Saturday, October 6, 2012

Russell Tribunal in the East Village I

It is 10 A.M. and the first day of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine (RToP) should already have started. However, the queue outside the Cooper Union in New York’s East Village has barely moved since I joined it almost an hour ago. By now it is reputedly almost 1000 strong and there are dark rumours that it will be noon before it has been fully accommodated in the historic building’s Great Hall.

This being the USA, the problem is security. It appears that attendees are being allowed into the venue six at a time, where their bags are searched and they are screened by a metal detector. Every so often an RToP volunteer sallies forth and thanks us for our patience. I have now rounded the corner and am within sight of the main entrance, which is good, but am standing in the sun, which is bad because it forces me to don a baseball cap that makes me feel stupid.

Now a Cooper Union security man emerges and tells us to place our bags and rucksacks on the ground beside us. Another security man materialises, leading a diminutive Labrador dog on a leash. The dog, wagging its tail amiably, sniffs our bags, and its master gestures us to move towards the door. The metal detector has been abandoned, and now everything moves rapidly. Being a Luddite and a dog-lover, I feel doubly vindicated.

Inside, I meet many old friends and associates, people whom I have encountered at conferences and demonstrations on behalf of Palestinian rights in Dublin, London, Paris, Brussels, Geneva, Barcelona and previously here in New York. Although we are all conscious of the seriousness of the occasion, there is also something of the feel of a family reunion – and to enhance it, here is my sister Patricia, in harness as a translator for the Tribunal.

At last, over an hour late, we are ready to start. Pierre Galand, Belgian socialist ex-senator, veteran of innumerable solidarity campaigns but most intimately associated with the cause of Palestine through the Association Belgo-Palestinienne, the European Co-ordinating Committee of NGOs on the Question of Palestine (ECCP), and now the RToP, welcomes us to the session. He deplores that fact that neither Leila Shahid, Palestinian Authority Ambassador to the European Union, nor Raji Sourani, founder and director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, was able to obtain a visa to come to New York. He warns us that since this is a tribunal and not a public meeting we must resist the temptation to applaud at any stage. He is warmly applauded.

Pierre Galand announces the first speaker, the Israeli historian Ilan Pappé. The audience spontaneously bursts into applause, and Pierre almost loses his considerable cool. “Please do not applaud! The audiences in Capetown were able to obey this simple rule – why cannot we do it in New York?” Nobody looks particularly contrite.

Ilan speaks about the history of Zionism. I have often seen and heard him speak, but today he outdoes himself: clarity, passion and humour culminate in a plea not to allow advocacy for the Palestinian cause to be limited by the parameters of an increasingly illusory “two-state solution” – all conveyed effortlessly within a 20’ time-span. This will be a hard act to follow.

He is followed by Peter Hansen, former Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). He does not attempt a history of the UN’s involvement in the Palestine issue, but characterises the organisation under six headings: its role as source and generator of International Law, its responsibility for implementing these laws, its role in interpreting them, its supervisory/monitoring role, its humanitarian activities (in particular UNRWA), and its institution-building capacity. The UN, he believes, cannot be reformed from within but only by civil society pressure on its constituent governments.

The British activist Ben White has been handed the daunting task of outlining “Israeli Policies Since 1948”, but is clearly determined that his audience will not be starved of its lunch for longer than necessary. The Law of Return, the Absentee Property Law, the Law of Human Dignity and Liberty, the Jewish National Fund, the World Zionist Organisation, the Jewish Agency, the Judaisation of the Negev and Galilee – they fly past at a rate that would be bewildering were it not for Ben’s calm articulacy.

At some point Frank Barat, Tribunal coordinator, shows a bald, elderly black gentleman to his seat. I experience a deep frisson as I realise that this is Harry Belafonte, legendary singer and vocal human rights activist, a hero of my distant childhood. With him in the audience and Davis, McKinney and Walker on the jury, it seems that the icons of black America – all except their president, Barack Obama – are uniting on the side of the persecuted Palestinians. This in itself could be a major factor leading to a shift in US public opinion.

After lunch, law Professor and author John Quigley speaks on The Establishment of a Palestinian State, and is unambiguous in his support for the Palestinian Authority’s attempts to achieve statehood at the UN. This, of course, is a controversial question but Quigley is quietly convincing. Indeed he claims that there has in fact been a Palestinian state since at least 1924, while conceding that not everyone would agree with him.

International lawyer Vera Gowlland-Debbas delivers the day’s lengthiest and most technical exposition, on the legal responsibilities of the UN. From the start she expresses her conviction that the UN has failed in those responsibilities, at least as far as the Palestinians are concerned. She concludes that the double standards of the Security Council have endangered the principle of the rule of law in international affairs.

Pakistani-American international lawyer Susan Akram speaks on Palestinian Refugees and the United Nations. She threads her way carefully through the anomalies introduced by UN General Assembly Resolution 194 which, by guaranteeing Palestinian refugees the right of return, at a stroke separated their fate from that of refugees destined for resettlement, whose interests are ably represented by the UNHCR. The creation of UNRWA catered to the material needs of Palestinian refugees while depriving them of advocacy, which does not come within UNRWA’s mandate. These refugees therefore find themselves in a legal limbo.

The absence of a Palestinian voice among today’s speakers would have been powerfully rectified by Raji Sourani. In the event, he is represented by Jeanne Mirer, president of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. While she provides numerous details and statistics about the baleful consequences of Israel’s occupation and siege of the tiny Gaza Strip, what hits home most forcefully is the evidence in her manner and tone of voice that what she has seen in Gaza has shocked and angered her profoundly.

And thus the first long day of the fourth international session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine draws to a close. Audience and participants stand around and gossip for a time, then a bunch of us repair to a bar where I drink ginger ale while my companions enjoy $5 happy-hour cocktails.

Returning home to my refuge in the upper West Side, I change trains at Times Square. On the platform a skinny black man is playing Beethoven’s Für Elise on a steel drum. Catching my eye he interrupts himself and chirps “hi, daddy!” before resuming his startling performance. This is slightly disconcerting, but this is New York, New York…

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