Thursday, September 5, 2013

Compensation to Palestinian refugees and the search for Palestinian-Israeli peace

Compensation to Palestinian refugees and the search for Palestine-Israel peaceThis review was first published in Middle East Monitor.

Israeli atrocities since the Nakba of 1948 transformed a great segment of the Palestinian population to involuntary exiles - a process in violation of international law and UN Resolution 194 which calls for the right of return. Any form of compensation entails a degree of historical responsibility for Israel which reflects on the international community as well, hence the reluctance to shatter the magnitude of impunity which has absolved Israel of countless crimes. 'Compensation to Palestinian Refugees and the search for Palestinian-Israeli peace', is an important book which expounds upon the various ramifications of compensation, including the vital issue of accountability.

While the United Nations has recommended Israel embarks on a process of compensation and restitution to Palestinian refugees, the occupying power has deemed the demands as 'expansionary'. The consequences for Israel are striking and might even be interpreted as a preliminary step towards a dismantling of the foundations of the illegal state, as any form of compensation would imply acknowledging historical and moral responsibility for human rights violations against Palestinians, including land usurpation and the appropriation of Palestinian property.

Following the UN Resolution 194, Israel countered its interpretation with the Absentees Property Law of 1950, which legalises the seizure of civilian property under the pretext of such property being an object of warfare. It also transferred Palestinian land and property to the Jewish National Fund, thus embarking upon the process of expansion through settlements. The Israeli law is considered as proof that there was never any intention to compensate Palestinian refugees for the damage inflicted by the occupation. The vastness of compensation includes claims which can be made by individuals, extended family, villages, all refugees regardless of generation, a collective claim by the Palestinian state, as well as collective claims by countries hosting Palestinian refugees, illustrating Israel's reluctance to commit to reparations not only from a historical viewpoint, which the Palestinian national Council established decades ago in declaring the partition and the occupying power as illegal, but also as an additional present and future complexity and tangible concern.

In order to combat claims and shift international focus back to the alleged predicament of Israel, in 1951 former Israeli prime minister Moshe Sharett linked the loss of Jewish property in Arab countries, notably Iraq, with the indignity of acquiescing to Palestinian property claims, declaring that any form of compensation the Israeli state owed to Palestinians would be calculated after a settlement reached with Arab countries. "We shall take into account the value of Jewish property that has been frozen in Iraq when calculating the compensation that we have undertaken to pay the Arabs who abandoned property in Israel." The International Committee of Jews from Arab Lands (ICJAL) went further in clarifying Israel's view of compensation - according to the organisation's chief chairman Amram Attias, "we want Israel to demand our property back in the negotiations. We are not against the Palestinians but we consider them part of the Arab nation as they do themselves. They were driven out - and so were we. For each house they demand, a house of ours should be demanded. For each mosque, a synagogue. For each cemetery, a cemetery".

Apart from an obvious distortion of history, which may be viewed as necessary in order to prevent the threat to Israel's 'historical narratives, collective identity and founding myths' upon which the contradiction of a 'Jewish and democratic' state is constructed, both quotes indicate an erroneous, and intentional, manifestation of equity between both parties, in order to downplay the necessity of compensating Palestinians for their loss over the decades.

Considering the nature of exile, which is determined as an imposition upon a nation, any form of compensation should address both symbolic justice and moral accountability, in keeping with the evolution of Palestinian resistance as a moral cause. However, compensation is also viewed as a corrupted measure of relinquishing the right to return, if any agreement reached focuses solely upon financial compensation without restoration of property and proper recognition of right. An effective measure for Palestinians would be for Israel to acknowledge and be held legally and morally accountable for forced displacement, exile and the refutation of the right to return.

Various constraints, including Israel's dismissal of individual justice hinders an implementation of a just solution. Atif Kubursi identifies six main types of compensation claims, regardless of whether displaced Palestinians harbour a desire to return or not, in order to provide a comprehensive approach. However, while Israel has allegedly declared itself in favour of limited compensation, it argues against restitution and the right to return due to future repercussions upon the occupying power in terms of demography. It is easier to displace the narrative of refugees and their collective experience in order to ensure a continuous dispersal of Palestinian identity and nationhood. Writing about the Israeli perspective, Orit Gal identifies several objections to a proper compensation, including the sovereignty concerns for Israel as well as the possibility of Palestinians asserting further claims to autonomy. Therefore it is easier for the Israeli narrative to dismiss Palestinian claims for compensation and reparation as an irrelevant issue to a peace agreement, rather than risk a deterioration of its undeserved status.

The issue of compensation should also extend to displaced Palestinians living in Israel. Expounded upon by Megan Bradley, internally displaced Palestinians should be included in the Palestinian narrative to construct a stronger case for equity. The shared national identity of Palestinians, as well as the collective experience of all displaced Palestinians should be recognised as fundamental to the case for compensation. In the case of internally displaced Palestinians, stronger advocacy would present a form of resistance by Palestinians within Israel, thus able to provide a challenge for Israel's dismissal of its own atrocities and historical injustices.

As Rex Brynnen observes, Israel does not equate possession with any form of responsibility. The same can be said of the international community, whose responsibility for Palestinian refugees should under no circumstances be eliminated from the process, as it bequeathed Israel with the right to violate international law. Any form of compensation, as Palestinians have adamantly stated, is incomplete without an absolute recognition of their own victimhood in a constructive manner, namely that of holding Israel accountable for its atrocious occupation. The repercussions on both Israel and the international community would prove colossal, as the entire foundation upon which the issue of human rights was built would erode to expose a political elite thriving upon international law violations supported by the same entities purportedly guarding human rights. Through Palestinian insistence upon a comprehensive reparation, Israel, its allies and the United Nations would ideally come to terms with the necessity of facing accountability for allowing the illegal process of expropriation and displacement to continue, rather than blatantly contravening their own supposedly impressive rhetoric.

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