Source: Middle East Monitor

Palestinian academic, Salman Abu Sitta, has dismissed the US-Israeli 'land swap' proposal as a farce and camouflage for ethnic cleansing. 

In an exclusive interview with MEMO's Shazia Arshad, the veteran Palestinian academic, Salman Abu Sitta, has dismissed the US-Israeli 'land swap' proposal as a farce and camouflage for ethnic cleansing. The idea has no legal standing and the Palestinians in the West Bank would never allow such an agreement to take place.

Salman Abu Sitta said the 1947 UN partition plan never envisaged or proposed a racial or ethnic country, the type of which the Americans and Israelis are now advocating. The proposal of a Jewish state was based on the idea of a political structure
which would protect the right of the Palestinian inhabitants already living on the land to remain in their homes.

"When land swaps are discussed this historical perspective is usually ignored". They would, therefore, achieve two things: Israel would exchange lands it does not own and it would again commit acts of ethnic cleansing by supposed legal means.



Interview with Salman Abu Sitta

SA: How has the discourse about a land swap developed? How realistic is the idea of a land swap as part of a peace deal?

AB: The idea of land swaps is a farce and has no legal standing, given that in 1920 the League of Nations declared that Palestine was a mandate (Type-A) and therefore would be an independent country. It was Balfour's collusion with the Zionists which increased Jewish migration into the country so that the population went from 56,000 to 500,000 but the Jews only owned 5% of the land. America pushed the United Nations to vote for a resolution to partition Palestine which would give the Jewish immigrants 55% of the country and the Arab population just 45%. However, this was a "recommendation" and could only be implemented if both parties agreed to it, which the Arabs did not do. Had they done so, 675,000 Palestinians and their towns and villages would have been under the authority of the Zionist state at that time.

The partition plan never envisaged or proposed a racial or ethnic country–the proposal of a Jewish state was based around the idea of a political structure–which would protect the right of the Palestinian inhabitants already living on the land to remain in their homes. It was Ben Gurion's now well-known plan for ethnic cleansing to expel the Palestinians from the land that brought about the beginning of the changes to the territorial situation in Palestine. By pushing through the expulsion of Palestinians, Ben Gurion ensured that the nascent state would have as few Palestinian citizens as possible. The Zionists then went further than the partition plan and not only occupied the 55% they had been allocated by the UN but also annexed further lands leading to the occupation of 78% of historic Palestine, bound by the armistice line of 1949.

Although the armistice line is known incorrectly as the Green Line–it is not even a border–it was the lines drawn by the partition plan.

When land swaps are discussed this historical perspective is usually ignored, as is the fact that Israel occupies illegally in excess of 25% more land than it was allocated. Land swaps ignore the fact that the occupation is illegal and if the Israelis refer to the partition plan they should withdraw to those boundaries and allow the return of those Palestinians who were expelled in 1948. When the UN granted Israel membership, it did so under the premise that Israel would follow those conditions.

Hence, when land swaps are discussed it's a deception, as Israel does not own the land on either side of the armistice line. The exchange of land between two neighbours can only happen if they both legally own the land but this is not just about a "piece of land", it is also about ethnic cleansing. If land swaps are carried out this would mean the forcible transfer of Palestinians from within Israel and Israeli annexation of the illegal settlements from the West Bank. Land swaps would therefore achieve two things

  1. Israel would exchange lands it does not own.
  2. The Israelis would again commit an act of ethnic cleansing by apparently legal means.

SA: You referred to the Green Line and said that the lines between the territories are not borders, but as Netanyahu has rejected Obama's proposal to return to the June 1967 borders, how realistic are land swaps as a starting point if the idea of borders cannot be agreed?

AB: 1967 was the last phase of Israel's illegal occupation, but the main conflict, the actual expulsion of people, started in 1948 and unless they return to this point there will be no resolution to the conflict. Israel's increasing annexation of land has meant that every time a new piece of land has been annexed the conversation between the two parties refers to the new land; when the previous annexations are mentioned Israel claims that that land is now part of the state. This means that Israel gains some kind of dubious legitimacy for its previous occupations, despite the fact that none of these occupations are recognised in international law.

SA: If land swaps take place how will they effect the Palestinian community on the ground?

AB: I do not think that land swaps will ever happen as they are simply a camouflage for ethnic cleansing and the Palestinians in the West Bank would never allow land swaps to be agreed. Israel would never be able to exchange the land that it does not own.

SA: How does the discourse of ethnic cleansing present itself amongst Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories?

AB: The people who were expelled from the 600 towns and villages in what is now Israel have never been allowed to return and their properties have been taken over by the Israelis. The refugees will never be allowed to return because a return will have to be to the land and property where Israel now exists. When Palestinians agree to recognise the State of Israel they have given away 93% of their land and have forfeited their right to return.

But the right of return is an inalienable individual right and those Palestinians who were forced to leave will never forfeit their right to return.

Furthermore, if land swaps were enacted it would mean that the 1.5 million Palestinians living in Israel would sign away their right to live in their property and their homeland and agree to be moved somewhere else, but I don't think they would accept that. Those who have left will never give up their right to return and those who are there will not do so either.

SA: How are the younger generations reacting to the discourse that has developed and how do events such as the Nakba Day protests change the reality on the ground?

AB: I think that next year's Nakba march will be much larger and much better organised. The people who are organising these protests are in their twenties and are saying that want to return to their homes; they are saying that they have been deprived of their homes for 23,025 days. Next year will probably see a very large gathering with many world personalities and they will march peacefully to the armistice line to demonstrate to the world that ethnic cleansing is still happening and is still unacceptable.

SA: What would be the geographical effects of land swaps?

AB: From 1967 onward the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been occupied territories according to the United Nations, international law and the International Court of Justice. The answer to this is that the land should not remain occupied and the occupiers should leave and compensate the owners for damages and losses caused. However, this has not been done as Israel has had the backing of the United States; without that, Israel would have been forced by the international community to withdraw, just as they forced Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait. As they are the legally-defined official occupiers of the Palestinian territories the Israelis have no right to determine which bits of the land they do and do not want; by talking about borders, water, etc., they diffuse the real issue–the war crimes that Israel commits.

SA: What do you think might happen post-September (the possible date of a UN declaration of a Palestinian state)? Would the UN attempt to enforce some form of land swaps?

AB: Much of the world has always supported the Palestinian cause, but it is the western, colonial powers which do not. Though Europe is a different case to the US, it is still hypocritical when it comes to Palestine and has not supported the case for Palestine as much as it did, for example, other countries. However, the danger is that in September "we" could agree to a truncated Palestine, which would mean that once the state is created, the right of return will be dropped. This ignores the fact that the right of return is much more fundamental; it is an inalienable right and cannot be given up. The UN has no mandate to give away a country to a third party; the partition plan of 1947 was just a suggestion but Israel will continue to try to hold on to its thread of legitimacy by citing this plan. The colonial powers will try to persuade the Palestinian leaders to accept land swaps so the Palestinians must elect new leaders at the elections for the Palestinian National Council. These will be new leaders who will truly represent Palestinian interests and will not agree to anything but their basic rights. If the UN passes a resolution declaring statehood for Palestine this will then throw up the question of which Palestine and which Israel?

SA: What does the future have in store for Palestine, the Palestinians and the land?

AB: There can be no peace until there is justice and justice means that a human being should be allowed to live freely in his home. Israel is preventing Palestinians do that by applying apartheid, employing military power to impose its will against international law, and in the face of historical precedent. Countries which have developed smoothly have only done so by applying rules of justice; a country cannot survive by imposing its will by attacking their neighbours.