Last week, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said it was “extremely concerned” about the apparent extrajudicial execution of a Palestinian youth by an Israeli soldier.
But the statement left me wondering why the UN body also expects Palestinians to protect the army that is occupying them and helping Israeli settlers steal their land.
Abd al-Fattah al-Sharif and Ramzi al-Qasrawi, both 21, were shot dead after allegedly stabbing a soldier, who was lightly injured, in the West Bank city of Hebron on the morning of 24 March.
A video filmed by a human rights worker showed an Israeli soldier, later identified as Elor Azarya, aiming his rifle and shooting al-Sharif in the head as he was lying on the ground injured and incapacitated.
Rupert Colville, the spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, called for a “prompt, thorough, transparent and independent investigation” into the slaying of al-Sharif and other killings in similar circumstances.
“A major concern is that such cases appear not to have been systematically subjected to criminal investigations,” Colville stated.
So far, so good. But here’s the part that had me confused: “We urge the Palestinian authorities to take all feasible measures to prevent attacks on Israelis, which are reprehensible.”
Colville added that the Israeli “security forces are entitled to defend themselves and others from these types of attacks,” but urged them “to ensure all members of their security forces fully comply with their obligation to use force with restraint.”
Recall that the two youths in Hebron had allegedly attacked an armed occupation soldier deployed in their city to protect settlers who are there in violation of international law.
Indeed, most of the attacks or alleged attacks by Palestinians since an increase in confrontations began last October have targeted occupation forces at checkpoints and near settlements in the West Bank.
As even senior Israeli military officers have acknowledged, the predominantly young Palestinians involved aim to “attack symbols of the Israeli occupation,” as the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz reported.
We can all agree that attacks targeting civilians, regardless of who may be the perpetrator or the victim, are indeed reprehensible.
But the UN statement contains no such qualification; it condemns all armed actions by Palestinians regardless of the circumstances.
The right to resist
So I wrote to Colville to ask for clarification. In particular, I wanted to know:
Does the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights consider attacks on armed occupation forces by persons living under foreign, belligerent military occupation to be reprehensible? If so, what is the legal basis for such a position?
What is the basis for demanding that persons living under military occupation act as a protection force for their occupiers?
Do “Palestinian authorities” also have a responsibility to protect the settlers, or only to ensure the safety and security of the Israeli army?
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights apparently recognizes that armed, belligerent occupation forces are “entitled to defend themselves” against the people they occupy.
Does it similarly recognize that the Palestinian population living under a military occupation about which the international community has done precisely nothing except issue toothless statements for almost 50 years are similarly entitled to resist and defend themselves against said occupation?
Colville did not respond to my questions, so I am left to conclude that the UN’s highest human rights official makes no distinction between attacks on civilians and resistance against armed occupation forces, while supporting the right of the occupation forces to use violence against those they occupy.
This view defies a broad international consensus that occupied and colonized peoples do indeed have a right to resist.
No one seriously questions the right of French, Belgian and Dutch citizens to have engaged in armed resistance against German occupation, or of Indonesians and Algerians to have resisted Dutch or French occupation.
This consensus has been expressed in numerous UN General Assembly resolutions, including resolution 3246 of 29 November 1974 which “strongly condemns” all governments which do not recognize “the right to self-determination and independence of peoples under colonial and foreign domination and alien subjugation, notably the peoples of Africa and the Palestinian people.”
The same resolution “[r]eaffirms the legitimacy of the peoples’ struggle for liberation from colonial and foreign domination and alien subjugation by all available means, including armed struggle.”
The right and duty to resist occupation is even enshrined in the constitution of Sweden, which declares that “Any public body in occupied territory shall act in the manner that best serves the defense effort and resistance activities.”
It is, of course, much harder to make the case internationally that Palestinians – just like other occupied peoples through history – have a right to resist, when their best known face works night and day to help Israel crush all resistance.
Abbas told Israeli television that he wanted Israel to halt its raids inside Palestinian city centers so that the PA could do the job on Israel’s behalf.
“Try me for a week – if I don’t meet my responsibilities, then come back,” Abbas told the Israeli current affairs program Uvda.
“Give me responsibility for the Palestinian territories, and test me… if Israel has specific intelligence information, give it to me and I’ll handle it. If I don’t handle it, he [Netanyahu] can come and do it,” Abbas said.
Abbas has previously gone on record calling his role as Israel’s occupation enforcer “sacred.”
His surrogates have also previously reassured Israel that the PA is doing all it can to prevent a “third intifada.”
But it is widely viewed by Palestinians, including some inside Abbas’ own Fatah faction, as a reprehensible form of collaboration.
The case for BDS
It is up to Palestinians to debate and decide the best forms of resistance, and in the current situation one of the most powerful means of standing up to Israel is the nonviolent, civil society-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
Israel sees BDS as such a major threat to its dominance and impunity that it is now making outright threats against individual activists.
There is a difference between choosing the appropriate tactics for how to protest and resist, on the one hand, and negating the right to resist and even collaborating with the occupation, on the other.
Palestinians may choose not to use armed struggle, just as Nelson Mandela adopted and then suspended armed struggle in South Africa when he and his comrades thought the conditions were appropriate. But they never gave up the right.
As the history of South Africa also shows, the path away from violence is always easier when there are effective alternatives.
So those, like the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who apparently find all Palestinian, though not Israeli, violence reprehensible, should be the first in line to promote nonviolent strategies like BDS.
But no one, not Abbas nor any UN official, is entitled to strip Palestinians of their fundamental right to resistance and self-defense.