In January of this year I spent one week travelling through Israel and the West Bank with members of BADIL to participate in workshops on the issues of the return of refugees and displaced persons and property restitution. I had been invited because of my experience in Bosnia working on human rights issues, particularly those regarding refugees and displaced persons. Despite curfews and roadblocks, we were lucky enough to visit Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nazareth and Tel Aviv. During my trip we arranged a number of meetings with refugees and displaced persons to discuss the situation in Bosnia to see if any of the lessons learned there could be used in Israel and Palestine. While there are many similarities between the two situations, there are also vast differences.

In both places individuals were systematically driven from their property, which was later declared "abandoned" and allocated to other individuals. Also, housing was routinely destroyed to prevent refugees and displaced persons from returning. At the heart of this displacement laws were passed not only to reallocate property, but also to ensure previous owners would never get it back. The result has been millions of civilians living as refugees and displaced persons – with limited rights to their previous homes. And in both places the right to return to their properties seemed a priority for all those displaced. While in Palestine and Israel I was constantly amazed by the attachment refugees and displaced persons had to their land despite being displaced for such long periods of time. For me it was difficult to believe, in particular, that internally displaced persons had been prevented from returning to their land, despite the facts the land remains vacant and those displaced now live only several kilometers away. It is apparent that this issue must be adequately addressed in any final peace agreement.

Yet what was most striking to me during my trip was that the crimes the international community is trying to reverse in Bosnia are the same crimes that continue to this day in Israel and Palestine. The US brokered the final peace agreement that ended the conflict in Bosnia, commonly known as the Dayton Peace Agreement. This Agreement provided that all refugees and displaced persons had the right to return to their homes and property, and set out the obligations of government officials to ensure all refugees and displaced persons could exercise their rights. But equally important to the peace agreement itself was the force by which the international community ensured the provisions of the agreement would be realized. This is particularly true of the US government and the European Union.

However, in Israel and Palestine neither seems to strongly support the rights of refugees and displaced persons to return to their property. The same countries that forced Bosnian officials to accept the return of refugees and displaced persons (minorities) have failed to apply the same standard to Israeli officials. In particular, the US position on a final peace agreement appears to be against the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. This is, allegedly, to preserve the Jewish majority in Israel. Where I come from we call this "ethnic cleansing". The US government was the strongest supporter of refugee rights in Bosnia – I know this because I worked in the refugee office of the US Embassy in Sarajevo for eighteen months. The US spent tens of million of dollars reconstructing homes of Bosnian refugees, and further financial assistance was often conditioned on Bosnian authorities allowing refugees to return to their property. The European Union has spent similar amounts. However, US assistance to Israel seems to come with few requirements, particularly humanitarian concerns.

During my visit I was very much impressed by the Palestinian NGOs I was able to meet. Not only are they organized, but they are also strongly involved in the issues affecting them – much more so than local NGOs in Bosnia. Hopefully this will one day allow them to achieve their goals. Since the Palestinians have been displaced from their property, the right of refugees and displaced persons to return to their homes has become clearer. Yet no one seems willing to apply this standard to the Palestinians. At a workshop held in the Kalandia refugee camp, a young man asked me why the US does not support Palestinian refugees and displaced persons. Unfortunately, I do not have an answer. But perhaps in the near future there will be some options. Our last meeting of the trip took place in Tel Aviv – a meeting with Israelis interested in this issue. It is obvious they continue to have certain concerns regarding return issues, but they did recognize the injustices taking place. Maybe this is a start.

Paul Prettitore, Legal Advisor to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH), and a former legal advisor to the Office of the High Representative in BiH.
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