The new United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, Francesca Albanese, is faced with a colossal task. She is expected to champion Palestinian human rights in a political institution that, for now, is largely dominated by the US and its Western allies.
A recent exchange in the Italian Parliament was a testimony to this assertion. On 6 July, the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Italian Parliament held an informal session with Albanese to discuss parliamentary resolutions on the revival of the "peace process" in the Middle East. The commission was chaired by Piero Fassino, an Italian politician with the Democratic Party.
Until recently, Fassino's party was part of the Italian government coalition led by Mario Draghi. Fassino is already well known for his support of Israel. In 2009, during the Israeli war on Gaza, he took part in an event organised by the Jewish Community in Rome, where he blamed Palestinians for the war, declaring: "The responsibility (for the war) is on Hamas, an organisation that denies Israel its right to exist." Expectedly, his words were met with a big round of applause.
But, regardless of Fassino's pro-Israel agenda, Albanese was not herself on trial. She has spent years researching, writing about and advocating refugee rights, with special emphasis on Palestinian refugees. Her book, Palestinian Refugees In International Law, co-written with Lex Takkenberg, is a must-read for those keen to understand the legal rights of Palestinian refugees according to international law.
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Unfortunately, Fassino did not see it that way. After his introduction, in which he tried to conflate between Israeli violations of international law and the Palestinian leadership's lack of democracy, Albanese was given the floor. In her oral report, the international law expert conveyed the current realities of Palestinians under Israeli occupation, while articulating the relevance of international law to Israel's systematic violations of Palestinian rights.
"There is a need to see international players who are able to pursue a peace-building process, (…) which also involves Europe and Italy," Albanese said. "Therefore, I would like to offer two points of reflection: one, the necessity to contextualise the current situation; and second, to view it through the prism of international law."
"It is not properly a conflict," Albanese continued. "The reality is, there is a military occupation, which started 55 years ago, and which was transformed into a tool of colonisation. And, when I say 'colonisation', I am referring to the legal meaning of the word, in an attempt to leave every ideological component out of the discussion."
Quickly, Fassino went on the defensive. First, he attacked Albanese, accusing her of not being impartial. Then, he went on to elaborate on a fictional view of history. In Fassino's version of history, the Nakba, the catastrophic destruction of the historical Palestinian homeland, was entirely absent. For him, the dispossession of nearly a million Palestinians from their land and the destruction of nearly 500 towns and villages between 1947-48 did not merit mention.
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Instead, he blamed Palestinians, not the Zionist movement and, subsequently, Israel, for their own misery. "Why was the State of Palestine not founded?" he rhetorically asked before volunteering an answer: "Because Palestinians and other Arab countries did not accept the partition of the British Mandate and unleashed a war against Israel. We cannot say that it wasn't created because somebody prevented it from being created. This is history. There are precise responsibilities."
Once Fassino completed his baseless historical analysis, he dedicated a portion of his speech to dismissing international law altogether, with the claim that: "Such a complicated issue can be solved only on the basis of the rule of law is an abstract illusion."
This outrageous assertion in itself demands a serious investigation, as it emanates from a lawmaker whose job is to guard his country's law, giving prominence to the centrality of international law.
Several days following the parliamentary session and Fassino's bizarre statements, Albanese wrote a column in Italian newspaper Il Manifesto, where she expressed serious concerns about the difficulty in holding a reasonable conversation on Palestine, not only in state institutions, but in Italy as a whole.
"The idea that international law is binding for our enemies and optional for our allies is a dangerous interpretation of the concept of the autonomy of politics; (an interpretation) that I, as a jurist, must condemn," she wrote in her article, "Speaking of Palestine in Italy is Impossible, even in the Parliament".
Fassino quickly retorted, also in Il Manifesto. Despite his claim that he is "fighting for a just peace" and a believer in the two-state solution, he produced the same old Zionist cliches that Israel is: "A democratic country… (Israel is) a country that, for a long time, has been denied (the right to exist) by its neighbours… It is wrong to only hold Israel accountable… I find it difficult to accept the definition of Israel as a racist country…"
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Alas, Fassino's illusions are not the exception among Italian politicians, intelligentsia and media, but the norm. It is quite sad what has befallen Italy in recent decades. This is a country that has enjoyed a powerful socialist constituency that, throughout the years, supported Palestine and the Palestinians, despite US-Western pressure.
Throughout the 1980s, the attitude of the Italian government was openly pro-Palestinian, at least relative to other Western European countries. This often led to foreign policy clashes with Israel and its US benefactors, especially during the so-called Crisis of Sigonella in 1985.
During a speech at the Italian Parliament, socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi went as far as defending the Palestinian right to armed struggle.
In 1982, Italian President Sandro Pertini talked at length about the horror of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in his traditional end-of-year address to the nation.
The fact that one of the main fan clubs of AS Roma, one of Italy's most beloved football teams, is named "Fedayn", in reference to Palestinian freedom fighters, speaks volumes about how the pro-Palestine solidarity has penetrated every aspect of Italian society throughout the decades.
In recent years, however, things began to change. The pro-Israel sentiment has exponentially grown in many sectors of Italian life, especially in government and media. The pro-Israel lobby is now a significant player in Italian politics. Even Italian academia, once an example of radical political thought – after all, Antonio Gramsci is Italian – is now regurgitating orientalist rubbish and pro-Israeli propaganda.
As strange as this may be, Fassino was once a member of the Italian Communist Party before becoming an apologist for Israel and Zionism.
There is hope, however. After all, Albanese is herself Italian. Moreover, Italian solidarity groups are growing in leaps and bounds, challenging the Zionist ideology that is now plaguing the Italian ruling classes.
By turning its back on Palestine, Italy would be turning its back on its history, one that is defined by an existential struggle against Fascism and Nazism. If Fassino had understood his own history, he would have also understood that the Palestinian struggle against Zionism is essentially the same story of Italy being repeated. Unfortunately, Fassino, wittingly or otherwise, now stands on the wrong side of history.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.