In order to talk about a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, we need to look at the roots of the problem and examining the basic causes of the conflict. The main conflict is between the Palestinian Arabs and the Israeli Jews. It is a conflict that started at the beginning of the 20th century, when Palestine was still part of the Ottoman Empire. The Zionist movement, which started in Europe at the dawn of the 20th century, attempted to solve the essentially internal problem of anti-Semitism in Europe by collecting the Jews from all over the world, especially where anti-Semitism was rampant, and placing them in a place that they could call their own and would be totally Jewish so they will not be faced with anti-Semitism again. Unfortunately, the place that they chose (after considering Argentina and Rhodesia) was Palestine. At that time the indigenous population of Palestine was predominantly Arab (Christian and Moslem), in other words, the land was neither empty, nor free. That Palestinian population as Prof. Maxime Rodinson points out, was native in every sense of that word and was arabized as a result of “the Arab Islamic conquest in the 7th century. The Palestinians today are the descendants of the Philistines, the Canaanites, and other early tribes”. They are the earliest and original inhabitants of the country and have lived continuously without interruption in their country since the dawn of history, where settlement in Palestine can be traced to at least 40 centuries. There were infusions of other racial elements of invaders into the country, the Romans, the Greeks, the Moslem Arabs and the Crusaders. But this Palestinian stock, which comprises both Christian and Moslem Arabs, continued to constitute the main elements of the population until the middle of the 20th century. The most the Jewish immigrants could do in 50 years was to buy around 6% of the land. While the Jewish population at the beginning of the 20th century made up less than 10% of the total population, they grew through legal and illegal immigration during the first half of the century to 30%.
In 1947 the Palestinian Arabs owned about 94% of the area of Palestine, whereas the Jews owned around 6%. However, in the UN resolution 181 (the Partition Plan), 57% of the area of Palestine was allotted to the Jewish state, and the remaining 43% to the Palestinian Arab state. In other words the Jewish state was given 10 times the area that was owned by the Jews. These are facts that are known, recorded and documented. In the 1948 war, the Jews occupied 78% of Palestine, i.e. they have taken a further 21% of the area allotted to them according to the partition plan mentioned above.
So this grave injustice is the main cause of the Palestinian Israeli conflict. The manner in which Palestine was divided between Arabs and Jews was extremely unfair and the injustice was further compounded by what ensued later of dispossession and expulsion of about 40% of the Arab population, and by the fact that the Palestinians were paying the price and literally punished for what the Nazis and Eastern Europe did to the Jews over the past century. It may be worth noting that at no time in history did the Palestinians persecute the Jews, but on the contrary, they lived in peace and harmony with them under the Ottoman rule for five centuries.
On June 5th 1967, Israel occupied the rest of Palestine (the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) along with other areas of Syria and Egypt. UN resolution 242 was supposed to finally resolve the conflict by asking Israel to withdraw from the territories it occupied. Israel made peace with Egypt in 1978 and withdrew from all the Egyptian territory it occupied. The problem with the Palestinians was, however, further complicated by the continued violations of the 4th Geneva Convention of 1949 by annexing East Jerusalem and vast areas around it and by expropriating large tracts of Arab land and settling a considerable number of Israelis on these lands. The lack of interest on the part of the international community to do something about the continued Israeli violations of international law and conventions, and its non-compliance with the UN resolutions regarding Palestine, gave rise to the “Intifada” of 1987 and eventually led to the Madrid conference and later to the Oslo Declaration of Principles. Unfortunately, the major issues have not been resolved and Israel continues to occupy the West Bank and Gaza, and the core of the conflict with the Palestinians remains unchanged. This is the most complex and longest drawn conflict in the 20th century and is already spilling into the 21st.
For peace to be lasting, it should not be imposed but rather should be agreed upon by the parties. It should handle all areas of contention, thus making it just and comprehensive. It should address all matters outstanding between all the countries in the ME.
Two major components need to be considered and agreed upon for a comprehensive and lasting peace: the psychological /ethical aspect, and the legal/technical aspect.
1. The Psychological/Ethical aspect:
i. Admission of wrongdoing committed by the Israelis against the Palestinians. These include:
1. Massacres – mass murders: In 1948 Israeli (Jewish) forces committed a series of massacres, the most notorious of which is the Massacre of Deir Yassin when some 200 men, women and children of the Arab village of Deir Yassin, west of Jerusalem were massacred and their bodies thrown in a well, and the Irgun (underground) group paraded with some of the captured women in the streets of Arab areas of Jerusalem with the intention of terrorizing the population of Jerusalem to leave or else meet the same fate. My family in Jerusalem was among the many who left in the aftermath of such massacre in spite of appeals to the contrary by the Palestinian Arab leadership.
2. Destruction of Villages: There are over 400 Arab villages that were destroyed by the Israeli army between 1948 – 1951 in the area that fell under Israeli control. The Palestinian Arab inhabitants of these villages were either expelled by the Israeli forces, or fled during these armed struggles and stayed in neighboring villages in the hope of returning back to their villages. The destruction was followed by subsequent building of the Israeli settlements on the land. The inhabitants (whether within or outside the boarders of Israel) were never allowed to return to their villages and the majority of their off springs still live in refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank and neighboring Arab countries.
3. Expulsion and Dispossession: Subsequent to May 15, 1948 the Arab Israeli forces expelled inhabitants of major Palestinian towns and villages. In the case of two large cities- Ramleh and Lydda – the Palestinian inhabitants of these cities were expelled by the Israeli army (lead by Yitzhak Rabin the late prime minister of Israel). They were forced to leave on foot with hardly any belongings. Whole families from infants to elderly under the scorching heat of the summer sun walked for days in the mountains until they reached the Ramallah district where they were taken care of by the International Red Cross. Many, especially children and old people died on the way.
It is in this fashion that all told about 750,000 people (around 40% of the Palestinian population) became refugees, some in the remaining areas of Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza) and the rest in the neighboring Arab countries- Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. These people and their offsprings number now (after 53 years) over 4 million people. It is the largest refugee population in the world today, and it remains for the longest period without solution. It is a human problem of enormous dimensions as these people for generations now have been left without citizenship, proper housing and living conditions. They have been dispossessed and stripped of their past and their roots.
ii. Apology for the Acts above: This means admission of wrongdoing and hence readiness to correct (whenever possible) the damage they have caused especially in terms of property. While this will not bring back the people killed, it will make the suffering of the survivors more bearable. But, most important, the recognition and admission of wrongdoing would mean that all such violations, especially the ones that are ongoing, would be completely stopped.
iii. Recognition of the right of ALL the people to live in peace and with justice. Such recognition will certainly bring security to all the parties involved.
2. Legal / Technical Aspects:
While ethical and psychological aspects are quite important, legal aspects are needed to put matters in the proper framework. The reference has to be international legitimacy and the relevant UN resolutions, the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the International Humanitarian Law. No comprehensive peace can be viable and lasting if these conventions and laws are violated. We will be looking into these points when considering the necessary ingredients for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East:
A. Respect of the Geneva Conventions of 1949: The Fourth Geneva Convention in particular deals with the protection of civilian population under occupation. Serious violations of the various articles of this convention have been committed by Israel in the past and continue to be committed until this moment. I list the major violations below just to indicate how difficult it will be to obtain some kind of peace, let alone a comprehensive one, when such violations continue to be committed.
é. Violence Against and Ill-treatment of the Civilian Population. These include summary executions by special under cover units and indiscriminate shooting with live ammunition by the Israeli army. It includes also excessive beating, physical harassments, delays and even obstruction and denial of access to medical treatment. (Articles 16, 20, 27, 31 & 32).
é. Collective Punishment. This includes imposition of curfews and sieges on entire villages and urban centers often for prolonged periods, blanket closure of schools and universities and the destruction of property. For the past several years East Jerusalem has been placed off limits to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza despite the City’s economic, social and religious importance to the Palestinian population. (Articles 33, 52, 53).
é. Arbitrary Detention. Israel, the occupying power, allowed for the arbitrary detention of any Palestinian civilian for up to a six months without trial and the detention orders can be extended indefinitely for additional six months periods. More than 600,000 Palestinian civilians have been arrested since the beginning of occupation in 1967. (Articles 71 & 72).
é. Deportation of Civilians. Israel has pursued a policy of deportations of Palestinian civilians from their homeland. Permanent expulsions totalled 2500. Deportees included professors, students, trade union leaders, doctors, journalists and even elected mayors. (Article 49).
é. Illegal Acquisition of Land. After the occupation of 1967 Israel immediately proceeded to take control of as much Palestinian land as possible. It applied complex measures for illegal land acquisition. The illegally acquired land could become “closed areas”, “security zones”‘ “green areas” or could be used for building settlements. More than 50% of the land of the occupied Palestinian territory is now under Israeli control and approximately 7% of the occupied territory including more than 1/3 of East Jerusalem, has been used for settlement building. (Articles 49 & 53).
é. Exploitation of Natural Resources. This involved both theft and exploitation of the natural resources of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), primarily land and water. Of the 600 million cubic meters of water produced annually in the West Bank, Israel draws 490 millions, while the Palestinians receive 110 millions. This resulted in severe water shortage and decline in agricultural output by Palestinian farmers, both because of loss of agricultural land and lack of water for irrigation. (Article 53). é. Transfer of Israeli Population to the OPT. Population transfers are explicitly forbidden under article 49 of the Convention, specifically to prevent colonization and annexation. However, Israel began to transfer part of its own population to the OPT including East Jerusalem with the onset of the occupation. To date, Israel has transferred more than 300,000 settles to the OPT including an estimated 180,000 who live in 9 settlements in the illegally expanded boundaries of East Jerusalem.
The transfer of population, coupled with the illegal acquisition of land, the abuse of natural resources and the establishment of a dual system of law, has created a clear situation of colonization in the OPT.
B. International Legitimacy: Israel derives its legitimacy from the UN
Resolution 181, which partitioned Palestine into and Arab and a Jewish state as mentioned earlier. On the basis of this resolution Israel was admitted to the UN as a full member. This very resolution also postulated the creation of a Palestinian state side by side with Israel. It is necessary to keep this in mind when agreeing on a resolution of the conflict. The Palestinians in the meantime have accepted the June 1967 borders of Israel and hence identifying the boarders of the Palestinian state within historic Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza). This is a major compromise and should be recognized as such, and not as succumbing to a fait a complies by Israel. UN resolutions 242 and 338 now serve as the basis for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East. That means that Israel should withdraw from all the territories it occupied in 1967 including East Jerusalem. The negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians should have concentrated on how to achieve the withdrawal of Israeli forces within the period of three years, using the remaining 2 years of the 5 years period to solve the outstanding problems. Surely, the most sticking issue is really not Jerusalem at this stage, but the settlements and settlers (both illegal). If the settlements stay, then there will not be a viable Palestinian state and hence no peace in the area. It could be envisaged that some settlers would be willing to stay as Palestinian citizens and comply with Palestinian law. However, this is unlikely. With good will and seriousness of purpose though, a solution could be found even for such a complex problem. This could involve evacuation of all internal settlements and keeping a number along the borders where proper exchange of territories could take place to accommodate the remaining settlers. This will also apply to the illegal settlers around East Jerusalem.
The clearest legal framework for a comprehensive peace could be drawn from General Assembly Resolution 3236 concerning the question of Palestine (November 22, 1974). I will give below the basic elements of this resolution: The General Assembly, Having considered the question of Palestine, Deeply concerned that no just solution for the problem of Palestine has yet been achieved and recognizing that the problem of Palestine continues to endanger international peace and security, Recognizing that the Palestinian people is entitled to self determination in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, Guided by the purposes and the principles of the Charter, Recalling its relevant resolutions which affirm the right of the Palestinian people to self determination,
1. Reaffirms the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people in Palestine including: i. the right to self determination without external interference; ii. the right to national independence and sovereignty;
2. Reaffirms also the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to return to their homes and property from which they have been displaced and uprooted, and calls for their return;
3. Emphasizes that full respect for and the realization of these inalienable rights of the Palestinian people are indispensable for the solution for the question of Palestine;
4. Recognizes that the Palestinian people is a principal party in the establishment of a just and durable peace in the Middle East;
5. Further recognizes the right of the Palestinian people to regain its rights by all means in accordance with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations;
6. Appeals to all states and international organizations to extend their support to the Palestinian people in their struggle to restore its rights, in accordance with the Charter.
The state of Palestine with the perimeters above, with East Jerusalem as its Capital, will be a major step towards achieving a comprehensive peace. It should be understood that the issue of Jerusalem needs special consideration. It should be open and accessible to all. Once that is agreed upon, then it follows that its final status will be a united city in terms of municipal and other services (with a joint council) and separate sovereignty for Israel in the western part and Palestine in the eastern part. It is envisaged that there will be open borders between the two states especially through Jerusalem. Thus Jerusalem will turn out to be truly the city of peace rather the city that is making peace impossible. There will be free entry from both states into Jerusalem. However, exit from Jerusalem into Palestine and Israel will be controlled by the border police of that country. In the long term, coexistence in Jerusalem should lead to open borders between the two states. If they do not become one secular state, then perhaps a confederation between the two states will result. It is indeed unfortunate that we will continue to lag behind Europe where already, all their colonies have been dismantled in the 20th century, and, after two major wars in that century, the warring parties are now in the same Union with free movement of people and goods across their borders.
Finally, we need to resolve the issue of the Palestine refugees. The legal framework for solving the problem is the UN resolution 194, which was reaffirmed many times including point two in Resolution 3236. The principle of the right of return of the refugees to their place of residence and compensation for those who choose not to return should be conceded by Israel. A special joint committee should then consider the possibilities and the technicalities. The matter should be handled compassionately and practically. In practice, Israel will have reservation on accepting the great majority of those wishing to return, and this will have to be taken into consideration. This may involve, among other solutions, asking Israel to cede some of (its) territory, which is vacant and adjacent to the Palestinian state, to accommodate some of the refugees. Without a decent solution to this human and legal problem, peace will be hard to achieve.
Within the above perimeters, a comprehensive peace is achievable. The solution of the Palestine problem in such a fashion will be a win-win situation for all parties. It is to be noted that Palestine will be the window of Israel to the Arab and Moslem World. With peace will come prosperity and security. Israel may wish to preserve its Jewish character, but it cannot be a purely Jewish state, as already it has a substantial Arab minority comprising close to 20% of its population. It will have to choose between being a democratic state, where all its population enjoy equal rights in all aspects, or being the only apartheid state in the 21st century.
All the above may be utopian, or wishful thinking. However, one thing is certain: violence and force cannot bring peace. Nor can we expect absolute justice. It is why we have to resort always to international legitimacy as our reference point. I am sure that eventually, an equitable solution along the lines above will have to be found. Our hope is that it will be sooner rather than later. A lot of agony and many lives will be saved this way.
1. Paper presented by the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the U.N. at the July 15, 1999 Conference of the High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Convention. www.Palestine-UN.org
2. Edward W. Said, “The Question of Palestine” Vintage Books, 1980
3. American Friends Service Committee, “A Compassionate Peace”, Will and Wang, New York, 1982
4. Henry Cattan, “Palestine, the Arabs and Israel”, Longmans, 1969