H.E. Martti Ahtisaari,
H.E. Gareth Evans, President and CEO
International Crisis Group (ICG)
Middle East Endgame I:
to a Comprehensive
Arab-Israeli Peace settlement
have read with interest your above report (60 pages).
We also read the OpEd by Chairman Ahtisaari in al Hayat
on 16 July 2002 and the press report about your joint
press-conference the following day in al Hayat.
value the efforts ICG is making to resolve the conflict
in Palestine which caused so many tragedies suffered
mainly by its national people.
ICG Board members are 54 world luminaries. The
Chairman, Martti Ahtisaari, is a world class statesman.
His efforts, as the head of the UN investigation
team of Jenin’s atrocities and war crimes, aborted by
Israel, have increased his world stature. Although ICG
Board has about 10 members who are clearly sympathetic
to Israel and only 2 Arabs, none of them Palestinian, we
are confident that your report on Palestine / Israel
aims to be objective and will gain the credibility it
importance of the issues discussed in your report and
the political weight of ICG Board members compel us to
respond to your report. Our response here is concerned
with only one aspect of the issues treated: the
Palestinian refugees’ issue. We have
reason to believe that the views expressed here reflect
those of the absolute majority of the refugees,
notwithstanding statements made from time to time by
some PA officials or individuals.
While we greatly appreciate the motive and sentiment of
your report, we find that it overlooks the core of the
problem and deal with it according to the preferred
Israeli position. Therefore its proposals are not
likely to lead to the desired results.
is a fact, acknowledged by the Israelis themselves, that
the Palestinian refugees’ issue is the cornerstone of
the conflict. Without its just solution, there can be
no peace in the region.
reason is simple. In 1948 (year of al Nakba), a foreign
immigrant minority, which controlled 6% of Palestine
under British patronage, expelled the population of 531
Palestinian towns and villages, who were the national
majority of the country. These are the
refugees of today. Their plight caused the fall of many
regimes and leaders in all countries around Palestine,
well before the 1967 war, and the famous 242 resolution,
which addressed only the consequences of that war.
The refugees’ issue remains the prime mover of
events in the Middle East.
simple example will illustrate this. Eighty-eight
percent of the Palestinians live in Mandate Palestine
and in a narrow band, 100 miles wide, around it in
Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. This is where
UNRWA operates its five areas. If only 1% of the
refugees (total 5.2 million, including 3.9 million
registered with UNRWA) refuse to give up their Right of
Return, this means about 10,000 angry people in each of
the five UNRWA areas, who will agitate for their rights
by all means. No body in the area and
abroad can ignore this.
ICG report ignores the Right of Return and seems to
address only the after effects of the 1967 war.
Admittedly the report is a political statement, rather
than an application of international law.
This is a very critical omission.
Right of Return is enshrined in the international law of
which resolution 194 is an application, not an
invention. The international community at the UN has
affirmed resolution 194 about 135 times, a case
unprecedented in UN history. This
underlines the determined will of the international
community which does not treat resolution 194 as a mere
recommendation. According to the Explanatory Memorandum
of resolution 194, the return is to be to the refugee’s
“home and land” from which he was expelled, whatever the
sovereignty of the place is. Changing the
refugee’s address from one camp to another, even in the
West Bank, does not constitute a “return”.
There is often a confusion between the return to the
refugee’s home and the sovereignty of the new State of
Palestine. Sovereignty is a political act in which a
state extends its recognized authority over a territory,
while the Right of Return is an Inalienable Right
applied to a man and his home wherever his home is
located. Regrettably, too often, proposals are made to
set-off the sovereignty of a new state against the Right
of Return. The two issues are totally
unrelated. In fact, the Partition Plan of Palestine
(resolution 181 of 29 November 1947), on which Israel’s
declaration of statehood (and the forthcoming state of
Palestine) are based, clearly stipulates the
preservation and protection of life, property, civil,
religious and political rights of Arabs in a Jewish
state and vice versa.
Further, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and
many regional covenants for civil and political rights
affirm the right of return of a man to his home.
Also, the Right of Return is derived from the sanctity
of private ownership which cannot be diminished by
occupation, sovereignty or passage of time. It will be
politically unrealistic and legally invalid to expect or
ask the Palestinians to forfeit their plundered property
and confiscated land in 531 towns and villages.
solution is not a question of compensation or a
hand-out, certainly not in the way proposed. All
refugees, whether they choose to return or not, are
entitled to return AND compensation, as is clearly
spelled out in resolution 194. Those who
choose not to return are entitled to more compensation
for their abandoned immovable property. The rest have
the right of restitution (return) of their property.
According to international norms applied under UN
auspices in the case of Bosnia and Kuwait, or by mutual
agreement as in the case of Nazi victims, compensation
is payable for material and psychological damages and
loss, including loss of revenue, for war crimes, crimes
against humanity and for crimes against peace.
Payment of compensation is to be made by “the
governments or authorities responsible’ in the words of
resolution 194 and in accordance with customary
compensation law. Those “responsible” parties are the
Israeli beneficiaries of plunder and confiscation.
How can an ‘international fund’, collected from
many countries, be set up to pay a paltry amount (said
to be 2% of real value) so that Israel escapes with a
free title to the land and property of the
Palestinians? This would be a gross travesty of
“return” remains, however, the first and most basic
solution to the refugee problem. The twenty-first
century world, with the ascendance of human rights and
the instant transfer of news and views by electronic
tolerate the perpetuation of the ethnic cleansing
operation to which the Palestinians were subjected in
1948 and still continues till today. Ethnic cleansing
cannot be rewarded by legitimizing it and making the
victim pay for it.
Whatever the reason for the depopulation of Palestinian
towns and villages, it is irrelevant; they must be
allowed to return, as the case has been in many
countries after cessation of war hostilities. That was
the case, under UN or international forceful action, in
Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, East Timor, Rwanda and other
places. Regrettably, the case of
Palestinian refugees, the largest, longest and most
important political issue, remains the only exception.
argument about the presumed effect of the refugees’
return on Israel’s demography is neither legally valid
nor practically feasible. The refugees are not morally
or legally obliged to remain in exile in camps while
Russian immigrants are pouring in to live in their
homes. An Inalienable Right to return
cannot be sacrificed for racist policies of exclusivity.
the practical level, the Palestinians are now 48% of the
total population in Mandate Palestine and the Jews 52%.
(The percentages will be reversed if the non-Jewish
Russians are taken into account.) Further,
the Palestinians in Israel will outnumber Jews there in
40 years. The Jewish demographic majority can never be
attained in the long run, at least not in the territory
Israel holds now. This argument is a time
game intended to deny or postpone the Right of Return.
is ironic to observe, as serious studies have shown,
that 78% of Jews in Israel live in 15% of its area, and
19% live in originally Palestinian cities. This leaves
3% (160,000 rural Jews) who control the land of expelled
irony is greater if we observe that the total registered
refugees in Lebanon and Gaza are equal in number to the
Russian immigrants absorbed by Israel in the nineties.
largest concentration of refugees camps is in Gaza at
5,500 persons / sq. km. Their land across the barbed
wire, to which they are denied entry, is almost empty at
6 Jews / sq. km.
is clear therefore that there is no legal, demographic
or geographic reason for Israel to deny the Right of
Return or for the international community to shrink from
its duties towards application of international law.
The only obstacle is 24 Israeli
racist laws which discriminate against the national
majority of population in Palestine. These are the only
racist laws left in place after the dismantling of
apartheid in South Africa.
Thus we recommend the following course of action for a
just and lasting resolution of the refugees question:
Repealing the racist laws in Israel as was done in
Yugoslavia. As a first step, the Israeli
exclusive Law of Return (1950) should be amended to
include “the national and habitual citizens of the
country before 1948”.
The mechanism for implementing the return and
rehabilitation of the refugees is already in place.
The UN created the Conciliation Commission on
Palestine (UNCCP) whose offices are still open at the
UN. UNCCP should be reactivated under a different
member composition. UNCCP completed in
1964 a database of 453,000 Palestinian land owners.
Part of UNCCP function is duplicated in the UN Mission
in Kosovo (UNMIK). The suggestion to form
“an international commission” to implement a “bilateral
agreement” is to undermine applicable international law.
Compensation should be paid by Israel for all losses,
damages and war crimes, other than immovable property
which shall be restituted. Israel shall
allocate 10% of its annual GDP (now valued at $120
billion and projected to be $220 billion in the year
2020) for this purpose. This is a small portion of the
amount that Israel spends on traditional armament and
weapons of mass destruction, which should not be
necessary when peace prevails.
UNRWA shall continue to function and extend its services
to the rehabilitation of the returning refugees, taking
functions of UNDP.
A Palestine Land Commission (PLC) is to be formed as a
custodian for Palestinian property. (There
is already an embryo organization.) Israel Land
Administration (ILA) shall hand over the refugees’
property to PLC in a single contract. It
is fortunate that all such property is administered by a
single Israeli unit. There are no claims by individual
Jews. This method of property restoration
has been applied in similar situations, for example in
Bosnia (the Commission for Real Property Claims), in
Tajikstan (the Central Development for Refugees and
Forced Migrants), in Guatemala (Comisiones Permenentes)
and in Bhutan (Association for Human Rights Activists).
The Security Council, or the UN General Assembly under
“United for Peace”, shall issue a resolution under
Chapter Seven of the Charter to implement resolution 194
with an added paragraph to ensure the refugees’ physical
and legal protection from discrimination and
be sure, Israel will not willingly accept such
arrangement as long as it remains the only country
beyond the reach of international law and as long as it
remains sponsored, supported and aided unconditionally
by certain countries, notably USA. This unusual
situation has wreaked havoc with the Middle East life
and people in the last 50 years. This
cannot continue if the peace of the world is to be
the other hand, the Palestinian refugees, in spite of
wars, suffering and persecution, remain determined to
defend their Right of Return. They do not intend to
disappear in oblivion or succumb to a new ethnic
cleansing, transfer or exile, under any name or pretext.
They will continue to influence events in the
Our Committee is fully aware of the
refugees’ demands and feelings. We work with a
coalition of refugee committees in almost every one of
the 59 refugee camps, in all neighbouring Arab capitals
and in many European and American cities where
Palestinian refugees reside. Thus, we can
state with confidence that the statements made herein
largely reflect those of the absolute majority of the
behooves the international community to take action in
order to eliminate the refugees suffering and restore
their rights in accordance with international law.
Peace can only prevail through justice.
The efforts of ICG in this regard will be highly
commendable and will be fitting to its charter.
Dr. Salman Abu-Sitta
Coordinator, the Sponsoring Committee for the
of the Right of Return