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Palestinian Voices: Aseel AlBajeh

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

On April 25, 2023, Emerging Voices hosted a zoomcast featuring Aseel AlBajeh, a legal researcher and advocacy officer for Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights organization based in Ramallah, the West Bank. Established in 1979, Al-Haq documents violations of the individual and collective rights of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian territory. Below are audio samples from the event along with the full written transcript.

Aseel completed her LL.M. in International Human Rights Law at the Irish Center for Human Rights at National University of Ireland Galway. In addition to her academic research, focused on transitional justice and decolonisation in Palestine, Aseel writes opinion articles for several media outlets.


These are edited excerpts from the session. To listen to the entire presentation, head here.

We document various kinds of violations on the ground--demolitions, killings against Palestinians, torture in prison by the Israeli authorities, but also by Palestinian authorities, land confiscation, exploitation of natural resources of the Palestinian people, settler violence. We do a legal analysis of such crimes as mandated by international law. We do advocacy work with policymakers, seeking accountability. We push governments to abide by their obligations under international law. The situation in Palestine means not only obligations on Israel as the colonial power, but also on the international community as a whole to basically step in and bring an end to the illegal situation.

We aim to contribute to ending the culture of impunity that Israel enjoys. For example, we submit documentation from the field to the International Criminal Court. We expose complicities of businesses/corporations in the illegal situation in Palestine and how they are maintained in the settlement enterprise.

We also focus a lot of our work on narrative. By narrative, I mean how do we situate all these violations within the context they are taking place; what are root causes? The most recent comprehensive report Al-Haq produced can be found on our website. It's called Israeli Apartheid: A Tool of Zionist Settler Colonialism.

This report builds on two decades of legal research from civil society organizations identifying the situation in Palestine as apartheid. An apartheid regime Israel is imposing on the Palestinian people.

It doesn't matter if you are a Palestinian in a refugee camp outside of Palestine or in the occupied Palestinian territory, or if you're a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship. This regime is imposing racial domination over the Palestinian people as a whole. This apartheid is what we analyze in our comprehensive report.

When we use the term ‘Zionist settler colonialism', we're talking about a project that started decades ago, and is ongoing.

From the start, this project saw the indigenous Palestinian people marked for erasure, to be replaced with a settler population. With the creation of the State of Israel in 1948--what we Palestinians call the Nakba or the Catastrophe--ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people continued. The majority of Palestinians were displaced, their properties were confiscated. Massacres and destruction of communities were committed by Zionist forces. This did not end in 1948.

We refer to this process as an ongoing nakba. On the 15th of May, we will commemorate the original nakba, the 75th year of this process. Palestinians not only commemorate a legacy of colonialism, but an ongoing process of displacement.

Ending the Occupation and ending the apartheid system in itself will not ensure a liberated future for the Palestinian people as long as there is an ideology that treats Palestinians as a threat and views the return of millions of Palestinian refugees to Israel as an assault on the demographic composition of the State of Israel.

As long as we have this settler colonial ideology, the Palestinian people will be treated as inferior. Israel has been attacking any and all voices that challenge Israel’s violations, whether by smearing individuals and organizations as anti-semitic or labeling them as terrorists.

Two years ago, Al-Haq and five other organizations were designated by Israel's Minister of Defense as terrorist organizations. This designation did not come out of the blue. A systemic attack against civil society organizations in Palestine preceded this.

Arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders and death threats against them, travel bans, closing of offices, are rampant. My former colleague, who worked with the International Criminal Court, received death threats to her and her family. Designation as a terrorist organization is a continuation of attacks against civil society. The staff of human rights organizations are under threat of being arrested at any moment. Myself and my colleagues can be arrested because of this designation. The anti terror law labels us and looks at us as terrorists.

Absurdly, the justification for Israel giving us this designation is based, they tell us, on a secret file that cannot be shared. The entire aim of this label is to intimidate our partners and donors. We are nongovernmental organizations who receive funds from governments and from civil society abroad, including Europe.

The Israeli government is trying to intimidate donors and the international community so they will stop funding organizations like ours and eventually close our offices.

MODERATOR: What is the role of the International Criminal Court? (end Moderator)

The International Criminal Court is an independent body, not a governmental one, which works with governments and civil society organizations worldwide. The Court investigates situations that can lead to prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Proceeding with the investigation against potential war crimes and crimes against humanity in Palestine has taken a lot of time. The open investigation started at least two years ago. Unfortunately, we have not yet seen any effective action to proceed with arrest warrants or to promote in-depth investigation.

There's a lot of political pressure on the Court, especially regarding Palestine. In the Trump era, there were sanctions against the Criminal Court and its staff because there was a potential for investigations into US conduct in Afghanistan and Israeli actions in Palestine. The ICC has a lot of potential to ensure justice for the Palestinian people and to end Israel's impunity. Politics impedes its work.

What are the prospects for a unified Palestinian voice? I think the month of May is an inspiring time. May 2021 was the unity uprising, the Intifada of the Palestinian people. Many Palestinians came onto the streets to protest the ongoing colonization and theft of their land.

It started in Jerusalem, specifically the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where families were under threat of being displaced in favor of Israeli Jewish settlers. Families in Sheikh Jarrah launched a campaign to save Sheikh Jarrah. Eventually, protests spread across historic Palestine.

There were protests in Haifa and Ramallah, in Jerusalem and Gaza, and also in Palestinian refugee camps abroad and from Palestinians in exile. Slogans chanted at that time stressed the unity of the Palestinian people. In one voice, people were saying we have been fragmented for 73 years since the Nakba and now we are reclaiming our narrative as a people.

Regardless of where we are, we Palestinians are subjected to the same regime. This regime is a settler colonial and an apartheid one. Protestors were demanding freedom for the people as a whole, the right of return of refugees, the decolonization of Palestine. Since 2021, we have seen new forms of resistance and reclamation of the Palestinian narrative. The unity process begun in 2021 is continuing to grow.

Reconstructing a political project for the Palestinian people in which they are represented in their entirety with elections and the democratic process, along with the right of return to our historic lands, would reinforce this unity. Existing physical barriers are the most visible manifestation of fragmentation that disconnects Palestinians from one another.

This includes the apartheid wall, the settlements in the West Bank, and the blockade of the Gaza Strip. These physical fragmentations should be ended to restore unity.

The right of return is a very, very heavy duty demand rather than a request. Ideally, what's the endgame? That thing called Israel is also highly fragmented. How do you address that? And who or what can decide the future for 14 million Palestinians?

This is where Al-Haq comes in. We see our mandate as one legitimized by international law. One of the major important human rights for the Palestinian people--and it's a collective right--is the right of self determination. It doesn't matter if it's a one state, two state or a million state solution. If these obstacles--colonial domination, the apartheid regime, the illegal occupation--continue, Palestinians will not be living in freedom.

The Palestinian people as a whole should decide what they want. There should be representation for all voices. I, Aseel, who live in Ramallah, cannot speak for a Palestinian living in Lebanon who has been denied a right to return for 75 years. Together we must decide what future we wish to have.

Can something be done, short of the end of the occupation and the end of the colonial regime, to foster that unified voice? Seeking decolonization works hand in hand with working on short term things within the status quo. For example, Al-Haq calls for elections within the occupied Palestinian territory. It’s not the way to liberate Palestine, but it's an important step to have some representation, a renewed leadership, and some kind of democratic process.

Part of our work focuses on internal human rights violations by Palestinian authorities.

The Palestinian Authority controls all authorities--the executive branch and the judicial system and the legislative branch. We advocate for separation of powers and a democratic process in Palestinian society.

We are working for a civil society in Palestine as we advocate for these changes. On the other hand, there can never be an effective governing power or authority, a Palestinian one, while the Occupation is in place.

It takes a lot of work to reclaim the narrative. Recognizing the situation as it is is the first step that can lead to effective change.

We cannot simply identify the situation as a sporadic human rights violation happening in a vacuum, a demolition happening here and there, a settler occasionally attacking a Palestinian. We must put all this in context and call out root causes. Then the international community and people committed to justice towards Palestinians will be directed in the right way.

MODERATOR: Two governing bodies represent the Palestinians within that part of the world. There's Hamas in Gaza and the Palestine Authority in the West Bank. My understanding is there's a lot of bad blood between these two governing bodies. Hamas in Gaza is Islamist. Within the Palestine Authority, Abbas, who's 87, has been in power for an untold number of years. The PA is known to be corrupt, to not be protecting its own citizens.

Some say the PA is simply a branch of Israeli security, working for the Israeli government, controlling rather than helping Palestinians. Hamas, other issues aside, is much more unwilling to lay down arms. These two organizations have very different modus operandi, very little interaction and are basically in separate camps.

Who will govern and who's the governing body? Where are they? Or are people like you waiting to be empowered? (End moderator).

There's no shame in saying there's no effective and representative leadership for the Palestinian people at the moment. Not only because there have been no elections, but because we're talking about the Palestinian Authority. We should understand what the Palestinian Authority is.

It's a governing body that was supposed to be in place for 5 years as per the Oslo Accords. What’s happened is that the Palestinian Authority has continued for the past 20 plus years to basically govern the West Bank and the occupied Palestinian territory. But it actually has no power. There's still colonialism. In fact, there’s been a reinforcement and entrenchment of the colonial regime with more settlements and more checkpoints. There were no checkpoints before the Palestinian Authority.

The current infrastructure is basically cutting ties between Palestinian villages and towns in the West Bank. The killings and the suppression by Israel has increased. The Palestine Authority has continued to operate, but it’s lost its legitimacy amongst Palestinians. First of all, there are no elections and no democratic representation. And there’s rampant corruption.

My generation was born into a situation in which there was a supposed peace process. What we see on the ground is violence and killings and demolitions and more confiscation of land. We have been brought up in colonialism and occupation, to denial of the right to return and many other things--all with no representation.

There is no trust in the Palestinian Authority. There is frustration as well with the international community. We're talking about an international community that is not only silent and not taking action to end the illegal occupation, but sometimes rewards Israel for its crimes, providing military aid and making trade and other agreements that basically foster the illegal situation in Palestine.

MODERATOR: Would you get rid of the PA if you could.and start again, or would you try to reform it? And what about Hamas. What are the ideologies and mechanisms that make it work and how do they differ from those of the PA? (End moderator).

The point I stressed at the beginning is that elections are key at this stage. Not because we want to elect the president of the Palestinian Authority, but so as to have legislative elections. These would ensure a separation of power between branches within the Palestinian Authority and foster a democratic process until we know how this body could turn into a more representative one.

We should bear in mind that the Palestinian Authority is not representative of the Palestinian people. Disregarding its corruption, it only represents 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank. The majority of Palestinian people are outside the reach of this authority.

The legitimate body representing the Palestinian people as a whole is the Palestine Liberation Organization. Unfortunately, it has been inactive since the creation of the Palestinian Authority.

Do we want to get rid of the Palestinian Authority? Do we want to revive the Palestinian Liberation Organization? These are not simple questions. These are questions that need to be answered by the people as a whole.

Until we reach this moment when the voices of Palestinian people are represented, these are the first steps we need to talk about. The election. Ending the Occupation. Ending all the systems of domination against the Palestinian people.

MODERATOR: Say a few words about Hamas. How do you see them being integrated moving forward? Is there a bridge between non -Islamists and Hamas Islamists?

(End moderator).

Hamas has an Islamist ideology, but it is also a political party. Political parties in any context in the world have their own ideological programs. Hamas was created in Palestine in the 80’s after decades of colonialism.

As a political party, it has a program based on an Islamist ideology. But along with that, it believes Palestine should be free from the river to the sea. It denounces peace process approaches with Israeli colonizers and uses the strategy of armed resistance as a way to liberate Palestine.

Whether Hamas is also an effective force for moving forward is not something I can answer.

The new generation has a new vision for Palestine. The majority of the candidates running for elections were actually independent. Outside the existing political parties, Hamas and Fatah and others, these independent candidate lists had a different vision for the Palestinian future.

Unfortunately the elections were canceled. The new candidates were envisioning a future for Palestine free from the river to the sea, but with a new set of ideas and using different tactics. It was a voice of this new youth generation, but they did not have a chance to be elected.

PARTICIPANT: How do you see the impact of the divisions in Israel on the Palestinian cause? If your adversary is divided, you are strengthened. That's my personal opinion. (End participant).

Thank you for the question. This new government is far right and it's radical. But as Palestinians, we do not see any change in this government from past regimes.

It's a government with a much more exposed agenda. It’s implementing the same policies and the same crimes, just in a very exposed and more honest way. The division taking place and the protest within Israel could serve as an opportunity for the Palestinian people in two ways.

First of all, it's a chance for the international community to actually abide by their obligations under international law. They have been saying, and supposedly all governments agree, except maybe for the U.S, that Israeli settlements constitute a war crime and should be dismantled.

A variety of UN general resolutions and Security Council resolutions and statements by officials condemn these war crimes. Nonetheless, there have been no effective actions to end the settlement enterprise. What we're seeing with the new government is that they are more explicit in how they want to expand the settlement enterprise. They are legalizing colonial outposts and encouraging settlers to hold arms and attack Palestinians. I think this might be a wake-up call for governments worldwide. They have known this for decades. But maybe now, with this explicit right-wing government, they will abide by their legal obligations and take action against Israel.

We've heard some rhetoric from government officials known as Israel allies. They are now criticizing or denouncing the acts of the new government, telling Israel they cannot defend these explicit and unhidden crimes. This is one of the opportunities for change the new government has given the Palestinian people.

PARTICIPANT COMMENT: I'd like to ask a question which I suppose is slightly devil's advocate. Clearly, Al-Haq is based on the idea that there is a civil campaign to be waged. You talk about advocacy and trying to enforce accountability for crimes on both sides. But at the moment, Israel is the much stronger party and therefore more likely to commit more crimes. What would you say to people who argue, they’ve been doing that for decades, everyone knows what's going on but chooses not to intervene. There is no persuasion possible anymore. Therefore the only way of changing things is a liberation movement with the use of violence. This is more or less how you were characterizing Hamas. Do you still see a role for civilian and peaceful protest or are we getting to the point where the level of violence being unleashed against Palestinians is too great? (End participant).

I think there's benefit from any form of resistance, not only by Palestinians. But I would see the organization of this webinar as an example of raising awareness on the Palestinian question. Listening to Palestinians is an example of how we can contribute to freedom.

Freedom and liberation is a very long process. Unfortunately, the cost of freedom is the lives and dignities of the oppressed people. I see this attack on Al-Haq as an indication of how important our work is along with other civil society organizations.

Any kind of advocacy-- resistance, a protest, an academic article, dance performance, raising awareness of what’s happening in Palestine, trying to get recognition of what the situation is and to seek accountability--all these efforts complement one another. Liberation is a very long term process, and we have to be patient. If we did not have patience as we advocate for liberation, then I would have resigned a long time ago because I do not yet see change.

I see more killings, and more violence. I see more violations on the ground. But I do believe in the effective role of any resistance tactic that is employed, not only by Palestinians, but by anyone committed to justice in Palestine.

MODERATOR: What other human rights groups and NGOs does AL-Haq partner with?

(End moderator).

A lot of the work I described is with other organizations. For example, the report we launched on Zionist settler colonialism and apartheid is a joint work with another Palestinian civil society organization. Since the creation of Al-Haq, there has been a lot of coordination between our Palestinian partners, human rights organizations and grassroots organizations.

Some human rights organizations in Palestine are exclusively working on prisoners rights, some are working on children's rights, some on gender issues and women rights. We work together and try to benefit from each other's expertise and documentation. And we do a lot of joint work on campaigning and advocacy with organizations based in Palestine.

But with global campaigns that we launch as Palestinians--for example, the campaign to Stand with the 6, a campaign to support the sixth organization that has been designated as a terrorist organization--we have received tremendous support from civil society organizations and partners worldwide.

The amazing thing about the attack against Al-Haq is we were afraid this would divert us from our core work. But our partners globally took our demands, and have been supporting us by writing letters to policymakers, briefing policy makers, speaking out on Israel’s crimes.

Even before the Standing with the 6 campaign, we were part of many international coalitions including the International Federation Human Rights, Amnesty International Human Rights Watch. All these organizations are committed to advancing justice in Palestine.

Since the mounting recognition of the apartheid situation in Palestine/Israel, we’ve also been coordinating with Israeli organizations who recognize the situation as apartheid. We coordinate on joint work to end the apartheid regime.

Al-Haq does a lot. Our Centre for Applied International Law is basically a department within the organizatIon that focuses on capacity-building and raising awareness.

We receive many delegations from unionists, students, civil society organizations, scholars. Along with training, we offer field visits so they can see the situation on the ground.

MODERATOR: What I'm taking away from this is the need for a Palestinian government in waiting. There's no question Israel is doing terrible things, whatever words you want to use to describe it. But what I'm hearing is there's no Palestinian government ready to take over. There are people like you, Aseel. But there's a lot of work to be done on capacity building for those in the wings to take over when Israel is called to account.

PARTICIPANT: I wonder if you take any hope from the fact there are huge street demonstrations in Israel now. Do you see anything hopeful in that? (End participant).

I already stressed the fact we do not think the current Palestinian Authority is an effective and legitimate leadership structure for the Palestinian people. At the same time, we call for elections in order to ensure that this Authority has an effective democratic leadership. This is the way to go, I think.

Regarding the protests against reforms of the judicial system in Israel, it’s important to stress that the demonstrations are not against the colonial domination over Palestinians. They are not against the occupation of the Palestinian land and its people.

They are not even against how this same judicial system has been treating Palestinians. This justice system has been another instrument in the entire colonial oppression of the Palestinian people. That does not lead to any justice for them. This is why the Palestinian people are seeking justice internationally and not within the colonizing structure dominating them.

Unfortunately, these protests are not looking at the State of Israel as a corrupt system, a system of colonial domination and part of an apartheid regime. They are only protesting the democratic image of the State of Israel, which is something Israel has been trying to persuade the international community it is.

I don't think any country or regime in the world can be democratic while at the same time imposing a 75 year old system of colonial domination against an indigenous people, a system of apartheid and illegal occupation. So no, I don't think it’s promising in its current form. It could be promising if the Israelis were denouncing our situation as well and acknowledging their role as citizens in this settler colonial regime.



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