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'There's no such thing, in a way, as an Israeli nation:' Interview with Frank Barat

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Dax D'Orzio, a student at Carleton University and member of the Students Against Israeli Apartheid, reflects back on Israeli Apartheid Week and the extraordinary leaps in progress that campuses across Canada have made in their commitment to end Israeli Apartheid. Most recently, on March 21 and 22, graduate students at Carleton University overwhelmingly voiced their support for the Palestinian people, by voting for the university's pension fund to divest from four companies that are complicit in the occupation of Palestine.

Prior to this success, Dax D'Orazio spoke with Frank Barat, a coordinator of the Russell Tribunal, on March 8 about the history of the Israeli Apartheid, the potential success of the BDS actions and the ramifications and consequences of the Israeli Apartheid on Palestinians.

Can you tell me what the Russell Tribunal on Palestine is and how it was formed?

[The Russell Tribunal was formed] to create a popular, civilian tribunal. It comes from the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation which in the late 1960s had a session on the U.S. war of aggression in Vietnam. It's important to remember that at the time the peace movement or the anti-war movement wasn't large yet and it was a very different epoch in terms of media and alternative media. We didn't have YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. It was very hard for the mainstream public opinion to access good information.

The Tribunal intended to expose what was happening on the ground in Vietnam that many people [weren't aware of]. So, we came from the same sort of organization called the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, which in between had a session on Latin America and all the military governments in the mid 1970s that were using repression against their own people. Then the tribunal ended for a few decades and we reconvened the tribunal in 2009 to address the issue of Palestine. At the end of 2008, beginning of 2009, [there was] Operation Cast Lead -- or Gaza Massacre really -- and we [were] still discussing [this possibility]. But after Gaza we thought we've got to do it. We've got to do it for them.

So we used international law as the base of our work because it is actually very clear when it comes to Palestine: it's on the side of the Palestinians. [Palestinians] have rights that have been denied for many years so we use [these laws] to show the impunity and the complete double standard that superpowers implement when it comes to Israel.

Can you talk about the different sessions that have taken place in the Russell Tribunal?

From the start we decided that we were going to have four sessions, each focusing on a different aspect [separate from] "is Israel guilty of violating international law or not?" This is because we started with the basis that the U.N. resolutions have been very clear and that Israel has violated international law. We focused on third parties -- states, institutional bodies, corporations -- that are actively or passively complicit in letting Israel continue with total impunity.

So now we focus on the European Union (E.U.) as a body and also the 27 E.U. member states. The E.U. and most of the Presidents and Prime Ministers of member states tend to issue very positive statements when it comes to Palestine and Israel: "we are unbiased, we want a two-state solution, Palestinians have rights;" however, when you look more specifically at their actions, it shows a very different picture, [mainly] that they are actively supporting Israel.

Israel is pretty much part of the E.U. It comes to sit in Brussels, enjoys association trade agreements, and research grants that no other state outside of the E.U. enjoys. It's the world upside down. Israel violates international law and instead of being punished, it is rewarded for it. So that's what the Russell Tribunal is focusing on.

To briefly go into the London Session, it was about corporate complicity, to show that corporations have a huge role to play and have played a huge role in Israeli apartheid. In fact, most corporations now have some sort of ethical code in their charter, but there are very few corporations that respect these ethical codes. We chose London because it is one of the main corporate sectors of the world.

Our last session was in Cape Town and focused on apartheid and went back to the roots of the conflict. Yes, there is an occupation. Yes, there are violations of international law. But what is the reason for that? So we tried to see if within international law the prohibition of apartheid could be applicable to Israel and it took place in South Africa because the definition of the crime of apartheid came to exist because of the South African white nationalist government.

What's in store for the Tribunal's future?

We are going to New York, which is the heart of the beast really, and we'll focus again on going back to the root of the conflict. The main topic we'll address will be the U.N. involvement and the U.N. failure because there are hundreds of resolutions that have never been implemented. We will also explain that this failure is often due to the fact that the U.S. is the sole remaining superpower and uses its veto power every time dealing with Israel; [therefore, making] the U.N. irrelevant.

The main question is: "what is the role of the U.N. now and should we change the way the U.N. functions?" We will also focus on the plight and the right of the Palestinian refugees because it's a topic that mainstream public opinion doesn't really understand. This will be our last proper session [until] our early 2013 event. We'll have the jury present and take into consideration all four sessions of the Tribunal and issue a final and very broad recommendation. Hopefully it will continue within civil society but our work will finish then.

Who makes up the Tribunal? Who is it comprised of?

We started with just concerned people: human rights activists. The whole idea started in France and Belgium. So a group of 10 people [also] involved in the Vietnam Tribunal and in the Latin American Tribunal started thinking, "should we do something about Palestine?" Again, international law is on the side of the Palestinians, but it's often misused, or not used at all. When it comes to the Palestinian Authority which could have for many years just used international law to put Israel into a corner and never chose to do so.

[The Tribunal] started in about 2009 and we've got an international organizing committee that is pretty much the people that thought about the idea. It started with about 10 people, but has gotten a bit bigger now with people from France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, Spain, England, Ireland and Palestine, forming this international organizing committee. The committee decides the strategy and what the session will focus on. Then we've got a legal committee of legal experts who are very prominent jurists and lawyers that make sure that our work fits the legal definitions. They check all the documents and also form part of the strategy.

International law is a moving object and moving concept: it changes in resolutions. Sixty years ago there were no resolutions against apartheid now there's plenty. So we're trying to push the envelope and push international law into spheres that haven't been explored yet. This legal committee is crucial.

We also have volunteers helping us. In Spain, we have a national support committee that works in session. We've got a national support committee in the U.K. and we've got national support committees all over, even if a session doesn't take place in that country. They mobilize public opinion, do media work, raise awareness in Italy, Spain Luxembourg, hopefully in Canada.

Why BDS as a tactic and why do you think it's effective? What are some of the successes that have happened in Europe that could give inspiration to activists in Canada that they might not have heard of?

The BDS call was issued in 2005 by Palestinians and by Palestinian civil society groups. About 170 organizations signed the call and really asked for support. It's an oppressed people that said we've tried everything and it doesn't work. Now let's put pressure on Israel from the outside and to do this we need your help. Sort of a call for international solidarity.

For me, the biggest success of BDS is that it really empowered people and gave students and other [people] something that they could really do on a day-to-day basis. We know that the occupation is reproducing itself in our cities -- in France, in London, in Ottawa, in Toronto -- so we have to stop the occupation from reproducing itself where we live. Many people before the BDS call - when we had a conference, at a talk or an event - would come up afterwards and ask "what can I do?"

Now with the BDS call, it really empowers people because there are very simple things people can do. If they see that their supermarket is selling produce that are labelled "West Bank" or "Israel" that come from settlements, they can boycott that product or they can talk to the manager to tell them not to sell those products. Really small actions that they can do on a day-to-day basis. And that's the major success of BDS. I think we can see that the movement, in the last five years, has become much younger. A lot of younger people came to the movement because of BDS.

For me one of its major successes, of the more tangible successes, is in Europe. Veolia, the French company that is building the tramway in Israel and occupied Palestine, has lost huge contracts in local councils in London because we decided to target this company. Lawyers gave us the legal background we needed to talk to the local councillors and the local mayor. That's something [these companies] are scared about.

If you want to speak to a local council or your member of parliament, you can't really talk about apartheid because they're going to come up with "you're anti-Israel, you're anti-Semitic." But if you tell them, "this very respected lawyer produced this document and what Veolia is doing in Palestine is illegal" it's black and white -- that's something they're scared about. The law is the law. So we used this to put pressure on municipal governments to exclude Veolia from bidding for local contracts. And [from this] they've lost huge amounts of money in London. I think one of the biggest contracts they lost was in Saudi Arabia. They lost a $9.4 billion contract.

Another really positive aspect of BDS, is the possible impact upon Israeli civil society. If you are a 16 year old Israeli, you might not care if Veolia divests from Israel or if the UN says that Israel is violating international law. When one day your favourite musician, being Elvis Costello, Gorillaz, Cat Power, says "I'm not going to come and perform in Israel because the government is harassing, humiliating and killing Palestinians" that will definitely affect a 16 year old and hopefully challenge the vision of the country. All those acts as an artist - not showing a film, not going to perform -- is also a very positive aspect and I mean there's loads of other victories, either small or big. But I think small victories are important as well. We shouldn't focus just on big victories.

It's interesting to look historically at the call for BDS that came out of South Africa. It took multiple decades to really pick up momentum. Seeing these small, incremental successes provides much inspiration for activists that hope to see a change of the on-the-ground circumstances. Your presentation at the University of Ottawa is about "legalized apartheid." Usually when discussing the term "apartheid" it tends to fall into a quasi-legal category, whether or not it meets a specific threshold. What is "legalized apartheid" and how do you see that in Israel-Palestine?

That's a crucial question. I think, first as a movement, as a civil society [and as an] internationalized movement for justice in Palestine, we are being attacked every day by supporters of Israel. [Israeli supporters] tend to attack the messenger more than the message, but it still means we need to be 100 per cent sure about our facts. If you take part in a debate with someone who is pro-Israel and get your facts wrong and if they expose you, you've lost the debate. So we need to know clearly what it means because we'll be challenged.

In fact, by just reading Hebrew government policies, government laws, I've learned that in Hebrew the policy that the government has towards Palestinians is called hafrada. Hafrada means separation and separation means apartheid. So even the policy is very clear.

It's a separate development between the Palestinians and the Israelis. What we did in South Africa - many of the people that have been attacking us, saying [we're] trying to compare South African apartheid to a possible Israeli apartheid. We don't and we've made this very clear. Apartheid and the crime of apartheid came to exist because it took place in South Africa. But since, in 1973 in the U.N., there was a resolution called the Convention on Apartheid. The people that drafted this convention are very clear that to have a state of apartheid you don't have to tick all of the boxes that South Africa ticked at that time; the crime of apartheid is applicable to any country. There are three key points of the definition: (1) two distinct racial groups, (2) inhumane acts against the subordinate groups, and (3) those acts committed in a systematic and institutionalized manner. When you take the three aspects of the definition and you look into Israel's policies toward the Palestinians, it becomes clear that the definition of apartheid applies to what Israel is doing to the Palestinians.

In my opinion, what gives the Tribunal its strength is the fact that we are basing our work on international law. Therefore, so far, pro-Israel lawyers and journalists have not attacked us on the findings. Because it's just the law and we'll continue to empower civil society and movements and give the legitimacy of the law. It doesn't mean that we'll be able to implement the law but at least we will have this credibility.

You said there's a policy of separation -- how is this manifested in the daily lives of Palestinians in Israel proper?

There were lots of reports focusing on the West Bank by very respected people, like John Dugard, who was with us in South Africa, showing that what is happening in the West Bank and the occupied territories is apartheid. The easiest example is that there's actually two separate legal systems. If you are Palestinian or if you are a settler living, in the occupied territories, for the same crime there will be different law. The law will be different if you are a Jewish settler or if you are a Palestinian. If you are Palestinian, you go to military courts and if you are a settler, you go in front of a civil court system. And actually, in those military courts, there is conviction rates of 99.4 per cent, which means that there's no right to defend yourself: habeas corpus doesn't exist. Ninety-nine per cent means you have very little chance of being acquitted.

During those trials the proceedings are in Hebrew. Most Palestinians in the West Bank don't speak Hebrew. The evidence most of the time is called "secret evidence," which means no one knows what the crime is and your lawyers don't have access to this evidence either. Even now, pro-Israel supporters tend to challenge on apartheid within Israel, but it stops at talking about the West Bank, which might mean that its indefensible to say that there's no apartheid in the West Bank.

So in Israel it's much more subtle because you don't have different laws. The Palestinians can vote and that's why people are always pointing to this fact. It's interesting to say that the U.N. Convention on Apartheid doesn't talk about the right to vote. They make it clear that you can have the right to vote and still be under a state of apartheid. The Palestinians can vote but there's no way for them to change the nature of the state and that is what's very important. The Israeli government is saying that there's no way for the Palestinians to change the nature of the state and then there's a difference between citizenship and nationality.

I am a French citizen and I am a French national. You are a Canadian citizen and a Canadian national. The two terms intertwine and pretty much mean the same thing. In Israel it's completely different. The Palestinians living in Israel are Israeli citizens but they're not Israeli nationals because there's no such thing, in a way, as an Israeli nation. On the ID card of an Israeli person, you'll have citizenship "Israeli" but nationality will be "Jew," "Arab" or other terms. An Israeli politician -- a member of the Knesset -- said that "the Palestinians have rights in the land, but [Jewish people] have rights on the land." He [continued with] "they have to understand who is the landlord here." Such practices are institutionalized and legalized and affect pretty much all aspects of daily life: education, access to health, access to jobs.

There's about 35 laws that clearly discriminate against Palestinians and there are new bills that are being put forward in the Knesset. One bill says that people that have served in the IDF should be the first to access public services and jobs. Palestinians don't serve in the IDF, [so] it doesn't [imply] discrimination against the Palestinians, but in fact it does because most can't serve in the IDF. So saying that you can have a job or you'll have first priority if you served in the IDF means that you exclude right away about 1.2 million people.

There was a new law passed recently called the Family Reunification Law, which means that if you're a Palestinian from Israel and you're married to a Palestinian from the occupied territories, you can't live together. So you either live together illegally in Israel or you have to move to the occupied territories. Lots of Palestinians from the West Bank or from Gaza [are] married to Palestinians from Israel and now they are facing a very drastic choice of either leaving or living in Israel illegally.

The difference between apartheid in South Africa and apartheid in Israel is very subtle, [but] the law is completely discriminatory when it comes to the Palestinians.

What were your impressions of Canada being here for the first time?

It's my first time in Canada and we're very close to the heart of the beast; very close to the U.S. In terms of ideology, I think the Canadian government is actually worse than the U.S. They're not even trying to hide that they are 200 per cent behind Israel. I mean Stephen Harper, and I quote, "I will defend Israel whatever the cost," which, as a Canadian, I would be very scared about such a statement.

It's great to be here because I think there's a huge amount of work to be done here in terms of educating the public because I know how bad the mainstream media is in the U.S. and unfortunately people don't really have time to take a step back to think. Watching the news on CNN or FOX, [it] is not showing a very real picture of what's happening in Israel-Palestine, or really anywhere in the world. I do think that this corporate media is pretty much playing the role of governments; they're not really trying to educate people [and instead] more interested in something that sells. If we didn't have this propaganda being fed to us by governments and the mainstream media, the facts are so clear on-the-ground in Israel-Palestine, that public opinion would have reacted in a much bigger fashion ages ago.

It's very good to be here and it's very good to see that there's many young people that do want to be educated, that do want to do something. And it's also good to see that it's very international. It's really one of the symbols of what's wrong with the world we're living in. It's also a symbol of what might be possible depending on how we find a solution to this conflict. What could be possible will be a window to show that another world is possible. That's why it's one of the most crucial questions of our time.

Frank Barat is a Human Rights activist based in London. He is one of the coordinators of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, a popular tribunal created in 2009 to expose and examine Israel's impunity regarding its treatment of the Palestinian People. He has edited two books: Gaza in Crisis with Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe, and Corporate Complicity in Israel's Occupation with Asa Winstanley. He has also participated in the book Is there a court for Gaza? with Daniel Machover. He writes for Counterpunch, Al Jazeera English, The Electronic Intifada, The New Internationalist, the Palestine Chronicle, Ceasefire Magazine and other publications. He has often travelled to Palestine-Israel.

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