Inside Palestine: interview with Itay Epstain, co-director of ICAHD

Apartheid wall in East Jerusalem

Could you explain the structure of Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), and how it works?

ICAHD was established in 1997. It was set up at the outset to counter a specific Israeli policy: that of demolitions, predominantly of residences. Israeli Jewish activists went out and engaged Palestinian communities, Palestinian individuals, and they were told that this is not just the most prevalent, but the most intrusive practice of Israeli occupation. It disturbs the fabric of community, it affects individuals economically, socially, and ecologically. So at the onset of operation… we countered these policies by means of direct action: standing in front of bulldozers as they came to demolish homes. That is becoming increasingly hard to do because nowadays when they turn up it’s not just with bulldozers; it’s with a contingent of heavily armed soldiers.

ICAHD is not humanitarian aid, it’s not charity. The practice of rebuilding homes is a political act of resistance, designed to inform the world, and designed to inspire Palestinian communities, families, individuals, to resist. We rebuilt 186 homes in 15 years. We inform the Israeli government that we’re rebuilding in the vicinity, but we do not seek permission or permits because we hold that the system is illegal; the planning system in place is in contravention of international law.

The other thing that has evolved in ICAHD is educating others and raising awareness through tours. We use the notion of this conflict… the idea that Israel has laid over the West Bank and East Jerusalem these elements of control: highways, the separation wall, the settlements, policies of segregation, separation, displacement. We have this two-pronged approach, where we engage constituencies of elected officials, so we need a very clear message coming out of civil society: that states need to reform their policies vis-a-vis Israel-Palestine. The other prong is getting policy reform recommendation out of inter-governmental bodies, like the UN and EU. ICAHD has special consultancy status, which allows us to submit information to the UN through the General Assembly, through the Economic Social Council, the Human Rights Council, and appear before these bodies, address them, and they take on the research.

How can your work reach an international audience unsure of the legal or political dimensions of the occupation?

You would ask most people, and they would tell you that the occupation is illegal, which is not the case. It needs to be legalised, it needs to be criminalised. One of the things we do is identify these gaps where civil society needs to be informed. People educate themselves. That’s what we do; we provide resources, we provide our analysis, we provide facts and figures, and we take different measures to make sure that all the information we provide is very well vetted. We engage governments, we engage the UN, which is this nebulous system where you have of different bodies, different organs, with very different functions. Of course it comes down to engaging parliaments, engaging ministries. Of its own accord, Israel won’t change its policies. It has a lot to benefit from, and with enough external pressure will change the policies. The idea is that you mobilise internationally.

Has it become more difficult in recent years for Israeli activists to oppose the occupation from within?

I would say there have been attempts to limit the space for groups like ours. To this day they have been futile attempts. They weren’t extensive, or invasive enough to curtail our operations, so we’re free to operate. The question is: do you operate effectively? What we have decided early on is not to engage the Israeli Jewish public, because with our limited resources and limited capacity, it falls on deaf ears. Rather, our strategy, what you could call our theory of change, is to engage global civil society, governments, to exert pressure on Israel… to change politics and policies. I think it always has been difficult, because the Israelis are very much ideologically entrenched and invested in this occupation. But we still have this space in which we can operate.

How do you see the role of Israeli activists and NGOs working alongside Palestinians?

I think that ICAHD is in a unique position, where it’s a valued partner for a lot of Palestinian NGOs and vice versa. I think we enjoy the confidence of Palestinians both at a community level, and at a more institutional level, because we have a proven track record of having consistently stood alongside Palestinians advocating for justice. We enjoy this privilege of access. It’s not the case for all Israeli organisations. The watershed line is if you’re a Zionist – even on the Zionist Left – you won’t be very well received by Palestinians… Zionism is not part of our agenda in any way, so it makes it easier for Palestinians to work with us.

To what extent can the UN and foreign governments realistically affect what happens on the ground?

They could be extremely influential, and Israel is extremely susceptive to external pressure. The question is not if they can, but will they? This is why you need to mobilise… to lobby… to advocate. The opportunities are there, whether it’s the EU-Israel Association Agreement, whether it’s the recommendations that come out of UN bodies, resolutions of the General Assembly and of the Human Rights Council. It’s not really a question of opportunity; it’s a question of political will, and political feasibility. You need to mobilise civil society, governments, and inter-governmental bodies, to exert that pressure. It can be done.

Is Israel’s treatment of the occupation being changed by the on-going effects of the Arab Spring?

I think that’s in the back of the minds of Israeli officials. They realise that the operational assumption that there is stagnation across the Arab world has been proven not to be true. Israel is invested in maintaining the status quo. But I think they haven’t lost sight of the fact that there are changes around. What happened in North Africa and Egypt, what’s happening today in Syria, no one knew, and it was hard to make that prediction. You don’t really know what the tipping point is. I think the Israelis are cognisant, but it has an adverse effect, not a positive effect. They’re trying to get more in the way of facts of the ground, displacing Palestinians, expropriating land, until that window of opportunity closes.

Do you see any large-scale developments in Israel’s handling of the occupation occurring in the next ten years?

I think that the days of the Palestinian Authority (PA) are numbered. It has lost internal legitimacy. It is perceived to be not just corrupt, but co-opted into Israel, and it is. It’s an organ of the occupation; it was created in the image of the occupation. I won’t be able to make a prediction: is it days, is it weeks, is it months? But certainly not 10 years. I would say in the coming months… There’s only so much [Israel] can do, because they rely on internal legitimacy, legitimacy that has been eroded substantially. It’s not the individuals, it’s the system; so the same individuals might take part in a new formulation that will realise Palestinians’ right to self-determination. I think there’s a definite possibility that the Palestinian national liberation movement will transform into a civil rights movement, so to speak. It will take the transformation of the Palestinian movement, it will take the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority, because it doesn’t serve that end.

With institutional discrimination of Palestinians so entrenched, is it possible for any kind of progress to come through the legal system itself?

The system is discriminatory by design, so expecting remedy through the domestic system is a ludicrous, preposterous notion. If there are remedies, they will be in international laws. You have to circumnavigate the domestic system, which is unwilling and unable to provide justice for Palestinians. It’s a question of venue: what is the venue in which justice can be administered? There’s the International Court of Justice; if it’s criminalised it’s the International Criminal Court. Getting there is not easy, but these are real possibilities, and I think to expect them to administer this would be more realistic.

Interview: James Killin

Photo: delayed gratification on Flickr

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