The issue is not that documents giving details of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority were leaked by Al Jazeera and the Guardian. We all had a general picture of the positions taken by Palestinian negotiators in front of Israel. Such positions were already subjected to strong criticism for being excessive, especially the concessions made over the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people. Rejection of these concessions has been emphasised in conferences, statements and demonstrations over a number of years.
However, the leaks revealed the true picture of the submissiveness of the negotiators, how low they could get, and the shameless way in which they begged the Israelis for little more than a mini-state with citizens gathered in isolated cages and Palestinian refugees abandoned along the "road map to peace". For this, the negotiators were rewarded with great jobs and villas in Abu Dis or Jericho; in the meantime, the question of Palestine, including Jerusalem and the right of return, could go to hell.
That is the real issue and scandal; it's the straw that broke the camel's back. After displaying great patience for 18 fruitless years since the disaster of Oslo, it is time for the Palestinian refugees to have their own people's revolution.
After the death of Yasser Arafat, who held fast to the constants of Palestinian rights despite many mistakes and his corrupt inner circle, we were stuck with the group that even the Israeli enemy did not consider worthy of assassination, as was the case with Abu Jihad (Khalil al-Wazir) and Abu Iyad (Salah Mesbah Khalaf) and others; in fact, the Israelis probably saw the benefit in keeping them alive. Thus, the Palestinian "Vichy" Authority carried out its primary mission as a subcontractor for Israel; it was less costly than the mercenaries of Blackwater and more responsive.
So responsive, in fact, that we find the following: The primary issue for Palestinians, the right of return of the refugees, has been dropped from the agenda, to be held in reserve as a potential "bogey" in discussions. The Al Jazeera leaks reveal that Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat (who has now told the BBC that he has resigned his position) said that the Palestinian offer to Israel was to give the refugees the option of a symbolic return to Palestine, whereby in reality only a few thousand would do so, or a change of exile from, for example, Argentina to Chile, or a move from Ein El Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon to Balata refugee camp in the West Bank. The first axiom in the heart of every Palestinian, and in international law, is that the right of return for Palestinians is achieved only by the return of refugees "to the land or house or place that they, or their families, were expelled from in 1948 and were not allowed to return to".
That negotiator's option is a gimmick. The right of return is an inalienable individual right that cannot be negotiated away; any refugee is entitled to use it at any time possible as it does not have an expiry date. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides for the right of anyone to leave their country and return to it; this is not subject to international agreements or negotiations and no one can cancel it.
The suggestion that Jerusalem and the Old City could be given up is unforgiveable, even if decorated with pseudo-respectability by an international committee to manage the Noble Sanctuary. If international law has rejected such a concept, how can those who say they represent the people of this Holy Land accept it?
As far as land exchange is concerned, it is a national, legal and geographical sin. Israel does not own the land which it occupied in 1948 west of the armistice line in any case, so how can it propose to exchange it with land east of the armistice line which it occupied in 1967 and does not own? Land exchange is a clear violation of the Palestinian National Charter which stipulates that the land of Palestine is one and is indivisible. It is ironic that the League of Nations Mandate itself required that Palestine remain indivisible. Are the Palestinian negotiators less patriotic than Britain which allowed mass immigration of Jews into Palestine pre-1948? If the Israeli side decides to accept the Palestinian offer will the Palestinian Authority hold a referendum on the illegal division of the land? And if the people of Palestine reject the proposed exchange, which is almost certain as long as the referendum is not fraudulent, what will the international position be?
The Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian National Council, which selects the leadership of the former, are the most important achievements of the Palestinian people. We did not win any wars, despite the sacrifice of thousands of lives, and yet we won world recognition. But those sitting on the chairs of the PLO and PNC for a quarter of a century no longer represent the world's 11 million Palestinians, half of whom were born after the disaster of Oslo and three-quarters who live in the Diaspora. Only 18% of Palestinians live under the police state of the Palestinian Authority which watches their every move in case they think of resistance to Israel's occupation, and cuts off their livelihood if they object to PA policies.
The Palestinian Authority grew so that it devoured the PLO and left it in place to give a veneer of legitimacy when necessary. Some Palestinian institutions pre-date the PA, such as education, health and municipalities. Those which came into being along with the Authority, such as the security forces, political negotiator teams and PR/media departments, are paid for, and influenced by, the Israeli occupation and the United States, with EU support.
The whole Palestinian Authority and its operations have to be placed in context; in order to understand why it raises such concerns, we have to look at the roots of the problems it is supposed to address. The occupation of Palestine did not begin in 1967; it started in 1948, with the Nakba (Catastrophe) of the creation of the state of Israel and the beginning of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. The first goal of the refugees, who now represent three-quarters of all Palestinians, was to return to their homeland. In 1950, the first refugees' conference was held in the Gaza Strip, the only part of Palestine which did not fall under Israeli occupation or Jordanian annexation; the priority was to return home through a national programme to include resistance and the popular representation of refugees, plus a national education scheme. This resulted in the formation of the "Executive Committee of the Refugees' Conference" which represented the refugees until the establishment of the PLO in 1964. It was this Committee which was behind the establishment of the first legislative council in Gaza in the early sixties, and sent its first delegation of refugees to the United Nations in 1961.
In the years after the Nakba foreign aid was no reason to abandon basic rights, with direct or indirect bribes; nor was it necessary to lecture refugees about political realities, as is the case nowadays. Early refugees burnt food supplies in UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) warehouses when foreign aid was offered in exchange for giving up their homeland. They were made of sterner stuff in those days.
It was not surprising, therefore, that after the long journey of the national movement which ended tragically with the Oslo Accords the right of return movement again came to prominence. Today, it is a major force and most effective in foreign capitals around the world, including some Arab countries, with around a million active members representing seven million refugees.
This figure for the number of refugees includes those displaced in Palestine in 1948 who stayed in their own country, which is now called Israel, and who remain an integral part of the Palestinian people; their leaders languish in Israeli prisons. Despite being key players in the right of return campaign, the PLO, unfortunately, ignores them and ruled them out of "negotiations" with the Israeli occupation authorities. The organisation should have paid heed to the first signs of neglect of the refugee issue during the negotiations, wherein it has been notable by its total absence from the discussions.
During the international conferences sponsored by Canada in the late nineties (I attended some of them myself), defenders of the right of return were individuals and from national groups, and were up against the Israelis and some individuals appointed by the Palestinian Authority, some of whom remain in their posts to this day. This situation should have been stopped before it began by those who remained of the old Palestinian National Council, but the burden was put on the popular committees for the right of return, which have played a great role wherever the Palestinian Diaspora is found.
Returning to the roots of the problem has become an urgent necessity after 18 years of Oslo's deception and wasting nearly a quarter of a century in a national struggle that has produced national institutions with no credibility among the people.
There must now be a people's revolution fuelled by those who still hold the keys to their homes in occupied Palestine from which they were expelled in 1948. They are the rightful owners of the land on which Israel is built and it is they who have endured the loss of their homes and those dear to them who have been martyred in the struggle for justice.
We, the Palestinian refugees, therefore call for the following:
1. The removal of the discredited Oslo negotiators from their positions without delay, and a clear de-legitimisation of their previous agreements, actions and statements.
2. A new conference for "the key holders" and their representatives from all over the world, to defend their homeland of Palestine and create a "Refugee Council".
3. The current Palestinian National Council, which lacks legitimacy by virtue of fact and its inability to play any role over the past two decades, to convene and dissolve itself prior to the election of a new National Council representing all Palestinians everywhere (including those in the Palestinian territories occupied in 1948, who should have a special arrangement), with a commitment to the original Palestinian National Charter. It is unacceptable for the current authorities to obstruct a Preparatory Commission for the elections, or to claim that such elections are difficult or impossible because they do not know the whereabouts of all Palestinians. These are flimsy excuses aimed at perpetuating the (unacceptable) status quo.
4. The new National Council should establish a national court to hold accountable all those who have had a role, since the Oslo agreements, in the violation of basic national issues, collaboration with the Israelis, and political and financial corruption.
The committees for the rght to return around the world have called for a political programme to include the points mentioned above. All Palestinian refugees so interested are requested to send a message to the Right of Return Conference; no right is lost as long as there are people demanding and needing it.
The author is the founding president of the Palestine Land Society and an honorary adviser to the Middle East Monitor. This article is a translation from the Arabic which appeared in Al Quds Al Arabi, 9 February 2011.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.