One UN envoy's quest to hold Israel accountable under international law

Albanese says major powers are either unable or unwilling to enforce international law when it comes to Israel.

In her new book 'I Accuse', the UN Special Rapporteur on Palestine, Francesca Albanese methodically lays out Israel's countless breaches of international law.
Axel Rangel Garcia
In her new book 'I Accuse', the UN Special Rapporteur on Palestine, Francesca Albanese methodically lays out Israel's countless breaches of international law.

One UN envoy's quest to hold Israel accountable under international law

On 13 January 1898, French journalist Emile Zola penned an open letter to Felix Faure, then-President of the French Republic, titled J’accuse (I accuse).

Published in the socialist newspaper L’Aurore, it publicly denounced the judicial errors committed in the trial of French officer Alfred Dreyfus, which led to his conviction for high treason.

“I shall dare to tell the truth, as I have pledged to tell it, in full, since the normal channels of justice have failed to do so,” it reads.

“My duty is to speak out, not to become an accomplice in this travesty. My nights would otherwise be haunted by the spectre of an innocent man, far away, suffering the most horrible of tortures for a crime he did not commit.”

Zola’s powerful polemic, which condemned the enemies of “truth and justice,” became a metaphor for speaking out against abuse and injustice.

It is, therefore, poignant that Francesca Albanese, the UN special envoy to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, chose it as the title of her latest Italian-language book documenting Israeli aggressions against Palestinians.

Albanese's book – I Accuse – was written in collaboration with Christian Elia and Chiara Valentini and published by Fuoriscena at the end of November.

It compiles Albanese's testimonies of the violations committed by the Israeli army and settlers against Palestinian civilians since the occupation of their territories in 1967. 

Criticism and backlash

An Italian lawyer and academic, Albanese was appointed UN Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories on 1 May 2022 for a three-year term.

She garnered significant attention in Western media and on social media due to her critical stance on Israel's aggression in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

A vocal critic of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, she recommended in her first report that UN member states develop "a plan to end the Israeli settler-colonial occupation and the apartheid regime".

Palestinians in Ramallah gather around a statue of late South African president Nelson Mandela to celebrate a landmark genocide case filed by South Africa against Israel at the International Court of Justice.

During the latest war launched by Israel on the Gaza Strip, Albanese called for an immediate ceasefire, saying: "Palestinians are in grave danger of a mass ethnic cleansing."

She emphasised the need for the international community to "prevent and protect populations from atrocity crimes" and to hold Israeli occupation forces accountable for any international crimes.

With a strong dedication to her mission, Albanese echoed these calls in her previous book, Palestinian Refugees in International Law, which includes her UN reports from October 2022 to October 2023.

From street to page

The author takes a rigorous approach by using all available information, including her own first-hand accounts of attacks and killings of West Bank residents by settlers.

She also details the arrogant and aggressive treatment of defenceless citizens at occupation checkpoints.

Albanese methodically collects information on international law and human rights violations to allow the various UN bodies to make informed decisions on the matter.

However, when it comes to the Palestinians, the UN seems paralysed by the stance of major powers, rendering it unable or unwilling to enforce international law. The US veto of a draft resolution calling for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza is a case in point.

Despite the obstruction, documenting and submitting Israeli violations to the International Criminal Court in The Hague remains of crucial importance.

With her book, Albanese intends, first and foremost, to shine a spotlight on the plight of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

When it comes to the Palestinians, the UN seems paralysed by the stance of major powers who are either unable or unwilling to enforce international law.

She highlights Israel's apartheid and neo-colonial practices and provides an in-depth analysis of the events leading up to the 7 October surprise attack by Hamas on Israeli settlements near the Gaza Strip, as well as the subsequent Israeli response.

In doing so, the book offers new insights for readers around the world, with chapters on terrorism, dehumanisation, occupation, colonialism, and apartheid, plus an afterword by philosopher Roberta de Monticelli.

She explores some of the themes, asking: Does international law exist? If it does, in what sense?

How should we interpret the 'conflict' between Hamas and Israel according to international law? Can Israel legitimately view Gaza as a hostile state?

These are some of the challenging, confusing questions that Albanese and De Monticelli seek to address.

The Accused 

Albanese does not say who she accuses, but it is evident how she feels about countries that swiftly backed Israel under the guise of self-defence.

This contradicts international law, which does not grant an occupying power the right to defend itself.

In an interview with Italian leftist newspaper Il Manifesto, Albanese said: "The notion that international law is obligatory for enemies and discretionary for allies is a dangerous departure from the concept of political independence."

As a lawyer, she said, she "cannot help but condemn" these double standards.

Palestinians lift placards in support of Gaza during a rally in front of UNRWA offices in Hebron in the occupied West Bank on October 31, 2023.

"Palestine – or whatever remained of historical Palestine after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 – including the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, has been under Israeli military occupation since 1967," she writes.

"It is crucial to emphasise from the outset that international law allows for military occupation only in a limited and temporary manner, with specific restrictions to safeguard the occupied population, and most importantly, without ever transferring sovereignty to the occupying forces."

 Israel has "consistently flouted these principles since 1967" by displacing Palestinians and establishing Jewish settlements in occupied Palestine, she argues, adding that this has been routinely denounced, including by the UN Security Council.

Humanitarian organisations agree that the occupation is unlawful and unjustifiable, as it is conducted through the prohibited use of armed force to annex Palestinian territories to Israel and displace the Palestinian inhabitants.

Yet policy does not align with international law, she argues. Imposing sanctions on Israel and helping the Palestinians in their quest for self-determination should be the guiding principles of the international community.

With these principles in mind, said Albanese, she took on the UN role – "a position assigned to me by the United Nations Human Rights Council".

As the first woman to hold the position, she was "fully aware" of the challenges that would arise.

Humanitarian organisations agree that Israeli occupation and annexation of Palestinian land is unlawful and unjust.

Israel's defenders

The first of these challenges, she says, was that the fight for Palestinian rights was no longer newsworthy after 30 years, even though Palestine was still the site of a bitter struggle for justice, the rule of law, and legitimacy.

Additionally, says Albanese, power dynamics could limit the conversation. "Two months after my appointment, I experienced, first-hand, the impossibility of discussing the Palestinian issue despite my strict legal approach," she says.

Opponents of ethics guided by the rule of law often resort to hostility to defend Israel's policies, as Albanese found on 6 July when she was invited by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Italian Chamber of Deputies to report on her work.

Committee head Piero Fassino (from the Democratic Party, formerly a Communist) criticised her for not presenting a neutral, "third party" perspective.

Albanese recalls that she focused solely on this duty during the hearing. Still, Fassino, "who was clearly upset by the fulfilment of my institutional responsibilities, went as far as attributing statements to me that implied the legitimisation of violence".

The AltreEconomia magazine promptly proved that Albanese had never made such statements.

"They examined my original statements, in which I condemned the cycle of violence perpetuated by the occupation, which Mr. Fassino had taken out of context."

She added that Fassino "downplayed the crucial role of international law in resolving conflicts, despite it being integral to the principles of the United Nations".

As Edward Said reminds us, she said, "We cannot fight for our rights until we are armed with weapons of criticism and dedicated consciousness".

Axel Rangel Garcia

Read more: Revisiting the legacy of Edward Said, the voice of the Palestinian cause in the West

She said her role was, in part, to facilitate a "healthy, pluralistic, and well-informed debate on the Palestinian issue" and that she would continue to do so.

Yet regardless of the historical and political interpretations of the conflict and its origins, "the debate should start from the guiding force of international law — the only viable path amidst the obfuscation imposed by realpolitik for over a century".

Facing flak

During a recent visit to the occupied Palestinian territories, Albanese was at the centre of a media controversy and accusations of antisemitism.

Israeli newspaper Times of Israel reviewed her social media posts up to 2014 and found one in which she mentioned how the "Jewish lobby" subjugates American policy to cover up Israel's violations.

Albanese later clarified that she used the term "Jewish lobby" in a 2014 appeal to the archbishop of her hometown's Christian diocese to raise funds for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), where she worked.

This appeal was lodged during Israel's military attack on Gaza in 2014, which killed more than 2,000 Palestinians, including 550 children.

It was in the context of her criticism of how Europe and America remained "on the sidelines" as this war unfolded that she made a mention of the influence of the "Jewish lobby" in the United States.

She was accused of antisemitism. Not true, she said, adding that the criticism was to discredit her work as Rapporteur for human rights in the occupied territories.

"The intention was to vilify me and my mandate, to invalidate my reports," she said.

"It's not only a matter of Palestinian rights. Dismantling the colonial structure established by Israel in the Palestinian territories it has occupied for 55 years would enhance security and living conditions for both Palestinians and Israelis. Both would benefit."

We cannot fight for our rights until we are armed with weapons of criticism and dedicated consciousness.

Edward Said, Palestianian American intellectual

Making an impact

Franz Kafka once said a book must be the axe that breaks the frozen sea inside us. Albanese's book does just that.

It is a tool for every person to recognise the indifference that still exists towards this human cause, and how silence and inaction only contribute to the brutality that threatens our humanity.

Albanese's "accusation" is penned in the name of the ideals, standards, and institutions established by the international community to prevent wars and limit their impact.

The only way to make sure this happens is through international law and UN bodies, despite the obstinance of those who seek to achieve their ambitions through force and the manipulation of facts.

Indeed, as she said in one of her reports to the UN General Assembly, "the oppression and trauma suffered by Palestinian children - half of the Palestinian population under Israeli rule - is a unique stain on the international community".

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