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‘Can Israel Separate from the Palestinians? Refugees, a Two-state Solution, and an End to Conflict’

One of the enduring questions that has confronted politicians and strategists of the Oslo process is how to resolve the Palestinian refugee issue within the confines of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What happens to the more than 5 million Palestinian refugees whose homes of origin are located inside Israel?

For most refugee experts and practitioners crafting durable solutions for Palestinian refugees within the context of two states the answer is quite simple. Individual Palestinian refugees should be permitted to exercise their basic rights to return to their homes and repossess their properties. Resettlement assistance should be provided to those refugees who choose not to return.

 The answer is not so simple for those who conceived and nurtured the Oslo process. It also appears to elude the so-called Quartet (i.e., US, EU, Russia, and the UN), although their position is less credible, given the lead role played by individual member states (not to mention the United Nations itself) in facilitating return and restitution in other refugee cases – e.g., Bosnia, and Kosovo. According to these politicians, strategists, and the Quartet, a solution for Palestinian refugees must be found largely through resettlement in Arab host states (or third countries) and financial compensation. This solution is driven by the balance of power in the region, which dictates that the refugee-generating state – i.e., Israel – will never allow refugees to return to their homes of origin because doing so would alter the ‘Jewish character’ of the state.

Recognition of the historic position of the PLO, vocal demands for return from refugees themselves, an admission among some that the refugees do indeed have a right to return to their homes inside Israel, and the need “to sell” a resettlement/compensation package to the Palestinian people has triggered new ideas for ‘practical’ and ‘policy-relevant’ solutions. These include: symbolic recognition of the right of return and UN General Assembly Resolution 194 but no return in practice; incorporation of the principle of refugee choice, accompanied by a series of incentives/disincentives to limit the number of refugees choosing to return; and relocation of refugees to border areas inside Israel, which will then be transferred to a Palestinian state, in exchange for the transfer of Palestinian land and Jewish colonies in the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories (OPTs) to Israel.

Rethinking the two-state solution

Ongoing confiscation of Palestinian land, house demolition, and the constant expansion of Jewish colonies in the 1967 OPTs – not to mention inside Israel – suggests, however, that the real question to be pondered is not how to resolve the Palestinian refugee issue within the context of a two-state solution, but, whether a two-state solution will actually resolve the more than 50-year-old Palestinian/Arab-Israeli conflict itself. Few policymakers, especially those whose careers are intimately bound to the Oslo process, are willing to engage in this type of critical assessment. Options other than a two-state solution based largely along ethnic/national/religious lines are still considered irrelevant and even destructive.

According to the UN Special Coordinator for the Occupied Territories, Terje Larson, for example, “two competing views found on both sides of the conflict – the constructionists and the destructionists. In simple terms, the constructionists believe in a two-state solution and the destructionists do not. Israeli and Palestinian constructionists have similar outlooks. They say the best way to foster peace, security and prosperity for both sides is through the creation of a democratic Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This state would work for the benefit of its people, and in the process control and stop violence against Israel. In this scenario, both sides win. Israeli and Palestinian destructionists both seek total control of the land at the expense of their adversaries, and are in a kind of unholy embrace that is fueling today’s downward spiral. For them, only one state can emerge west of the Jordan River: Israel or Palestine. It is a zero-sum game.” (Ha’aretz, 18-10-02)

For Palestinians, however, especially at the grassroots and among those in exile (and for a very small number of Israelis) this debate is neither simple nor new. Setting aside the more philosophical, political, and legal elements of the debate, the current situation facing Palestinians and Israelis alike raises a number of practical questions. Is it possible to physically separate Jews and Palestinians into two states largely along ethnic/national/religious lines? Is Israel able to separate from the Palestinians? And, perhaps most importantly, is a two-state solution even practical or realistic in the context of the current regional and international balance of power and the absence of international political will to enforce such a solution? Amid the literal ruins of the Oslo process this debate merits renewed attention.

Ongoing confiscation of Palestinian land, house demolition, and the constant expansion of Jewish colonies in the 1967 OPTs – not to mention inside Israel – suggests, however, that the real question to be pondered is not how to resolve the Palestinian refugee issue within the context of a two-state solution, but, whether a two-state solution will actually resolve the more than 50-year-old Palestinian/Arab-Israeli conflict itself.

Despite more than 50 years of displacement and dispossession, the Palestinian population remains dispersed throughout all areas of historic Mandate Palestine. Although the majority of the Jewish population inside Israel continues to be concentrated in the same areas where Jews lived before 1948, the establishment of Jewish colonies throughout historic Mandate Palestine over the past five decades means that the Jewish population is even more geographically diffused than it was 50 years ago. This is particularly true in the 1967 OPTs where Israel has established some 150 Jewish colonies. Where does one draw the borders between the two peoples? This is not a new problem. Those who drafted the 1947 ‘Partition Plan’ (UNGA 181) tried and failed, having concluded that “any feasible plan which does not place the whole of Palestine under the present majority of the Arabs would inevitably result in an Arab state with an Arab majority, and a Jewish state with a considerable Arab minority.” The mass displacement and expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 and again in 1967 provided no more than a temporary and partial ‘solution’ to this problem.

Irrespective of the fact that a faction of the Labor-Zionist movement has, for some time, identified ‘political separation’ from the Palestinian people as a strategic interest and a vital need for the sustainability of the ‘Jewish state’, Israel has strengthened rather than diminished its presence in the 1967 OPTs. The number of Jewish settlers has increased by 50 percent since the beginning of the Oslo process nearly a decade ago. Massive investment in infrastructure has literally cemented the physical connection between the colonies in the 1967 OPTs and Israel proper. Under the pretext of security Israel’s land-grab continues on both sides of the ‘Green Line,’ guided by an ideology that denies the Palestinian-Arab people’s legal rights to their homeland and claims of a mythological religiously-based ‘right of the Jewish people to Eretz Yizrael.’ Current Israeli debate over the ‘separation wall’ under construction roughly parallel to the 1949 armistice line (‘Green line’), but inside the West Bank, provides renewed evidence of the fact that ‘political separation’ is not synonymous with Israeli acceptance of a fully independent, sovereign Palestinian state in all of the 1967 OPTs. Is a two-state solution realistic, given the lack of political consensus and will to break with Israel’s colonial tradition and policies? Moreover, how would the “Jewish state” separate itself from the 1 million Palestinians who are citizens of the state?

We have basically concluded that if the colonization continues at this pace, we are going to have to start questioning whether a two-state solution is even plausible. That is not to say that we are not committed to the two-state solution; the PLO has been committed to that since 1988. But given the facts on the ground, given the way that things have changed, one cannot unscramble an egg. The leadership is going to have to start reassessing whether it really should be pushing for a two-state solution or whether we should start pushing for equal citizenship and an anti-apartheid campaign along the same lines as South Africa.
Diana Buttu, PLO Negotiations Affairs Department, Interview in Bitterlemons (28 October 2002)

Finally, the experience of Oslo, and the post-Oslo period, seems to confirm the conclusion that a two-state solution is not possible under the current balance of power in the region. Two Palestinian intifadas, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the bi-polar world order, the 1991 Gulf War, and more than one decade of international backing of the Oslo process have not altered this fundamental balance of power. - Wooden hot tubs and outdoor saunas The decision by the United States and Britain to go to war against Iraq under the guise of Iraqi non-compliance with UN Security Council resolutions, while refusing to enforce even limited measures with respect to Israel (such as the withdrawal of Israeli military forces to the positions they occupied prior to the second intifada) merely confirms this conclusion. Western powers, including members of the Quartet, remain unwilling to enforce international law and relevant UN resolutions concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, irrespective of whether they call for the return of Palestinian refugees (UNGA 194) or for the withdrawal of Israeli military forces from the 1967 OPTs (UNSC242).

An agenda for debate

In sum, durable solutions for Palestinian refugees consistent with international law and relevant UN resolutions can be crafted within the context of a two-state or single state solution. The real question that begs an answer, however, is whether or not the two-state solution is still relevant to a comprehensive solution to the conflict. If not, it will be upon the Palestinian people, together with those Israeli and international partners who recognize that a solution will only be durable if it is consistent with international law and UN resolutions, to revise the parameters of the struggle against the expansion of Israeli apartheid, and to re-define an inclusive agenda based on the individual and collective rights of those inside Israel, in the 1967 OPTs and in exile. The demand for recognition and implementation of the right of return of Palestinian refugees will represent a unifying call and key component in the mobilization for such new Palestinian agenda.

This debate is explored further in this issue by Awni al-Mashni, member of the Fatah Higher Council, and Amir Makhoul, Director of Ittijah, an umbrella association of NGOs inside 1948 Palestine/Israel. Paul Pretittore, legal advisor to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Bosnia, reflects on the experience of return and real property restitution in Bosnia and its applicability to the Palestinian case. Additional contributions to this issue include a report by Mahmoud Issa, an independent researcher and member of the Palestine Right of Return Committee in Denmark, about the 3rd Annual Meeting of the Palestine Right of Return Coalition.

Members of Zochrot, an Israeli initiative to raise awareness about the Nakba and Palestinian refugees, report on recent activities. The issue also includes updates on protection issues, including an analysis of the new UNHCR interpretation of the of Palestinian refugees under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the situation of Palestinian refugees in the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories in the context of the second intifada, and the growing problem of internal displacement in 1948 Palestine/Israel.