The ravages of two world wars in the twentieth century laid the foundation to a new world order in intent, if not in fact. It has been realized that war will only bring destruction and suffering to the victor and vanquished alike. The motivation to create a new order based on law and justice came from the major European powers which have been embroiled in wars on their own territories. Force alone, even if still effective, it is now acknowledged, is not sufficient to build peace and stability, hence prosperity, for the strong warring nations. Force must be accompanied by laws arrived at by consensus. To be generally attained, that consensus must be based on justice. For justice is the ultimate equalizer.
It is no accident that the European and nascent American powers chose to take this route, for it is they, after World War II, who stand to avoid future loss of life and property and who hope to gain from the prosperity coming with peace.
The upgrading of the League of Nations to a more forceful United Nations in 1945 is a step in this direction. The inclusion of more nations from Asia and Africa in the UN was aimed to gain universality of the sought-after consensus. For fear that numbers of the numerous weak nations may outweigh the few strong nations, the Security Council, with its veto powers for the few, was created to ensure the dominance of the powerful and the acquiescence of the weak.
The mid-twentieth century was a watershed. Nazi and Fascist governments have been crushed. Great strides have been made in eliminating slavery, racial discrimination and segregation of the races.
Millions of people broke free of the evils imposed by man on man. By the end of the twentieth century, South Africa, the bastion of Apartheid, shed its discriminating principles.
Again, by the mid-twentieth century, international organisations in health, education, science, labour and other fields have been formed under the banner of the UN to serve all humanity.
It was a great promise for the future of the world, all the world that is, except Palestine. While the enslaved people in the world are celebrating their freedom, the opposite was happening in Palestine. The national majority of the inhabitants of Palestine, who lived there from time immemorial and have never left it en masse, suddenly found themselves in 1948 the victims of the largest planned ethnic cleansing operation in modern history. The Palestinian society has been destroyed in its homeland; the inhabitants of 530 towns and main villages, representing 85% of the population of the land occupied by force in 1948 found themselves dispersed by expulsion, massacres and military assaults; their physical landscape destroyed, their culture and history erased, their identity and mere existence on their homeland denied.
Who did this? The latent settler European colonial movement which came from the very same European countries which now proclaimed the rule of law and justice. Soldiers, money, ideology and political clout have been extracted by Jewish Europeans from the old colonial powers and thrust themselves on a new part of Asia, while other European soldiers and colonial officers were leaving it.
It was an aberration of history. It was an anomaly in colonial history itself and a challenge to the very same elementary principles of justice for which the UN was created, not to speak of the geopolitical odds it had to overcome.
No wonder, therefore, that since Israel was created in 1948 on the soil of Palestine, wars never ceased, hundreds of thousands were killed, many more wounded and many millions in Palestine and neighbouring Arab countries became destitute. This is likely to continue unless and until the principles of justice, envisaged by the UN in 1945, are effectively applied.
Al Nakba (catastrophe, Palestinian holocaust) is a word, which entered the dictionary, like intifida (the uprising) and became ingrained in the Palestinian collective memory. Unlike other colonial settler movements, the Zionist colonial movement sought to eliminate the natives from their homeland, not by a gradual process of expansion, but by a predetermined and carefully executed plan.
As Nur Masalha explained, the plan for ethnic cleansing of the national majority of Palestine has always been an integral part of the Zionist settler movement. It has been discussed, debated, presented to European powers in one form or another, forcefully advocated by many Zionist leaders, rejected by few others, but it has always been on the Zionist agenda. Herztl, the spiritual father of a state for the Jews, suggested plainly “spiriting the natives across the borders”. The extremist Zionist leader, Vladimir Jabotinsky, who founded Revisionist Zionism, the forerunner of today’s Likud, advocated expelling the Arabs and building an ‘Iron Wall’ around the new Jewish state.
The Zionist leaders were fully aware of the consequences of their actions and have no illusions about the myth that Palestine was a land without people. Ben Gurion, with an eye to history, never willingly got himself on record advocating or ordering ethnic cleansing. He always gave orders through others or through implied instructions. Israeli historians have admitted in one way or another the basic tenet of ethnic cleansing which was carried out by implied consensus.
No Zionist leader has done more, in planning and carrying out systematic and sustained ethnic cleansing, than Joseph Weitz, director of the Jewish National Fund. Weitz addressed the first Transfer (i.e. ethnic cleansing) Committee in November 1937 outlining the plan,
The Transfer of Arab population from the area of the Jewish state does not serve only one aim–to diminish the Arab population. It also serves a second, less important, aim which is to evacuate land presently held and cultivated by the Arabs.
He then went on to describe the steps required to do that region by region. The ultimate aim is to make Palestine conform to the myth, ‘Palestine is a land without people’. Weitz got his full chance to do that in 1948/1949. As early as Jan 1948, Weitz embarked on a plan to plant 1,500,000 Jewish settlers on the land soon to be evacuated by the Arabs. He stated openly, ‘No Arab village, Arab tribe shall remain’.
The highly trained Haganah soldiers outnumbering the Palestinians (65,000 to 2,500) swept through Palestine early April 1948 in accordance with Plan Dalet designed to destroy the Palestinian society and seize its land and property. Ben Gurion, by now in no need for diplomacy or double-talk, plainly stated when asked how Jews would get more land,
The war will give us the land. The concept of ours and not ours are peace concepts only and in war they lose their whole meaning.
Weitz got to work. He directed Haganah to follow an attack plan which gives priority to Arab lands coveted by the JNF. He started a campaign to destroy the depopulated villages. He established committees to record the plundered property and assets. New immigrants, not used to agriculture, were huddled in Arab villages, not destroyed yet, to establish their possession of property. The Palestinian farmers who ventured to return to their villages after their expulsion, in order to rescue an elderly relative who remained behind, water the remaining cattle and plants or to retrieve some valuables or papers from their homes, were shot on the spot as infiltrators who endangered the security of the nascent state.
By the middle of 1949, the part of Palestine that became Israel (78%) has been practically emptied of its population, its landscape destroyed and its name erased. All that was in implementation of the largest planned ethnic cleansing operation in modern history. Human Rights lay dead among the ruins.
The Anatomy of Dispossession
Balfour Declaration was the last manifestation of European imperialism. In an unholy alliance between the British colonial power and the Zionist movement, Palestine was promised by Britain which does not own the country, to the Jews who do not have the title to it, without the knowledge or consent of the rightful owners, the national majority of the country.
The British Mandate government facilitated the establishment of the Jewish state within the first decade of its tenure. In this early period, the Jewish immigrants had a quasi-government (the Jewish Agency), a military-type army (the Haganah), a separate education system, an officially-recognized Hebrew language, a water resources company, a power generation company and a separate labour syndicate (Histadrut), a set of land laws partial to the Jewish settlement on the land and many other manifestation of a separate state. All Ben Gurion had to do was to announce the state in 1948.
The British bias in favour of the Jews resulted in an increase of the Jewish population from 56,000 in 1920 (9% of the population) to 600,000 in 1948 (30%). With natural increase, the Jews would not have increased to more than 85,000 by 1948, thus over 500,000 entered the country legally and illegally under the auspices of the British Mandate policy.
The Jews did not fare so well in the matter of land possession. In spite of favourable laws for close [Jewish] settlement of the land and purchases of large tracts of land from absent landowners paid generously by Jewish funds, the total land in recognized Jewish possession, at the end of the British Mandate and creation of Israel, did not exceed 1,500,000 donum (donum = 1000 m2) or 5.5% of Palestine.
Thus, there were over half million mobilized Jewish immigrants camped in 5.5% of Palestine ready to bounce on the national majority, three times as much, who were living in the rest of the country. That was the setting of the scene preceding the UN Partition Plan, designed to give legality both to Jewish state and the transfer of Arab land to Jewish sovereignty.
The Partition Plan, rammed through the UN by the threats and promises of the US, when Britain abandoned its obligation under the Mandate, paints the last picture of European imperialism. Here is a country divided without the consent of its people by the newly-formed UN, through the still pervasive influence of colonial powers.
The Partition Plan was a mockery of justice. Palestine was a country as Arab as Syria or Egypt found itself under the gaze of a foreign delegation sent to partition the country between the inhabitants of the country and the new Jewish immigrants imported under the umbrella of the British imperial power.
To its dismay, the delegation found the country had 1,111 Palestinian villages and 172 small Jewish settlements, more like farms. The delegation returned to the United Nations and proposed the partition of the country to Jewish and Palestinian states. After little modification and lots of threats and coercion, Resolution-181 of 29 November 1947 was barely passed. It dismembered the country instead of creating new life in it.
The Jewish state was allocated 55.6% of Palestine, although the Jewish settlements never possessed, not to say owned, more than 5.5% of the country. Half of the inhabitants in the would-be Jewish state were Palestinians who suddenly found themselves under foreign domination. They lived in 470 towns and villages while the new Jewish masters lived in 159 small Jewish settlements.
The Palestinians were allocated 43.7% of Palestine for their state. They lived in 622 towns and villages. There was a tiny majority of Jews (about 9,000) living in 12 settlements within the boundaries of the state.
This leaves 0.7% of Palestine for greater Jerusalem, in addition to 18 Palestinian villages and one Jewish settlement, which was to be corpus separatum.
Neither the UN Partition Resolution, nor any principle of international law, which affirms the principle of self-determination, gives the UN, or any colonial power, the mandate to grant a territory to a foreign party without the consent of the natural inhabitants of the country. That consent was not sought or given. On the contrary, the self-imposed undertaking of the colonial powers at the end of WW1 have been violated. In 1919, Palestine was placed under Mandate A, which recognizes the people’s right to independence. The Mandate government function was to build institutions and prepare the people for self-government. Instead, the British government allowed foreign immigrants to build their institutions while stifling the people’s right to do the same. When the immigrant community became strong enough, Britain abandoned the whole enterprise. Hence the Partition Plan.
The Zionists seized the opportunity upon the imminent departure of the British and invaded the rest of Palestine in April 1948. Their forces over-ran and depopulated 213 villages and expelled half the refugees in 1948 War while Palestine was still under the protection of the British Mandate government and before any Arab soldier could set foot on Palestine soil to rescue the remaining population.
In the following 6 months after the end of the Mandate and the declaration of the state of Israel, the Zionist forces swept over Palestine and depopulated a total of 530 primary towns and villages and 662 hamlets. About 900,000 Palestinians became refugees. They and their descendants are still refugees today. Instead of the allocated 55.6% of Palestine, the Zionists, now called Israelis, occupied by force of arms 78% of Palestine.
Contrary to the Israeli myths, the refugee did not leave voluntarily. By examination of the exodus of each village, studies have shown that 89% of villages were depopulated because of a variety of Israeli military actions: expulsion, assault or village occupation, 10% due to psychological warfare (the whispering campaign). Only 1% of villages left on their own volition.
The part of Palestine that became Israel has been emptied of its population, save for 15% who remained under brutal military rule for 16 years, effectively as war prisoners. The state of Israel was declared on a land of which it possessed only 8% during the British Mandate, the remaining 92% is Palestinian. The movable and immovable property of the Palestinians was confiscated under a series of pseudo-legal regulations and laws. This huge conquered real estate was made available to imported Jewish immigrants while the lawful owners of the land are denied the right to return. It was indeed the largest planned and fully executed ethnic cleansing operation in modern history. Neither the victor enjoyed his pillage, nor the vanquished resigned to his loss.
None of these colonial schemes taken against the native population of Palestine in the twentieth century is legal or conforming to the generally accepted norms of international law. The preceding historical narrative was intended to illustrate this unique state of affairs.
While most human rights violations in Palestine are generally but not adequately known, the Right of Return remains the most important human right yet to be implemented.
In the summer of 1948, Bernadotte, the UN Mediator for Palestine, asked the UN to affirm the Right of Return of Palestinians to their homes. His last Report embodied a recommendation, his last political will, that became the core of the famous UN Resolution-194, passed on the General Assembly on 11 December 1948. Paragraph 11 states,
Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be for the property of those choosing not to return and for the loss of or damage to property, which under principles of international law or in equity, shall be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.
Resolution-194 also created the mechanism for implementing it; that is the Conciliation Commission for Palestine (CCP) which is required to facilitate the repatriation of the refugees wishing to return and resettlement of those who do not, and for both the economic and social rehabilitation of [all] the refugees. In addition, CCP is entrusted with the process of the payment of compensation. Until the refugees settle down in their homes, and elsewhere for the minority who do not wish to return, Resolution-194 calls for providing assistance to refugees–food, education and health until they are fully rehabilitated.
It was a comprehensive and carefully constructed resolution. It is the cornerstone of the Palestine/Israeli conflict. No wonder that the UN affirmed Resolution-194 about 130 times since it was passed in 1948. Thus many jurists maintain that this affirmation, which represents the sustained and universal will of the international community, elevates this resolution from a mere recommendation to an obligation.
The Position of the Civil Society
The last decade witnessed greater awareness in the world of the importance of upholding human rights in every aspect of life and in every country of the world. Thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) mushroomed everywhere. Upholding justice, abolishing racist policies and improving the quality of life no longer remained subject to the will of states and governments. The people of the world has a say in it as well. Durban Conference in September 2001 was a perfect demonstration of the power of ordinary people. Such force has been greatly augmented by efficient communications, particularly through the internet. News travel fast, censorship on news becomes less effective, meetings and demonstrations can be arranged through the internet, thousands of petitions and letters could be sent in a matter of hours supporting a cause or opposing an action.
The Right of Return for the Palestinians was a primary beneficiary of these developments. The black-out on the news of the Palestinians suffering, for fear of anti-Semitism accusation or because of writers’ racial prejudices or ignorance, has been penetrated successfully, albeit by interested special groups.
Human rights organizations regularly assail Israel’s racist policies. Organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Red Cross, Centre for Economic and Social Rights and others defending the rights of children, women and prisoners, protecting civilians from collective punishment, house demolition, starvation and closures, or upholding the principles of law, all have the moral power to speak on and to expose violations of human rights and to defend the victims of these violations.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has long defended the right of refugees and exiles to return to their homes. It has upheld this right both when international borders were settled–Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Malawi, Burma, Mauritania–and when they were in dispute–Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, East Timor, Ethiopia/Eritrea. Human Rights Watch similarly urges that this right be recognized for all displaced people in the Middle East, regardless of religion or nationality. HRW takes the position that, in the case of the expected Middle East peace agreement, the agreement should recognize this right for Palestinian refugees and exiles from territory located in what is now Israel. The Apartheid regime in Israel against the Palestinians is criticized even by some Israelis.
With such massive legal, historical and world-wide body of support for the Right of Return, how come it has not been implemented yet? Why has it taken place in Bosnia, Kosova, East Timor, Guatemala, Rwanda but not in Palestine?
First and foremost, the US Administration gives Israel all possible support to enable it to defy international law and remain outside the reach of justice. The US supplies Israel with the latest, most fatal modern war machinery equipped with the most advanced high technology (hardly necessary in the face of refugees in camps). The US provided Israel with over $130 billion since its creation on the soil of Palestine, part of which was used to finance the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The US granted Israel many trade and science concessions, including joint programs in Weapons of Mass Destruction. The US protected Israel from international condemnation for its continued violation of Human Rights, by casting 3 dozen vetoes against the Security Council decisions. The US appears to lack independent will when it comes to Israel. The US decisions are neither dictated by international law, nor necessarily by the national interest of the American people, but by the strong Jewish lobby which has an immeasurable hold on the Congress.
Nevertheless, the conscience of the world has gathered momentum of its own. Although many people have their own particular grievances, most agree on common principles of elementary justice. For the basic freedom of human beings, the well-being of the earth, our common home and the clean environment in which we live, are all common objectives of mankind.
True, Apartheid, racist policies, occupation and oppression of powerless people still exist. But it is often exposed, criticized, demonstrated against and possibly condemned in some free parliaments.
In this regard, the power of the media should not be underestimated. The media is still on the side of the powerful. It joins the war of oppressors by spreading truncated facts and demonising their enemy. It uses a language of its own, which appears to the average person a factual and neutral description of events. But it in fact recruits the uninitiated to its camp. The opposite view is rarely given a chance to express itself in a similar environment. The result is a trial in absentia of the unsuspecting victim by the judge and adversary who are one. The persistent and brutal violation by Israel of human rights, and of every article in UDHR, as one NGO eloquently listed, is a case in point.
For over 55 years, Israel broke every rule in the book, defied almost every UN resolution. Yet it remains unscathed. It has not been subject to any physical sanctions. It has been protected by the US in all spheres. Israel therefore has no compelling reason to change its ways. As the previous sections describe, the UN and its committees have repeatedly condemned Israel’s violation of international law. So did most human rights NGOs around the world.
In spite of their suffering, the Palestinians remain steadfast in their struggle for their human rights. In spite of unimaginable odds, none has raised the white flag to surrender.
Here we have a stalemate. Israel and the US power on one side. The international law, the world’s conscience and the Palestinians on the other.
Where do we go from here? Conceivably, Israel backed by US can continue to occupy land, oppress people, demolish homes, uproot trees and besiege towns, probably for another ten, maybe twenty years.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians grow in number and the fourth generation of refugees will start a new kind of struggle, just as the third generation ignited the intifada, the second formed the fedayeen and the first endured al Nakba.
The Palestinians today are about half the entire population in historic Palestine, now under Israeli control. How long can Israel continue to oppress them? Take the case of the refugees who are denied the right to return home. Half of them are within 40 km from their homes, a mere bus ride. Ninety seven percent of refugees are within 100 km of their homes, according to UN records. How could it be possible to deny them access to their homes? And for how long?
Jewish immigrants are imported from their homelands thousands of miles away to prevent the return of the refugees. Yet, the refugees’ land is still effectively empty, save for the kibbutz population (2% of Israelis) and for a dozen repopulated Palestinian cities. Many myths have been created by Israelis. Such myths cannot stand the scrutiny of a serious study.
Very few Israelis saw the light. Meron Benvenisti and Haim Hanegbi wrote two separate but simultaneous articles in Ha’aretz recently in which they declared, in effect, the demise of the Zionist project and the notion of the Jewish character of the state.
Still much blood, mostly Palestinian, will be spilt before the majority of Israelis see this light. It could take a sudden major shock or a gradual and painful process of attrition for the Israelis to realize the errors of their ways.
In either case, the Israelis are in a great need to shake themselves of their collective amnesia in which Palestinians, their dispossession, their agony and their human rights are erased.
Jewish history from now on will not be shaped, as it did before, by the fate of Jesus Christ according to the Bible or by the atrocities in Europe by Europeans. It will, generations from now, be tainted by their persistent, careful and meticulous destruction of the Palestinian society.
The only sane solution after over half a century of wars and Palestinian suffering is to uphold international law. Respecting Human Rights is the only way to a life of stability and prosperity in the Middle East. As history teaches us repeatedly, those who live by the sword die by the sword. No regime however strong can maintain its hold on peoples’ lives by the sword forever. Human Rights, principles of justice and decent values of humanity must be applied. Foremost among these rights is the Right of Return of Palestinians to their homes, the most humane and basic right of any man.