PA ambassador: Our weapon is int'l law

Ibrahim Khraishi tells 'Post' Fatah will never accept Israel as Jewish state, time running out for parties.

khraishi (photo credit: AP)
(photo credit: AP)
PLO Ambassador to the UN in Geneva Ibrahim Khraishi always speaks of Israel as "the occupying power." Sitting in a lounge area in the UN building in Geneva at last week's 2009 Durban Review Conference, he repeated the words a number of times for emphasis. "From early morning until late at night, it's about the occupation," he said. It is with this word that he hopes to legally pursue Israel under international law. Language is critical to Khraishi, whose job in Geneva is all about the legal linguistics of the Israel-Palestinian conflict as recorded in documents that can be the basis for international humanitarian law, such as the outcome texts from the UN anti-racism conferences, and the proceedings of the Human Rights Council. "Our power and our weapon, which we always raise in front of the Israelis, is the international law... We are fighting under the international law, which is our right. No one can blame us. Out of it, we are condemning Israel," he said. "For me, international humanitarian law... is protecting me as a Palestinian living under Israeli occupation, especially the Fourth Geneva Convention, which is applicable to the occupied territories" in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, he said. Israel has long held that the Fourth Geneva Convention does not apply to the disputed territories. However, the 2004 ruling of the International Court of Justice at The Hague regarding the security barrier said that it did. For Khraishi, the application is obvious. The Human Rights Council president, he said, has come to anticipate his phraseology. "Always, I'm using the words 'Israel, the occupying power,'" said Khraishi. "This is the legal language. Israel is a legal occupying power." However, he steers away from terms like "apartheid" or "colonial power." "My target [goal] is to stop the occupation" so that a Palestinian state can be created in the West Bank and Gaza, he said. Racial discrimination against Palestinians by the Israelis is a result of the occupation, "but it is not the issue," he said. "The issue is the occupation." He did not speak of Zionism implicitly as racism, he said. His sole focus was on one word: "occupation." But he was concerned about the racial implications of calling Israel a Jewish state - a move that he, like Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, opposes. The United States has recognized the significance of the Jewish nature of the State of Israel and references it as such. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has said that acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state is a precondition for any negotiations between the two parties. Khraishi dismissed the idea as impossible, saying the PA accepted the existence of Israel, but not as a Jewish state. "No one can recognize that. It is stupid in the 21st century. It is a very black statement by the Israelis, a very negative one," he said. The very idea is discriminatory, he said. "Who can guarantee later that they will not transfer Christians and Muslims from there [Israel] because they want a pure state?" he said. It's not comparable to the idea of a Palestinian state, he said, because the Palestinians are a nationality and Jews are a religion. "No one can accept that [a Jewish state]; they will not find any Arab leader who will accept that idea," he said, adding that the country of Israel, which the PA recognizes, should be for all citizens living there. So when he turned his attention to the outcome document of the 2009 Durban Review Conference, his focus was on inserting language regarding the "occupation" and its consequences. As such, Khraishi said, he was pleased that the document had an article that talked about foreign occupation and its impact, even if it did not mention Israel. However, he would have wanted the document to make a better link between racism and occupation. It should say "that after one or two years in any place [occupation], not only in Palestine, will cause and produce different signs and signals of racial discrimination and xenophobia," he said. It would also have been important for the document to mention the International Court of Justice advisory opinion about the "wall" - the security barrier - he said, but he was not successful in securing its inclusion in the document. As the debate about the Israeli-Palestinian issue began to dominate negotiations over the outcome document and threatened to keep countries, particularly Europe and the US, from attending the conference, his delegation made the choice to back down from demanding that any new language about their conflict be inserted into the text. The only reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the 2009 outcome document comes from the text of the 2001 UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, which took place in Durban, South Africa. That text, which was reaffirmed by the 2009 document, solely references Israel. To protest the reaffirmation, nine countries opted to boycott last week's conference: Israel, the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Poland, Germany, The Netherlands and Italy. "We succeeded in saving the language that had been agreed on," said Khraishi. That language was political and talked about the Palestinian right to self-determination and its plight under foreign occupation. He held up a copy of the new 2009 text and said with some bitterness, "In the final document here, there is no mention of Israel or Palestine. It is a very clean one, very clean." Khraishi added, "We made a very hard political statement when we agreed that we were satisfied with what had been agreed [upon] without any new references to the Palestinians." So he was puzzled as to how that act of compromise did not sway those countries that had already decided to boycott the event - Canada, Israel, the US and Italy - to return, or why over the weekend, five more countries pulled out. "We didn't understand that - why?" he asked. People can talk about racial discrimination in other countries, but when it comes to the "holy, holy cow Israel, you cannot touch it," he said. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech, which made the Czech Republic withdraw, had only made the situation worse, he said. "It allowed everyone to legitimize their boycott and withdrawal from the conference," he said. "I don't see that there is a real reason for that, except that they [the boycotting countries] will escape from their responsibilities, not toward the Palestinians, but toward the others" on the issue of racism. Still, in spite of the importance of his work in Geneva, he understood that in the immediate future, the Durban Review Conference would not liberate his county. What needed to happen, and quickly, was for the Israelis and the Palestinians to come to an agreement for a two-state solution, he said. So he viewed with concern the attitude of the new Netanyahu government, which has refused to recognize the Annapolis process as binding. "Where are they going to lead all of us, those new guys in Israel?" Khraishi asked. This is a "historical moment to sign an agreement and not start a new peace process," he added. "We know the minimum for us and we know the maximum for them, and they know the same story," he said. So why, he asked, was the Netanyahu government talking about putting new initiatives on the table? "Are we going to start from the beginning?" he asked. He dismissed initial proposals by Netanyahu's government for building peace from the bottom up by first improving the Palestinian economy. "It is a stupid idea. We want our land, we want our state, and then we will find a way to find the funds for developing our society," Khraishi said. The Palestinian economic crisis was a direct result of the occupation, he said, and it couldn't be solved while the occupation was in effect. "There is no five-star occupation. Occupation is an occupation. [Israel is] arresting people, annexing land, damaging houses and killing people and stopping them at checkpoints." Get rid of the occupation and everything else could be solved quickly, he contended. He warned that time was running out both for his government and for the Israelis. "Our leadership is shouting and crying and visiting and holding meetings [with the aim of] convincing the international community to put a concrete and strong effort toward convincing the Israelis that this is the way," he said. "We have no time. I am talking about one year maximum, or they will not find Palestinian leadership that can continue this." He said he feared that if no progress were made in a year, Hamas would likely overcome Fatah in the West Bank unless Fatah changed its policies to survive. Fatah's power comes from the fact that it leads the peace process, he said. "If we do not make real progress on the ground soon, we will lose. Why would the Palestinians support us?" There are 10,000 prisoners in Israeli jails, there are 620 checkpoints blocking Palestinian movement, and the situation in Gaza in the aftermath of Israel's January military operation there is a disaster, he said. Frustration is very high, he added. If the Israeli leadership were wise, it would free Fatah prisoners, take down checkpoints, freeze settlement activity and open the PA offices in east Jerusalem, he said. "I believe personally that Israel, for the first time, is in a very dangerous position if they continue with these policies," Khraishi said. "The rockets from the north and the south can hit Tel Aviv, so no one can guarantee the future. The only guarantee for [Israel] is to have a peaceful, comprehensive solution with the Palestinians," he asserted. What do Palestinians in Gaza think now, after 23 three days of attacks by ground, sea and air in January? "Kids lost their homes and their families," he said. "Do you think they will be in love with Israel later?" Khraishi said one European prime minister had told him in the UN building that "Israel crossed all the red lines in Gaza. He said what happened in Gaza was like what happened in World War II." He declined to name the prime minister. These days, Khraishi said, the center of power in the world was changing, and the priorities were changing. "The importance of Israel for the blind supporters of Israel is going to change. If they lose that, they will lose everything," he said.