Interview with Wesam Ahmad – Representative, Al-Haq (Independent Palestinian Human Rights Organization)

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Wesam Ahmad works for Al-Haq. He is a Palestinian-American born and raised in the U.S. He earned a B.A. in Political Science and Sociology, and a J.D., from Louisiana State University. Also, he completed an LL.M./M.L. in International Human Rights Law from the National University of Ireland – Galway. Al-Haq is an independent Palestinian human rights organization based in Ramallah, West Bank (occupied Palestinian territories). It was founded in 1979 devoted to documenting human rights violations of “parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” or Israeli-Palestinian issue with the continual production/issuance of reports and detailed legal studies.

Here we talk about the blockade, the Question of Palestine, humanizing the issue, the Great March of Return/Great Return March, illegal settlement businesses in the West Bank, and more.

*Interview conducted on April 1, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Okay, so, let’s start with some of the more perennial issues well past a decade since their inception to do with the blockade, what is the current status of this? What have been some of the impacts? Some people may not know, but the serious impacts on the lives of Palestinians due to this. The blockade and how this affects Palestinian society in general in the oPt.

Wesam Ahmad: The situation in Gaza has been dire for an extremely long time. Even U.N. agencies addressed the issue, the current situation, about Gaza being an uninhabitable place with extreme population density and lack of access to resources, and various other factors like water and electricity, it makes the situation very difficult. This has been the result of concerted efforts by the Israeli occupation to confine and punish the Palestinian population living in the Gaza Strip as part of its broader policy of occupation toward the entirety of occupied Palestinian territory (oPt). The impact is having a very dire impact on Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip. The ability to pursue the most basic elements of a dignified life are stripped away. They are unable to access one of the greatest resources, which is the Mediterranean Sea, whether for fishing or, in a larger sense, the access to natural gas reserves. So, Israel controls the entirety of the occupied Palestinian territories, but, in many ways, takes advantage of the resources there, as well.

Jacobsen: In regard to some semblance of justice, this has been marginally acquired for Palestinians and Palestinian society in general. This is one of the longest-standing issues in the United Nations entitled the Question of Palestine. Also, it is one of the major, last colonial facets of the 20th-century spanning into the 21st. There have been some developments with regards to the International Criminal Court, the ICC, with Fatou Bensouda (Chief Prosecutor of the ICC). What, from the perspective of Al-Haq, are some of the updates there?

Ahmad: I mean, like you said, Scott. The issue is very much a connection between the colonial past of the world and the present situation Palestinians are facing. It is a test for international law in terms of its development to stop these colonial practices. Practices the world has deemed as inappropriate behaviour in international relations. We see the ICC as a manifestation of the development of international law as an institution to hold perpetrators accountable who are involved in the breach of international law and various crimes. The test is for the ICC to stay true to its principles and show the revolution of international law, and the institutions associated therewith, are principled and withstand even politically sensitive issues. Otherwise, it would only be another institution in which only the weak are subjected to account.

Jacobsen: In the Gaza Strip, in the West Bank, and in East Jerusalem, what are the conversations among civilians? How do they view it? Their attitudes and feelings to humanize the issue, where the abstract legal and other aspects are covered along those lines.

Ahmad: In one sense, it is about trying to control that segment of the population and ensure the costs do not outweigh the benefits of the control. So, Israel is able to benefit from the captive population therein, in terms of sales of products. Also, it is able to exploit the natural gas reserves off the coast of the Mediterranean preventing Palestinian access to it. So, it becomes part of the broader matrix of control, where Israel is trying to manage the colonial practices and the people under its control while, at the same time, exploiting whatever resource are available, whether natural resources or the people themselves, in order to maintain this cost-benefit calculus.  

Jacobsen: Every week, for some time (March 30, 2018, to December 27, 2019) [Ed. Originally, these were planned from Land Day (March 30) in 2018 to Nakba Day (May 15) in 2018.], there was the Great March of Return/Great Return March. What were some of the communities’ reactions to this and the international community?

Ahmad: Look, the Great March of Return, like any developments in a Palestinian context, is part of a much bigger issue. We can’t look at that in isolation. It is very much connected to the ongoing blockade and the creation of this uninhabitable situation. You don’t have to be Palestinian. You don’t have come from Gaza in order to understand human nature and the reaction to a horizon of an uninhabitable society before you. The ability to see how people would react to this prospect. It is against human nature to simply sit back and accept this kind of demise. We are seeing this around the world today. Even the freest societies have fights over toilet paper, so, we have to look into the nature of the human being. What makes them react in a particular way within a particular context? Then you can very much see the parallels.

Jacobsen: Regarding some of the issues in some of the freer societies, and in some of these societies with more abundant resources, for example, the mentioning of the hoarding of toilet paper hitting the newsstands in some of these more abundant countries. How is COVID-19 impacting Israeli society and Palestinian society?

Ahmad: A dramatic impact on everyone in the world. Given the Palestinian context, the inability of the Palestinians to decide their own fate because so many things are under Israeli control. It highlights how interconnected we are and how important it is for us to have freedom. Not simply for the purposes of determining our fate, but the ability to ensure our survival, these things are very much becoming more acute in the developments with regards to the pandemic. Even more so in the current moment than before, there is an opportunity for the world to, not only sympathize with the Palestinians but, empathize and relate more than before.

Jacobsen: As you were noting, many of the issues Palestinians are facing, which are numerous and enormously impactful in their daily lives. The issue around COVID-19 and the lack of resources – intensive care beds, masks, testing kits, etc.; the lack of these can be largely attributed to the blockade.

Ahmad: With regards to the Gaza Strip, absolutely, the blockade exists in different manifestations and different parts of occupied Palestinian territory. It is the sea access, which gives it a unique dimension with regards to Gaza. Anything Palestinians want to import or export is subject to Israeli discretion, whether it is in Gaza or in the West Bank. It is much more difficult when you’re dealing with the situation in Gaza.

Jacobsen: In fact, there was another thing. The U.N. Human Rights Council released a list of businesses dealing internationally – Israel, Luxembourg, France, Netherlands, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Countries doing business, basically, on illegal settlements in the West Bank with the number coming out as 112. Is this a healthy first step in moving things towards justice rather than not in this domain of businesses in the illegal settlements in the West Bank?

Ahmad: It is an important positive development. It is a U.N. body providing affirmation to this issue. However, at the same time, it is a very conservative document, which does not take into account the much broader scope and engagement of multinational corporations within the Israeli settlement enterprise. For us, it is about keeping the U.N. involved in this issue, but, also, to not forget the information in the U.N. database does not cover everything. We have to ensure all actors are not involved in violations of international humanitarian law and not profiting from the conflict.

Jacobsen: From the point of view of Al-Haq, what would be the scope required to more accurately represent, not only the businesses listed in the U.N. Database but also, the aforementioned multinational corporations and others?

Ahmad: I can direct you to a fellow organization, which is an Israeli human rights organization. It has a much more extensive listing of corporations. It gives a sense of the scope because there is direct and indirect involvement. There is a supply chain. There is a benefit. All of these things. If you really want to address the issue of fatality, then you have to look at this in a more holistic manner. As they say, “Follow the money.”

Jacobsen: What other organizations would you recommend for readers today?

Ahmad: There are many great organizations working very hard, even within the current situation. I’ve mentioned “Who Profits.” B’Tselem, some of the Israeli organizations, Adalah (Palestinian organization in Israel), some other great Palestinian organizations in the Gaza Strip (Al Mezan, Palestinian Center for Human Rights). You have a lot of other great Palestinian organizations here in the West Bank focused on specific issues, e.g., Defense for Children International – Palestine (DCI-P) focused on children. Anyone who wants more information can go to Al Haq’s website and see the various organizations, which we work with, to get more information.

Jacobsen: Will there be any upcoming reports or reportage that will be particularly prescient and important for some of the topics covered today, including the ICC, COVID-19, and the blockade?

Ahmad: The pandemic has had an impact on a lot of the work that we’ve been doing. It is a question of balancing the things that were in the pipeline before and addressing the current situation. I think a lot of the timelier work will be related to the current situation and the COVID-19 outbreak, and how that plays out within the dynamics of the conflict. Other issues will be continuing to address the ICC, which is really within the hands of the Court because we’ve already submitted necessary documentation. Only last week, we had involvement in issues regarding the blockade in Gaza with other organizations. So, it is a very fluid situation, which we try to continue to balance more short-term issues and more long-term issues.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?

Ahmad: No, I think it’s great to have your readers interested in the situation here. I hope that as the situation develops over time; that we come to see our interconnectedness, to see ourselves as a collective of humanity rather than individual states competing with one another. Hopefully, this will lead to positive change for all.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Wesam.

Ahmad: Thank you, Scott, take care.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

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