A friend recently confided in me about how he felt the Russell Tribunal on Palestine was pointless. “It’s a waste of money, and it’s all about appeasing and appealing to ruling class people” he told me flatly one night in the pub. Now this is someone I know who is deeply committed to Palestine and whose comfort zones would be most peoples’ conflict zones. He’s someone more at home occupying a BDS target or taking to the streets than sitting quietly in a hall, full of mostly older, graver Europeans with PHDs. But I had to think about what he was saying because it’s not the first time I’ve heard this critique.
The Russell Tribunal on Palestine had its’ first session in March 2010 examining European Union member state complicity and omissions with regards to Israeli war crimes. I gave evidence based on my experience as an ambulance volunteer in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. The session took place in stately, opulent surroundings, with the audience lurching to their feet every time the Jury entered. The air and tone were officious, sombre, and serious. Everybody was there to bear witness. Everybody was there to hear ‘truth’ and nothing but the truth. It wasn’t about grand-standing or rabble-rousing or theorizing. It was somewhere between an experiment in deep active listening, post-traumatic group therapy, and church.
But, it made me and others taking part think about the roots of international law, the responsibilities of states and institutions, and structures and systems of protection and violation that we hadn’t really thought about in depth before. These weren’t just dry dirges uttered by people in wigs or hypocrites on podiums. These were real mechanisms and narratives of power articulating and attempting to facilitate universal equality. They were as important in delegitimising Israeli apartheid as supermarket occupations, mass street protests and divestment by major funders of Israel.
Former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni wasn’t afraid of coming to the UK in 2009 because of a protest picket planned for outside her speech at the Jewish National Fund. She was afraid of coming because there was an arrest warrant out for her. And she didn’t come. That the Cameron government changed the law to allow her immunity from prosecution so that she could come a year later doesn’t weaken the levers of power that were pulled by human rights lawyers to shine a spotlight on her as a war criminal. We didn’t have to make a human chain and chant ‘STOP TZIPI LIVNI’ before being bashed out of the way by robocops; Palestinians in Gaza were able to do it remotely but potently through evidence, paperwork and skypecalls between Gaza city and London.
General Doron Almog was nearly arrested in 2005 at Heathrow Airport for his role in destroying homes in Gaza and for the bombing of a house which killed a Hamas leader and 14 others including nine children. A tip off to the Israeli embassy meant that he never got off the plane and the police waiting to cuff him left empty-handed as he soared back to Israel. But he was delegitimised.
One of the only breaks on Israeli officials’ sense of impunity, unaccountability, and untouchability, is the threat of international law actually being used as it should be, by citizens and lawyers, to mobilise justice for the victims of Israeli violations. Israel calls it ‘lawfare’ and sees it as an attack on its’ freedom to ‘defend’ itself by any and all means necessary; we call it lawfare too, a weapon in resisting the degradation of human lives to the point that they become expendable; inevitable collateral damage under a logic of the powerful emboldened to do whatever, to whoever, whenever they want.
Delegitmisation of Israeli apartheid and colonialism doesn’t just happen on the streets, in classrooms, at the check-out or in boardrooms. It’s got to happen in the courtroom too. It does need to engage people who can’t get arrested or who don’t tweet #BDS every other day. What happens to the millions of people who studied law and practice it, all over the world, including in Palestine, who can see the potential for wins in shifting jurisdictions and legal gears to propel cases forward that can change facts on the ground? Is their expertise invalid? When we say relying on international law is pointless do we inadvertently collude with powerful elites who seek to invalidate that law so that they can get away with murder? We can’t rely on it only, but it can make for a good crutch and a stick.
Looking at Gaza, during and after the massacres, once the anger subsides, one can often feel muted, weakened and buried in a kind of shame. Those who have been forced by torturers to watch others being tortured – a tactic designed to terrorise, humiliate and victimise both the witness and target – report a kind of immobilisation and depression which isolates and silences. It’s clear that we are not in neighbouring cells, us in Western comfort-zones of softly furnished, power cut-free (unless you’re on a pre-payment meter) living rooms, and the ghettoised Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. But that sense of disempowerment, that ‘You cannot stop this’ message from Israel delivered in drone-blows and F16 levellings of whole neighbourhoods; the internalisation of that message is a threat to activism and resistance.
Resistance demands tactics that reach and transform all levels of the system we are trying to change. We need the D-Lock and the Section 60 (squatters notice widely used in taking buildings for social centres and protest camps in the UK); the RPG and the hungerstrike; a revolution and a constitution. International human rights and humanitarian laws are not the masters tools they are our tools and they can bring down the masters house when used through and in conjunction with popular movements.
The Russell Tribunal’s formality, ‘big name’ jury and appeal to a diplomatic class does not make it any less fierce or grounded. This is about taking the law into our own hands.
The late Stephane Hessel was a patron of the Tribunal. A former resistance fighter, concentration camp survivor and author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. ‘Indignez Vous’ – ‘Time for Outrage’ was the name of his last and multimillion-selling book. To my friend who thinks the tribunal is pointless, it’s always going to be time for outrage, the struggle is endless and it needs an ecosystem of tactics to win justice after justice.
The Russell Tribunal will be holding a Special Session in Brussels starting tomorrow on examining the crime of genocide in Gaza. For more information see here.