The renowned expert in international law Francesca Albanese was on her way to cross the Atlantic, continuing to appeal to states, members of the international community, to stand up and demand respect of international law when it comes to human rights of Palestinians and to actions of the state of Israel. Last May she took up the position of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967 and until now she has not had a chance to present her findings to the UN Security Council. In her public talk on 3rd October she emphasized, that “international law is as valid as the will of the states to enforce it”.
It was a day after she and other UN experts issued a statement condemning the violence and indiscriminate attacks against civilians in Israel and Gaza, calling for, among other, respect of international humanitarian law and human rights, a ceasefire and an international protective presence in the occupied Palestinian territory. They warned of the “appalling language that dehumanises the Palestinian people” and warned that intentional starvation – an unavoidable consequence of the total Israeli blockade and siege of Gaza – is a crime against humanity.
Francesca Albanese began the interview by saying that the present was the most difficult time in her career so far. She has worked as a human rights expert for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and for Unrwa, the Relief and Work Agency for Palestine Refugees, she has written a book Palestinian Refugees in International Law and witnessed wars on Gaza in 2008, 2012, 2014, 2021, 2022 … For a year and a half now she has monitored, documented and reported on “daily brutalities, indignities and humiliations that Palestinians are subjected to under the Israeli occupation that is “completely illegal”. She explained that under international law occupation cannot last in perpetuity, must not be used for colonization and must not use apartheid. “But still I have never seen in all these years the ferocity I see being unleashed against a civilian population, which is trapped inside 365 square kilometers of land, half of whom are children,” she said.
Asked whether we are standing witness – again – to the international crimes of genocide or ethnic cleansing and whether the repeat of the mass atrocities can be prevented, her answer was unequivocal. “It must. It must be prevented. It is difficult to talk about international law in a context where there is no one single provision of human rights or humanitarian law that has not been violated. And yet: because of the level of destruction of Palestinian people – physically – and the destruction of the civilian infrastructure that is essential to people’s lives; hospitals, water cisterns, water plants, electricity … at this moment when 2,3 million people are being heavily bombarded, the international community has the obligation to prevent the possible destruction of the Palestinian people or part of the Palestinian people. This is what international obligations are about. Including to prevent the possible crime of genocide – I do not exclude it at all.”
The international law expert and the author of two pivotal UN reports on the question of Palestine continued to explain that ethnic cleansing is nothing new. It has happened during Nakba or Palestinian Catastrophe, between 1947 and 1949, accompanying the establishment of the state of Israel, and in 1967. It has been steadily unfolding in the occupied Palestinian territory by confiscations of the Palestinians’ land and forcible displacements of Palestinian people, by terrorizing them, revoking residency permits, destroying homes and schools. This abuse of power by the Israeli state has been well documented by Israeli, international and Palestinian human rights organizations, as well as by the UN. Yet no state sanctions or boycotts, worthy of mention, have been taken to ensure the respect of the international law. “Western countries, the Global North have huge responsibilities,” said Francesca Albanese. “But where are the rest? Where are the African countries, where are the Asian countries, where are the Arab countries?” She warned of the move into the opposite direction: “Now we see that even solidarity with the Palestinian people under occupation either coming from the Diaspora, international activists or from the Jewish communities has been quashed.”
The focus, especially in Western countries on battling anti-Semitism has been in the last decade with the imposition of the definition by the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) hijacked to try to silence any criticism of Israel. Francesca Albanese clearly emphasizes that anti-Semitism remains a problem and a challenge we have not dealt with yet. “But to scrutinize Israeli practices as any other UN member state’s and to hold Israel to the same international standards that apply or should apply to the rest of the international community is not anti-Semitism,” she said. Instead, such extension of the definition of anti-Semitism represents an instrumentalisation that is to preserve immunity and impunity of Israel, she added.
The latest report by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories introduces a new legal language and vocabulary of incarceration and explains how Israel by “treating the Palestinians as a collective, incarcerable threat erodes their protection as ‘civilians’ under international law, deprives them of their fundamental freedoms, and expropriates their agency and ability to unite, self-govern and develop as a polity”. Thus Israel can further its settler-colonial project. “This has entrenched segregation, subjugation, fragmentation and, ultimately, the dispossession of Palestinian lands and Palestinians’ forced displacement. Intended primarily to secure colonies’ establishment and expansion, this system suffocates Palestinian life and undermines Palestinians’ collective existence,” concludes the report.
Francesca Albanese says that the entire occupied Palestinian territory is administered as a prison, with the Palestinians on every step confined by physical – the wall, checkpoints, roadblocks, segregated roads – and bureaucratic barriers, topped by digital surveillance. This defines the lives of the occupied by all the rights they do not have – they cannot move freely, travel, they cannot live where they want nor go to the school they wish. “There is no normalcy in this. It is an open-air prison and it is a panopticon – the inmates are controlled from the outside and from within. And it touches the most vulnerable. Half of the Palestinians across the occupied territory are minors, they are children,” said Francesca Albanese.
In her two reports she describes settler colonialism and cultural erasure of Palestinianess – policies to de-Palestinianize the occupied territory; she writes about the need for decolonisation and cites reports on necropolitics. Overall, she offers a legal framework to understand the Israeli occupation policies. In the interview she paraphrased John. F. Kennedy saying that those who make peaceful resistance impossible make violent resistance inevitable. “This is what is happening and I do not justify it. I criticize the violence, I have condemned the crimes committed by Hamas,” she emphasized. However, she recognizes and warns about the omnipresent and structural violence the Israeli occupation needs to continue.
She said she does not despair but continues to talk to policy-makers. “I hope they will not turn their eyes away. So far their conscience sits elsewhere, it is not with the Palestinian people. But if you differentiate human beings on the grounds of their national group and if you are unable to recognize dignity, freedom and equal rights to everyone regardless of their nationality, then this is racism,” she said, and continued, that at the moment “the international community is tarnishing and undermining the very foundations of the system that has originated from the ashes of the Second World War”.
She has stressed, also in her reports, that the question of Palestine cannot be treated as a matter of security. “It is a matter of human rights and equality of all, Palestinians and Israelis – of equality in dignity and in human rights and freedoms. This is what I ultimately stand for,” she said. As possible alleys to greater respect of international law she pointed to the International Criminal Court and the national courts.
“But I do not think the situation will change with a top-down approach,” said Francesca Albanese. Israeli bombs and Hamas rockets continue to fall from top down. As an expert in international law she turned to the experiences from the apartheid South Africa but warned that creating a joint Israeli-Palestinian front and movement is much more difficult than was building a national antiapartheid movement with white and black South Africans. “We need to normalize the unity of the human rights discourse. I have had extremely humanely touching relationships with Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations. They speak the same language. And in the tragic hours that Israeli people have gone through as of 7th October all major human rights organisations in Israel have condemned what Hamas had done as heinous crimes and then spoken at length of the context, of the reality of the Palestinian people and urged a de-escalation to protect the Palestinian people, to end the occupation and apartheid. This is humanity. This is where I see hope,” she said.
In her first report as the Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese emphasized that “the unlawfulness of Israel’s occupation cannot be remedied, or humanized, by reforming some of its most brutal consequences”. Furthermore, the international law obliges states “not to contribute or condone Israel’s settler-colonial apartheid, which criminalizes Palestinians for (re)claiming or refusing to forsake their collective right to exist as a people, and act to realize all conditions that would allow the Palestinian people to realise their rights including their inalienable right to self-determination”.
“We need to look at the people,” she said at the end of the interview, looking beyond netanyahus, hamases or fatahs. “We need to identify the people to talk to and to listen to in Israel and in occupied Palestinian territory and in the Diaspora. There are so many Jewish communities who have over the years stood up for peace, justice and equality for all – from the river to the sea. They are the bastions for the protection of human rights, together with the Palestinians, also in the Diaspora, and together with the international activists. They might be repressed but they do exist,” she said. “My trust right now is with the people.”
ZNetwork is funded solely through the generosity of its readers.Donate