Interview with Professor Noura Erakat

Noura Erakat is a human rights attorney and assistant professor at George Mason University. She has served as legal counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives and as a legal advocate for Palestinian refugee rights at the United Nations. Noura’s research interests include human rights and humanitarian, refugee, and national security law. She is a frequent commentator, with recent appearances on CBS News, CNN, Fox News, and NPR, among others, and her writings have been widely published in the national media and academic journals.

 

pid_26507Noura Erakat’s book, Justice For Some: Law and the Question of Palestine, was just published by Stanford University Press. I had the honor of interviewing Noura Erakat regarding her new book. The interview is transcribed below.

Milena Sterio: your book addresses an important topic – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – but a topic that many others have already researched and written about. How is your book, Justice for Some, different? What is your “hook”?

Noura Erakat: This book is about the relationship between international law and politics and shows how that relationship narrates the Palestinian struggle for freedom between 1917-2017. Organized chronologically, the book focusses on five different and key junctures in Palestinian history, to explain how the situation evolved to the present day and to show that the law is both the site of oppression and resistance. The book also makes a theoretical intervention by emphasizing the role of legal work, as defined by Duncan Kennedy, in determining the meaning of law and its dynamic ability to change across time and space.

Milena Sterio: What role has law, and international law in particular, played in the story of Palestine, and how does your book tackle these issues?

Noura Erakat: Although international law has not commanded conduct nor effectively punished transgressions, I show that it has been incredibly consequential. Israel’s legal workers have used it to legitimize Israeli military action in Gaza as well as provide a legal analysis that has facilitated the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It also shows how Palestinian legal workers have used it to inscribe their juridical status as a nation in international law and institutions as well as legitimate their use of force. The book explains how the law has become the site of struggle between Israeli and Palestinian legal workers, and the law has been used to justify oppression by the former, but also to inform resistance by the latter.

Milena Sterio: Was part of your goal in writing this book to offer a different historical narrative about Palestine?

Noura Erakat: Yes – most of Palestinian history has been viewed through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict- a framework that obfuscates the power imbalance between Israel- a state, the only nuclear power in the Middle East, and the 11th most powerful army in the world and Palestinians, a stateless people. I explicitly frame the book as one about the Palestinian struggle for freedom and draw on an alternative archive of Palestinian scholarship. This is especially unique in regard to scholarship on law and Palestine because that is dominated by Israeli scholars and scholarship, thus making their legal work appear as the norm.

Milena Sterio: How did you research Palestinian history? Did you travel to the region? Did you interview any historical figures?

Noura Erakat: I used a combination of legal analysis, archival research, and primary interviews for my research. I spent time in a rich archive at the American University of Beirut library; I also spent a significant amount of time in the Ramallah and Beirut offices of the Institute for Policy Studies which curates a remarkable archive that includes Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) annual yearbooks. There was a dearth of information on certain junctures including the negotiations that culminate in the Oslo Accords as well as the 1970s when the PLO turns to the United Nations and embarks on legal advocacy. To fill this lacuna, I conducted primary interviews. For example, I reconstruct the negotiations process by interviewing Palestinian negotiators who had participated in the Madrid and Washington negotiations. By doing this, I was able to describe, in this book, a completely different story about the Oslo Accords- one that did not just document how bad of a legal agreement it was for Palestinian interests but that also explained how and why the PLO ultimately endorses it. Much of this story has not been told before.

Milena Sterio: Who is the audience for this book?

Noura Erakat: This book is for a general audience – so anyone who wants to understand the Question of Palestine can benefit from it- in a formal classrooms teaching Middle East studies and beyond. its emphasis on law and its use of critical legal theory will make it particularly appealing to law students, practitioners, and scholars. I wrote this book as a tool of Palestinian knowledge production, where Palestinians are not portrayed simply as victims but instead where they play a central role in shaping the narrative.

Milena Sterio: Does your book offer any policy recommendations for the future?

Noura Erakat: No, this book does not offer policy recommendations. One of the goals of the book is to have a different conversation about Palestine that is not bound by the centrality of preserving Zionist settler sovereignty. It does this by proposing a different way to think about possibilities for the future by recasting the return of Palestinian refugees as the beginning of new futures rather than as the ultimate outcome of Palestinian struggle. How does the presence of six million refugees become an opportunity to forge new political communities that disrupt stark native/settler binaries? What is it that Palestinians have to offer to Jewish Israelis better than what Israel has been able to offer them? It also urges for abandoning a sovereignty framework – which has established the incommensurability of Palestinian and Zionist settler sovereignty – in favor of a framework of belonging which is not mutually exclusive. Part of this thought exercise is to think of what it would take to make Israel a part of the Middle East, rather than a satellite state in the Middle East. I suggest that this requires Jewish Israelis to accept and embrace everything indigenous to the region as the first step.

Milena Sterio: What is next on your research agenda? Do you have other projects lined up about the region or the conflict?

Noura Erakat: I have several research projects lined up. One research project looks at framing Israel’s shoot-to-kill policy in Gaza as a form of settler-colonial eliminatory violence. I am writing another article on the topic of surveillance and settler colonialism using Israel’s encroachment in one Palestinian village as a case study. And I have an additional project about the work of Israeli lawyers in the field of national security law.

My next book project begins where this book ends: namely at the “sovereignty trap,” which I define as a political arrangement of derivative sovereignty featuring native collaboration with settler-colonial and imperial powers, whereby good native behavior is rewarded with limited autonomy and perpetual subjugation. I am examining contemporary renewals of Black Palestinian transnational solidarity to explore the potential for freedom in excess of sovereignty. At this stage, my research consists primarily of interviews with activists involved in this movement.