of the people. The people must make themselves heard at this moment because not only is the life, existence and dignity of the Palestinian people at stake but also the freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to protest in Western countries. There has long been talk of the "Palestinization" and "Israelization" of Western societies; anyone who criticizes Israel is accused of anti-Semitism, of supporting terrorism or of being affiliated with Hamas without any proof. We must take a stand against all this, because it is also an abuse of European citizens.
Q: In this period several of your interviews have gone viral on social media. What are the questions you would like journalists to ask interviewees and themselves when talking about Palestine and Israel?
A:I would like journalists to inform themselves. The journalism I have encountered in recent weeks, especially Western journalism, is made up of prejudices and firing squads. In many interviews, the first question I was asked was “Do you condemn Hamas?”. Yes, I condemn it. Behind this question, there is an accusatory tone that leads the debate towards factionalism. There is also a difference between the printed paper and television but the common element is the dehumanization of the Palestinians. We knew the names, surnames, ages of the Israeli hostages, where they lived, what songs they listened to, much was said about it, and it is right that this is the case and that we can empathize with the victims. This does not happen with the Palestinians: almost no one knew that, in the 18 months preceding October 7 alone, 460 civilians had been killed. Nor was it known of the presence of thousands of Palestinians in prison without charge or trial. We keep quiet about this, we don't humanize the Palestinian victims... Not to mention the pure propaganda madness of Italian television where non-expert guests are called to discuss the topic. I have been a guest on tv programs where total nonsense was being told and there was no way to stop it. If there was an informed debate, I could enrich it with a legal perspective. Instead I find myself having to make corrections.
Q: What media do you recommend for learning about the situation in Palestine?
A: In Italy there are Pagine Esteri and il Manifesto, two publications which have always provided excellent independent information on Palestine thanks to excellent journalists such as Michele Giorgio and Chiara Cruciati. Also, il Fatto Quotidiano and FanPage have started to make more efforts to cover the issue in a dignified manner. For the most complete information in English there is Al Jazeera which has always covered the situation in Palestine with seriousness.
Q: In addition to taking to the streets to demonstrate, are there actions we can take as citizens to oppose what is happening? Is a boycott a good solution? Are there others?
A: It's very important to put pressure on the press. Writing to politicians is also quite effective and it is a very common method in Anglo-Saxon countries where the responsibility towards the voters is felt. The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, BDS, on the other hand, is a movement born from a decision of the International Court of Justice which states that economic, political and diplomatic sanctions can be used against a State that does not comply with international law. Because Israel does not comply with international law, BDS carries out measures such as boycotts and economic sanctions. What I would like to remind, especially to younger people, is that South African apartheid did not end because the South African government or the member states of the United Nations suddenly became virtuous. Indeed, states such as Israel or Great Britain defended and maintained relations with South Africa until late. It was people who changed the course of history. Precisely with boycotts and sanctions, because the moment South Africa was hit from an economic point of view, the decline of the political class, of the white ruling class, began. Clearly the situations are not the same, the Israeli Jews have been indoctrinated to the detriment of the Palestinians, there is a lot of misinformation, an education to distrust and hatred towards others (in this regard I recommend reading the books by Nurit Peled Elhanan, an Israeli professor who has long studied the Palestinian issue in school textbooks for Israelis). Another very important action is to educate oneself, stay informed on what is happening, continue to speak and make noise.
Q: Where do you find the strength to continue talking about Palestine even in the face of the attacks you receive?
A: I was educated in Italy at a time when there was a strong education against anti-Semitism and the Shoah. I grew up with a sense of shame: my country had sent its fellow citizens to their deaths because they were Jews. As Moni Ovadia says, we rely on the ability to recognize the Jew in the other, because in Europe the Jew has been persecuted and discriminated against for centuries and that process of dehumanization allowed for their genocide but genocide is not an act , it's a process. Precisely because I was educated to recognize the Jew in the other, the discriminated person, the person who becomes a victim in society, so I recognize those who are victims of discrimination and I naturally feel close to them. I am very struck by the isolation of the Palestinians, they are alone in the face of a power like that of Israel and they also have most of the Western powers against them. Despite this, they resist because they want to live. This gives me strength. I often receive attacks, even personal ones, but I see them as tactics to deflect attention from what I say.
Q: Is it plausible that Palestinian civilians lose their protected person status under the Fourth Geneva Convention when Israel claims there are armed Palestinians among the civilians? Can we really talk about human shields?
A: Already in 2009, during the first war unleashed by Israel against the Gaza Strip, the report of a commission of inquiry concluded that the presence of military fighters in highly populated areas such as Gaza does not transform the population into a human shield. Saying that all Palestinians are human shields is an element of dehumanization because the Palestinian is presented as someone willing to put the lives of their children at risk to protect Hamas in Gaza. It is also important to reiterate that if there had been elections in Gaza on October 6, Hamas would have received very little support. It is necessary to make a distinction when there is a clash between combatants and non-combatants and to never touch non-combatants, and this applies to both sides, even an Israeli soldier not on duty must be considered as a civilian. Furthermore, this narrative has deprived Palestinians of the status of protected people, of civilians since they live in areas where Hamas is. Even the presence of tunnels under the Gaza Strip does not justify the massive bombing of the Strip nor should it cause objects, i.e. hospitals, houses, schools, mosques, nor people to lose their civilian status. The examples of human shields I have seen are Palestinian children loaded onto Israeli army's Jeeps or a Palestinian detainee, hooded, with his hands tied, placed inside an area where there was a shooting between Palestinian militants and Israeli soldiers.
Q: What terminology do you recommend to define the conflict that began on October 7?
A: The events of October 7 can be defined as war crimes. In fact, according to international law, killing civilians, injuring them or taking them as hostages is a war crime. And what Israel did in response is an abuse of international law for different reasons. Israel invoked the right to self-defense, which every state has and it is recognized in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, i.e. the right to defend itself in war and to attack militarily in response. But Israel does not have this right towards the Palestinians, because the Palestinians are not an independent state, they are a country or a group of people under military occupation for 56 years. There have also been specific decisions, including one by the International Court of Justice which recognizes the dangers Israel faces that come from the occupied territories, but the right to self-defense cannot be invoked against them. There was, therefore, a very serious violation endorsed by all Western countries. Not to mention the violation of the principles of proportionality and precaution for which it is necessary that every military operation has a military strategic advantage and above all it must not translate into losses from a human point of view and damage to infrastructure such as to overwhelm the military advantage that it would come out of it. In addition to war crimes, there are also a number of crimes against humanity, for example the blocking of access to medicines, food and water when the population was carpet bombed, the bombing of UN schools where it was known there were children, or refugee camps.
Q: Can the terminology “genocide” be used to describe what is happening in Gaza? What is the difference with the term ethnic cleansing?
A: Genocide is a very serious and difficult crime to prove because the intent to destroy a specific group of people who identify themselves on a national, ethnic, religious or racial basis, in whole or in part must be demonstrated. Destruction can occur, through killing or the creation of impossible living conditions or through the infliction of physical or psychological suffering. These acts do not all have to be present to outline a genocide, even one supported by the intent to destroy the population is enough. At this moment there are the declarations of army generals, there are the facts: 16,000 people were killed in a short time. The evidence, with the elements we have, would lead to investigating the hypothesis of genocide. Right now I'm studying to connect the intent of the genocide to the words of those who were in command during the violence committed, because it's one thing if a person on the street says it, it's another if the person in charge of the army expresses it. Ethnic cleansing is a different term, it is not a legal concept, while genocide is a crime provided for by a 1948 Convention, ethnic cleansing is a somewhat vaguer concept, but which incorporates war crimes and crimes against 'humanity. Ethnic cleansing indicates a policy aimed at removing part of a group, or an entire group from a specific territory, to replace it with people from another group. In ethnic cleansing there are criminal elements, such as forced displacement, killing of group members, sometimes even genocide is part of ethnic cleansing as in the case of Bosnia and then there are genocides without ethnic cleansing as in the case of Rwanda . In my opinion, there has been ethnic cleansing in Palestine for 75 years, starting in 1949 when 750,000 Palestinians were driven out, and in 1967 when Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, driving out 350,000 Palestinian souls without ever letting them return. What is happening in Gaza risks being the largest ethnic cleansing since 1949, or ever, because Israel threatens to push two million people back to the Sinai.
Q: Are you afraid that now there will be less attention in newspapers or on social media?
A: The horror that has occurred this time has shocked everyone and I hear many say that they can't help but think about what they see. And I understand them, because having already lived through several wars in Gaza as a spectator without a voice, I understand that sense of impotence, that sense of paralysis, that torment that almost leads to not being able to enjoy things in one's life such as hugging one's children or enjoying a hot meal, because you think of these poor people who, without having done anything, suddenly find themselves in situations of pure horror. In Gaza, 1 in 100 people were killed, this is incredible violence, thousands of homes were bombed and most people lost everything. I don't think attention will fade easily because the horror we are witnessing is out of the ordinary and is leading many people to empathize and identify with the Palestinian people.
Editing by Sara Manisera