The right to free movement

In observing decades-old conflicts, political spin takes overrides reality. Facts are often replaced by claims and counterclaims leaving a neutral observer confused as to who is wrong and who is right. Sometimes, a new story is much more revealing than the tonnes of arguments and counterarguments.

This was the case when news of the failure of the prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas, which would have released soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for hundreds of Palestinians, many held without trial or charge.

In explaining the reason for the failure, the Israelis released the names of 10 Hamas leaders Israel refused to release. With the help of Palestinian negotiators, one is also informed that the problem is not the identity of the Palestinian prisoners but where the Palestinians are to be released to.

Israelis, Palestinians and Egyptians concur that Israel wanted the released prisoners to be deported outside their West Bank homes as a condition for their release.

At first, deportations might appear more humane than continued imprisonment. However, the problem with deportations for Palestinians reveals a much bigger problem. Deportation is a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which regulates how an occupying power deals with people under its occupation. It is also a violation of Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, guaranteeing the right to movement.

A quick look at the Israeli conduct since 1948 reveals consistent violation of the right to movement.

Since the establishment of the state of Israel, in 1948, the freedom of movement has been a strategic part of the way the Israelis deal with Palestinians. Refugees kicked out of their homes or those who left fearing for their lives at the time of the war have not been allowed to return home, even for a visit. The same happened after the 1967 occupation. Despite the PLO-Israel memorandum of agreement, which called for the repatriation of Palestinians who left the West Bank after the June 1967 war, the Israelis have not allowed any to return.

Since 1967, East Jerusalem residents who are considered only residents in the town where they were born in, can easily lose this status if, for example, they stay away from Jerusalem for more than three years. Palestinian Jerusalemites living and working in the West Bank, the Gulf or the US can easily lose their right to even visit their birthplace, under the justification that the centre of their lives is no longer Jerusalem. On the other hand, any world citizen who has a Jewish mother or grandmother is given the right to become an Israeli citizen the moment he or she arrives in Israel.

In 2002, another case of the violation of Palestinians right to free movement took place when Israel ordered the deportation of tens of Palestinians to Gaza and to a number of European countries. The deportations, which were carried out as part of the solution for the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, have yet to be reversed, despite repeated promises by the Olmert administration.

Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was approved by the international community in 1948, states the following: "You have the right to come and go as you wish within your country," and "You have the right to leave your country to go to another one, and you should be able to return to your country if you want."

Since 2000, the Israeli military authorities have established nearly 500 West Bank checkpoints to obstruct movement of Palestinians without their homeland. Free passage between the West Bank and Gaza was agreed to in the 1993 Oslo Accords. Later, with the help of former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, in 2005 Israel agreed to allow movements, but since then nothing has happened.

The Israeli insistence on deporting some of the Hamas prisoners reflects a very sad outlook for the region. Israel’s willingness to abort the Shalit deal by insisting that some Hamas prisoners must be deported reveals a long-term problem, namely the Israeli intention of holding on to the West Bank indefinitely.

More than any other decision, the Israeli insistence on deportation once again proves the accusations of the Palestinian president that the Israelis, even under Olmert, have never sincerely agreed to the concept of a truly independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.