If body language were a reflection of beliefs and personal psyche, few would ever trust President Bush’s ‘vision’ of a Palestinian State. Never known for his eloquence, he searched, unsuccessfully, for words to speak about the Palestinian State, throwing his arms around in frantic motion before a world audience on 2 October 2000. When he referred to Israel’s right to exist, Bush was noticeably coherent, confident and certain; there were no slips of the tongue, wild gestures, or waffles. After all, Israel’s right to exist is an article of faith and it must be affirmed with conviction.
Despite the inelegance of the performance, many in the Arab world were quick to oblige. Like their predecessors who joined the Allied war effort in 1915 following a British promise of independence, they called for everything but an end to the Aqsa Intifada and enlistment in the American-led coalition against international terrorism. As did occur so many times in the past, they forgot even their most recent history and the Letter of Assurances written by James Baker on the eve of the Madrid Conference that “the United States has opposed and will continue to oppose settlement activity in the territories occupied in 1967, which remains an obstacle to peace.” If the U.S. had effectively opposed the settlement activity, as it promised, why was there a 52% growth in the population and size of Israeli settlements in the territories after Oslo?
Across the Atlantic, Britain’s Prime Minister was, as ever, more circumspect than his American counterpart. Speaking on the same day at his Labour Party’s annual convention, Blair chose instead to mention an undefined ‘justice’ for the Palestinians. His was a nebulous usage that was reminiscent of the Balfour Declaration which refused to acknowledge the Palestinian national identity and promised, instead, “that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
The real victims
Having declared that ‘justice’ for the Palestinians is part of his “reformed new world order,” Mr. Blair must now match his words with action. His first test, which is largely symbolic and simple, requires no troop deployment or emergency funding. It was tactfully recommended in the report of the Joint Parliamentary Middle East Councils Commission of Enquiry, after its visit to the Palestinian refugee camps in Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon in September 2000, that “The British Government might consider it particularly appropriate, at this time, to make some verbal gesture of acknowledgement of the historical responsibility that Britain bears for the creation of the refugee crisis that continues today.”
Although symbolic gestures of this kind have contributed to the resolution of conflicts in other former colonies, it can, at best, in the Palestinian context, only be considered a step in the right direction. The fact that the Palestinian refugees account for more than half of the world’s refugee population is not only an indicator of the scale of their human tragedy but equally of the enormity of political effort needed to end their century-old nightmare. For while the depopulation of their villages in 1948 started their exodus, it must not be forgotten that the struggle to remain on their land goes all the way back to 1886 when European Jewish colonists forcefully attempted to prevent peasants from grazing on lands in Mulabis Village (Peta Tikva) north-east of Yaffa.
Should experience become their trusted mentor, the Palestinian refugees would have very little reason to expect a change of heart in Washington or London. Everything that has occurred since the beginning of the conflict confirms that Western policy was guided not by the value and rule of international law but by the pragmatist demands of containment and balance of power in the region. Nothing illustrates this clearer than the policy of disengagement pursued by the United States in the one year that preceded 11 September 2001, a period in which the Israeli military occupation killed 696 Palestinians (174 of whom are children below the age of 18), injured 28,916 (2,832 of whom suffer from permanent disabilities), assassinated 65 Palestinian political activists and figures, and destroyed 5,003 Palestinian homes. Field studies conducted by local research institutions affirm that 60% of those killed were refugees, who constitute just over 50% of the population in the occupied territories. After taking into account the proportion of population size, the number of Palestinians killed in the West Bank and Gaza in the twelve months leading up to 28 September 2001 is equivalent to nine times the number killed in the attack on the United States. So why has the United States and its allies refused to condemn this as terrorism?
Charles W. Yost, the former U.S. Undersecretary of State, explained the reason insofar as it applies to America. “We all righteously condemn itéexcept when we ourselves or friends of ours are engaging in it. Then we ignore it or gloss it over or attach to it tags like “liberation” or “defence of the free world” or “national honour” to make it seem something other than what it is.” In the absence of any similar admission from a serving or former high-ranking British official and given the special relationship between the White House and Whitehall, one may also explain Britain’s position in the same manner.
Another glaring illustration of this two-facedness is witnessed in the case of Slobodan Milosovic. After his indictment by The Hague Tribunal for war crimes, the U.S. and European Union withheld all forms of aid to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia until he was handed over for trial. Now that a similar case is played out in Belgium against the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, the world is watching in anticipation at the attitude of Washington and its European allies. On Friday, 28 September 2001, Belgium’s Public Prosecutor ruled that the complaint against Ariel Sharon for crimes against humanity and war crimes is grounded and rejected the Israeli defense argument that Sharon has immunity as head of government. In the light of the gravity of his crime, the EU and the U.S. must also consider withholding military and financial aid to the Jewish State until justice is seen to be done.
Of course, the need for impartiality and balance does not end with the trial of Ariel Sharon. As the war on terrorism intensifies and bank assets are seized or frozen across the world, it must be recalled that America’s strategic ally, Israel, featured high among 15 countries “black-listed” by the OECD in June 2000 for being a cash haven for international criminals. The report affirmed that billons of dollars accrued from drugs, prostitution, bribes and various forms of criminal activity are laundered in Israel each year. It moreover accused the Tel Aviv establishment of refusing to tighten rules or to cooperate in international efforts to investigate suspicious funds. In the event, it is only fair that the Jewish State should be brought to book.
Security, justice and the law
Amid all the changes expected in the aftermath of 11 September 2001, one reality would remain constant; it is the unbreakable bond between the rule of law, justice and security, which only comes about when there is respect for the law and the rights of all are guaranteed and protected by it. However, when this principle is violated and replaced by racist notions of superiority and privilege, insecurity and mayhem becomes the order of the day. This remains the underlying cause for the climate of permanent instability that bedevils the Middle East.
Had the international community moved decisively to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) after 120 states voted in support of it in July 1998, gunboat diplomacy would not have become the principal option in the campaign against international terrorism. The great value of the ICC is that unlike the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which deals with States, the ICC has the power to investigate, prosecute and convict individuals. While Britain took the commendable step and ratified the Rome Statute on 4 October 2001, both the United States and Israel are still refusing to do so. The latter two object to Article 8, paragraph 2(b), sub-para (viii) of the Statute, which considers the transfer by an Occupying Power of part of its own civilian population into the territories it occupies a war crime. On the face of it, therefore, America’s continued opposition must be seen for what it is, the proposition of a minuscule and truncated State for the Palestinians.
Ultimately, selling such a limited “vision” of a Palestinian State would be difficult. For not only is it contrary to the Rome Statute but it is also a violation of United States law itself. In 1973 the Congress enacted a series of laws prohibiting economic or military assistance to any country that violated the human rights of people within its borders for political reasons. Similarly, the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974 entrusted the president with powers to “substantially reduce or terminate security assistance to any government which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” No American president has ever since utilized these powers to effectively end Israeli violation of Palestinian human rights in the occupied territories or in Israel. None is ever likely to do so while upholding the sacred doctrine that the Jewish State must have a strategic “edge” or “advantage” over its neighbors.
Thus, while it may seem wise to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, it certainly is absurd to allow a single country, Israel, to develop a nuclear capability and export this advanced technology to volatile regions like South-East Asia. Indeed, it is politically irresponsible to exempt this solitary country from the rigors of international inspection, monitor and control.
In retrospect, Western leaders were no less guilty than their adversaries in using the Palestinian issue for their own ends. After the Gulf war, they used it to convene the Madrid Conference and to promise, as part of a new world order, a peace settlement based on “land for peace”. Few can deny today that the entire project has been a scandalous fiasco. The current cries of vision and reform resonate with a familiar sound of deception. They sound empty and meaningless when it is recalled that those who now call to this new internationalism are the same visionaries who contemptuously refused to sit down and engage the peoples of the developing world in Durban days before the New York attack.
The author is a researcher at the Palestinian Return Center, London, and editor of its Return Review.