Interview with George Bisharat: “law ultimately is an extension of politics”

George Bisharat is IPS Senior Fellow and a professor of law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, where he teaches criminal procedure and practice, law and anthropology, Islamic law, and  law in Middle East societies.  His research and writing focus on international legal aspects of Palestine/Israel and on U.S. policies toward the Middle East.  He is a frequent commentator for media in the U.S. and abroad, and his op-ed pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, Ha’aretz, and other newspapers.  He is also a member of the editorial committee of the Journal of Palestine Studies.

Much of your professional career has been devoted to Palestine, and you’re of course Palestinian, but what’s your personal story?

I was born and raised in the United States to a Palestinian father and an American mother. The first time I went to the Arab world was as a junior year abroad student at the American University of Beirut. The first time I went to Palestine was when I was a graduate student in 1977. I was studying Arabic in Cairo – I did not grow up speaking Arabic – and I took a trip to Palestine.

A Palestinian boy looks towards the tents erected by Palestinian next to homes destroyed during last year's 50-day war between Israel and Hamas-led militants, in the Abasan neighborhood east of Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip on January 28, 2015. Dozens of protesters tried to storm the Gaza headquarters of the United Nations, an AFP correspondent said, after the UN announced it lacked funds to rebuild the war-battered Palestinian territory. Some 100,000 people remain homeless since the 50-day conflict, which killed nearly 2,200 Palestinians and 73 people on the Israeli side. AFP PHOTO/SAID KHATIB (Photo credit should read SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo: SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images)

Of course, my interest and love of the Palestinian people didn’t start in 1977. I grew up in a politically involved family. Both my parents were outspoken defenders of Palestinian rights. I think I had my first letter to the editor in a newspaper published when I was 14 years old. I had the interest and engagement in Palestine even before I went there.

When would you say was your political awakening on Palestine?

It was a process; obviously these things don’t happen overnight. It began with a lot of exposure to my father’s family, to his brothers in particular, who had come to the United States – in a relatively short time period in the late 1940s and early 1950s, after 1948 – and they were wonderful people. They inspired a lot of pride in our ethnic heritage. There was a major turning point in 1967 with the war. This was true, I think, in the Arab-American community generally.

(Photo: MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo: MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images)

There was a big awakening. I have newspaper clips of my dad speaking out about Palestine in the United States in the late 1940s, but 1967 was the turning point for my family, the point at which both of my parents renewed their engagement. I was 12 at the time of the war, so my political awareness dates to that time. And it obviously grew over time. It was also the period of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War – a kind of political awakening for me generally with Palestine as a major focus.

As an IPS Senior Fellow, when did you first learn about the Institute for Palestine Studies?

The Institute is – I was going to say “an institution” (laughs) – it’s been a pillar for decades. It’s been a repository of knowledge and wisdom and guidance. My parents were subscribers to the Journal of Palestine Studies from virtually the beginning, and it was in our house when I was a kid. I grew up around it and reading it and consulting it, so my initial engagement was as a reader. I published for the first time in the Journal in the early 1980s – I wrote a book review. I had no further formal engagement with the Journal until I was invited to join the Journal’s editorial committee in 2009.

Is there a growing awareness about Palestinian rights under international law in the American legal community?

Progress is never unilineal. You make some advances and you lose ground in other places. What has retarded discussion and understanding of Palestine generally, and particularly in the legal academy, is the so-called Global War on Terror [GWOT]. I think we would be in a very different place in understanding the illegality of Israeli settlements and many other Israeli actions in repressing Palestinian resistance were it not for the GWOT. What the GWOT has done is enabled Israel to pose as the model for democracies that are dealing with problems of terrorism. The consequence has been the legitimation, or at least the partial legitimation, of many of its tactics in legal and political terms. For example, extrajudicial assassinations. I don’t think it’s fair to say they have gained broad acceptance as legal under international law, but there’s less clarity about that principle as a consequence of the United States having adopted similar tactics and other nations not explicitly and consistently condemning these assassinations as illegal. However, just as skepticism about the GWOT and its various legal manifestations has grown, I think there’s increasing willingness within the legal academy to question many Israeli tactics, which are frankly violations of international law.

What advice would you offer to an aspiring lawyer hoping to defend Palestinian rights in the United States?

Never forget that law ultimately is an extension of politics. For us in the United States, to place trust in the legal system as if it were going to deliver Palestinian rights that we have not earned politically is unwise. Unfortunately, there’s no easy route to justice and fairness. And those things have to be won, first and foremost, in the political field. As we begin to gain strength politically, we will begin to see legal results. But until we do that, only occasionally and exceptionally will courts provide justice. We have to make it easy for judges to say, “Yes, you have the right to regain your expropriated property.” Or to succeed in a torts claim because you or one of your sons or daughters has been tortured. As long as those remain controversial decisions, judges won’t make them. We have to prepare the ground for them underneath so that they can make these judgments in our favor. Law is always part of politics and we cannot rely on law to the exclusion of other modes of struggling for our rights.

This interview also appeared in the latest issue of Inside Palestine Studies, the Newsletter of the Institute for Palestine Studies.

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