Geneva Accord - PA Selling Out Palestinian Rights?

The Palestinian Authority has given its blessing to a “symbolic peace treaty” reached in Switzerland between mid-level Palestinian officials and Israeli opposition leaders. In the so-called “Geneva Accord,” the negotiators outline what they see as the necessary compromises for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Parties

The Palestinian team is comprised of several former Palestinian Authority (PA) ministers, current legislators, and leaders from the ruling Fatah Party. They include Yasir Abed Rabbo, former Minister of Information, Hisham Abdel Razeq, former Minister for Prisoner Affairs, Nabil Kassis, former Minster of Planning, and officials from the Fatah-affiliated Tanzim organization. The talks were conducted with Yasser Arafat’s approval, if not direction.

The Israeli side includes former Minister of Justice Yossi Beilin, former Israeli Labor party leader Amram Mitzna, former Parliament speaker Avraham Burg, former chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Brigadier General Giora Inbar, writer Amos Oz, and several current and former Members of Knesset.

Terms of the Accord

The full details of the 50-page document have not been disclosed yet, and participants said they will make the document available only after it has been formally adopted in Geneva later this month. However, reports indicate that the terms are along the following lines:

Self-determination: The Palestinians would get some level of self-determination on 98% of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip (constituting a total of less than 22% of the Palestinian homeland). The demilitarized Palestinians are expected to have control only over municipality-type responsibilities, including disarming and arresting resistance fighters, preventing incitement and promoting “normalization” (including control over media, mosque sermons, and schoolbooks), and collecting garbage. Israel would retain control of airspace, laws, water aquifers, imports, exports, and foreign relations, while borders would be under international control.

Right of Return: Palestinian refugees would be allowed to resettle in the new Palestinian “state”, receive compensation (not from Israel, but the international community) to stay where they are, or re-settle in a third country, but could not return to the homes that they were driven out of when the Israeli state was formed. Citizenship options would include Great Britain, Germany, Japan, the U.S., Lebanon, or Jordan. Abdel Razeq offered the empty assurance that, “some could go to Israel, but only if Israel agrees to take them in.”

Jerusalem: The Palestinian “state” would have sovereignty over the Alaqsa Mosque compound, except for some of its walls (including the Western wall), but an international force will ensure freedom of access for all faiths. The remaining Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem would fall mostly under Palestinian jurisdiction, while Jewish parts of the illegally annexed Greater Jerusalem would be part of Israel.

Jewish State: The PA would be required to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” - i.e. a state for the Jews that must retain its Jewish character, thus reaffirming again that there would be no right of return, and possibly even raising questions about the status of Arab-Israelis.

End of Conflict: All U.N. resolutions, previous agreements, and further claims will be null and void, and the parties will sign an “end of the conflict” statement. Both sides agree that the U.N. should adopt the document in full and pass a special resolution replacing and annulling all previous resolutions relating to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, including Resolution 194 concerning refugee rights. The settlement would be considered final and the Palestinians would never place further claims against Israel.

Needless to say, these terms are not only an unfair settlement, but a sell-out that is far from reflecting the Palestinian people’s aspirations that they have struggled so long to attain. An arrangement like this could only be made by a leadership that is more interested in its own survival than in serving the people it supposedly represents.

Is It Legal?

Such an agreement would be in violation of international laws because it violates the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, including the right of return, and because of the imbalance of power between the negotiating parties and use of coercion by the stronger party.

The right of return is protected by several international and human rights laws and resolutions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and United Nations Resolution 194. The UDHR affirms that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country” (Article 13). The ICCPR, passed by the U.N. General Assembly in 1966, states that “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country” (Resolution 2200). U.N. Resolution 194 resolves that “the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest possible date, and compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property”.

An agreement that undermines the human rights of the Palestinian people would violate international law, as clearly laid out by the Fourth Geneva Convention:

Article 7: “No special agreement shall adversely affect the situation of protected persons, as defined by the present Convention, nor restrict the rights which it confers upon them.”
Article 8: “Protected persons may in no circumstances renounce in part or in entirety the rights secured to them by the present Convention.”
Article 47: “Protected persons who are in occupied territory shall not be deprived, in any case or in any manner whatsoever, of the benefits of the present Convention by any change introduced, as the result of the occupation of a territory, into the institutions or government of the said territory, nor by any agreement concluded between the authorities of the occupied territories and the Occupying Power, nor by any annexation by the latter of the whole or part of the occupied territory.”

The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, adopted by the U.N. in 1969, states that “a treaty which has been procured by the coercion of its representative through acts or threats directed against him shall be without any legal effect” and that “a treaty is void if its conclusion has been procured by the threat or use of force in violation of the principles of international law.” Israel’s use of force against the entire Palestinian population during the past 3 years, as well as the Israeli cabinet’s decision to “eliminate” Arafat (by deportation or outright assassination), clearly make any resulting agreement invalid.

Another legal question is whether the PA is in fact the legal representative of all the Palestinian people, since the refugees were not involved in electing the PA, and have not authorized it to negotiate their rights.

The Palestinian Authority and the Right of Return

The PA has been trying to concede the right of return for quite a long while and has pursued this by trying to slowly soften the Palestinian public opinion towards it. Palestinian officials would make statements suggesting forgoing the right of return, and if the public’s opposition was too strong, the PA would distance itself from the statements, claiming that they only represented personal opinions of the individuals expressing them. After several repetitions of this same scenario, the concept becomes less shocking, making it easier for the PA to endorse.

Several politicians have played a key role in this scheme, most notably Sari Nusseibeh, the PA’s former representative in Jerusalem, and now Dean of Al-Quds University. In September 2002, Nusseibeh reached an “agreement” with Ami Ayalon, former head of the Israeli intelligence service, which concludes that “Palestinian refugees will return only to the State of Palestine.” Naturally, Nusseibeh’s positions were very well received in the U.S. and Israel, and he became widely quoted in the U.S. media, as well as being frequently invited to lecture. In fact, on Oct. 23, 2003 he and Ayalon will be speaking at the University of Washington in Seattle, undoubtedly to garner support for the “Ayalon-Nusseibeh Agreement” or the “Geneva Accord” (both amount to the same thing, and the first may have been a test balloon for the second).

Abed Rabbo has been involved for several years on working with Yossi Beilin to “resolve” the right of return issue, and had already indicated a willingness to forgo the right of return when he was the Minister of Information. In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot in November 2002, he said “the Palestinians will not insist on the implementation of the right of return for the refugees.”

Former Prime Minister Abu Mazen had also worked with Yossi Beilin, and formulated the Beilin-Abu Mazen Document in 1995, which suggested that refugees be “rehabilitated and resettled” in the Palestinian territories or other countries. The document also specified that this would be a “full and final settlement of the refugee issue in all its dimensions,” and that there would be no “additional claims or demands arising from this issue.”

Another accomplice in the efforts to relinquish refugee rights is none other than Nabil Shaath, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. As far back as 1991, Shaath participated in an American-sponsored “Framework for a Public Peace Process”[1] that, among other provisions, sought to “resettle Palestinian refugees and to provide them with opportunities to live as citizens in permanent residence in the State of Palestine or in agreement with Arab States where they live at present.” In July 1991, Shaath wrote to the organizers that he was “authorized by the Palestine Liberation Organization to endorse and support this document as a valuable basis for future dialogue in the search for peace.” Hanna Siniora, publisher of the Jerusalem Times, also participated in the forum and signed on to it.

Khalil Shikaki, of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, also gained popularity in the U.S. and Israel for his work. In February 2002, Shikaki participated in an Israeli conference on “Countering Suicide Terrorism,” and suggested that the way to reduce suicide bombings was to use harsher collective punishment against the Palestinian people:

“Let me give you just one more example of the importance of the cost-benefit calculations. Gaza, which used to be very supportive of violence, is much less so today. Why? Because of the cost-benefit calculations. Gazans depend on work in Israel much more than West Bankers and therefore are more likely to be affected by punitive measures by Israel. Therefore, there is less support for violence and suicide attacks in Gaza.”[2]

In July 2003, Shikaki claimed that his polls show that Palestinian refugees don’t actually want to go home! Shikaki’s poll gave Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories five options to choose from. The option of returning to their 1948 homes was presented as an unattractive scenario, with a limited annual quota being allowed to return, the requirement of Israeli citizenship (something most refugees would find emotionally unbearable), and receiving no compensation for their properties that were lost or destroyed (a stipulation that, aside from being illegal, is unattractive to poor refugees, especially since all other options included compensation). Given such conditions it is natural that most respondents would prefer to settle in the new Palestinian state, and Shikaki ran to the media with his “findings.” Infuriated refugees stormed into Shikaki’s office and threw eggs at him, indicating how out-of-synch his claims were with reality.

Selling the Deal

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators plan to sign the Geneva Accord in the Swiss city on November 4, 2003, the eighth anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. They have embarked on an aggressive campaign to market their ideas to their respective publics as well as the international community.

Both Egypt and Jordan have expressed support for the agreement, and Abed Rabbo is working on garnering further international support. Jordan, Egypt, Norway, Japan and Canada have agreed to send delegates to the ceremony, Britain and the European Union may, and the sponsors are hoping that the U.S., U.N., and Russia will join in. Ex-President Jimmy Carter will also be attending.

Beilin is interested in dispelling Sharon’s argument that “there is no peace partner” and the Palestinian negotiators want to convince their people that this miniscule victory - to show that the PA “is” a peace partner, is worth the tremendous concessions. Beilin is hoping for a clear endorsement of the accord by Arafat himself, and wishes to put the agreement to a “national referendum” in the next Israeli elections.

Abdel Razeq assures the Palestinian people that “No one can imagine that we can reach an agreement with the Israelis on any day that includes the right of return. It’s impossible.” He claims that “this accord is the best that the Palestinians have ever signed.”

Hanna Siniora falsely stated in a column that “the reaction of the Palestinian public is favorable” and encouraged the “peace camp” in Israel and Palestine to combine their efforts. He described the accord as a “positive step forward” and said that “The Geneva groups, the Nusseibeh-Ayalon group and the many other groups working for the end of the conflict should network together in order to bring about a majority for such trends in Israel and Palestine.” Editorials in Arab newspapers, including the Jordan Times and Gulf News also praised the accord.

Shimon Peres has embarked on a speaking tour in the U.S., talking about peace in the Middle East, and undoubtedly marketing the terms of the Geneva Accord. In a lecture in Portland last week, he was joined by Nabil Shaath, under the sponsorship of an organization that coordinates with the U.S. State Department. And just one week later, on October 23, Sari Nusseibeh and Ami Ayalon are scheduled to speake at the University of Washington in Seattle, undoubtedly to promote the accord.

Most recently, members of the Palestinian team have been invited to Washington DC for immediate meetings with Democratic members of Congress.

Israeli Reaction

As expected, Ariel Sharon’s government lashed out at the mere idea of such an accord, and Sharon called it “the greatest mistake since Oslo” (which he was also opposed to). Likud MK coalition whip Gideon Saar called the agreement “insane and ridiculous,” and expressed sorrow that prominent Israelis would lend a hand “to such a thing during wartime.” Israeli Tourism Minister Benny Elon, a leader of the extreme-right National Religious Party, condemned Beilin, calling him a collaborator.

According to the Jerusalem Post, “Not even dovish ministers in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s cabinet are expected to support the new privately formed peace plan.” The Labor party failed to embrace the plan, and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak attacked the document, stating that it allows both sides to veer away from the main tasks - “the need to fight terrorism” and to complete building a wall separating both peoples.

Shimon Peres said that the document has elements that make it a good basis for renewed talks between the sides. “If in fact the Palestinians renounced the right of return and will recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, there is nothing wrong with this and it can be the basis for negotiations,” he said, signaling that further Palestinian concessions may be required.

Palestinian Reaction

Abed Rabbo said that the accord had the PA’s approval, as well as that of Marwan Barghouti’s Tanzim. In fact, Arafat and Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei called Abed Rabbo at the conclusion of the talks to congratulate him. However, Palestinian organizations and individuals worldwide have strongly opposed and condemned the document, particularly relating to the right of return issue.

The Committee for the Defense of Palestinian Refugees Rights, an alliance of groups representing tens of thousands of refugees in the West Bank, said that no person or group has the right to make any concessions regarding refugee rights - a sentiment shared almost unanimously among Palestinians.

The Badil Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights warned in a statement that “talks between Palestinians and Israelis that ignore the rights of Palestinian refugees under international law and human rights conventions will not produce a durable solution to the issue. A future peace must be based on international law.” Badil asserted that refugees rights “have been enshrined in international law” and how individuals exercise this right will be a personal choice.

Tayseer Nasrallah, head of Palestinian Refugees’ Rights Committee, said that “The right of return is the heart of the Palestinian problem,” warning that “this accord is very dangerous. If it was ratified, the Palestinians would not be entitled to seek their usurped rights any more.”

The Palestinian Return Center (PRC) condemned Abed Rabbo’s role in the accord, and called for his removal from office. PRC’s statement said that “It is truly a monstrous disgrace that we should dishonor the pure blood that has been shed by our martyrs and wounded with compromises of the most sacred and inalienable rights of the Palestinian people.”

Abdallah Hourani, head of the PLO’s refugee department said that “Nobody has the right to give up [refugees] right to return to their homes, from which they were expelled at gunpoint” and warned that “the PLO would no longer be the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people if it chose to sacrifice the right of return.”

Khaled Al-Baatch, an Islamic Jihad leader, said that Palestinians from every stripe rejected the Geneva Accord and that the negotiating team “can only speak for themselves.”

In the Gaza Strip, Jamil Majdalawi, a leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), said that the accord “does not represent the views of the Palestinian people.” He pointed out that the right of return represented the central aspect of the Palestinian cause, and that “sacrificing that right meant killing the entire Palestinian cause.”

Abu Ali Mustafa, the PFLP leader assassinated in August 2002 under orders from Sharon, had previously pledged that the PFLP will insist on the PA to base its negotiating position on all relevant UN resolutions and safeguard the interests of the Palestinian people. When asked about the peace process in 1999, he said “I do not believe there is a peace process as long as over four million Palestinians in the diaspora are still denied the right to return to their homes.”

In Nablus, thousands of Palestinians marched on Friday to protest the accord, with chants including “Death to the traitors and collaborators.” A Hamas leader stated that “The Geneva Accord is a stab in the back of the Palestinian resistance and the ongoing intifada.”

In an Executive Council meeting with Arafat, most of the speakers criticized the understandings reached between Beilin and Abed Rabbo. And on Saturday, members of the Palestinian Legislative Council issued a statement condemning the Beilin-Abed Rabbo agreement as an attempt to scrap the refugees right to return. The statement called on the PA and Arafat to take a clear position against the accord.

Palestinian activists in the U.S. were equally outraged. Nader Abuljebain, co-founder of the Free Palestine Alliance, said “No one can negotiate my right to return to my father’s home in Jaffa - what the PA is doing now is betraying and robbing its own people of their rights.”

Mazin Qumsiyeh, a co-founder of Al-Awda, noted that these concessions are trespassing on basic human rights and international law. Qumisyeh said, “The road map and now this Geneva document were never real peace deals but more pacification deals. They are expected in the incredible imbalance of power between occupier and occupied. International law recognizes that such an agreement is null and void as it infringes on basic rights.” Al-Awda has issued an action alert asking Palestinians to express their concerns to the PA.

Susan Abulhawa, writer and founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, said that “Any leader who considers relinquishing this right is operating outside the boundaries of the law, and beyond the support of his or her people.”

Ali Abunimah, co-founder of Electronic Intifada, said that “there is apparently no shortage of bankrupt figures on the Palestinian side eager to trade away other people’s rights for their own personal benefit. Needless to say, the so-called Geneva Accord is completely without merit and binds absolutely no one. The only effect will be that the Israelis will pocket the new concessions made by the Palestinians, and then use them against the entire Palestinian people.”

Fadi Kiblawi, a law student and member of the Palestine Solidarity Movement (PSM), said that “the PA has played the role of colonial puppets beyond even Israel’s expectations. Realizing their “legitimacy” is not rooted from the people they ostensibly represent, but rather the aggressors, they augment their stranglehold on power by consistently relinquishing more and more rights owed to the dispossessed in order to please the occupiers.”

Samer Alatrash, also a student activist with the PSM said, “There was no question that the PA would relinquish the right of return, while cynically affirming it to comfort the inhabitants of the wretched camps. It is one more proof, if more is needed, of the utter failure of the Palestinian leadership to hold on to the rights guaranteed by international law.”

Edward Said, the late academic and eloquent defender of Palestinian rights, wrote in February 2001 that “it is going to take a great deal of ingenuity, public relations spin-doctoring, and specious logic to convince any Palestinian that the deal to be made (as it will be) by the PLO is not in effect an abrogation of the right of return. The Palestinian leadership has selfishly put its own self-interest before the collective Palestinian good. If the Israelis can “persuade” Arafat’s men that Abu Dis is in fact Jerusalem, why can’t they also persuade them that the refugees will just have to remain refugees for a bit longer? Of course they can, and will. Arafat survives inside the Palestinian territories today for two main reasons: one, he is needed by the international supporters of the “peace process,” Israel, the US and the EU chief among them. He is needed to sign, and that, after all, is what he is good for.”

Palestinians are aware of the danger of allowing such an accord to be officially endorsed by their failed leadership, and will need to take rapid action to express their absolute rejection of compromises that infringe on the Palestinian people’s inalienable rights. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are struggling to stay alive, and in spite of that have been able to clearly express their outrage at such an accord. Now, the burden is on the Palestinian diaspora to make clear their absolute rejection of the Geneva Accord, to ensure that it does not see the time of day, and to assert that they will not allow the PA to sign their rights away.


[1] Foundation for Global Community, “The Israeli-Palestinian Initiative: Framework for a Public Peace Process,” July 19, 1991.

[2] “The Views of Palestinian Society on Suicide Terrorism” by Dr. Khalil Shiqaqi, pp. 155-164 Countering Suicide Terrorism (based on the conference by the same name). Second edition published by the Anti-Defamation League and The International Policy Institue for CounterTerrorism, 2002 (New York and Herzilya).

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