Justice for Some

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Noura Erekat, an American-born Palestinian, human rights attorney and assistant professor of Africana Studies at Rutgers University, has produced an accessible and important analysis of what has been and remains a deliberate strategy by the state of Israel to normalise its history of illegality in Palestine.

Erekat is clear from the outset that politics is what has always shaped strategy concerning law. “I argue that the law is politics: its meaning and application are contingent on the strategy that legal actors deploy as well as the historical context in which that strategy is deployed.”

She draws attention to a discussion by the United Nations Security Council in late December 2016 on Resolution 2334, which condemned the Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories. It was passed. Yet just two weeks later at the Paris Middle East Conference in January 2017 Israel condemned the meeting and Resolution 2334 as threats to peace. No legal action was agreed, only a political commitment to a two-state solution

Three months later the Security Council was briefed by the UN Special Co-ordinator for the Middle East Process on Israel’s intention to build thousands more housing units in the settlements. The council noted the report and did nothing.

Erekat is pointing to a familiar theme in the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestine. What appear to be landmark decisions at the UN in terms of human rights law are ignored in political terms. It is what she terms “the use of force and the balance of power, not judicial decisions, that have fundamentally shaped the realities on the ground.”

The book examines the colonial period following the 1919 Balfour Declaration, including the Great Revolt of 1936, in a chapter entitled “Colonial Erasures”. This opens with former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir’s statement: “There was no such thing as Palestinians. When was there an independent people with a Palestinian state? They did not exist.”

This fiction, enshrined in the British Mandate, has allowed the state of Israel to claim that the lack of a sovereign in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip made the territories exceptional as a matter of law. Israel would only apply the humanitarian provisions of occupation law at its discretion. In other cases of occupation law, however, once peace has been established the displaced sovereign authority is restored.

Israel claims settlement expansion in occupied Palestine to be merely a temporary measure under the guise of the law. For example, settlement expansion in 1967 in the West Bank was introduced under the guise of establishing temporary army “paramilitary outposts”. When civilian settlers arrived they were referred to as soldiers, thus giving the appearance of being law-abiding. Permanent temporariness.

In the chapter “Pragmatic Revolutionaries” Erekat examines the role of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) including its relationship to the United Nations. She looks at the seminal moment when PLO chairman Yasser Arafat addressed the UN in November 1974, despite the attempts of powerful states such as the US and the UK to thwart the PLO’s legitimisation.

She also addresses the differences within the PLO on strategy leading to a Palestinian state, with the “pragmatic” camp seeking a state as an interim or even a final, step to full liberation, and the “Rejection Front” that insisted on revolution.

Erekat is fiercely critical of the Oslo peace process and what she describes as the “politics of acquiescence”. She states that the PLO endorsed “naively” an autonomy arrangement without any guarantee of national sovereignty, thus relinquishing all its claims in UN resolutions. This included its right to take up arms.

Throughout this rigorously researched book Erekat consistently shows how politics manipulates the law, literally “making it up” as they go along. The clue to her thinking and where her political sympathies lie is clear in the title.

In the concluding chapter the author looks in some detail at the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign and how its strategy highlights the weakness of the Oslo Accords and allows it to appeal to international and human rights law. Erekat writes that the BDS campaign has been described by Israel’s leaders as “the second most significant threat to Israel after a nuclear capable Iran”. A $25.5 million budget has been allocated to combat the movement.

Erekat does argue, however, that the question of Palestine is in danger of being depoliticised, given the BDS movement’s appeal to universal human rights and equality alone, ignoring the more fundamental struggle against settler-colonial dominance.

She concludes that the future does not exclude violence given that “no community has ever relinquished its dominance voluntarily, and no community has ever submitted to a condition of perpetual servitude and domination.”

Erekat asks not how to avoid such violence but “what is the optimal outcome that would make it tolerable? What possible futures can Palestinians build for themselves as well as for the Jewish-Israelis that currently dominate them that would make this tortured history a chronicle of hope rather than one of mourning?”

Justice for Some deserves wide recognition in the movement for peace with justice in Israeli occupied Palestine.