Preventing the crime of silence in Palestine — a conversation with Huwaida Arraf

“May this trial prevent the crime of silence!” proclaimed Lord Bertrand Russell.

It was 1966. Lord Bertrand Russell and French philosopher and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre had just organized the first Russell Tribunal, a symbolic “peoples’ trial” to present evidence and hold the United States accountable for military intervention and war crimes in Vietnam. The trial was in no way intended to be legal or official — it was meant solely, as Lord Russell had stated, to prevent the crime of silence.

Now, almost 50 years later, the Russell Tribunal has been used as a model to hold a people’s trial to prosecute war crimes in Chile, Brazil, Armenia and Iraq. Most recently, it has evolved into the Russell Tribunal on Palestine — a people’s trial that has held sessions in Barcelona, London and Capetown to present evidence of international and corporate complicity in Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine. This weekend, the Russell Tribunal on Palestine will hold its fourth and final session in New York City — where speakers such as Noam Chomsky, Alice Walker, Angela Davis and many others will examine the United States and the United Nations for their complicity in the occupation, and failure to meaningfully address Palestine’s right to self-determination.

In anticipation of her presentation at the Russell Tribunal this weekend on Israel’s violations of international law, I talked to Huwaida Arraf — the Palestinian-American lawyer and activist, founder of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and one of the key witnesses aboard the Freedom Flotilla in 2010 — about her thoughts on showing international solidarity and pressuring political forces to hold Israel accountable.

With the culmination of your experiences as both a lawyer with a background in war crimes prosecution who has worked in Palestine, what does the Russell Tribunal on Palestine mean to you personally?

First of all, it is blatantly clear that at the moment, the United States is getting in the way of Israel being held accountable under international law with the international tribunals and forums that currently exist. In addition, jurisdictions from European countries have blocked efforts to use their court systems to hold Israeli war criminals accountable.

The Russell Tribunal on Palestine represents an international people’s effort to put Israel’s crimes before the world and have people listen to what Israel has done, and make their own judgments based on evidence with documentation. I believe that Israel will eventually be held accountable. An event where people come from all over the world to listen to evidence and render judgment is both significant for the purpose of documentation and the preservation of evidence, but also for showing the will of the international community.

Do you think that the Russell Tribunal could lend itself to actual political change?

I think that with enough education and political pressure from the peoples’ voices and the peoples’ actions, that political change will be realized. The Russell Tribunal is one more manifestation of that voice that will lead to this time, which makes it very exciting and promising.

Can you discuss the importance of showing solidarity through a people’s trial, and what this both concretely and symbolically achieves?

The Russell Tribunal on Palestine shows the will of the international community, which is not currently being reflected by those in power who make political decisions. It also serves as an education tool for people who might not necessarily know what is happening.

Also, I think it serves as an important symbol to Palestinians that they are not alone or powerless. Israel is not as all-powerful as it seems, and the policies that have been oppressing Palestinians for decades can be defeated. Palestinians are well educated. They know that laws exist on the books and that somehow these laws aren’t applied to them when it comes to Palestine and Palestinian rights.

When wars are launched because one Security Council resolution was breached or other war criminals are brought to justice while Israel continues to act with impunity, it can lead to a sense of abandonment for Palestinians. As a Palestinian, you are up against a very powerful military force with never-ending political and financial support. It is daunting. But when you see actions being carried out by ordinary citizens from around the world — like the Russell Tribunal putting Israel on trial or the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement — it sends the important message that Palestinians are not fighting this struggle alone.

The Russell Tribunal as a model has been used to symbolically prosecute war crimes in Vietnam, Chile, Brazil, Armenia, Iraq and now Palestine. Can you talk about how the Israeli occupation of Palestine fits in with these other conflicts?

The Israeli occupation of Palestine has become a tool for colonialism and apartheid — both of which have been outlawed by international law. Still, Israel continues to get away with these countless violations.

Though the architects of the Iraq War have not been brought to a legal trial, there is widespread acknowledgement that what happened was wrong. In Vietnam and Chile, the global community has come to realize that the crimes that were committed were wrong, and those responsible were brought to justice by both established legal institutions and the peoples’ trial.

What makes Israel different?

In Israel, those responsible for the numerous war crimes of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) have yet to be held accountable. Israel exerts an enormous public relations effort to ensure a media image that Israel is either a victim or that there are two sides fighting over land and that both are right and wrong. I think that the Russell Tribunal, along with other actions, will play an important role in countering that and exposing the injustices.

The Russell Tribunal on Palestine started in 2009, after Operation Cast Lead. In your eyes, how has the international dialogue on the Israeli occupation of Palestine, international complicity in the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the Palestinian struggle changed over the past three years?

I think the aggression and the brutality of Operation Cast Lead began to change peoples’ perceptions of what Israel does and under what pretext. The attack on the Freedom Flotilla was another event that woke people up to the violence and abuses against ordinary people, and even human rights activists.

I know that especially after the Freedom Flotilla, BDS activities really escalated — with artists canceling their tours and scheduled visits to Israel, dock workers striking and not wanting to unload certain ships that came from Israel and several other actions — that sent the message that the people do not want to be silent or complicit in Israel’s crimes.

What about the international response — and particularly that of the United States — to these events?

I think we are still in a bind; after Operation Cast Lead and the attack on the Freedom Flotilla there were international fact-finding missions. Israel blatantly refused to cooperate. The United States backed Israel’s refusal to cooperate, and blamed what came from international fact-finding missions as biased. For example, on the Freedom Flotilla, nine activists were killed and according to the report, six of them were executed at point blank range. One of them was an American citizen, and still the United States did nothing about it. When the report came before the Human Rights Council to be voted on, the United States was the only country that voted against this report.

What do you think it will take to ultimately achieve justice?

The actions of the people — like the BDS movement — following these instances that are placing the blame on Israel are what I think will lead to the eventual political pressure. You’ve seen it in some European countries, but not necessarily in the United States, which makes it even more significant that the fourth and final tribunal is being held in New York, where we will talk about the complicity of the United States in Israel’s actions. I think that having these speakers present at the Russell Tribunal — people like Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis and Alice Walker — will add to the knowledge being put out for consumption to make people wake up, realize their power and apply the political pressure needed to make it so that Israel cannot continue these policies or sustain its occupation.

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