By Fahmi Howeidi
The basic principle in politics is to assume a lack of innocence surrounding any action, so we should treat with caution the visit of the Elders' delegation to Gaza and the tour of the region. This group contains some of the most respected figures with worldwide reputations, including former US President Jimmy Carter; the ex-President of the Irish Republic, Mary Robinson; the veteran UN envoy and former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Algeria, Lakhdar Brahimi; Indian lawyer and activist Ela Bhatt; the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan; and retired Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town Desmond Tutu. It was put together by South Africa's Nelson Mandela in 2007 to utilise their combined experience to tackle international problems. Not all of the Elders took part in the delegation on this occasion.
What drew my attention to the latest group visit to look at the Palestinian issue is that it came at a time when frustration has overwhelmed everyone, with direct negotiations achieving nothing and the Israeli government going ahead with settlement activity. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is bogged down; unable to retreat and unable to accept Israeli conditions which seek to humiliate him. The latter include an insistence on recognising the "Jewish identity" of the state of Israel, threatening Palestinian citizens of the state with expulsion, in return for a temporary settlement freeze.
Into this mess stepped the Elders, touring the region with timing seemingly guaranteed to save the day and revive hope in the "peace process". I am reluctant to have negative thoughts about the delegation, but the timing of its arrival in the Middle East prompts doubts in my mind.
Some background to the visit was given by Lakhdar Brahimi in an interview with Hayat newspaper. Mr. Brahimi is the only Arab member of the group and he said that the Elders will visit the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Israel, and that they were hoping to meet officials in Saudi Arabia. The intention, he said, was to have the siege of Gaza lifted and to support the two state solution; Israel and Palestine sharing Jerusalem as their capital and based on the borders of 1967, with an equal exchange of land.
It was the last bit that stung me, for it also implies, in the context of leaked Israeli statements on the matter, the transfer of population as well as land.
Although Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not speak openly about population exchange, the call to recognize the Jewish identity of the Israeli state opens the door to the expulsion of 1.3 million Palestinians from Israel across the border into the proposed Palestinian state. Right-wing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman let the mask slip and declared that his country looks forward to the transfer of Israel's Palestinian citizens to the Palestinian state, in exchange for the Jewish State keeping West Bank settlements, rather than seeking a solution based on the principle of land for peace.
So far, President Abbas opposes the idea of a uniquely Jewish state and population exchange, but is keeping quiet on the idea of a land swap. He has said on more than one occasion that he does not object to it, arguing that the Palestinians will establish their state on an area equivalent exactly to that which was occupied in 1967.
If the President of the Palestinian Authority has, in effect, agreed to a land exchange, it is not surprising that the Elders have adopted this idea, considering it as one of the pillars of an acceptable solution for Palestinians and Arabs to achieve peace in the region. This, though, is a dangerous step backwards, giving up on basic Palestinian rights and adding to the decline expressed by the Palestinian Authority leadership (and followed by some Arab countries) waiving the right for Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in historic Palestine from which they were expelled in 1948 and in the years since then.
The exchange of land which paves the way for the exchange of population is not an innocent negotiating request; the way it is phrased allows Israel to sidestep international law which considers the West Bank and Gaza as occupied Palestinian territory. It also wants to reverse the advisory ruling of the International Court of Justice that such land is certainly occupied and Israel should withdraw from it, that the "security wall" is against the law and must be dismantled, and that the people affected by it should receive compensation.
In one fell swoop, Israel wants to shatter established legal norms, transforming the apartheid wall into the border of a Palestinian state with partial sovereignty and territory lacking contiguity. Israel achieved something similar with its peace treaty with Egypt in 1979; it agreed to withdraw militarily from Sinai but maintained a degree of sovereignty over the land in three areas. If such an agreement is reached with the Palestinians, the whole issue will be broken down under separate headings such as borders, water, settlements, refugees and other matters based on the principle of equal rights of Palestine and Israel over the West Bank. We would end up with nothing to do but bargain on the distribution of those rights according to the balance of power. That would explain the uproar caused when Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz published the proposed land exchange map last December; the map was presented Mahmoud Abbas, and he was allowed to look at it, but he couldn't keep a copy unless he agreed to sign it.
Israel wants to exchange land occupied in 1948 with land captured in 1967, while it does not have legal title over either. It believes that this makes it legitimate to annex territory it has occupied if their Palestinian interlocutors dropped their right over it and gave it as a gift to Israel, but this is not true because possession of land does not mean its ownership, which lies with the real owner no matter how long it was occupied or controlled by any other.
As such, Israel does not have a legal right to exchange land, unless the owner of the land admits that he has transferred the ownership to Israel. No Palestinian will ever do this, regardless of the degree of subjugation or surrender, or even collusion with the occupier, he has.
A land swap confiscates Palestinian property contained between the apartheid wall and the 1949 Armistice Line, including East Jerusalem. That is, it considers Israel's new borders to be the path of the wall, which means the annexation of 319,830 dunums of the West Bank to Israel (a dunum is equal to one thousand square metres), along with the annexation of 68,720 dunums to Arab Jerusalem for which an Israeli law was issued in 1967, a total of 388,550 dunums.
Israel has a history of deception through land exchange. The armistice agreement with Jordan, signed in 1949, stipulated the right of Jordan to replace the land ceded to Israel with other land in Al-Fator and Hebron district; Israel was to pay for a new road between Qalqilya and Tulkarim, in order to restore contact between the two towns. Nothing of the sort happened, of course, Israel did not pay for the road and it did not give up land in Al-Fator or in the district of Hebron; the whole matter was a deception and ended with Israel's annexation of Al-Fator territory, which was Arab land in 1949 but became part of Israel.
What will Israel provide in any land swap trick? The respected researcher Dr. Salman Abu Sitta says that Israel proposes an expansion of the West Bank (ie the "new state of Palestine") in the district of Hebron, totalling around 190,000 dunums, on land that was, still is, and will remain, barren; where there is only one Arab village that is not recognized by the Israelis (Umm el-Heyran); and where there is no fresh water source. In practice, that means that Israel is not actually losing or giving up anything meaningful; in fact, it will have succeeded in getting rid of an Arab village. To the west of Hebron, Israel proposes an expansion of 13,000 dunums, also barren land, so that none of the illegal Jewish settlements in the area are affected.
The plight of Gaza is no less serious than that of the West Bank. The real armistice line, which Egypt ratified in 1949, gives the Gaza Strip, an area of 555 km2, 200 km2 more than the current area, but a secret agreement signed with the Egyptian government in 1950 moved the armistice line to the inside of its current route on the grounds of maintaining security and preventing intrusions; it was intended to prevent Palestinians from returning to their homes beyond the armistice line. Now we have the land exchange project which "gives" Gaza 64.5 km2 of the original 200 km2 already seized by deception and secret negotiations about which the Palestinian people knew nothing.
As with Hebron, the expansion of the Gaza Strip would not necessitate the removal of any illegal settlement; all the settlements built on land stolen in 1950 will stay in place. This is a tried and trusted method of Israel; it seizes land by force or blackmail, then offers to return to a small part of what was taken in exchange for the owner dropping all claims to the full territory.
The land swap plan is no longer a secret. It was developed in 2008 and published by the Newsletter of the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP). It was part of the Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo initiative in Geneva which was adopted by Gen. Giora Eiland at the Washington Institute. Land exchange is considered to be a cornerstone of an integrated project for peace based on determining borders on the basis of Israeli expansion in the West Bank, in exchange for a symbolic retreat in Hebron and the Gaza Strip. It also calls for a symbolic return of refugees with resettlement of the majority in Arab countries. Jerusalem will be divided according to its districts, but sovereignty will remain with Israel.
With regard to the State of Palestine, it will be neither a State nor Palestine. It will be demilitarized with incomplete sovereignty; there will be no Palestinian control over its borders or the Jordan Valley, nor will there be Palestinian jurisdiction in the air above or the ground below; and Israel will have the right to establish and control early-warning stations across Palestinian territory.
In short, the idea of a land swap is a short-cut to obliterating the Palestinian case altogether, entirely in Israel's favour, of course. I do not know with what logic it was accepted by the Elders and adopted. Please forgive me, therefore, for harbouring doubts about the timing and, if I may say, the wisdom of the Elders' intervention during the current frustrating situation.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.