At the UN, Palestinian democracy tests American and Israeli limits

Refugee rights are a key element in any peace agreement. Most peace agreements that prescribe durable solutions for refugees and displaced persons recognize their right to return. (Arjan El Fassed)

EAST JERUSALEM –- Not too long ago, when Mahmoud Abbas had just been elected President of the Palestinian Authority, it was hailed as a sign that democracy was on the march in the Arab World, from Iraq to Lebanon to Egypt.

But after just a few months, America, Israel, and some Europeans are evidently having second thoughts. The world’s leading democracies and the Middle East’s self-proclaimed “only democracy” are starting to see the appeal of authoritarianism in the Arab world.

Last week, an obscure UN body called the Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations decided to “defer” the application from the Badil Resource Center, a Palestinian organization based in Bethlehem. Badil was asking for “consultative status” that would allow it to make statements at official UN gatherings.

Badil works for Palestinian refugee rights, both for their protection in exile and for their right to return to homes inside Israel. They base their work on international law. Their main contacts are lawyers, development specialists, economists, and academic experts, a number of them Israeli. Their main tools are seminars, working papers, and legal briefings. You can read their work on their website

There are around 400 independent groups like this from around the world with UN status, representing hundreds of viewpoints on dozens of issues. The committee was supposed to decide if Badil’s work was consistent with the purposes of the UN. That shouldn’t have been a challenge; Badil bases most of its work on UN resolutions.

The problem is that Badil had to be vetted by powerful governments first.

Germany demanded that Badil provide a copy of every statement it has ever made on terrorism and clarify its position on Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation.

The US demanded to hear Badil’s position on the land issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Then the US asked if Badil had anything to do with the International Solidarity Movement, a group that brings foreigners to the West Bank and Gaza to protest against the Israeli occupation.

And finally, after some UN officials defended Badil, Israel stepped in. Israel alleged that Badil politicized the Palestinian refugee issue, made “aggressive, vitriolic” statements, and used “intolerant, anti-Zionist, as well as what could only be described as anti-Semitic” language and images.

Since Israel played the anti-semitic card, I think it relevant for me, the great-grandson of Jews who fled bona fide anti-semitism in Eastern Europe, to talk about my experience working with Badil over the past year. When I visited them in Bethlehem last year and told them I was teaching at Tel Aviv University, they became especially eager to work with me. Last fall, one of Badil’s staff took my parents to his home in one of Bethlehem’s refugee camps. My parents are active in their synagogue back home; my mother is a former religious school teacher. Over tea in the middle of Ramadan, they had a heartfelt conversation about their mutual desire for justice and peace.

Badil wanted me to write a report on legitimate Israeli rights that Palestinians must accommodate in order to assert their legal right to return to their homes. And that is typical of Badil; they work to get beyond slogans and propose concrete solutions based in human rights. They point ways for Palestinians to assert their claims through law and reason; if they resist Israeli policies, they do it through ideas.

And they increasingly release their publications in Hebrew.

Before moving to Jerusalem, I worked with Arab human rights organizations in Egypt and Lebanon. What is so frightening about the US, Germany and Israel’s behavior is its similarity to the scrutiny that authoritarian governments put Arab human rights groups through on a regular basis. Does a Palestinian organization need to agree with US and Israeli positions in order to have a right to be heard?

That Israel and the US disagree with Badil is not surprising; they oppose the right of return while Badil is a leading advocate. But the fact that these governments do not even want such a group to have a seat at the table – now that is intolerant and aggressive.

Michael Kagan is an American lawyer. He teaches in the Tel Aviv University Clinical Law Program, and is a consultant with the Badil Resource Center in Bethlehem.

Related Links

  • Badil Resource Center
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