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B’Tselem’s Hagai El-Ad Calls for Global Action Against Israel Amid Humanitarian Catastrophe in Gaza

Web ExclusiveOctober 19, 2018
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Israeli human rights activist Hagai El-Ad called for the international community to take action against Israeli “apartheid” Thursday in his first official testimony in front of the United Nations Security Council about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his party have publicly lashed out against El-Ad over his comments. This is Part 2 of our conversation with El-Ad, executive director of the human rights group B’Tselem, in our New York studio. See Part 1 of the discussion here.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we continue with Part 2 of our discussion with Hagai El-Ad. He is the executive director of the human rights group B’Tselem. He testified Thursday in front of the United Nations Security Council about the crisis in Gaza and the West Bank. He had testified there before, but this was the first official briefing he has done.

Talk about the significance of this moment, and talk more about what you had to say and what you were trying to convey to the world.

HAGAI EL-AD: So, what was key for us is really trying to spell out the daily reality for a Palestinian living under occupation, in the moments that don’t necessarily make the news, when soldiers enter a Palestinian home in the dead of night—and people abroad might assume that they have a search warrant or probable cause or something like that, but, no, military law gives almost any soldier the authority to enter any Palestinian home any time, and the army does—and a million other ways in which Palestinians, day in and day out, have absolutely no control over their lives, have no representation in the Israeli institutions that determine everything in the life of a Palestinian, and to try and explain that, to give flesh and blood to the meaning of living under that regime, not for a month, not for a year, not for a decade—an entire people for more than half a century in that reality.

AMY GOODMAN: And there you’re talking about the West Bank. In Gaza, people are being killed regularly. There’s the Great March of Return protests that began on March 30th. And your official figures for how many people the Israeli military has killed since then?

HAGAI EL-AD: It’s more than 170 fatalities. More than 30 of them were minors, under 18. Three of them were actually children. They were 11 years old. These are the youngest ones that were killed since March 30. And more than 5,300 that were injured from live gunfire.

But it’s really important for me to emphasize that Gaza is also another example of Israeli control. Israel controls everything between the river and the sea. In Gaza, the control is external. We decide what and who gets in and out of the Gaza Strip, except of the Rafah Crossing with Egypt that is closed most of the time. We control the population registry in Gaza. If you’re a Palestinian in Gaza and you need medical care—not necessarily even in Israel; you need medical care in the West Bank or in Jordan—you need an Israeli permit for that. We control everything in different ways, directly or indirectly.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have the 170 Palestinians, at least, killed, 5,000 shot by Israeli military snipers. And the number that is used so often—18,000—goes beyond the shootings. Is that right?

HAGAI EL-AD: Correct.

AMY GOODMAN: People injured by?

HAGAI EL-AD: Tear gas, other forms of ammunition and so on. Those are figures that are less precise, and we don’t have accurate figures for them.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about Israel’s plans to demolish the Palestinian Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar. On Monday, Israeli forces arrested four villagers, injured seven people, as they protested the arrival of the demolition teams. This is Bedouin villager Ahmad Abu Dahouk speaking last month.

AHMAD ABU DAHOUK: [translated] We ask all the free people in the Arab nation to react. It is a war crime. The Israeli authorities want to demolish and evacuate us. Are they going to send us to a better place? No, they will not. They will relocate us to a worse place.

AMY GOODMAN: He is speaking from Khan al-Ahmar. Explain what this place is and what’s happening.

HAGAI EL-AD: So this is just a few miles east of Jerusalem in a part of the West Bank known as Area C, that’s about 60 percent of the West Bank, and that’s in an area that has been high up on the Israeli list of priorities for a while to minimize Palestinians’ footprint there, to displace many Palestinians out of that area and to expand settlements in there. And it exposes, in great detail, the Israeli hypocrisy in its planning policies used against Palestinians living in the West Bank.

There was a letter by the Israeli ambassador, actually, to the Security Council just a day before my briefing, trying to articulate the Israeli argument, somehow, as if what is about to happen is legal. Why is it legal? Because the Palestinians have been building illegally. Why is it legal? Because this was backed by the Israeli High Court of Justice. Why is this legal? Because Israel was kind enough to offer relocation sites to the community. And all of this are just lies on top of distortions on top of lies.

Why are Palestinians building illegally? Because Israel created a planning regime that is meant to serve settlers and to dispossess Palestinians. If you’re a Palestinian in Area C in the West Bank, your chances of getting a building permit from Israeli authorities are around one in 100. Right? So Palestinians have no other choice, and that’s why they build without permission from Israeli authorities. And the Israeli High Court, when it makes a ruling that says that demolition orders are legal, while completely ignoring the context—that Palestinians cannot build legally in any way—doesn’t make that ruling just or sensible or even formally legal. It only makes the judges of the Israeli High Court complicit in what—if this indeed will take place—will be the war crime of forcible transfer of protected people in an occupied territory.

Khan al-Ahmar is the most visible example of this phenomenon these days, a community of some 200 people in that location with a school that serves other communities in the area. But this is happening not only now and not only in Khan al-Ahmar. This is part of a broader Israeli policy to take over as much Palestinian land, minimize Palestinians’ footprint, concentrate as many Palestinians as possible in the parts of the West Bank known as Area A and Area B, and then say that those areas, like Area A, “Hey, don’t worry about that. That’s where Palestinians are running their own lives,” when in fact what they’re talking about are isolated Bantustans that are getting more and more closed by further and further Israeli settlements in the rest of the West Bank.

And in the end, what you have is this picture in which Palestinian life and Palestinian territory and the Palestinian people and spirit are completely broken up into small, digestible, more easily controllable areas—Gaza separated from the West Bank, East Jerusalem walled off the rest of the West Bank, the West Bank itself chopped into these different segments.

AMY GOODMAN: You referenced apartheid in your speech to the U.N. Security Council. You said, “Take a look at the discriminatory planning mechanisms and the separate legal systems in the Occupied Territories. They are reminiscent of South Africa’s grand apartheid.”

HAGAI EL-AD: Yeah. We tried to make a nuanced point there, because often if you make that point, Israel will say, “How dare you compare these two realities? We don’t have laws that say that Palestinians and Israelis cannot sit on the same benches,” for instance. And indeed we don’t. But that’s why the distinction was made there between petty apartheid and grand apartheid, not those aspects of apartheid—the benches, the separate beaches and so on and so forth—and I’m not talking here about restrictions on movement, but to focus on the issue of the policies, the legal systems and, of course, voting rights.

AMY GOODMAN: You also wrote in Haaretz, “What are the Palestinians supposed to do? If they dare demonstrate, it’s popular terror. If they call for sanctions, it’s economic terror. If they pursue legal means, it’s judicial terror. If they turn to the United Nations, it’s diplomatic terror. It turns out [that] anything a Palestinian does besides getting up in the morning and saying 'Thank you, Rais'—’Thank you, master’–is terror.”

HAGAI EL-AD: Yeah. This has become so routine in Israel. This has become so normalized after 50 years, that people have difficulty even in accepting that basic rights—that people who live under oppression have the right to reject that reality. And any avenue that the Palestinians try is met with one form or another of condemnation.

But for Israel, this is part of a broader agenda. The agenda is not only to overcome Palestinian opposition to their oppression, but also to silence Israelis and to silence the international community. So, it goes further, right? You know, if an Israeli is against occupation, she or he must be traitors. If an international is speaking or acting against occupation, they must be anti-Semites, right? And I’m saying that with a lot of cynicism, but this is no laughing matter. This is actually quite an effective silencing mechanism that Israel is deploying continuously, all over the world.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, this week, the pope sainted Archbishop Romero, Óscar Romero, of El Salvador, who was assassinated in 1980. The last speech he gave before he was gunned down was heard throughout El Salvador on the radio. And he ordered the soldiers, he beseeched them, he pled with them, to put down their arms, to defy orders. He said, “Stop the repression.” In April, your group, B’Tselem, called on Israeli soldiers to refuse orders to shoot unarmed protesters. Did they heed?

HAGAI EL-AD: No. We published ads. This is actually also like a legal responsibility, a moral responsibility, not only, I think, from like any decent person, but also according to like Israelis’ own laws. If a soldier receives a flagrantly illegal command, he is duty-bound not to follow that command. And commands that order soldiers to fire at unarmed protesters that are not endangering anyone, from a distance, these are flagrantly illegal commands. They should not have been given. And the responsibility for that is with the country’s leadership, with the prime minister, defense minister, chief of staff. And that’s where the responsibility begins. That’s where the brunt of the responsibility is. But if such orders are given, soldiers are duty-bound not to follow such orders.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to an emergency room doctor who we interviewed. He is a Canadian doctor, and he went to Gaza to help Palestinians—the Palestinian-Canadian doctor Tarek Loubani, who was shot by Israeli forces in both legs while he was helping treat Palestinians injured by Israeli forces during the nonviolent Great March of Return. It was May 14th. It was a Monday. I asked Dr. Loubani—this is right after he was shot—if he felt he was targeted as a doctor.

DR. TAREK LOUBANI: I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know what orders they received or what was in their heads, so I can’t tell you if we were deliberately targeted. What I can tell you is the things that I do know. In the six weeks of the march, there were no paramedic casualties. And in one day, 19 paramedics—18 wounded plus one killed—and myself were all injured, so—or were all shot with live ammunition. We were all—Musa was actually in a rescue at the time, but everybody else I’ve talked to was like me. We were away during a lull, without smoke, without any chaos at all, and we were targeted—and we were, rather, hit by live ammunition, most of us in the lower limbs.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was Dr. Tarek Loubani, the Canadian-Palestinian doctor. We spoke to him just after he was shot. The man he was talking about, paramedic Musa Abuhassanin, was shot and killed by Israeli forces. He was shot in the chest. Dr. Loubani tweeted a photo captioned “A haunting photo, Friday, May 11. Left: Mohammed Migdad, shot in the right ankle. Hassan Abusaada. Tarek Loubani, shot in left leg and right knee. Moumin Silmi. Youssef Almamlouk. Musa Abuhassanin, shot in the thorax and killed. Volunteer unknown. Photographer: shot and wounded.” He said this was a photo they had just taken so they could have for their scrapbooks. Talk about this, Hagai.

HAGAI EL-AD: There’s a lot of information also about additional incidents, and I invite viewers to go to the B’Tselem website and read more data and analysis on this reality. What I would want to add is that one can rest assured that, in all likelihood, no one is going to be held accountable to any of these killings. Israel has a well-lubricated whitewashing mechanism that doesn’t really investigate. It performs what looks like an investigation in order to push against international legal authority. Sometimes it will take a very long time until they will close the case, sometimes a shorter time. But based on our data analysis, more than a decade of working on such issues both in the West Bank and in Gaza, more than 97 percent of the time, no one will be held accountable.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about the criticism that you’ve faced in Israel. Two years ago, our guest, Hagai El-Ad, spoke first before the United Nations Security Council. The Israeli government threatened to revoke his citizenship. He was then barred from speaking at Israeli schools. Then, this is Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon speaking yesterday.

DANNY DANON: [translated] Mr. El-Ad, you are a citizen of the state of Israel who serves our enemies. They are using you against us. IDF soldiers protect you, and you come here and smear them. Shame on you. Shame on you, you collaborator.

AMY GOODMAN: “Shame on you, you collaborator,” the Israeli ambassador to the U.N. said. Hagai El-Ad, your response?

HAGAI EL-AD: He said it in Hebrew. No one could understand that in real time at the Security Council chamber, and of course he knew that. He was talking to an Israeli audience back home when he was saying that. Twenty seconds before that, he was speaking in English from the same very seat, celebrating Israeli “democracy,” because, “Hey, we have human rights organizations such as B’Tselem that get to present before the Security Council.”

It’s a perfect example of Israeli hypocrisy at its worst, in the sense that democracy is reduced to a product for export. That’s what we celebrate abroad—”the only democracy in the Middle East”—but at home, going after the traitors, trying to silence the opposition to the occupation—both things at the same time.

By this point, I’m already used to having both of these voices, but usually it will be the prime minister and then someone else speaking five days later somewhere else. Right? But to have the same person, within less than a minute, do “democracy” in English, “collaborator” in Hebrew—absolutely amazing. But to have like a deep understanding of how cynical that is, that’s all you need to look at.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the Trump administration? Has it changed what’s happening on the ground in Israel and the Occupied Territories? What about the Trump administration’s relationship—President Trump, Jared Kushner’s relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu? Prime Minister Netanyahu’s inner circle is increasingly being arrested, the latest charges brought against his own wife, moving in on Benjamin Netanyahu himself. And we see, you know, something similar happening in the United States with an investigation of President Trump. But what’s happening?

HAGAI EL-AD: I don’t want to over-credit Trump and Netanyahu. They haven’t begun this. They have both inherited this reality that has begun many years before that in Israel by governments left, right and center that were part of the occupation project. I don’t want to shy away from that history and that context.

At the same time, of course Trump is making everything much worse, in the sense, in Israel, of like this government, that not only they have a green light from the White House to basically get away with almost anything they want to do, but in fact that what they have here is, from their perspective, a concern, a limited-time window of opportunity in which to advance Israel’s occupation project with no fear of consequences from the U.S., with no fear of anything happening at the Security Council because of the American veto. And that is scary. That is deeply concerning, for the reality that even if we get to a point and in two years time things will change significantly, how much further will they be allowed to deteriorate in the meantime?

That’s also one of the most important points that we have to make, that people are used to thinking about this reality in the context of the “Middle East peace process,” but in fact what is happening in the meantime—and this process has been going on for more than 20 years already—is that there are facts on the ground that are being set unilaterally by Israel all the time, and they are already dictating the future outcome of whatever will be decided at some unknown future.

AMY GOODMAN: How does the Jewish nation-state law that was just passed fit into this picture? And explain what it is.

HAGAI EL-AD: It’s part of that growing nationalistic trend in Israel that is also desiring to enshrine in law these changes. It has aspects with regard to the exclusivity of statehood, of national identity in the state of Israel, but in some ways it may have consequences also beyond the Green Line, to begin with, in East Jerusalem. East Jerusalem was annexed right after 1967 to Israel proper, and the nation-state law applies there. And that’s not just a usual law; that’s a basic law in Israel, which are part of like our substitute for a constitution.

So, for those of us that try to look forward and ask that more strategic question, like “Where is all this leading?” the reality that we live in, that is based on our rule of them—right?—but not as a temporary phase, but as something that is becoming more and more permanent, so trying to see the connection between that and the passage of such laws.

AMY GOODMAN: The murder of Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist, Washington Post columnist, that threatens Crown Prince Salman and threatens Saudi Arabia, with the Trump administration desperately—President Trump trying to hang on to the crown prince—I put that together with Nikki Haley, the outgoing U.N. ambassador, who talked about the brilliance of Jared Kushner and his Middle East peace plan, of which the crown prince is also a key supporter of this, apparently. Do you think what’s happened there, what happened in the Turkish Consulate, can change politics on the ground in Israel?

HAGAI EL-AD: I think all of these things echo from each other, and people see what other countries can get away with at this point in time, and they think, “Maybe we can get away with more.” But, you know, on a more personal basis, I think two of the countries in which President Trump is the most popular, outside of America, are actually Saudi Arabia and Israel. And for me, as an Israeli citizen, that’s one of the most embarrassing things I can say about my own country.

And this reality in which—you also see this like growing trend of the Israeli—it’s not just the right; it’s also like the center—it’s much broader than that—is like aligning itself openly with some of the worst regimes around the planet—Trump, Duterte, Viktor Orbán—and, in some other places, parties that are neo-Nazi, essentially, like Alternative for Germany and so on. That’s terrifying. It’s an injury to history. It’s an injury to Jewish history. But it’s the utmost expression of cynicism. These are our new best friends because they will prevent decisions being reached in Brussels to reject occupation, because Hungary is our ally in that context, so we forgive their flagrant anti-Semitism.

And if you would have asked me seriously a few years ago if I think that the day will come in which that part of like our history and identity would be set aside for political gains that will allow us on the international arena to further oppress Palestinians, I would have told you, “You’re exaggerating. There are some things that you do not toy with. Some things are too sacred.” But I live through this reality. There are members of Parliament from the ruling party that are busy explaining to Israelis that the Freedom Party in Austria is OK and that AfD in Germany is fine, and so on and so forth.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, you touched on this in Part 1 of our conversation, but where you see the answer is in Israel, and both the solution and the state of the Israeli peace movement?

HAGAI EL-AD: We’re not close to a solution. Things are bad, and they’re going in the wrong direction. Every day, it’s even worse than the previous day, and you are amazed, even though you’re immersed in that reality, at how much people have become used to violence, have become used to not seeing Palestinians as human beings, not caring about their fatalities, of course not caring about their freedom and so on and so forth. It’s a very long way out of that reality, and it’s going to be extremely difficult. And I don’t see an end in sight in the near future, especially also when the international context is what it is.

At the same time, I know, with all of my heart, that these kind of injustices eventually are rejected by the moral conscience of humanity and that these kinds of injustices do not last forever. And the day will come in which, under one political arrangement or another, we will all live in freedom and dignity and human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: And the solution you see in being able to live there? What you see as the peaceful solution?

HAGAI EL-AD: We don’t go there. From a human rights perspective, you can have five states that deliver full rights to everyone, and that’s OK. You can have two states that don’t do that. So, I don’t see a human rights prerogative for opting for that solution or another solution. And in many ways, actually, that conversation about two states and you’re for it or not, and so on, it’s a distraction from the actual reality. There are no serious negotiations right now. Negotiations are often used as an excuse: “Don’t talk about human rights right now; they should take the back seat. We’re negotiating. Don’t interrupt. Don’t disrupt this successful process.”

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. just closed the PLO mission in Washington.

HAGAI EL-AD: And further and further examples of that. And it’s like, I’m not—it’s a point that, at this point in time, you’re not making on like year three of peace negotiations; we’re making this point on year 25 of peace negotiations. And in the meantime, we can see how many more fatalities, how much more impunity, how many more settlements, how many more people that have been displaced and so on and so forth.

So, I think, from Israel’s perspective, if it would have been smart in that context, why not not continue negotiating for the next 50 years? “What’s the problem? We’re negotiating. Don’t pressure us.” And in the meantime, we are already dictating the future, advancing our occupation project at the expense of the rights of Palestinians and getting away with it, with no international consequences.

AMY GOODMAN: Hagai El-Ad, I want to thank you very much for being with us, executive director of the human rights group B’Tselem, testified officially for the first time before the U.N. Security Council this week.

This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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