Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Reflections on Arab-Israeli Conflict

Reflections on Refugees, New Jersey & Broken Cameras
by Joel B.


Much has been written and said about the Palestinian refugee problem, and much blame has been cast at Israel for not allowing those “refugees” to “return” to their old homes in Israel. However, in the context of Palestinian Arabs,“refugee” is a propaganda term with no basis in law or fact. According to international law, there are no Palestinian refugees.

"Refugee" is defined by the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, adopted in Geneva under the auspices of the United Nations. "A refugee, according to the Convention, is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion." (Introductory note by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.)
With regard to Palestinian Arabs who, in 1948-1949, left their homes in areas that became the State of Israel, there are two crucial elements in the definition of refugee: (a) "country of origin", with emphasis on the word "country", and (b) "fear of being persecuted".

Let's examine these elements, starting with the reason for the inability of the so-called refugees to return to their former homes.

The reason they can't return to their homes in what is now Israel is not that they fear persecution. Supposedly, they want to return to their former homes. At least, that's what the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Palestinian Authority, and much of the international community are claiming. Presumably, those who insist on a "right of return" are not calling for these "refugees" to go back to places where they would be persecuted.
The reason these people can't return to their former homes is not because they fear persecution — it's because they don't have Israeli citizenship.

Which brings us to "country of origin". The country of origin of the so-called refugees is Palestine. Although not an independent state, Palestine, through the Palestinian Authority, consists of territory over which its Arab residents possess a degree of self-government and autonomy. Clearly, there is a country of Palestine. Consequently, the so-called refugees have a country of origin to which they can return, namely, the areas under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. Accordingly, these so-called "refugees" are not actually refugees as the term is defined by the Geneva Convention and is generally understood under international law.
So, why, 64 years later, are Palestinian Arabs still in "refugee" camps? And, how is it that Palestinian Arabs living in the territory of the Palestinian Authority, i.e., living in their own country, can be considered refugees?
Moreover, "refugee" is not an inheritable status. Even if, for the sake of argument, you consider Arabs who fled from Jaffa or Haifa in 1949 to be refugees, their children and grandchildren are not refugees under any definition in the Geneva Convention.

If you argue that these so-called refugees should have the right to "return" to homes that are now in Israel, you're contradicting the concept of Palestinian nationality. If you consider an Arab who once lived in Jaffa, or Haifa, or Lod (or whose grandparents once lived there) to be a refugee even though he's living in the Palestinian West Bank or Gaza, you're saying that he's not really a Palestinian; rather, he's a Jaffa-ite, or a Haifa-ite, or a Lod-ite.

Consider a parallel situation. My grandparents fled Russia. Let's assume that I wanted to move into my grandfather's old home in Russia. The Russian authorities could rightfully insist, "You can't move here --you're not a Russian citizen." Would I be considered a refugee? Of course not! Having been born in the United States, I have American nationality and citizenship. Although my grandparents were born in Russia, Russia isn't my "country of origin", the United States is.

Consider another parallel. In 1947, British India was partitioned into a Muslim state (Pakistan) and a Hindu state (the Union of India). Millions of Hindus left their ancestral homes in Pakistan to become Indian citizens, and millions of Muslims left their ancestral homes in India to become Pakistani citizens. Although displaced, they did not become refugees, even if their displacement was the result of duress or violence. Certainly their descendants are not considered refugees.

Another interesting parallel: millions of Muslims remained in India and accepted Indian citizenship, just as thousands of Arabs remain in Israel and accepted Israeli citizenship. Muslim Pakistan was not so hospitable to keeping a Hindu minority, just as the Muslim Arab states were not amenable to keeping their Jewish minorities.

Then there are the thousands of Americans who were displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. They can't go back to their ancestral homes in New Orleans — they have to make their homes elsewhere in the United States.

Also, thousand of American families have lost their homes to foreclosure and have had to settle elsewhere. And what about those who have been evicted because their homes have been seized by the authorities as a result of eminent domain
The inability to go back to your old house or to your old hometown does not make you a refugee, as long as you can dwell someplace else within your country.

Five Broken Cameras

I haven't seen the new film documentary "Five Broken Cameras" yet, but I've read enough about it to get the gist — that Israeli soldiers and Jewish residents the Bil'in area behaved atrociously toward their Arab neighbors.

No one can condone the destruction of Mr. Burnat's cameras or Bil'in's loss of some agricultural land. But before we use this documentary as justification to indict Israel, Israelis, and Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, we should consider that implacable conflicts over land exist everywhere. Here in our own State of New Jersey, entire communities have been wantonly destroyed in the name of public policy.

Example: In 2002, a modest neighborhood in Long Branch was uprooted to make way for "Pier Village", an upscale development of trendy retail shops, fancy restaurants and luxury apartments. Under the guise of "eminent domain", the properties of these long-time homeowners were turned over to a private developer. The hapless homeowners were forced to accept modest compensation, and then were left to find other homes in one of the highest cost areas in New Jersey.
How could such an injustice take place in the United States, where eminent domain had always been understood to refer to the taking of private property for a public purpose, and not for appropriation by another private owner?
In 2000, the city of New London, Connecticut decided that private developers could make better use of the Fort Trumbull neighborhood than those who had been living there for years. One resident had been born there in a house that had been in her family for over 100 years. Nevertheless, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Kelo v. New London that the "Takings Clause" of Article V of the Constitution did not protect the private property rights of the Fort Trumbull residents. Their homes were seized and turned over to private developers. (In the parlance of the Middle East, I guess the displaced residents of New London, Conn., and Long Branch, N.J., should be considered refugees, as should their children and grandchildren.)

Now let's compare the situation in Bil'in. The residents of Bil'in were able to go to the Israeli Supreme Court and argue that the route of the security barrier constitution an illegal appropriation of their land. The Israeli Supreme Court accepted their argument, and the barrier was re-routed.
It's too bad that the residents of Fort Trumbull and of the Long Branch pier area did not have access to the Israeli Supreme Court.
And, it's too bad that these New Jersey and Connecticut villagers did not attract the attention of a filmmaker as skilled as Guy Davidi to publicize their plight to the world. Perhaps international opprobrium would have been focused on New Jersey and Connecticut and their insupportable policies of "eminent domain", and those homes on the front line of corporate expansionism would have been saved.
One has to be careful in making judgments about places where we don't live.

I am imagining that there is an award-winning documentary out of Brazil consisting of home movies by a peaceful Amerindian villager in which he recorded heartwarming moments with this family and nasty confrontations with white loggers, ranchers and Brazilian soldiers, who smashed five of his cameras. Why do we react to "5 Broken Cameras" differently than we would respond to "Cinco Câmeras Quebradas"?

Maybe it's this:

Notwithstanding the atrocious treatment of Brazil's minorities, I haven't heard of any calls for Brazil to be wiped off the map or for white Brazilians to go back to Portugal and turn the entire country over to Amerindians, who, after all, were there first. There's no international boycott or divestment movement directed at Brazil. Artists don't cancel concert tours to Brazil because of oppression of indigenous peoples; Brazilian academics aren't barred from international conferences or banned from European universities.

Some Brazilians can do unjust things to other Brazilians without the legitimacy of entire nation being challenged.

Then, there's Israel ...
Joel B. provided this original content material; it is used with permission.
[Bruce's MidEast Soundbites]

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