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Are human rights negotiable?

The current rise in tension – or breakdown of the close relationship, take your pick – between the US and Israel is taking up a lot of news space, and rightly so. As a nuclear state, Israel's behaviour is of crucial interest not only to its near neighbours but also the rest of us living in distant lands. As an expansionist nuclear-armed state with colonial intentions Israel provides us with a compelling argument for the nuclear proliferation treaty to be expanded and countries like the US and its surrogate Israel to be forced to toe the line and sign-up. Of course, that's never going to happen. Hypocrisy and double-standards apply to the nuclear debate as much as any other where Western foreign policies are concerned. Israel's nuclear arsenal is the elephant on the corner in all the pseudo-earnest hype about Iran's nuclear ambitions, peaceful or otherwise.


Nevertheless, while Israel and its apologists on both sides of the Atlantic try to divert attention away from serious discussion about the whole Israel-Palestine issue, seeking to justify what is really unforgiveable, we need to cut through the hype and see what is really being said. If peace is ever going to have a chance in the Holy Land, the space needs to be found for open discussion of all the issues, such as East Jerusalem; such as the burgeoning colonies across the West Bank; such as Israel's "Judaisation" policy, not only in the occupied West Bank but also inside traditionally Arab areas of Israel like Galilee (OK, I know that all of what is now called Israel is a traditionally Arab area, but you know what I mean); such as the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

Along with the position of Jerusalem, the plight of the refugees has always, since Oslo at least, been deferred until "final status negotiations", whatever that is supposed to mean. I suspect it means, "let's put it off for as long as possible so that a) we can build more facts on the ground and make it impossible for refugees to return; and b) maybe people will forget about it if it's not discussed for any length of time". Nevertheless, in all the fuss about the settlements – colonies, no less – the other issues have slipped out of the public and political consciousness. Online comments about an article in the Guardian included the following: "It might help the Israelis if they heard some remote understanding for their predicament and some remembrance that the Arab side in the dispute demands that Israel take in refugees and their offspring as a condition for resolving the dispute and have done exactly nothing to explain to their people that, in order to resolve the dispute, such a demand will have to be dropped." I have added the emphasis. Let's be generous and assume that the writer has limited knowledge of the conflict and won't really understand why this short paragraph is so contentious that a short lesson is not preferable, it's essential.

First of all, the "Arab side" has not made a "demand" about refugees; the Palestinians are insisting on the application of international law and their inalienable right for refugees to return to their land. Why should that right be taken away from them or "dropped"? In theory, every Jew in the world has the "right to return" to Israel, a country that most will have no direct link with whatsoever other than through the fact that they are Jews and Israel has a law which says that Jews can "return", any time they want to. And yet the Palestinians who lived in Palestine – now called Israel – for centuries and were driven out in 1948 by what Israeli historian Ilan Pappe calls "ethnic cleansing", have no such right in Israeli eyes to go back to their homeland, despite having international law on their side. It is interesting that the writer of that online comment says that it is the victims of dispossession who have to make the concessions and their right "will have to be dropped". Not could be, but has to be. If there are millions of Jews around the world who live in their own countries quite happily and have no intention to migrate to what is to all intents and purposes a foreign country in the Middle East, logic dictates that they are the ones whose Israeli self-declared "right to return" will have to be dropped in order to allow the legally-backed returnees to make that homeward journey. Why not? If Israel is truly a democracy, as it claims to be, then the powers that be can't, surely, be insisting on maintaining a majority based on ethnicity, can they?

Well, yes, they are actually. And if a speech by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is anything to go by, support is there for such an ethnic state. Speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) earlier this week, Mrs. Clinton said, "The inexorable mathematics of demography are hastening the hour at which Israelis may have to choose between preserving their democracy and staying true to the dream of a Jewish homeland". That's right: either a democracy or a Jewish homeland, you can't have both. Mrs. Clinton's words are very sinister. For years, the Israeli-Arabs   Palestinians descended from those who stayed in what became Israel in 1948   have heard Israeli politicians and commentators say that they are a "threat" to the state of Israel because their birth rate is higher than that of the Israeli-Jews. Hillary Clinton appears to be suggesting that in the event of the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, no matter how "rump" that might be, the Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel will be pushed over the border into the "Palestine" statelet, completing Pappe's "ethnic cleansing" started more than sixty years ago. Does the Secretary of State's speech mean that the US will turn another blind eye to human rights abuses by Israel? And will those Israeli citizens of Palestinian descent be forced to "drop" their citizenship along with their cousins' right to return, so that all those Jews around the world who do not want to migrate to Israel can maintain their "right" to do so in any case?

Along with the twisted logic that says cessation of Israel's illegal colonial settlement policy is a "concession" to be fought for at the negotiating table, the denial of the Palestinian refugees' right to return compounds already criminal action. Imagine the reaction if a burglar sat in a courtroom and told the judge that he will only burgle 90 homes instead of 100 as long as he is allowed to keep the loot. That's more or less what Israel is saying about settlements. But are human rights really negotiable?

International laws and conventions are there to protect us all; they should not be applied arbitrarily to suit the whims of member states of the UN. Israel is one such state and it should be taken to task over its failure to abide by UN Resolutions that affirm the right of return of the refugees and the illegality of settlements on occupied land. If "nafnaf" online at the Guardian is serious about doing something to ease Israel's "predicament", he or she could remember that this has not been forced upon the Zionist state. Israel's "predicament" is entirely self-inflicted and can be changed with one or two strokes of a politician's pen. Where is Israel's Mandela with the courage to use it?

 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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