Jonathan Kuttab is a leading human rights lawyer passionate about justice for Palestinians. He co-founded the Palestinian centre for the Study of Nonviolence and the Mandela Institute for Political Prisoners, and currently serves on the board of The Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem. On October 2nd, Kuttab spoke at TWU on the “Holy Land,” international law, and scriptural perspectives.
Alex Pernsteiner conducted an interview with Kuttab over email correspondence.
AP: In your speech on campus, you referred to the modern State of Israel as an “apartheid state” which oppresses the Palestinian people. What are some specific ways in which Israel does this in your view?
JK: There are about 53 laws in Israel that grant rights to Jews which it denies to its non-Jewish citizens ( I am not even speaking here about the occupied territories, but only about Israeli citizens. These laws were all further codified and consolidated recently in the “Nation State law” which basically codifies what was openly stated all along, namely that Israel considers itself the state of the Jews, and NOT the state of all its citizens. and as such it openly and publicly discriminates in favor of Jews and against non-Jews, including all Palestinians . The definition is based on an objective assessment of its laws and practices, rather than superficial comparisons with South Africa.
AP: Whenever Israel’s actions are criticized, many defenders of Israel claim that Israel is “just defending itself”, and that it has “the right to exist” free from danger. What would you say to these people? Is Israel just defending itself from an imminent threat of Palestinian attack?
JK: Israel is clearly not under imminent attack from anyone, least of all Palestinians. It has a powerful army, a robust arms industry, nuclear and other weapons, while the Palestinians do not own a single tank, fighter plane, or naval boat. More importantly, while “security” is often invoked, Israeli control over the land and population under its control is more a question of rule and domination, than one of defense or protection. Its practice of settling of civilians into the occupied territories introduces an illegal civilian component in its military occupation, but does not change the reality that it chooses to rule this area in defiance of international law while claiming defense and self-protection.
AP: You have been openly critical of the Israeli government and its policies. This may lead some to think that you are biased against Israel. However, your organization, Al-Haq, has also released reports detailing human rights abuses by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Do you see yourself leaning more towards one side of this conflict? And if so, why?
JK: There is no doubt that I am a Palestinian and therefore “biased” in favor of my own people. However, in addressing the human rights situation, I insist on universal principles that are applied to friend and foe alike. I have not been reluctant to criticize the Palestinian Authority and Hammas when they violated human rights or international law, but the reality is that it is Israel, who is in power, and who runs the show. As such, they are more often than not the target of human rights advocacy, just like a rape victim is the victim of the rapist, and, therefore, a neutral observer, may be biased in her favor, yet objective reality supports their instinct that the rapist feel most of the criticism even if the victim tries to fight back and scratches the face of the rapist in the process.
AP: As a Christian, is it frustrating to see so many of your fellow Christians defend Israel because the Bible claims that the Jewish people have a God-given right to the land? What would you say to Christians who hold this belief?
JK: I would tell these Christians to read the New Testament, and note that Jesus repeatedly refused to accept the territorial (and ethnic) claims of Jews at the time. He insisted that the Kingdom of God did not mean a restoration of political rights stolen by the Roman Empire, and that it was not the Temple or the Peoplehood, that was significant, because God is spirit and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth. God’s promise of land was not a “real estate title” but a physical manifestation and tool for God’s revelation of Himself and his dealings with a particular tribe in a particular land, leading to the Incarnation of God revealed Himself in the flesh and brought salvation to all mankind, in all the world, not only to the Jews in Palestine. Even in Old Testament times, God was clear that his promises of land and political power depended on Israel’s obedience, and that their sinfulness necessarily resulted in defeat and exile.
AP: There has been considerable debate between Palestinian activists between those who say we should seek a two-state solution, in which an Arab state and a Jewish state would peacefully coexist, and a one-state solution, in which Arabs and Jews would live peacefully in one multicultural state with full political equality. You mentioned in your speech that you did not think that the two-state solution was viable. Would you be able to expand on that thought a bit more? Why specifically is the dream of a separate Arab state impossible now?
JK: The collapse of the two-state solution was the result of systematic undermining by Israel in creating Jewish settlements in that 22% of Palestine that was slated to be the “Palestinian Arab state” in that compromise. Not only did Israel move about 700,000 Jews into the occupied territories, but it left them in exclusive settlements throughout the occupied territories, connected them to each other and to Israel by a network of “Jews Only” roads, set up for them a separate judicial, policing, educational, health, and social welfare system, and integrated them (excluding the Arab population) thoroughly into the state of Israel to the point where today it is not possible to unscramble the egg or allow a genuine contiguous (much less viable) Arab state.
AP: Many recent trends seem to be making things worse for the prospects of Palestinians, especially with the election of Trump and the relocation of the American embassy to Israel. What do you think the prospects are for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East today, and what needs to be done to ensure that it is achieved?
JK: It does look bleak in the short term, I agree. Yet, there are definitely signs for hope for anyone who believes in the sovereignty of God and in His ultimate justice. An unjust and oppressive regime, based on racism, discrimination, and oppression, in spite of how powerful it may appear, is ultimately untenable. That was the fate of the Iron Curtain, of Apartheid, or Idi Amin, of slavery, and other oppressive systems and regimes. As Israel succeeds in violating international law and ignoring public opinion, it gets even more arrogant, and as we know, “Pride cometh before the Fall”.
AP: If we, as North Americans, want to get involved with helping to bring this conflict to a just and peaceful resolution, what can we do?
JK: The United States currently leads the world in supporting and enabling of Israel in its violations of international law, and its oppression of the Palestinians. Withholding this support, or making it conditional on proper behaviour and genuine progress towards peace, Israel feels it can go on this way forever, but if the government is not willing to take such a peaceful position, it is up to the churches, the students, the human rights organizations, and ordinary citizens to force the issue, perhaps through nonviolent boycotts, divestments, and sanctions ( BDS), which emphasize human rights and international law as was done with South Africa. The issue is not to take an anti-Israeli political or ideological position, but to insist on pro-peace pro-human rights and pro-justice positions.