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[INTERVIEW] ‘Israel’s actions in Gaza qualify as genocide’

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Bünyamin Tekin

In an exclusive interview, Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), spoke with Turkish Minute about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, saying that Israel’s actions in the Palestinian enclave qualify as genocide under the Genocide Convention.

DAWN, a US-based rights group set up by the late Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was officially launched in September 2020 after Khashoggi’s death.

The 59-year-old journalist was killed inside the Saudi Consulate General in İstanbul on October 2, 2018 in a gruesome murder that shocked the world.

He was an advocate for democracy, human rights and the rule of law and was murdered for his criticism of oppressive regimes and his commitment to democratic reforms.

Although Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan implicitly accused Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of masterminding Khashoggi’s murder, he has repaired ties with him in recent years due to what many say was Turkey’s desperation for foreign investment due to its ailing economy.

Pursuing Khashoggi’s vision, DAWN is dedicated to promoting democracy and human rights across the Arab world. Under Whitson’s leadership, the organization operates independently and is funded by private individuals and foundations, allowing it to hold Western governments accountable for their support of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa.

Sarah Leah Whitson has led dozens of advocacy and investigative missions throughout the region, focusing on issues of armed conflict, accountability, legal reform, migrant workers and human rights. She has published widely on human rights and foreign policy in the Middle East in international and regional media, including The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, The Los Angeles Times and CNN.

Whitson previously served as the executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division from 2004 to 2020. She has led numerous advocacy and investigative missions throughout the region and has published extensively on human rights and foreign policy. She appears regularly on major media outlets and is a member of American think tank the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), serving on several human rights and advocacy boards.

Whitson provided a sobering assessment of the situation in Gaza, saying that Israel’s actions qualify as genocide under the Genocide Convention.

Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, which began on October 7 following an unprecedented attack by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, has led to significant casualties and devastation.

Whitson highlighted the severe humanitarian crisis resulting from Israel’s indiscriminate bombings and blockade, which have deprived the Gazan population of essentials such as food, water, fuel, electricity and medical supplies. The death toll, according to Whitson, is estimated to be close to 50,000 when factoring in those buried under rubble and secondary deaths due to the ongoing conflict.

The conversation also touched on the broader implications of Israel’s defiance of international court rulings, including the request by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to issue arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Galant and the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) order to halt Israeli operations in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

The ICJ ordered Israel in January to refrain from all acts that could fall under the Genocide Convention and to ensure that its troops do not commit genocidal acts against Palestinians after South Africa accused Israel of state-directed genocide in Gaza.

Whitson emphasized the need for immediate international intervention to ensure compliance with these rulings and to facilitate the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Additionally, the interview explored the role of the international community, particularly the United States, in addressing the crisis. Whitson criticized the US for its continued military and political support of oppressive regimes in the Middle East, saying Israel is the number one among them. She called for an end to this support, arguing that it hinders prospects for democracy and human rights in the region.

Whitson was asked about Turkey’s serving as a transit country for crude oil to Israel, which accounts for 40 percent of Tel Aviv’s annual consumption, and whether Turkey could leverage international agreements, like the Genocide Convention, to suspend this supply.

She noted that these kinds of agreements establishing trade ties have provisions that would allow the state parties to suspend their enforcement citing rulings by international courts that have jurisdiction over them. She added Turkey might need more guarantees such as action from the UN Security Council about the ICJ ruling before taking such drastic steps.

Whitson also addressed the complexities faced by dissidents in exile when condemning Israeli actions in Gaza while opposing their own oppressive governments. She stressed the importance of a consistent and principled approach to human rights advocacy, regardless of the perpetrator, and praised those who courageously criticize abuses by all actors involved.

Israel is facing accusations of genocide for its eight-month-long military campaign in Gaza with no end in sight. The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court requested arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Galant. In addition, the International Court of Justice ordered a halt to the Israeli campaign against Rafah as well as ordering that Israel ensure the entry of humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip.

Israel appears to be defying these rulings of the international courts and stepping up its attacks on Gaza. Can you outline the current humanitarian crisis for our audience?

[There is a humanitarian crisis] for a combination of reasons, including Israel’s indiscriminate and deliberate bombarding of civilians and civilian installations, in Gaza, as well as the siege that Israel has imposed on Gaza, depriving the population of food, water, fuel, electricity, medicine and medical supplies.

There is a massive humanitarian crisis on the ground in Gaza. Over a million Palestinians in Gaza are at risk of famine. A number of Palestinians, particularly children and the elderly, have already died as a result of famine. The estimated death toll at this point is probably close to 50,000 if the bodies under the rubble and secondary deaths due to bombardment are factored in. This is the reason why the International Court of Justice has ordered Israel not only to end its offensive in Rafah but also to stop hindering access to the delivery of humanitarian aid and items essential for the survival of the population.

In light of Israel’s apparent defiance of these orders, what can or should the international community do?

Well, with respect to the International Court of Justice, the enforcement of orders of the International Court of Justice falls to the UN Security Council, and immediately in the wake of the decision of the order by the ICJ, most recently, the UN Security Council said it was going to be holding an emergency meeting on the ICJ’s orders, and how to make Israel comply with them.

What happened is that President [Joe] Biden intervened with a new ceasefire deal, claiming it was an Israeli ceasefire deal, which in fact Israel over the weekend rejected, but now the pressure has intensified on Israel, and it looks like there is a tremendous international effort to force Israel to accept this latest ceasefire deal. I think the goal is that if Israel can be forced to cease fire, then the pressure of the ICJ orders will diminish.

What can or should the US be doing right now and is doing the opposite?

Well, our position is that the United States should end its military and political support for abusive regimes in the Middle East and North Africa.

We are specifically focused on the regimes with the closest ties and most military support from the United States, which of course, number one includes Israel, as well as Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Those are the governments with the closest ties to the United States. And we believe that the United States is hindering any prospect for democracy and human rights in the region by continuing to provide support and backing for the abusive regimes to survive, notwithstanding their abuses against their own populations.

Just this week, young people in Turkey, an offshoot of the global BDS [Boycott-Sanctions-Divestment] movement, were protesting against what they identified as Turkey’s complicity in the genocide of Palestinians by Israel. Especially in terms of Azerbaijan’s supply of crude oil, and Turkey’s enabling of this through the BTC [Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan] pipeline, which supplies around 40 percent of annual crude oil consumption of Israel. There are demands from the pro-Palestine camp in Turkey for a halt to this supply, but there are of course international agreements governing the supply of oil through this pipeline. I want to ask you, considering President Erdoğan’s condemnation of Israel’s actions in Gaza as genocide, can Turkey cite the Genocide Convention to suspend its obligations under certain international agreements?

Well, I think it would take a close reading of the agreement itself, which I hadn’t had a chance to do since I only saw the agreement this morning, but most agreements of this sort include provisions that allow a party to suspend its performance if continuing to perform would contravene orders of courts with authority and jurisdiction over them. And so complying with a judicial order, with a valid judicial order, is usually grounds for an agreement suspension or nonperformance of parties.

And so it could well be that if the International Court of Justice orders sanctions against Israel, orders a suspension of business transactions with Israel, that that kind of an agreement would be implicated. But it would really, I think, to have safer grounds for Turkey to terminate the agreement or suspend its agreement to deliver crude oil to Israel, they would probably want to have a more direct order from the UN Security Council that specifically identifies bans on the sale of oil or the provision of oil to Israel.

I mean, these kinds of sanctions exist, you know, there are sanctions on the purchase and sale of Russian oil, there are sanctions on the purchase and sale of Iranian oil. And the Security Council and the General Assembly would have the authority to call for such sanctions. I don’t think that’s happened yet, but certainly that may well be an outcome of the current pending case before the International Court of Justice about Israel’s commission of genocide in Gaza.

Since October 7th, condemning Israeli actions in Gaza was particularly difficult for certain groups of dissidents in exile, especially the ones who fled the oppressive regimes in the Middle East. For instance, Iranian dissidents or Turkish dissidents in exile, particularly because of their government’s outspoken criticism of Israel did not know how to navigate condemning this humanitarian crisis along with their positions against their own oppressive governments. And I see very, very few international organizations, right groups, that will condemn both, for instance, Uyghur genocide and crimes against Palestinians, or if you call it Palestinian genocide, or the oppressive regime of Iran, the oppressive regimes of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as well as the oppressive regime of Israel and the crimes of the United States in supporting these authoritarian regimes. I think your organization is exemplary in this regard.

What would you have to say to international rights groups that are advocating for democracy and peace on this issue?

Well, a couple of things. First of all, I think you’re right to note that organizations focused on human rights and democracy should, as a matter of principle, be condemning abuses of these rights, regardless of who carries out these abuses. And to only condemn one country but to forgive or even defend abuses of another country is the exact same hypocrisy that we see from the US government, for example, that condemns the genocide of the Uyghurs but refuses to end its support for Israeli atrocities in Gaza. So, you know, those kinds of selectivity, double standards, hypocrisies are really ultimately damaging to our own causes and the cause of international law and justice.

Second of all, I think that dissidents in exile, you know, they are the bottom of the list of the people that I make demands from or expect actions from because they are already carrying enough of a personal burden. They have made such great sacrifices to take the political positions they’ve taken against their own governments and find themselves in exile. But I will note that Narges Mohammadi from prison in Iran sent a letter just a few days ago condemning Israeli atrocities in Gaza, which was, you know, a very brave move for her because many of the Iranian exiles are very critical of the Iranian regime but refuse to criticize Israel. And I think she showed them a model of how you can be a critic of the Iranian regime and a critic of the Israeli regime. And that is the model that we should be focused on.

But really, for American organizations in particular, I would say our first duty is to address the wrongs of our own government. Our first duty is to end our own government’s complicity in atrocities and abuses. And so that’s where I do demand more of American organizations than, say, of Swedish or Sudanese organizations, let’s say, right? They are not complicit in the massacre of Palestinians the way that Americans are. And that’s where our responsibility lies.

I will ask you to give a brief comment on how the international community can achieve a viable resolution to the current situation with the immediate and most urgent steps in your mind.

I think that the most immediate and urgent issue remains a ceasefire. The immediate ending of Israeli atrocities has to be the number one.

And I’m happy that eight months after blocking numerous ceasefire resolutions, the United States is finally supporting one. I think the real question remains is whether Israel and the Israeli government will comply with a real ceasefire. Second, I think, Israeli crimes have to end and I mean the Israeli crimes of occupation and apartheid. Nothing in the Middle East is going to be resolved, there will be no peace, there will be no security, neither for Israelis nor Palestinians or anyone in the region, until the Israeli occupation and apartheid end. After that period of time I think the people of the region should decide democratically how they want to organize their governance. Do they want to be one state, do they want to be two states, but those are questions that only the people of the territory from the river of the sea should democratically decide, and no government may be imposed on them as part of a peace agreement, as part of a ceasefire, as part of any deal.

So these proposals to impose Palestinian Authority governance over Gaza is ridiculous and absurd, almost as ridiculous and absurd as having Saudi officials governing Gaza or Egyptian officials governing Gaza. The only people who should rule Palestinians are the people who Palestinians themselves choose. Palestinians are entitled to democratic freedoms and human rights, just as much as people all around the world are entitled to these very same rights and freedoms.

Thank you very much. I will ask you one last question. I checked the 2023 report of DAWN, about the expert roundtable you gathered to examine whether the claims of genocide hold true when it comes to Gaza, and you did this in December. It has been seven months since that roundtable. How do you see that now? How would you define the current situation? Is it on the way to becoming a genocide, or can one say now that we are witnessing a genocide?

Well, I think I affirm the conclusion that our roundtable reached in January, that the actions of Israel in Gaza do qualify as genocide under the Genocide Convention.

There is very clear demonstrated intent to destroy the population in whole or in part, and there are very obvious operations, practices, conducts, including the indiscriminate and deliberate bombardment of civilians and starvation in the civilian population, that are the hallmarks of genocide, so this is happening and unfolding before our eyes. And that’s why the International Court of Justice agrees and is considering and proceeding with the trial against Israel for genocide.

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