The ghostly green line

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To truly understand the nature of the “green line” in contemporary political and legal discourse, one must first indulge in a bit of historical memory.

In 1949, the state of Israel was admitted to the United Nations under the condition that it accept United Nations resolutions 181 and 194. Resolution 181, the United Nations Partition Plan, had in 1947 allotted a newly-created Jewish state with 57 percent of the land (although Jews were then only 33 percent of the Palestine population). When the Arab states opposed the partition of land they saw as solely their own, the 1948 War commenced.

The aftermath of that war found the Zionist militia in control of an expanded 77 percent of the land, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees displaced from their homes. The remaining 23 percent of mandatory Palestine was under Egyptian and Jordanian control. These armistice lines are what we refer to today as the “green line.” Nowhere are these borders codified into international law as border lines (“blue lines”); the Rhodes agreements of 1949 set them as the ceasefire lines between Israel and the Arab states.

Even so, the “green line” has become the major demarcation used in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Acceptance of this terminology has had immense political ramifications for the Palestinian cause, the most important being that it destroyed the international legal framework of the Partition Plan and established Palestinian acceptance for boundaries created through belligerent acts. International law does not allow the acquisition of land by force, a principle repeated in numerous UN resolutions concerning the Palestinian problem.

Examine, for instance, the peace agreements between Israel and other Arab states. Agreements between Egypt and Israel in 1979, and Jordan and Israel in 1994, were both based on “blue lines,” the boundaries between historical Mandate Palestine and the relevant Arab neighbor. Even Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 was realized largely on the basis of the United Nations’ report on UN Security Council Resolution 425, which was also based on “blue” international borders.

Comparably, the 1993 Oslo agreements called for a staged Israeli withdrawal from population centers in the lands occupied in 1967, which are demarcated by a “green line.” There is only one document in international law that sets out “blue lines” for Jewish and Palestinian states, and that is Resolution 181, which has been rendered useless by the subsuming of those lines to the “green lines” of 1967. It is not hard to understand that, having accepted a flexible “green line,” Palestinians are now expected to have no problem with further modifications to the “green line” itself.

The official Palestinian position, as written by the Palestine Liberation Organization, begins by accepting the “historic compromise” of a state on 22 percent of mandatory Palestine, i.e. the “green line.” This position is not supported by international law, the relevant UN resolutions, or common sense. Further, making these kinds of compromises before negotiations begin is not in the interest of any party bargaining on behalf of its people.

Yes, negotiations have maintained the semblance of a relationship to international law. The 1993 Declaration of Principles includes vague references to UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, a fact used to bolster the DOP’s weak standing. Both of these resolutions, however, state only that the acquisition of territory by force is unacceptable and that states have the right to exist within secure and recognized borders. Palestinians should never have accepted that this first principle applies only to the borders of June 5, 1967. (Nor does the second point help us, as Palestinians have never had a state of their own.) The acquisition of land by force is unacceptable under the principles of international law, whenever it occurs. Over the last few years, we have been tasting the fruits of this poisonous tree deeply rooted in the Oslo accords.

The consequences of these official Palestinian positions are manifest. They include a complete refusal by Israel to accept the idea of June 5, 1967 borders (they are only “green lines,” after all). Israel also refuses to acknowledge the principles of UN Resolution 194, which establishes the right of return or compensation for Palestinian refugees (and is notably one of the resolutions that Israel was required to accept before joining the United Nations). Because its companion, Resolution 181, has been vacated of all meaning, the truly vital issues pertaining to the Palestinian cause have now been left to the principle of de facto changes transformed into de jure legitimacies. One need only examine the course of history over the last 50 years to see that this de facto rule governs the Israeli understanding of refugees, settlements and Palestinian statehood.

Outside the context of international law, negotiators have been left to broker a deal based on force and belligerent activity. The “green line” is invisible, undocumented and completely unfounded in international law. As such, using it as a reference point is in Israel’s favor because it sets a precedent of substituting principles of international law with agreements signed under duress. Even worse, it leads to a situation where one is torn between demanding full implementation of United Nations resolutions to the letter or the total abandonment of these resolutions. If these are our choices, they can only lead to hostilities now and in the future.

Having arrived at this difficult point, it seems time to remember that United Nations resolutions and principles of international law were established to remedy issues of conflict. These principles continue to hold remedies for resolving the wrong that has been done Palestinians over the years, remedies that do not lead to disregarding the realities of the current situation. Based on these principles, one can find solutions for the agony and misery of Palestinian refugees, solve issues related to Jerusalem and crack the problem of the settlements. The key is to remedy wrongs done, not legitimize them.

If one looks at the experience of South Africa, problems of no less scope had to be remedied after the dissolution of the apartheid system. These remedies neither forced the original African landowners to accept the hundreds of years of wrong done to them, nor led to the demolition or displacement of the white colonial presence or economy. This embodies the legal principle of “restitution”, the idea that one can never turn back the clock to undo a wrong, but one can claim responsibility for that wrong and offer restitution to make it right.-

Ihab Abu Ghosh is an attorney and former director of the Jerusalem Legal Aid Center.

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