Ruling Palestine: An interview with COHRE’s Scott Leckie

Making a two-state solution impossible? The Israeli annexation wall separates a home from agricultural land in Abu Dis (Maureen Clare Murphy)

Palestine Report Online interviews Scott Leckie, Executive Director of COHRE, the Geneva-based Center on Housing Rights and Evictions, about the human rights group’s conclusions, drawn from a new study entitled “Ruling Palestine: A History of the Legally Sanctioned Jewish/Israeli Seizure of Land and Housing in Palestine”, that a two-state solution is no longer viable.

PR: There have been several studies before on Palestinian claims to land in Palestine and the right of return. What makes this study special?

Leckie: One of the most important things about the study is that for the first time all the relevant laws, both pre-Israeli and post-1948, have been looked at comprehensively in terms of the way in which they very carefully and very calculatedly were designed to result in an end favoring the Israelis.

Often people focus on individual laws, such as the Absentee Property Law, but don’t see those as part of a greater whole, and I think this systematic analysis of the entire Israeli legal system as it relates to housing, land and property rights of Palestinians very clearly shows that there was every intent to dispossess Palestinians of their land over the past six decades. This was a systematic attempt, a very intentional outcome, and one that ultimately makes the proposed two-state solution a physical and practical impossibility.

That linkage between the dispossession of refugee property and land and the question of permanent status peace talks is one that’s also too rarely made. We need to really look at the direct relationship between the confiscation of land over the past 60 years and the eventual outcome of any sort of agreement.

If the two-state solution is to be a viable one, both sides need to have an adequate land base, they need to have territorial integrity, contiguous territory that’s economically viable and where human rights and the rule of law apply.

Until the question of restitution of Palestinian refugee property is taken seriously, there really is no purpose to conducting long-term talks to finding a permanent settlement. It’s an a priori activity that needs to take place. You can’t really have final peace talks, unless this question, which has been systematically ignored by successive Israeli governments, is addressed adequately. Refugees around the world, from Afghanistan to Bosnia-Herzegovina to Mozambique to East Timor, to a whole range of countries in the last two decades, have all been able to enjoy the right to return and the right to have property that they lost due to conflict restored to them. There are no grounds, particularly human rights grounds or legal grounds, upon which these rights can be conferred on refugees everywhere with the exception of Palestinian refugees.

PR: In terms of Israeli discourse, the two-state solution does not imply any restitution of refugee property or confer any rights upon Palestinian refugees. In fact, beyond the very fringes of Israeli politics, that’s not even an issue. Why is it so important for a viable two-state solution?

Leckie: COHRE has worked very intensively on this topic in over a dozen countries around the world, and we’ve found very clearly that purely on a political level and aside from legal rights, unless you deal forthrightly, transparently and justly with restitution questions, a permanent, sustainable and viable long-term peace is simply not an option. That’s why the Israeli population, at the end of the day, is going to need to deal with this issue.

The unfortunate irony is that of all the peoples in the world who have very justly benefited from restitution procedures, none have benefited more than the Jewish people as victims of the Holocaust and of discrimination throughout eastern Europe following the Holocaust in terms of property confiscations. Israel is very familiar with the concept of restitution. Some of the most powerful restitution groups in the world are Israeli groups, and they know how valuable restitution is for reconciliation.

Over 20,000 square kilometers of land have been confiscated arbitrarily and illegally by Israel over the past six decades. Not a dime of compensation has been provided. We have over 100,000 Palestinian homes occupied by Jewish families with the full support of the Israeli state. There are five or six million refugees desperate to recover their properties, and not one refugee has been able to return to his/her original home and property. Yet the situation today is that huge swaths of that land are empty, so return is possible.

We live in a world where the right to land and property are universally accepted rights. The right to property is a right favored very strongly by the US and its allies in Israel, but is applied only to one side of the equation. The Palestinians have a massive property rights claim against the Israeli state that needs to be dealt with once and for all. As refugee situations around the world have shown in recent years the right of refugees to return is not simply the right to return to their own country, but a right to recover their former homes and lands.

This same scenario needs to be played out with respect to the world’s largest refugee group, the Palestinians. Until that’s done, how can the Palestinians truly hope to negotiate on equal terms with the Israelis?

PR: But the notion of a state for the Jewish people is central to all of this. How can this be dealt with?

Leckie: It certainly is. Many COHRE people have worked and lived within Israel and we are very familiar with the mainstream sentiments expressed by Israel and Israelis. But what is really needed from a long-term perspective is a new approach to the entire question, where the questions we have traditionally asked and the frameworks within which we have usually given answers are cast aside.

The simple assertion of the wish of the Israeli government, as distinct from many Israelis, to have and continue to pursue the idea of a Jewish state, doesn’t necessarily have to take the form that it takes today in contemporary Israel. There are many formulae that can be developed to allow those who believe a state of the Jewish people is necessary to have that as an outcome but within a different context or different territorial framework which allows refugees to return and allows perhaps a federal state to emerge. There are any number of possibilities that can be put on the table. The world has become too stuck in these very simple and quite short-sighted options that are on the table, and as we can see there have been talks and talks and talks and never any positive outcome for either side.

We need to rethink things, people need to be creative and people should come up with options that might look very different than what we have now but which give both sides an outcome they can both live with. Right now that is clearly not the case.

As a result, the situation the Palestinians are now facing - having access to less than 10 percent of Mandate Palestine territory, living behind eight meter high walls which is far longer and higher than the Berlin Wall ever was, being subjected to outwardly discriminatory legislation, being economically strangled in their areas which increasingly resemble enclaves - is not a viable way to create sustainable peace between two nations. We need to have statesmen and women on both sides to come together and realize that the similarities between these two people are far greater than the differences and the will for reconciliation is far greater amongst ordinary people than the world knows or even the governments of both sides know. The possibilities for a mutual future are far greater than people generally give the two parties credit for.

This is our hope particularly for Israeli society. While we do not hear the issue of refugee restitution raised commonly in Israel, there are a growing number of Israelis who do acknowledge what has happened, who are willing to apologize for those actions and who really want to find a new way to move forward whereby all people in that country can live together harmoniously, just like people of all persuasions live together comfortably in all the world’s democracies that are governed by the basic principles of human rights and rule of law.

When you aim for an exclusionary situation, as is happening now with the construction of the wall, it’s a recipe for disaster. You can’t have an exclusionary state in today’s globalized world, and I believe contemporary Israel in 2005 resembles South Africa in the 1980s when a series of acts of desperation to maintain a moribund racist system were implemented.

PR: Nothing you say is unfamiliar to Palestinian ears, and, in fact, is enshrined in UN resolutions. So where is the international community?

Leckie: In terms of the laws and resolutions and declarations it has supported, the international community is very much there. The hundreds of resolutions since 1948 have universally supported the right of Palestinian refugees to return; have universally condemned the illegal confiscation of land and the illegal construction of settlements. The security wall has been declared illegal. The list is endless, and comes from the UN Security Council down to human rights groups.

However, in practical terms it’s a different story. Continued support by the US for Israel on all fronts has made it very difficult for states in favor of a human rights-based solution to the problem to come forward and pursue it. Historical realities in Europe make more active involvement by Europeans difficult, and the Arab world has been very strong in rhetorical terms but far less creative in diplomatic terms.

There are many forces at work, but we believe the international community needs to be much more engaged and creative in suggesting possible ways forward. It’s just not tenable to imagine that a two-state solution is anything close to practical now.

PR: Do you advocate that the issue of refugees be put at the center of the peace process rather than pushed aside as it has been since Oslo?

Leckie: Absolutely. And it’s not just Oslo, but almost every initiative that has come since. It’s one thing to say that the Israeli side is steadfastly opposed to allowing the right of return of Palestinian refugees, but the Palestinians have to speak with one voice on this issue. Speaking to refugees there is quite a degree of unanimity on what they would like to see that is not always reflected by officials who are supposed to represent these people. We hope that both sides will listen to the wishes and claims of the refugees.

This article was first published on 11 May 2005 in Palestine Report Online, a project of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center in Jerusalem, and is reprinted with permission. Palestine Report Online is a continuation of the print Palestine Report, which was established over twelve years ago as a means of informing English-speakers about Palestinians and their daily lives in the context of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Also in this week’s edition: PR reports on the murder of a young woman in Ramallah and Washington’s attempts at coming to grips with America’s new “defining moment”.

Related links:

  • Download the full report “Ruling Palestine: A History of the Legally Sanctioned Jewish/Israeli Seizure of Land and Housing in Palestine” (PDF)
  • Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions
  • BY TOPIC: Israel’s Apartheid Wall
  • BY TOPIC: Settlements and Settlers