Gaza. “Any peaceful settlement has to include Hamas and I think it is important for the EU and the US to realize this”.
Interview with John Dugard
“I think it is wrong to portray the present conflict as self-defense on the part of Israel. Israel is taking military action in order to maintain and enforce its occupation of Gaza. It is an occupying power that wishes to remain an occupying power and it is taking enforcement action to maintain that occupation”.
JOHN DUGARD is a former professor of International Law at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He has served on the International Law Commission, the primary UN institution for the development of international law, and has been active in reporting on human-rights violations by Israel in the Palestinian territories. From 2001 to 2008 he was UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory [visit Professor Dugards website]
tqt: What characterized the developments that have taken place the last 24 hours [the interview was conducted Friday 25th, ed.] pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Dugard: In the past 24 hours there have been a number of serious attacks on civilian targets in Gaza. The attack on the UNRWA school yesterday, which killed 15 people, was a serious violation of international humanitarian law. Since then, the bombing has continued and a number of people have already been killed in Gaza today. What is of equal importance is the outbreak of violence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. One has wondered for some time why there has been no response from the West Bank to the invasion of Gaza, but it does seem that this has now started and it raises the very real possibility of a third Intifada.
tqt: The Israeli government claims that it makes profound efforts in trying to avoid targeting civilians, but the civilian casualties are dramatically increasing on the Palestinian side. Does that signify Israeli inability to keep up with information about where civilians are, or is it a disregard for civilians?
Dugard: It is important to stress that Gaza is a very densely populated region and Gaza City, in particular, is densely populated. So it is very difficult to attack a military target and not hit a civilian target. In these circumstances one would expect the Israelis to be particularly careful, but they do seem to have acted in a reckless manner, with disregard for the difference between combatants and civilians. I think the evidence is very clear that Israel has deliberately been targeting civilian targets, as in the case of the UNRWA school and the four hospitals that have been attacked. So either it is acting deliberately or recklessly, without taking into account the need for caution.
tqt: Israel and the US argue that Hamas is using the population as a human shield. Is there any truth to this?
Dugard: I was the chair of a commission of inquiry into the last operation, “Operation Cast Lead” in 2009. There too there were accusations that the Palestinians had used civilians as human shields, but we found no evidence to support that. Similarly the Human Rights Council fact-finding mission, the so-called Goldstone Mission in 2009, found that there was no evidence to support the arguments raised by Israel that Palestinians were used as human shields. I think that it is inevitable that in situations of this kind, in such a densely populated community, that civilians will be hit and that they will be collateral damage.
tqt: Earlier you commented on a response to what has been going on in Gaza by seeing some kind of mobilization or reaction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Could you elaborate more on why that is a significant event?
Dugard: In 2008-2009, during Operation Cast Lead, there was no response from the West Bank or East Jerusalem. And one has been expecting a response from other Palestinian areas to the present conflict in Gaza and that does now seem to be happening. It is potentially very, very dangerous because it does suggest that a wider conflict will develop which will constitute a third Intifada, civil unrest, civil disobedience and violence throughout the Palestinian territories, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.
tqt: Going back to when the Israelis launched Operation Protective Edge, why do you think they launched it at this particular time? Why now?
Dugard: I think it is very clear that the Israeli government is determined to bring an end to the government of national unity and to ensure that the cooperation between Fatah and Hamas comes to an end. This is the real explanation for the present conflict and Israel hopes that by destroying Hamas it will weaken Hamas’ position in the national unity government or lead president Abbas to put an end to the national unity government.
tqt: Are Fatah and Hamas united currently?
Dugard: Yes, at present they do seem to be united.
tqt: Taking that into account, how does that affect the prospect of a two-state solution and the prospect of a ceasefire?
Dugard: It is very difficult for a two-state solution or any peace settlement to be reached without the inclusion of Hamas. It is an important political entity in Palestinian society. Any peaceful settlement has to include Hamas and I think that it is important for the EU and the US to realize this. The national unity government has a greater chance at succeeding than a purely Fatah-led government. But of course the difficulty is that the Europeans and the US refuse to speak to Hamas. We have the strange situation that both Ban Ki-moon and John Kerry are attempting to find a peaceful solution to the present conflict, but they refuse to speak to Hamas. They will only speak to Israel or to the Palestinian Authority of president Abbas in Ramallah. They don’t speak to Hamas and that is absolutely ridiculous and it is not the way to settle a conflict.
tqt: As long as Hamas is labeled a terrorist organization will that be the defining factor in them not getting more support from, for example, European governments? We are seeing a popular movement in Europe, consisting of people protesting the human rights violations that are happening in Gaza. Yet while growing numbers support the Palestinian cause, governments are not responding to the conflict in the same way as their respective populations. Why?
Dugard: You are absolutely correct that European public opinion is shifting, but the response of most European governments and the US is very different. The influence of lobbies in the US in particular and, in the case of European states the remnants of Holocaust guilt, determines the foreign policy of most governments. They are completely out of touch with public opinion, but they are determined to follow the lead of Washington. I think that there will come a time when governments will have to respond more positively to public opinion, but that does not seem to be happening at present.
tqt: While it has been argued that Israel is merely defending itself against a terrorist threat in this escalation could it not similarly be argued that the Palestinians are defending themselves or protecting the prospect of freedom from an occupying power?
Dugard: I think it is wrong to portray the present conflict as self-defense on the part of Israel. Israel is taking military action in order to maintain and enforce its occupation of Gaza. It is an occupying power that wishes to remain an occupying power and it is taking enforcement action to maintain that occupation. The Palestinians are acting against the occupying power in the same way that during the Second World War resistance groups used violence against the German and Nazi occupiers.
tqt: So who gets to define what is a resistance movement and what is a terrorist organization?
Dugard: I think these are most unfortunate terms of speaking, particularly “terrorism” which has been greatly over-used. I am a South African and I was active during the Apartheid period in South Africa. Opponents of the Apartheid regime were labeled as terrorists. Nelson Mandela was labeled as a terrorist and remained on terror list of the United States until 2004. So one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter and I think one should avoid terms of this kind. The term “terrorism” is particularly harmful. It doesn’t help to resolve the conflict.
tqt: What seems to be the Israeli success criterion for the operation? And are they likely to achieve them, taking into account the vast amount of civilian casualties?
Dugard: Israel hopes to achieve the complete demilitarization of Gaza, in other words the destruction of all rocket launchers and tunnels. But history has shown that it is very difficult for an occupying power to completely suppress an occupied people. There will always be a civil resistance. If Israel does succeed in demilitarizing Gaza this time, Gaza will become militarized again at a later stage. What is needed now is a sustainable, durable settlement and that involves the lifting of the siege.
tqt: Do you think that the current conflict will help Hamas recruit or will they lose popular support amongst the people living in Gaza?
Dugard: I think that the war in Gaza has served to unite the people of Gaza in the same way it did in 2008 and 2009. And so I suspect that there is stronger support for Hamas than there was, shall we say, three or four months ago. I think that it is inevitable in any situation of this kind.
tqt: How long can Israel afford to keep the conflict going and do you think that we will see a situation where they will never withdraw from Gaza?
Dugard: Israel can afford to keep the conflict going for some time. Militarily, it has great military resources. Politically, it is clear that it can continue for long. It has already taken twice as many wounded and twice as many casualties as it did in 2008-2009. But I think that there will come a time when Israeli public opinion will demand a withdrawal of the military. So I think that is an important factor and of course this time there will also be serious peace negotiations. I think that the United Nations is powerless without the support of the United States, so the United States ultimately is the key player and at present it doesn’t seem to be playing a leadership role. I get the impression that John Kerry is determined to reach a settlement, but president Obama is a captive of the Israeli lobby.
tqt: Taking into account that there are multiple conflicts in the world right now, is it realistic that the US can keep trying to mediate this conflict, while at the same time also being expected to play and active role in the conflict between Russia and the intelligence gathering concerning Flight MH17? Do you see the US as being overextended or that they simply picked a side in this conflict a long time ago in this conflict and are sticking to that?
Dugard: Of course the US has difficult tasks with conflicts throughout the world, but let us remember that the US has always claimed to be the key player in resolving the conflict in the Middle East. It has always taken the lead in trying to reach a settlement and generally given most of its support to Israel. But I think that the US has a responsibility and it sees itself as having a responsibility. There is tremendous pressure from the Jewish lobby in the US for the US to take a key role in this conflict.
tqt: John Kerry has been meeting with the Egyptian government and discussed a ceasefire. But given that the Egyptian government is notoriously against Hamas due to the relationship Hamas had with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, is it not a given that Hamas refuses to participate in ceasefire agreements?
Dugard: That is the problem. The relationship between Egypt and Hamas has deteriorated completely since the overthrow of president Morsi and it is ridiculous that negotiations should proceed between the US, the UN, Israel and Egypt. I know that for this reason Turkey and Qatar have been brought in because they do talk to Hamas, but to me it seems obvious that at some stage Israel will have to sit down with the Hamas regime and reach a settlement. There must be direct talks.
tqt: Is Israel interested in peace or a two-state solution?
Dugard: I think that it is very clear that Israel does not want a peaceful settlement at this stage. It is determined to spread its influence and power over the West Bank. It does seem that one faction of political opinion in Israel wants to secretly annex the West Bank and that is why there is no hurry for peace.
JOHAN GREVE PETERSEN (b. 1991) Johan has previously studied at the United World College of the Pacific in Canada, but is now his final stages of receiving a BSc in anthropology from University College London. Beside his studies, Johan is active in the UWC movement and on the board of Danish Students Abroad. SAHRA-JOSEPHINE HJORTH (b. 1985) is the CEO of hjorthGROUP and a PhD fellow in Migration and Social Media. Sahra-Josephine also holds a MA and a BA in International Relations