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Days After Calling Israeli Blockade of Gaza “A Crime Against Humanity,” UN Human Rights Investigator Richard Falk Detained, Expelled from Israel

StoryDecember 17, 2008
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The United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay has accused Israel of “unprecedented and deeply regrettable” treatment of UN human rights investigator Richard Falk. Falk was deported from Israel Monday after being detained at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport for twenty hours. Falk’s detention and expulsion came days after he condemned Israel’s blockade of Gaza as a “flagrant and massive violation of international humanitarian law” and “Crime Against Humanity.” We speak to Falk about his detention and expulsion from Israel. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay accused Israel Tuesday of “unprecedented and deeply regrettable” treatment of UN human rights investigator Richard Falk. Falk was deported from Israel Monday after being detained at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport for twenty hours. He was appointed the special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories earlier this year but was denied entry because of what Israel called his “highly politicized views.”

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Yigal Palmor said Falk “does not try to advance human rights, but instead comes with his conclusions ready and those conclusions are of course extreme methodic criticism of Israel and only of Israel,” he said. Israel’s Foreign Ministry also accused Falk of “legitimizing Hamas terrorism and drawing shameful comparisons to the Holocaust.”

The professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, Richard Falk, issued a statement last week titled “Gaza: Silence is not an option” that condemned Israel’s blockade of Gaza as a “flagrant and massive violation of international humanitarian law.” He urged the UN to invoke “the agreed norm of a responsibility to protect a civilian population being collectively punished by policies that amount to a Crime Against Humanity.” Falk also called for an International Criminal Court investigation of Israeli military and civilian officials for potential prosecution.

Richard Falk is now back at home in California. He joins me now on the telephone.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Falk. Talk about what happened. When did you try to get into Israel and Gaza?

RICHARD FALK: Amy, it was about three days ago, and I came with a security person and an assistant from Geneva. They had received visas ensuring them entry, which were honored when we arrived at Ben Gurion Airport, and because they received visas and knew that I was coming, we assumed there’d be no problem with my entry, because they had ample indication — in fact, formal notification — of my itinerary. So it remains strange why they didn’t either inform Geneva, where the Human Rights Council and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is located, or just deny them visas, which would have been a signal of their intention. So, somehow or other, it appears that they wanted this incident to occur.

And when I arrived, they questioned me first in the passport area and then led me, after long delays, from one place to another until the representative of the Ministry of Interior denied me entry and placed me in this detention facility prior to being expelled on the plane that took me back here to California.

AMY GOODMAN: And in that twenty-hour period, were they questioning you?

RICHARD FALK: No, they didn’t — oddly, again, they didn’t seem particularly interested in either exploring my views or objecting to them or doing anything substantive. They just put me in this detention facility, which is located, I think, on the periphery of the airport area and is a very coercive little experience, because I was in with five other people in a tiny room where there was barely space to stand, and it was — we were locked in this room and treated not terribly, but unpleasantly. I would put it that way. The others were there for technical infractions of immigration law of one reason or another, and most of them were waiting for lawyers. Actually, we had good camaraderie, so that was one of the sort of pleasant aspects of a generally unpleasant experience.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what your plan was in getting into Gaza and your response to the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Yigal Palmor, saying that you don’t “try to advance human rights, but instead comes with his conclusions ready and those conclusions are of course extreme methodic criticism of Israel and only of Israel” and the Israel Foreign Ministry also accusing you of “legitimizing Hamas terrorism and drawing shameful comparisons to the Holocaust.”

RICHARD FALK: Well, I think they’re all, first of all, distortions of my real views and, secondly, part of a much wider and what I would regard as insidious pattern of trying to shift the attention from their objections to the person, rather than their argument with the facts that are the basis of mine or other people’s assessment of the situation. I think I could stand very well behind the views that are contained in my report and would gladly engage in any kind of discussion of those views. But Israel has been pursuing what I call a politics of opaqueness, trying to make the realities of the occupation as obscure as possible and as speculative as possible. They’ve kept those who are knowledgeable inside Gaza from leaving to attend international conferences — Raji Sourani, for instance, the head of the Human Rights Centre, who had previously been allowed to attend international conferences and is a distinguished recipient of the Kennedy Center’s Human Rights Award. So they’ve tried to keep people in who know something about the reality of the occupation and then try to keep people out, such as myself, who could report credibly on what is happening inside, and shifting that argument then to my qualifications.

Let me come to these issues that you appropriately raised. First of all, I never compared the reality of what is going on in Gaza to the Holocaust. What I did say was that the kinds of collective punishment that are being imposed on the entire people of Gaza have a resemblance to collective punishment that was imposed by the Nazis in Germany and that if this kind of circumstance is allowed to persist, it could produce a holocaust. I never suggested that what was happening was a holocaust. Same thing with the existence of crimes against humanity. I merely tried to characterize the facts as I understood them to involve this kind of massive collective punishment of every man, woman and child, regardless of their activities, as being victimized by a set of policies summarized as a siege or blockade, where some of the effects are now very well established, such as 46 percent of Gazan children are suffering from acute anemia. Very stark reality. More than 80 percent are living under the level of poverty.

So I return to the main point. I think that my whole life has been devoted, I think, to trying to tell the truth about facts that are often unpleasant, unpleasant for me to address. I really have sought, in relation to the Israel-Palestine conflict, peace and justice for both peoples and have always had that view that it was possible, desirable and necessary. And that’s the basis on which I’ve acted throughout this period as special rapporteur for the UN.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Falk, the New York Times had a piece called “UN Rights Investigator Expelled by Israel,” not exactly what I would call sympathetic to you. I just wanted to read one quote from that article. It says, Richard Falk “has compared Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to Nazi atrocities and has called for more serious examination of the conspiracy theories surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks. Pointing to discrepancies between the official version of events and other versions, he recently wrote that ‘only willful ignorance can maintain that the 9/11 narrative should be treated as a closed book.’” Your response?

RICHARD FALK: Yeah. Well, that’s part of this whole effort to shift the focus to me and away from the reality and, at the same time, to somehow paint me as some kind of conspiracy person or theorist, which is absolutely untrue. What is true is that I wrote the forward to the original book of David Griffin, a longtime friend of mine, which is the most prominent challenge to the validity of the official version of 9/11, and I continue to hold the view that the 9/11 Commission did not adequately address the difficult questions about what happened on 9/11 that he raised. But I haven’t ever and do not now endorse any kind of conspiracy theory. All I think that is true is that the American people and the world deserve a fuller and more credible investigation of those events.

AMY GOODMAN: In December of 2006, Israel blocked the South African Archbishop and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu from investigating the killing of nineteen Palestinians in Gaza. He had a UN mandate to head a fact-finding mission to Gaza, like you did, but Israeli officials failed to grant him the necessary travel visas, saying the mission, quote, “advances a biased anti-Israel agenda.”

    ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: We find the lack of cooperation by the Israeli government very distressing, as well as its failure to allow the mission timely passage to Israel. This is a time in our history that neither allows for indifference to the plight of those suffering nor a refusal to search for a solution to the present crisis in the region.

AMY GOODMAN: I asked the Archbishop, Archbishop Tutu, about this when I interviewed him a few weeks ago.

    AMY GOODMAN: You were blocked from going into Gaza in 2006, leading a UN delegation there after the killing of a number of Palestinians.


    AMY GOODMAN: What do you think has to be done now with the Middle East specifically, with Israel and the occupation?

    ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: There’s been some very interesting moves with the outgoing prime minister suggesting that Israel has to consider very seriously the proposal of going back to the boundaries of 1967. That’s a very important initiative, if that was taken.

    I think that we would have to move very quickly to lifting the embargo. The suffering is unacceptable. It’s totally unacceptable. It doesn’t promote the security of Israel or any other part of that very volatile region.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa just a few weeks ago here in New York. Of course, it was not only Tutu, not only you, Professor Falk, but news organizations writing a letter of protest to the Israeli prime minister — CNN, BBC, Reuters, New York Times, AP — for not being allowed into Gaza. What are you calling for right now, as you return home having been deported from Israel?

RICHARD FALK: Well, mainly, access for myself. I think my resignation would be giving in to Israel’s unreasonable behavior and, as I say, part of this broader pattern that Archbishop Tutu’s exclusion further confirms.

And, incidentally, I didn’t respond to your question about Hamas. That is an absolutely untrue statement. I’ve condemned the firing of rockets at civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Professor Falk, we just have five seconds, so your final comment?

RICHARD FALK: My final comment is that it’s important for the peace of the region that the facts of this occupation are widely known.

AMY GOODMAN: We leave it there. Thank you for joining us.

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