The editorial team of al-Majdal, Badil's English language quarterly magazine
One of the enduring questions that has confronted politicians and strategists of the Oslo process is how to resolve the Palestinian refugee issue within the confines of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What happens to the more than 5 million Palestinian refugees whose homes of origin are located inside Israel?
For most refugee experts and practitioners crafting durable solutions for Palestinian refugees within the context of two states the answer is quite simple. Individual Palestinian refugees should be permitted to exercise their basic rights to return to their homes and repossess their properties. Resettlement assistance should be provided to those refugees who choose not to return.
The Nakba and other subsequent displacement have resulted in the loss of numerous written documents and have dramatically shaped Palestinian identity. With the contribution of oral history, Palestinians are enriching their history to encompass all segments of society; giving a voice to the poor, peasants, women, those marginalized by the official ideological or national narrative - most importantly - those who have lived the Nakba of 1948. Including these diverse and multiple experiences and voices within national Palestinian history crucially seeks to uncover and deepen understanding of events that have shaped this people’s dispossession, colonization and occupation. It also permits to discover the richness of Palestinian culture and traditions, its diversity and complexity.
It nuances the official Palestinian narrative too often based on political personages and ideological dogma. Oral history also permits to challenge the written and dominant discourse surrounding the Nakba, a discourse dominated by proponents of the Zionist-Israeli narrative. The upcoming commemorations - 40 years of Israeli occupation (2007) and 60 years of the Nakba (2008) - provide opportunities for furthering the place of oral history in Palestinian history. To this aim, many activities are planned (see the Call to Action on the back cover of this issue), such as the creation of a truth commission based on the South African model whereby witnesses and victims of the Nakba can tell their stories to parliamentarians, academics and international figures.
The Nakba (catastrophe) stands for the destruction of the economic, social, political and cultural fabric of Palestinian society in 1948, when the western powers of the time permitted and encouraged, in violation of international law, the replacement of Palestine by a colonial settler state, i.e. the state of Israel. 58 years later, in May 2006, while Israel and the international community are again set to destroy Palestinian society, Palestinians commemorate the Nakba of the past and the Nakba of the present. The international community created the Palestinian Authority as a step towards the self-determination of the Palestinian people. Today, however, it is on the verge of causing a humanitarian crisis and destroying the embryonic state institutions it created in order to impose a vision of Palestine that disregards international law and the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people. Canada, the United States, the European Union, the Quartet and Norway decided to sanction the democratically elected Palestinian government in order to induce Hamas' acceptance of the principle of nonviolence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the Road Map, i.e. conditions that most Israeli political parties have failed to meet. (See article by Nabih Bashir, Israeli political parties' ideological projects and inclinations towards the conflict).
When Palestinian refugees and internally displaced talk about the right of return they speak about return to a specific place – a village, a piece of land and a home. No one really knows how many refugees would choose to return if given the chance to do so. There are simply too many factors to consider. But like refugees from Guatemala, Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere, displaced Palestinians that wish to return to homes, lands and properties should be allowed to do so. The new international Principles on Housing and Property Restitution for Refugees and Displaced Persons endorsed by the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in August (reprinted in this issue of al-Majdal) provide a universal set of guidelines to resolve Palestinian claims. Prepared by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Housing and Property Restitution, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro of Brazil, the ‘Pinheiro Principles’ provide the first consolidated global standard on the housing, land and property rights of the displaced.
The Pinheiro Principles will come as no surprise to Palestinian refugees and internally displaced. The UN enunciated the same general principles in 1948 when the General Assembly reaffirmed (Resolution 194/III) that all persons displaced as a result of the conflict in Palestine should be permitted to return, not just to their homeland, but to their homes. The General Assembly reiterated the right of the refugees to restitution in 1974 (Resolution 3236/XXIX) and again in 1981 (Resolution 36/146C) when it also said that they have a right to the revenues from their properties.
Human rights, international law and the United Nations Charter and resolutions provide the only road map for a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East. This was the message of Palestinian, Israeli and international civil society activists meeting in Paris in July 2005 under the auspices of the UN. The message followed a call by broad sectors of Palestinian civil society for a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law.
A non-violent grassroots strategy
Boycotts, divestment and sanctions provide a non-violent strategy towards a solution of the conflict based on universal principles set down in international law and in the UN Charter and resolutions. The Palestinian call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel was released on the first anniversary (9 July 2005) of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) advisory opinion on the legality of Israel's construction of a Wall in the occupied West Bank.
In that opinion the Court said the construction of the Wall constitutes breaches by Israel of various of its obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law. It said Israel should tear it down, repeal and render ineffective related legislation, make reparations for damages and return land and immovable property, and where that is materially impossible, pay compensation. Israeli measures to protect the life of its citizens have to conform with applicable international law. While the opinion is advisory in nature – i.e. it was not a judgment – it is nonetheless a declaratory statement of the law in force by the highest international court.
will Ariel Sharon’s plan for disengagement from the Gaza Strip bring Palestinians and Israelis one step closer to a political settlement of the conflict? The international community (read ‘Quartet’) seems to think so. After all, not since Sinai has Israel been willing to dismantle colonies it established on illegally occupied land. The international community today speaks about a moment of promise and opportunity for Palestinians and Israelis. They point towards the election of Mahmoud Abbas as President of the Palestinian Authority, the Sharm ash-Sheikh summit (8 February 2005) between Ariel Sharon and Abbas at which Israel agreed to “cease all military activity against Palestinians” who agreed to “stop all acts of violence against Israelis”, and Palestinian municipal and Legislative Council elections later in the year.
Nearly five years after the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada the international community has given the signal that now is the time to re-engage towards a political settlement of the conflict. The US has appointed a special security envoy (General Ward) who is stationed in the region, both Sharon and Abbas have been invited to the White House, the Quartet appointed a special envoy (James Wolfensohn), the UK organized a meeting in London on Palestinian reform, and Russia called for an international Middle East peace conference in Moscow.
Palestine after Arafat
The right of return, the right to housing and property restitution and the right to compensation will not disappear as long as refugees themselves continue to demand their basic human rights. When the late Palestinian leader Yaser Arafat spoke about the right of return he was not only speaking about human rights, he was representing what refugees themselves have demanded for more than five decades.
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was established in the refugee camps in exile with a program based on return and the unity of the land and its people. It should not be surprising then to find Mahmoud Abbas, the newly elected Chairman of the PLO, and the various candidates running to replace Arafat as President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) all talking about the right of return. This is their democratic responsibility – to represent those who vote them into office.
A new era of democracy?
The Palestinian people have been practicing democracy for decades, through political parties, student, teacher and women's associations, professional and trade unions and through the structures of the PLO. While many political pundits pondered over who might ‘succeed’ Arafat after his death in November, Palestinians looked to the Constitution of the PLO and the Basic Law for the PA. Elections for President of the PA are scheduled for January 2005, while the Executive Committee of the PLO elected Mahmoud Abbas as Chairman of the PLO. The political vision of a two-state solution being promoted by the newly re-elected Bush administration as set forth in his June 2002 speech and the April 2004 letter of assurance to Ariel Sharon, however, raises serious questions about the administration's support for democracy. The litmus test being applied to Palestinians is not about democratic representation, especially when it comes to so-called final status issues; but rather the ability of the Palestinian leadership to neutralize popular demands for a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and the right of return.
There is no litmus test for Israel. For a long time the international community has taken Israel's democratic credentials for granted as “the only democracy in the Middle East.” According to the Israel Democracy Institute, however, “protection of human rights [in Israel] ... is poor; there is serious political and economic discrimination against the Arab minority; there is much less freedom of religion than in other democracies; and the socioeconomic inequality indicator is among the highest.” There are is no demand for Israel to normalize with the region even though Israeli officials readily admit Israel is not a 'normal state'.
The wider international community continues to ignore the fact that due to restrictive conditions in many host countries in the Middle East more than half of all the Palestinian people still cannot participate in democratic elections by direct ballot for the Palestine National Council (PNC), the Palestinian parliament in exile, which is mandated to set PLO programs and policies. It is the PLO and not the Palestinian Authority that represents the entire Palestinian people and has the mandate to negotiate a future peace agreement with Israel.
The ICJ Advisory Opinion on the Wall – An Alternative Road Map
Israel’s construction of the separation wall in the occupied Palestinian territories and its associated regime are contrary to international law. In a non-binding advisory opinion delivered on 9 July 2004, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, said Israel must cease construction of the wall and dismantle sections located in the occupied territories forthwith;
repeal or render ineffective all related legislative and regulatory acts; compensate for damage caused; and, return Palestinian property or provide compensation if restitution is not possible.
Turning to the obligations of other states, the ICJ recommended that they should neither recognize the wall nor provide aid or assistance to maintain the circumstances created by its construction; prevent any impediment, created by the wall’s construction, to the exercise of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination; and, ensure Israel’s compliance with international humanitarian law. It called on the UN to consider what further action was needed to end the illegal situation caused by the wall’s construction.
The Threat of Disengagement: Can Israel Separate from the Palestinians?
What will happen if Israel carries out its plan to ‘disengage’ from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank? Will the disengagement plan advance a politically-negotiated solution to the conflict? Can Israel really separate from the Palestinians?
On 6 June 2004 the Israeli cabinet voted in favor of a modified plan for ‘disengagement’ from the Gaza Strip. The plan calls for the staged evacuation of 17 Jewish colonies in Gaza (4 in the West Bank) and the redeployment of Israeli military forces outside evacuated areas. The American administration hailed the plan as “historic and courageous”. The remaining members of the Quartet were more cautious in their response.
What exactly does disengagement mean? Ariel Sharon’s plan speaks neither about ‘redeployment’ (the term used to describe the relocation of Israeli forces under the Oslo agreements) nor ‘withdrawal’ as in south Lebanon. No where does the modified disengagement plan (the Israeli cabinet rejected the first draft) speak about ending Israel’s 37-year-old illegal military occupation. In short, the plan creates the illusion of political momentum while shifting the political discourse to conceal the reality that even if Israel eventually disengages from Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, the occupation will continue.
Refugee Rights and an Indigenous Agenda for the Promotion of Human Rights and Democracy
Refugee rights and refugee participation are key elements of an indigenous agenda for the promotion of human rights and democratic reforms in the Middle East. An inclusive process that addresses protection concerns and simultaneously works to create the conditions in which Palestinian refugees and internally displaced may freely choose to exercise their right to return and repossess their homes and properties can enhance respect for human rights in the region and pave the way for broad democratic reforms in the Arab world and Israel.
The greater Middle East
Recent U.S. plans to promote political reform and democratization in the Middle East are widely perceived in the Arab world as the second round of an offensive launched after 11 September 2001 to reshape the political landscape of the region. The "Greater Middle East Initiative", apparently inspired by UN Arab Human Development Reports, was tentatively scheduled to be discussed and endorsed by members of the G-8, the EU, and NATO in June 2004. The plan for political, judicial, economic and social reform of Arab states has been met with widespread criticism.