B’Tselem’s executive director speaks to +972 Magazine about his organization’s decision to describe the demolition and displacement of Palestinian villages as ‘war crimes,’ and the role of international pressure in changing Israeli policy in the West Bank.
By Joshua Leifer and Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man
The international diplomatic and human rights community often couches its criticism of Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians in softened, diplomatic terms. For years the U.S. State Department called Israeli settlements “unhelpful.” EU diplomats described the planned forced displacement of entire Palestinian communities as “contrary to Israel’s obligations” under international law.
There are other words to describe these actions, however. According to the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court (ICC), both Israel’s settlement enterprise and forcible transfer of Palestinian communities could easily fall under the definition of war crimes.
It was of particular note, therefore, that late last year Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem sent a letter to Israel’s prime minister, defense minister, justice minister, and top military officials about the planned forcible displacement of two Palestinian communities, Susya and Khan al-Amer, warning that “these actions would constitute a war crime committed at your instruction and under your responsibility, and for which you would bear personal liability.”
B’Tselem’s decision to start describing forcible displacement as a war crime is of particular significance considering that the ICC prosecutor is currently conducting a preliminary examination into Israel’s actions in the occupied territories, specifically including its settlements and forcible population transfer, among other alleged crimes.
Fast-forward to 2018, and the two villages named in B’Tselem’s letter, Susya and Khan al-Amer, are once again waging public campaigns to stave off their demolition and displacement. In the past pressure by European and American diplomats has succeeded in delaying demolitions in those villages. But with the Trump administration thus far showing zero willingness to criticize Israel, all that could change.
+972 spoke with B’Tselem Executive Director Hagai El-Ad earlier this week about the decision to describe Israel’s actions against Palestinian communities in the West Bank as war crimes, whether that should also be the case for settlements and the planned mass deportation of asylum seekers, and the most effective path for saving communities like Susya and Khan al Amer.
The following interview has been edited for length.
What prompted the change in language?
When we issued that statement [about moving to war crimes terminology], it was in response to a quite unprecedented statement by the minister of defense a couple of months ago, that they have a concrete plan to entirely demolish two Palestinian communities, Khan al-Ahmer and Susya, which is almost unprecedented since 1967.
That was a highly unusual statement by the defense minister. At the same time, it needs to be said — and we’re saying this as well — that the overall policy of trying to forcefully displace Palestinians out of major parts of the West Bank through creating unlivable, unbearable conditions is not new.
What are the goals of the shift to using ‘war crimes’ terminology?
In the most direct sense, we want prevent war crimes from occurring. We want to stop these policies. We want to prevent forcible displacement. We think it’s the obvious right of Palestinian communities to continue living their lives and to develop their communities where they are. And Israel’s use of ‘rule of law’ justifications to implement this policy does not in any way make it legal or lawful or acceptable. The state gives a lot of attention to legal process so that it can find legal justifications for actions that are unjustifiable, and unfortunately the courts have been cooperating with that for many years.
The second thing is the tactical choice in the implementation of this policy to do it gradually, over time, and not by directly, physically putting Palestinian families on trucks and shipping them from one part of the West Bank to another. [Instead, it is done] through the creation of unbearable living conditions so that people will self-deport themselves from one part of the West Bank to another. That’s the strategy.
The point we made is that the fact that this is done through by creating unbearable living conditions — demolishing water systems and classrooms and homes and taking solar panels, all of these are various aspects of creating unbearable living conditions — does not make acceptable or legal in anyway.
Is there a potentially broader scope for this? Is there a hope that designating these policies as war crimes will have some implications in the international legal arena, and not just in Israel?
What we have seen in recent years is that the one thing, the only effective leverage that has prevented the state from going ahead with certain actions was international pressure, through statements, visits by diplomats, and conversations between Israeli officials and representatives of other countries that happened quietly. Susya is very well known but there are many efforts in other parts of the West Bank.
In the piece in Haaretz with Liberman, in which he made that statement with regard to Susya and Khan al-Ahmar, if you read the article — I’m not sure if its a direct quote or provided as context by the reporter — there’s a sentence that says the previous U.S. administration used to give a lot of attention to these communities, but apparently that is no longer the case. Which again demonstrates the same point: it is only international pressure and condemnation that has worked. It has not succeeded in providing proper protection for all of these communities all over the West Bank — far from it. But it was successful in buying more time and in limiting to some extent some of Israel’s actions. If no one is preserving those red lines any more, then that can have dire consequences.
Is the change in language a way to make opposing the demolitions more effective? How sustainable is the current strategy of organizing an international campaign for specific villages each time when there are so many villages under threat?
Time will tell whether this is effective or not. But before the question of effectiveness, we have a responsibility as a human rights organization to call things as they are. So at the most direct level, we’re calling a spade a spade because it’s a spade; it is our legal analysis and the way we see things as they are.
At the same time, humanity did not invent these terms just for the sake of academic discussion. Humanity invented these terms in order to prevent them from taking place, to provide red lines so that they will not be crossed.
Will you be using war crimes language to describe other Israel policies, like the expansion and legalization of settlements, or the deportation of asylum seekers?
I don’t know. Of course, there is a lot of concern that over-usage of this language — that [it] will end up losing its effectiveness, to the extent that it even has that. We try to use the appropriate language and speak with the right moral conviction as it is relevant to the current reality — not overdoing it and not under-doing it.
I have to say, with a lot of bitterness and pain, that this reality, this slowly moving strategy in the West Bank to displace Palestinians through these tactics of creating unbearable living conditions — it is not new. There were phases during the years when it slowed down; there were phases during the years when its ticked up. And in the meantime, that means that even if the strategy in some places is not successful, because Palestinians somehow succeed in holding onto their land and their communities — through courage and commitment and steadfastness — even if that is the case, it means that in the meantime, and the meantime can be a very long time, thousands of people have to endure living under conditions that are absolutely unacceptable and unjustifiable. And all this is done out of a planned policy to displace them.
The cruelty of this ongoing reality — even on days when there is no demolition, no legal developments, absolutely usual days when nothing happens — is another day people need to endure without electricity, connection to the water grid, and with the knowledge that demolition may be coming, with that fear all of the time. For us that’s the most important thing that we have to try and reverse.