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Stripping Israel of Its Blanket Immunity

By Joharah Baker for MIFTAH

December 17, 2008

Politics is a funny game, and as the popular saying goes, also makes strange bedfellows. That is why, when well-known adversaries become unlikely allies, most people are not necessarily fazed or even remotely surprised. Human rights, however, is a different story. Designed to be clear-cut, human rights are supposedly universally applied across the board, regardless of political considerations, race, religion or gender. That is why, when Israel's closest friends are also the world's most democratic ones, Palestinians and their supporters chalk up the inconsistencies to politics. However, when the issue comes to basic human rights, even the most unfazed of us is shocked at just how much Israel can get away with.

On December 14, UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur to the Palestinian Territories, Richard Falk, was deported from Israel after arriving at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport from Geneva. Falk, an elderly Jewish American professor, was forced to spend the night in one of Ben Gurion's infamous holding cells before being transported back to Switzerland.

For all those who are well-versed in Israel's relationship with international personalities sympathetic to the Palestinians, the writing was already on the wall way before Falk's plane landed. According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Falk had been previously informed that he would be barred entry into the country. Still, one can only balk at the audacity of this so-called democratic state, which denied a high-level UN official entry to its country on the grounds of his perceived bias towards the Palestinians.

Falk was almost immediately granted the status of persona non grata in Israel from the very first day of his appointment. Known for his bold statements criticizing Israel for its treatment of Palestinians under its occupation, Falk was most recently bashed by Israel for what he said earlier this month about conditions in the Gaza Strip. What Israel is doing there, he indicated, should be considered a crime against humanity. Obviously, this did not sit very well with Israel.

Still, what really ruffled Israel's feathers and put a permanent black spot next to Falk's name was a June 2007 article by Falk entitled "Slouching toward a Palestinian Holocaust". In it he wrote:

"It is especially painful for me, as an American Jew, to feel compelled to portray the ongoing and intensifying abuse of the Palestinian people by Israel through a reliance on such an inflammatory metaphor as 'holocaust'... Is it an irresponsible overstatement to associate the treatment of Palestinians with this criminalized Nazi record of collective atrocity? I think not."

Falk's deportation comes just days after the UN Human Rights Council convened on December 9 and made 99 recommendations to Israel on ways to improve its human rights record. The special rapporteur called on the International Criminal Court to investigate Israel's policies towards the Palestinians and "determine whether Israeli civilian leaders and military commanders responsible for the Gaza siege should be indicted and prosecuted for violations of international criminal law."

Even Falk must have known that such bold statements would win him a one-way ticket back to Geneva. Others before him have met the same fate. This is the third time this year that Israel has barred entry to an international dignitary sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and not too afraid to voice his often unpopular opinions in public. Back in 2006, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was unable to head a fact-finding mission to Gaza in the aftermath of 19 Palestinian civilian deaths in Beit Hanoun. Israel failed to grant permission to the UN-appointed mission to travel to Israel.

Then last May, renowned professor Norman Finkelstein was slapped with a 10 year entry ban into Israel upon arriving at Ben Gurion Airport. Another Jewish American critic of Israel, Finkelstein has never shied away from voicing his opinions on Israel's practices in the Palestinian territories. He has even accused Israel of exploiting the Holocaust for its own political ends. He is not, however, a hater of Israel, as some Israelis charge. Neither is Richard Falk for that matter, nor Archbishop Tutu.

What these three men have in common, along with scores of other people of conscience around the world, is that they are balanced proponents of human rights, something which is rarely celebrated when it comes to the Palestinians. None of them has ever said Israelis do not have the right to live in security and dignity; none have praised Palestinian human rights violations; and none of them have said that Palestinian human rights should in any way trump those of Israelis.

Nonetheless, they are forever branded as pro-Palestinian, which, by association, means anti-Israel, unbalanced, biased and at worst, anti-Semitic. What is worse, Israel seems to have a carte blanche when it comes to deciding on whom it will shun, doing so with a shocking level of diplomatic impunity. Never mind the fact that barring someone from entry into your country solely on the grounds that their opinions are not favorable to your image as a democracy is anything but democratic.

The Palestinians are terribly accustomed to this dichotomy – Israel's naked truth is revealed to them on a daily basis in the form of Gaza's suffocating blockade and the West Bank's settlements, checkpoints and wall. Two days ago, Israel prohibited truckloads of humanitarian aid from entry into Gaza, an act which was awarded a mere blip on an Arab satellite news channel's ticker tape.

Still, that such disrespect for dignified proponents of human rights is dismissed by the international community is simply outrageous. Yes, the Human Rights Council called on Israel to end the blockade on Gaza, but who will follow up to make sure this recommendation is put into action? If past UN resolutions on Palestine are any indication, there is little hope. Any remaining hope lies in the ability of individuals to expose this blanket immunity that Israel enjoys and which allows it to act above the law.

In the political corridors of power, it is still relatively understandable how Israel maintains its guise of good intentions and diplomacy because, as mentioned earlier, politics is a dirty game. Smiles and handshakes suffice when politicians meet, regardless of the ill intentions masterfully disguised behind smooth words. Everyone praised the UN Security Council Resolution on December 15 backing peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel. Everyone agreed that the "show must go on" until a final settlement is reached that will culminate in the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

But who will tell Israel that it is completely unacceptable to deny a UN official entry into its country or that blocking shipments of humanitarian aid is the act of an oppressive military occupation and not of a western democracy? Until there are more brave voices backed by even braver political powers driving this point home at every possible turn, it is unlikely that even the most watered down resolution or agreement will ever come to fruition.

Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Program at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mip@miftah.org.





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