The former UN Special Rapporteur on Palestine talks about his career, his commitment to the Palestinian cause and his hopes for the future
“Apartheid, annexation, mass displacement and collective punishment have become core policies of the state of Israel.” Such a clear and uncompromising statement may be unusual for a high-flying academic and former top UN official, but it is typical of Richard Falk.
With his tall, spare frame, neatly trimmed white beard and quiet, scholarly demeanour, Falk appears the epitome of a retired professor. He is indeed an Emeritus Professor of International Law at Princeton University, but "retired’ is not a word in his vocabulary, even at the age of 85.
His pages-long bibliography on issues as diverse and complex as racism, the Iraq war and climate change bears witness to his intellectual energy and the breadth of his political commitment. Still travelling the world speaking on a wide range of topics, his latest book Palestine Horizon: Toward a Just Peace will be published in a few months’ time.
“Apartheid, annexation, mass displacement and collective punishment have become core policies of the state of Israel"
As for many of his generation, including Noam Chomsky, the Vietnam war played a major role in Falk’s political education: “Two transformative visits to ‘the enemy,’ North Vietnam, led me to understand the war from the perspective of a low tech society utterly vulnerable to high tech warfare, and changed my commitment from opposition to an imprudent war to the rejection of an unjust and immoral war. It was this basic shift in political consciousness that underpins my approach to Israel/Palestine.”
Responding to the Zionist claim that Israel is unfairly singled out for criticism in a world full of brutally oppressive regimes, Falk points to two distinguishing features. One is the unprecedented role played by the UN, in endorsing the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and in partitioning Palestine.
The second is “the UN’s continuing inability to challenge Israel’s policies and practices that defy Security Council Resolution 242 and the international consensus proposing an independent sovereign state of Palestine”.
Known as an authoritative voice on Palestine from the late 1990s, it was as UN Special Rapporteur on Palestine from 2008–2014 that Falk came to prominence worldwide. It is an unpaid job that few would envy, as the path of opposition to Israel’s policies is strewn with wrecked careers and ruined reputations. But Falk picked up this hottest of political hot potatoes without hesitation.
Part of his commitment stems from the fact that he is both American and Jewish. The US clearly provides Israel with unparalleled political, economic and military support and, “as a Jew it concerns me that this state that claims to be a Jewish state - itself problematic given its ethnic composition - fails to live up to international legal and moral standards”.
For him, being Jewish means being “preoccupied with overcoming injustice and thirsting for justice in the world, and that means being respectful toward other peoples regardless of their nationality or religion, and empathetic in the face of human suffering, whoever and wherever victimisation is encountered.”
The cost of commitment
The vilification Falk has endured is inevitable, given his reputation for combining legal rigour with unflinching candour. From the outset, his appointment as special rapporteur was vehemently opposed by Israel and its supporters. When he arrived to assume his duties, he was put in jail near Ben Gurion airport and has since been excluded from Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Like many others who speak out on this issue, he has come up against pro-Israel groups which have sought – generally unsuccessfully – to get events he participated in cancelled, or speaking invitations withdrawn.
On the special venom reserved for Jewish critics of Israel, he recalls: “My worst moment with respect to being Jewish occurred when the Wiesenthal Institute in Los Angeles listed me as the third most dangerous anti-Semite in the world in their annual identification of the ten most dangerous anti-Semites in 2013.” He adds wryly, “Although hurtful, such a designation did give me the sense that I must be doing something right in my UN reports to get such prominent attention.”
Even his Turkish-born wife Hilal Elver, herself a highly distinguished academic, found herself in the firing line when she was about to be appointed UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food.
“UN Watch mounted a vicious campaign accusing her falsely of being a front for my views and sharing my alleged bias toward Israel. She actually had never taken public positions of any kind on political issues and had never published anything critical of Israel except for a short piece that raised some questions about the political uses of Israel’s desalination technology.
In the end, her appointment was approved by the Human Rights Council, but the adverse publicity made it a painful experience, especially for her, but also for me.”
Despite the obstacles, as Special Rapporteur Falk was tireless in monitoring and cataloguing events in the region in scrupulous detail. The conclusions he has drawn, especially in relation to Israel’s multiple violations of international law, are couched in unambiguous language, with terms such as "apartheid," or "state-sponsored terrorism" and "ethnic cleansing," being carefully defined and justified. And he has met the voices of his critics from the unconditional supporters of Israel with calm rational rebuttals.
Children bear the brunt
Of all aspects of the occupation and dispossession of the Palestinian people, the plight of children – be they the thousands killed and maimed in Gaza, or the hundreds detained every year in Israeli jails – has commanded his special attention.
A very recent contribution to the field of Palestinian human rights is Falk’s preface to a heart-rending collection of testimonies: "Dreaming of Freedom; Palestinian Child Prisoners Speak."
Of the extortion of confessions from children he writes: “In a manner that I encountered in apartheid South Africa, maintaining innocence is usually punished worse than confessions, whether true of false, and thus there is no incentive whatsoever to hold out. What is even more dehumanising is the demand of Israeli officials that these Palestinian teenagers implicate their friends and neighbours.”
"Maintaining innocence is usually punished worse than confessions, whether true of false"
To Israel’s claims that the killing and imprisonment of young Palestinians – largely for the crime of throwing stones at military vehicles – is justified, he counters that physical resistance to many years of oppression, however ineffective, is “a natural and entirely understandable response to the brutalities and indignities of military occupation, especially if carried on in violation of international humanitarian law”.
He calls for the International Committee of the Red Cross “first to study the subject of children under occupation, and then to prepare a draft convention and convene a meeting of governments and legal experts to consider this special challenge of child prisoners in circumstances of belligerent occupation”. Failing that, he proposes that the UN Human Rights Council or the secretary general appoint a commission to prepare such a convention.
On the related question of calling Israel to account for alleged war crimes in Gaza, he admits that the political obstacles to any prosecution are immense: “It seems unlikely that the ICC [the International Criminal Court] will embark on such a politically difficult journey, especially since Israel will not cooperate with any issuance of arrest warrants.” He doubts whether the International Court of Justice would be any more effective: ”Israel would have to agree, which is inconceivable, or at least allow Israeli defendants to be brought before the court in the Hague.“
Another legal route, that of seeking an advisory opinion from the UN General Assembly, such as that issued in 2004, strongly condemning the construction of the separation wall, carries immense moral authority. Admittedly, he says, the latter proved ineffective in reining in Israel’s appetite for settlement and annexation, but the symbolic value of such measures and the encouragement they provide to civil society movements should not be underestimated.
The road ahead
A realist as well as an idealist, Falk sees no likelihood of Israel modifying its policies in the near future: “I do think that Israel is likely to continue mounting periodic attacks on Gaza for a variety of reasons, including the competitive edge gained in the arms market from field testing weapons and tactics."
“I do think that Israel is likely to continue mounting periodic attacks on Gaza for a variety of reasons, including the competitive edge gained in the arms market from field testing weapons and tactics."
Nevertheless, he finds reason for hope. “There have been major shifts of attitudes here in the US, especially among younger people, including Jews. Israel has lost its early image of being an idealistic and dynamic society that is a successful political model in a region that is dominated by military and religious autocracies.”
He also speaks of Palestinian civil society activists and their leaders as “increasingly the most authentic representatives of the Palestinian people,” and strongly supports the campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) launched in 2005, which has become the centre of a growing global solidarity movement.
“If the BDS campaign can continue to build support and mount pressure,“ he says, “it has some chance of inducing Israeli political elites to recalculate their interests, and seek compromise and accommodation based on the equality of the two peoples. This is essentially what happened in South Africa, which also seemed like an impossibility – until it happened.”
Against this campaign are ranged the forces of a powerful pro-Israel lobby fighting worldwide to equate any criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Falk finds this understandable: “Israeli think tanks in recent years have accurately concluded that what they call ‘the delegitimation project’ is a greater danger to Israeli security than is the prospect of revived Palestinian armed struggle.”
Clinton hostility to BDS
In relation to the upcoming elections, he is deeply disturbed by Hillary Clinton’s pledge to major Jewish donors that, if elected, she will oppose BDS. For Falk, this is a position that poses constitutional questions of repressing freedom of expression and nonviolent political advocacy. "Criticism of a political movement or of state policies and practices is treated as if it were hate speech – which totally contradicts the idea that citizens in a democratic society have the right and even the duty to follow their conscience with respect to public issues.”
Having witnessed many unforeseen political convulsions and transformations around the world, from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the Arab Spring, Falk does not despair of an eventual just solution in Palestine. He sees a “settler colonial society” like Israel as a complete anachronism in the 21st century and is certain that “the flow of history is on the side of the Palestinians”.
“The only humane and practical solution,” he says, “is to work out some kind of arrangement that shares Palestine on the basis of equality, whether as one state or two.”
But there is a prerequisite for peace: “To reach such a goal, the Israeli leadership would also have to acknowledge, in an open formal process, the wrongs inflicted on the Palestinians over the years since the establishment of Israel in 1948, starting with the Nakba (catastrophe).”
An impossible dream? Falk refers again to the sea-change wrought in South Africa, with its courageous Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “If the regional situation turns against Israel and if the US is not unconditionally supportive, then unexpected changes should not be ruled out.”