A timely reminder that right to return can be implemented

The publication of Palestine and the Palestinians in the 21st Century (Indiana University Press) is particularly timely given that US Secretary of State John Kerry is about to unveil a “framework agreement” for final status negotiations intended to shape the future of Palestine.

Enough details about Kerry’s framework proposal have been leaked to the media to know that, once again, the US government is playing the role of Israel’s defense attorney. The essays in this book show not only why the framework is unjust but also why it is unworkable.

The book emerged out of papers given at a conference hosted by the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.

Editors Rochelle Davis and Mimi Kirk have assembled essays by Ali Abunimah, co-founder of The Electronic Intifada; Palestinian human rights attorney Noura Erakat; Michael C. Hudson, professor emeritus at Georgetown and past president of the Middle East Studies Association; Saree Makdisi, author of the invaluable Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation; historian Gabriel Piterberg of the University of California, Los Angeles; and Sara Roy, a senior research scholar at Harvard University’s Center for Middle East Studies, among others.

Of particular note is Boston University law professor Susan Musarrat Akram’s chapter on the Palestinian refugee issue, especially given that the US framework proposal echoes the Israeli government’s insistence that Palestinian refugees will not be allowed the right of return.

Noting that one of every three refugees worldwide is Palestinian, Akram shows how refugee rights are grounded in some of the most widely ratified international treaties, including the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1954 Convention on Stateless Persons.

Recently, The New York Times columnist and “liberal Zionist” Roger Cohen asserted that the right of return is simply a “claim.”

Akram details how this so-called claim in fact has been implemented repeatedly in international agreements that helped resolve conflicts in Afghanistan, Burundi, Bosnia, Cambodia, Croatia, El Salvador, Georgia, Guatemala, Honduras, Iran, Kosovo, the Russian Federation and Rwanda, among many others.

Rights excluded

Not only has the legal right of refugees to return to their homes been established in these agreements, but mechanisms for implementation have also been created. Yet when it comes to Palestinians, the right of return is excluded — their “legal rights emasculated,” as Akram puts it.

Kerry’s framework also officially commits the United States to support an Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognize the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. The essays by Abunimah and Makdisi go directly to this issue.

Abunimah focuses on the 1998 Belfast Agreement as an illustration of how a long-standing conflict — in this case, a Protestant majority holding power over a Catholic minority in Northern Ireland — can be resolved through principles of equal rights.

Although the agreement preserved a “two-state solution” for the time being, it required one of those states to cease being “a Protestant state for a Protestant people.”

Irish precedent

The Belfast Agreement establishes a precedent for Palestine-Israel provided that Israel transforms itself into an inclusive and democratic state, Abunimah argues.

Under this precedent, even if a two-state solution were to come about, Israel “could not continue to discriminate against its Palestinian citizens or against Palestinian refugees on the grounds that a Palestinian state exists elsewhere.

Israel would have to undergo a transformation similar to the one under way in Northern Ireland, with inclusive and robust mechanisms to monitor and enforce equal rights, redistribute resources equitably, and adopt neutral symbols acceptable to all communities. A one-state solution would entail exactly the same challenges on a larger territory.”

The fact that the Israeli government regards a “state for all its citizens” as an “existential threat” and threatens to punish even advocacy of the idea shows that “inequality and discrimination are foundational elements of the Israeli state, not incidental to it,” Abunimah notes.

The contrast between the Israeli and Palestinian responses to the principles underlying the Belfast Agreement is also notable.

Whereas the Israeli government is hostile to those principles, Abunimah notes that Hamas, among others, have embraced the agreement as a model for ending violence while negotiating a long-term solution.

Inequality enshrined in law

Makdisi takes this same theme and points to the 2007 publication of a draft democratic constitution by Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, that calls for a secular, multicultural state.

Makdisi points out that the publication of this document coincided with the release of a report by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

The report not only documented the many examples of inequality enshrined in law in Israel, such as denying the right of a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship to marry a Palestinian from the occupied West Bank or Gaza, but also challenged Israel to show how defining itself as a Jewish state “does not result, in any systematic distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent or national or ethnic origin in the enjoyment of human rights.”

Politics of citizenship

Makdisi challenges political Zionism as a nineteenth century ideology that has no place in the 21st century. He calls for a single, democratic and secular state throughout all of Palestine “in which Jews, Muslims, Christians and, indeed, the adherents of other faiths or of no faith at all will be regarded as equals, a state in which the politics of religion will be replaced by a politics of citizenship.”

The US political establishment is about to embark on a gamble that it can sell the idea of a colonial-settler, exclusivist state in Israel and a bantustan state in the West Bank and Gaza, while denying human rights to Palestinian refugees and Palestinians with Israeli citizenship.

It will attempt to do so precisely at a moment in its own history when a more politically aware citizenry is increasingly embracing, if not celebrating, ideas of diversity, inclusivity and multiculturalism under a framework of equal rights for all.

Moreover, this citizenry is becoming aware that they are confronting a counterrevolution that seeks to reestablish notions of white and male supremacy, exclusivity and inequality. You don’t have to look far to recognize the ideological allies of this counterrevolution.

Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He is active with Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace-Portland Chapter, and the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign.