YASSINE: The Palestinians have rights too December 22, 2010

by Abdel-Qader Yassine  -  Al-Ahram Weekly Online -  16-22 December 2010

If there is one thing a Palestinian cannot understand, or if he can understand cannot forgive, it is the apathy and hypocrisy with which governments in the “Free World”, especially the United States, react towards issues of right and wrong in the Palestinian- Israeli conflict.

Indeed, questions of morals and of justice seem to have no relevance, and policy appears in most cases to be determined solely by considerations of what one party only to the conflict might agree to, or at least not protest about.

Ninety-three years ago, Lord Arthur James Balfour, British foreign secretary, signed a document which has bedevilled the peoples of the Middle East ever since. Although I do not propose to discuss this document at length here, in any serious debate on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict the Balfour Declaration can hardly be avoided given its place in the mythology of all the peoples involved in the conflict.

The Balfour Declaration was the product of an imperialist era, and its primary aim was to serve the interests of the then British Empire. This is made clear in British Cabinet discussions of the time.

There was, of course, also genuine sympathy and support for the Zionist case of restoring Palestine to its “historic owners” — in other words, handing it over to the Jews, as represented by the Zionist movement, even though their historic claims had lain fallow for 2,000 years, the Jewish community that had stayed in Palestine since that time was either opposed to or disregarded the European Zionist movement, and the land at the time Balfour made his Declaration was overwhelmingly populated by a people whose historic claims were at least as great as those of the Zionists.

The Balfour Declaration, promising Britain’s support in the establishment of a “national home for the Jews” in Palestine, was an ambiguous document, as were most of the promises the British also made to the Arabs at the time. However, the Churchill Memorandum that followed it five years later was more specific. In this document, clarifying British policy in the Middle East, the Balfour Declaration was upheld but unmistakably reinterpreted.

To quote professor Maxime Rodinson from his book Israel and the Arabs, “what was to be the nature of the promised Jewish national home? Not, as some had been led to believe, that Palestine should be as Jewish as England is English, and as France is French. The intention had simply been ‘the further development of the existing Jewish community with the assistance of Jews in other parts of the world in order that it may become a centre in which the Jewish people as a whole may take, on grounds of religion and race, an interest and pride.’”

“Immigration would be limited according to the economic capability of the country at the time to absorb new arrivals. There was no intention to bring about the disappearance or the subordination of the Arab population, language or culture in Palestine.”

The Churchill Memorandum was issued at a time when Britain was preparing for the League of Nations meeting which would give its approval to the British mandate over Palestine. The British made it clear to the Zionist organisations that they would have to approve this rewording if they wanted Britain’s mandate to be given sanction by the League. And the Zionists did approve it, thus, again quoting Rodinson, “officially repudiating the project for a Jewish state,” though still hoping that this could be brought about by force of circumstances.

What has since happened to the Arab population, language and culture in Palestine is a matter of record. I do not propose to go into this in detail, because it has already been well documented for those who have the curiosity to seek out the truth and the integrity to accept it when they find it. It is enough to say that the Palestine of 1948 has disappeared from the map, with whole villages being bulldozed to make way for Israeli settlements.

A key provision of United Nations Resolution 181 of 29 November, 1947, recommending the partition of Palestine, was that the rights of all those living in Palestine should be honoured. Israel uses this Resolution as the international legal basis for its creation, yet it has ignored every subsequent Resolution passed by the United Nations calling for the return of Palestinians displaced by the 1948 War and the restitution of their property.

The whole issue of the Palestinian Diaspora also raises fundamental, moral, philosophical, social and political questions. Is the right to self-determination universal, or is it to be applied in some cases and withheld in others? In other words, do the Palestinians have the same rights as the black Africans of South Africa, or do they not?

I have always found it strange to encounter rational, logical people who will uphold the right of indigenous peoples around the world to self- determination, but who are less certain of their ground when it comes to the Palestinians. The whole history of the Middle East in the past century has largely consisted of attempts by outsiders to enforce on the Palestinians a destiny not of their own choosing.

In 2010, the problem is to reconcile historical rights and wrongs with present-day realities. If we are to accept the most-recent statements of Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, there will be no Israeli acceptance of a sovereign and independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or recognition of the inalienable rights of 10 million Palestinians.

The simple fact, which no amount of political smart-talking is likely to obscure, is that the Arab- Israeli conflict is about the Palestinians. They are the primary (and some would say the only) party that should be involved in the search for a just and durable solution of the 92-year-old Palestinian- Israeli conflict.

The Palestinians have one of the highest levels of education in the Middle East. They do not feel the need for guardians or custodians. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) is their sole legitimate representative.

Since the Oslo Agreement in September 1993, there has been growing awareness within Israel that Palestinian rights have to be satisfied in some way, but the present Israeli government is saying to the Palestinians that this is your problem, solve it as best you can, but we do not accept responsibility for what has happened over the past 62 years.

According to the Oslo Agreement, Israel and the PLO agreed to solve the conflict according to UN Security Council Resolution 242. But this Resolution has no special sanctity, either legal or moral. There were 241 resolutions preceding it, and hundreds have followed it since 1967. Constant reference to this Resolution, adopted by the Security Council at a time when it had no Arab member, does not add to its substance.

Instead, it should be interpreted in the context of the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which speak of the right of peoples to self-determination and to fundamental freedoms, and of the many Resolutions adopted by the UN General Assembly that speak of the “inalienable rights of the Palestinian people.”

What irks most is that there is not one single mention in Resolution 242 of Palestine or Palestinians. There is merely an oblique reference, when the Resolution “affirms… the necessity for achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem.” How can Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas acquiesce in that without betraying himself and his people?

Resolution 242 calls for the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” There has been a great deal of argument as to what this means. Does it mean all the territories occupied, or only some of them? The Israelis, naturally, favour the latter interpretation. They speak about a “vulnerable” Israel with a narrow territorial waist that is difficult to defend militarily, and they say they are entitled to “defensible” borders. This, of course, can only mean one thing to Israel’s neighbours: further Israeli aggrandizement.

Resolution 242 speaks of “respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every state in the area.” In other words, respect for the sovereignty of Jordan, not for a Palestinian state. The Palestinians do not (and will not) accept this, and they insist on the recognition of a Palestinian state. There is no justification in law or in morals for not conceding this claim.

According to the New York Times recently, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton spent reportedly nearly seven hours with Netanyahu, trying to persuade him to accept one of the most generous bribes ever bestowed by the United States on any foreign power. The bribe, if accepted, was to include the sale of $3 billion worth of US military aircraft (in addition to the billions given to Israel annually by the US in aid), a blanket veto of any UN Security Council resolution deemed unfavourable to Israel, and the removal of East Jerusalem from any settlement freeze, thus condoning the illegal occupation of the city and the ongoing ethnic cleansing.

Acknowledging from the onset that these were merely “midterm maneuvers”, the New York Times asked: “Can Obama succeed where so many others have not?”

Mahmoud Abbas, whose mandate has already expired, had hoped that the advent of Obama as president of the United States would spare him and his Authority further embarrassment. Imagining that the US president would side with his “moderate” position, he placed all his eggs in the US basket. He went as far as to halt an international investigation into Israeli crimes in the recent Israeli war on Gaza, so as not to frustrate Netanyahu’s government or upset pro-Israeli sensibilities in the US Congress.

All the indications are that the Israelis do not genuinely want to negotiate with anybody about anything to do with Palestinian rights. Instead, they want to continue with their colonisation policy, and they are not likely by peaceful means to give up any significant part of what they now hold.

The word “irreversible” is often used by Netanyahu and Israeli minister of foreign affairs Avigdor Lieberman to describe the present state of affairs. The maximum that Israel is likely to concede under this scenario is a South African kind of Bantustan, in which the Palestinians would be allowed control of minor domestic matters.

It would be entirely inappropriate to finish on a note of optimism. The present situation gives no reason for optimism. The only hope for the future is dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, but recent statements from Netanyahu make it clear that there is no chance of this in the foreseeable future.

Something tragic and evil has happened to the Palestinians. Without exception they are either in exile, in a refugee camp, or under Israeli military occupation. For the Palestinians, the clock of human progress has been turned back.

People of conscience and good will must ask what possible justification there can be for this. If some Palestinians, after 62 years in the Diaspora of despair, resort in self-defence and in pursuit of their rights to what some describe as terrorism, shouldn’t part of the blame fall on those who sit on the fence and blithely ignore the Palestinians’ cry for justice?

For the first time since its establishment, Israel now has a chance to achieve a settlement in the Middle East and to establish a just and durable peace and lasting security. This is a matter in which the US and the European Union, as well as the world as a whole, have direct and legitimate interests.

Honesty and courage are precisely what are needed to put an end to the 93-year-old conflict, and the Palestinians are correct to hope that there will be enough of these qualities in evidence.

Only these things can rectify the injustice and alleviate the misery suffered by the Palestinians over the past 62 years and restore their faith in humanity. In the meantime, the Israelis should not expect justice from those who have never known it, or expect respect for international law from those excluded by it.

* The author is a Palestinian writer and social scientist living in Sweden.

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