Francesca Albanese (Ariano Irpino, 1977) is an international lawyer and works as a Research Affiliate at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at GeorgeTown University. In early May 2022, she became the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories.
In an interview with elDiario.es, Albanese explains that, since she was appointed, the Israeli authorities have not granted her a visa to visit the occupied territories, thus preventing her from carrying out her work, in what she considers an “extremely disrespectful towards a UN-appointed position”.RELATED
The Special Rapporteur also comments with concern on the increase in violence in the occupied Palestinian territories. So far this year, 21 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire. Last Thursday, nine people were killed and 13 others were injured during an Israeli army raid on the Jenin refugee camp.
At the end of December, you denounced on social networks that you had not received an official response from the Israeli authorities to enter the occupied territories. Is it still like that?
Israel has never recognized the figure of the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories. Despite the fact that this figure has existed since 1992 and continues to exist today. However, until 2008, they allowed special rapporteurs to visit the territories to report and maintained a civil relationship with them.
But this ended at the end of 2008, when Richard Falk, as special rapporteur, was arrested and detained at Ben-Gurion airport and later deported. Since then, the UN has adopted this practice of applying for a visa, without which the visit is considered unauthorized. For me, this approach is not the right one because I am invited by the Palestinian authorities, and Israel, under international law, is abusing its regulatory powers.
What has happened in your case?
I informed the Israeli authorities in the months of September, October and November that I intended to go to the Occupied Palestinian Territory in November. I told them twice and then they said, “You can’t go without a permit, so we’ll give it to you.” Since then I have been waiting for this permit to arrive. I think it is my prerogative to go under my code of conduct, because again, I am invited by the local authorities.
So, for the moment, they keep me in limbo. Something that seems extremely disrespectful to a position appointed by the UN. They have an obligation to cooperate with the rapporteurs. They may not agree with my analyses. They may disagree with my role as part of the United Nations. But they are bound to abide by UN rules and regulations.
How have you experienced the campaign against your role as UN special rapporteur carried out by Israel, for a few words you said in 2014 [en una publicación en Facebook en la que hacía una referencia al ‘lobby judío’]?
They say I’m biased and anti-Semitic. Frankly, this is something they say to anyone who expresses criticism of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. I don’t take this personally for several reasons, because I know that this is the price paid by all those who fight for human rights and justice in the occupied Palestinian territories. And this is, unfortunately, the situation in which human rights actors, whether from civil society, academia or the UN, are sometimes left to fend for themselves.
At the same time, as I said, I don’t take it personally because there has been a lot of backlash against various communities: the academic community, Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organizations; And something that really touched me is that there were many Jewish scholars, experts in anti-Semitism, in Holocaust studies, in Judaism… who have spoken in my defense. This is something that makes me feel more comfortable with what I’m doing.
What has it been like to do your job since your appointment?
Is very intense. There is no respite. It is a voluntary work. I also have my own assigned work and it is very difficult to reconcile it. Especially since this year the violence has not let up. Last year some 200 people died, the majority in situations of summary extrajudicial executions, 50 of them were children. There was a military assault on Gaza, which killed hundreds of people in a few days and caused a lot of destruction.
Also, the attacks of the settlers have been uncontrolled and completely savage under the surveillance of the military forces. Nightly raids, arrests and imprisonment of Palestinians, many of them children. There are currently 4,000 people incarcerated, 800 of them without charge. Last year some 3,700 were arrested.
All this without mentioning the destruction of houses and civilian structures, daily harassment, attacks on schools and hospitals… And this is the reality I face every day. So it all feels very, very heavy.
You have spoken of the increase in violence in the occupied areas. What do you think it is due to? Can you go further?
I hope not. Last year was already the deadliest since 2005, when the United Nations began documenting and compiling figures. But, I am afraid that the violence will increase if we look at the statements of the members of the new Netanyahu government.
If we look at the past [de Netanyahu] As prime minister, we see that he has led some of the governments that have committed the greatest number of atrocities against the Palestinians. Under his leadership there were continued assaults on Palestinians in Gaza, settlement expansion continued unabated, and he made statements that made it clear that he had no intention of renouncing the Israeli presence in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
I am concerned, and not only for the Palestinians in the occupied territory, but also for Palestinians and Israelis, individuals and organizations trying to help them, because the occupying forces are becoming increasingly violent towards them. Soldiers are not intimidated into, for example, acting while being videotaped. In other words, there is a total challenge to international law and the basic principles of humanity.
Of course, I also fear – although I do not have a mandate to report and document what is happening inside Israel – for Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, and for any Israeli who does not align with the positions of the current government, because all of them probably they will see their freedoms limited.
What has the arrival of the new government meant for the conflict?
I believe that this government is surely the most extremist, although I see it as an evolution. Now there are settlers in the Government itself, I think there are at least 13 members, if I’m not mistaken, who are settlers, like Itamar Ben Gvir or Mikael Malkiel. There are many well-known figures who have been and are living in the settlements.
Increasingly, there is a growing embedding of settler policies with the Government. Itamar Ben Gvir, who is the Minister of National Security, an economist and in charge of the Israeli police, has repeatedly made very disturbing statements. For example, last year he was caught on camera repeatedly chanting “death to the Arabs.” He too, after the elections, he said that it was “time to teach the Palestinians who is the master of the house”, and he has also incited people to commit violent acts.
This is extremely disturbing and I wonder if the European leaders are watching. Because I see my own government, the Italian government, making statements of support, solidarity and friendship with a country that has an extremist government at the moment. And I believe, again, although I understand and respect the friendship with the people of Israel, that this government must be seriously examined from now on.
He has spoken of Ben Gvir who visited the esplanade of the mosques in Jerusalem at the beginning of January accompanied by his rabbi. In the same week, he also banned the flying of Palestinian flags in public places, classifying them as a form of “terrorism.” What do you think he intends to do with these shares?
I think the ban on the Palestinian flag is not new. Again, it’s taking it to a new level. It was already de facto prohibited. I often cite the example of the attacks on Palestinian flags during the funeral of murdered journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. She was an icon and during the funeral, from the hospital to the church, there was a continuous aggression from the security forces towards the Palestinians.
Like any repressive apartheid and colonizing regime, Israel is keen to repress or suppress the use of any symbol in the occupied Palestinian territories that represents national identity because it is perceived as a threat to its own authority, its own anti-liberal regime. This is again what Ben Gvir is trying to say by banning the display of the Palestinian flag.
And with the visit to the esplanade of the mosques?
I would like to see one day a situation where everyone of any religion can access the same places of worship and pray and manifest their religion, their religious beliefs freely in their circumstances. But because Israel is an occupying power and is in a position of dominance and holds the Palestinians in bondage, the status quo on Jerusalem must be upheld and respected. Because of course, there are competing claims to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. While it is very difficult for Palestinians to even consider doing maintenance work, what some Jewish religious leaders advocate is to destroy the mosque and rebuild the third temple.
Do you think that these actions, added to the increase in violence in recent years, can lead to a new Intifada?
I’m not an expert on it, but I’ve seen that people are exhausted and exasperated. The inaction of the international community, in the face of continued abusive statements and policies by Israeli governments, is telling the Palestinians that whatever they say doesn’t matter. As a lawyer, I have deep faith in international law, but I also believe that international law is only as strong as the will of States to enforce it, to respect and apply it universally.
The Palestinians see the response that was given, for example, to Russia’s illegal and illegal aggression and illegal occupation of Ukraine, and they see a call for the protection of the Ukrainian people in the name of self-determination, which is correct. And they feel for the Ukrainian people the same as for themselves. But at the same time they don’t understand the mismatch and don’t understand why they are always treated differently. So basically we are saying to the Palestinians: no matter how peacefully you resist the occupation, you are on your own. And this is very, very dangerous.