Fifty-six years have passed since Palestinian lands were usurped and the exodus of thousands of families began. Generation after generation has been consigned to refugee camps in neighbouring Arab countries. Wars, international resolutions and countless peace initiatives have attempted to put an end to the Palestinian experience of suppression, violence and displacement. Marking the anniversary of the nakba, Palestinian writers address history and the present
Rules of engagement
Some believe force is justified in opposing Israeli occupation, but international humanitarian law is binding on both sides, writes Asem Khalil*
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Young Palestinians mount an Israeli tank after it was hit with a fire bomb during an Israeli raid on Deir Al-Balah in the Gaza Strip, Wednesday, 5 May 2004 (photo: AFP)
"Palestinians, what Palestinians?" The infamous words of Golda Meir still reverberate to this day, roaring like a demon in the dark corridors of history, haunting millions of Palestinians, trying to extinguish (forever?) the glimmer of hope that may have timidly flickered in their hearts. We know how the tragedy began, but see no end in sight. The Palestinians have coasted from one ordeal to another, then came 11 September to make a bad situation worse. The so-called war on terror is not particularly fond of liberation movements. For Israel, this is nothing new, only icing on the cake.
The best way to describe the current state of the Palestinian people is that they are transparent, almost invisible -- a nation made of "millions of ghosts", to use the words of Louis Lima of the Swiss newspaper Le Temps. Commenting on the assassination of Abdul- Aziz Al-Rantissi, Lima says that the Palestinians "have never been so weak, their rights so ignored in the course of the overall war on terror".
Condoleezza Rice has called the assassination an act of "self- defence". John Kerry, the US presidential hopeful, remarked "Israel has every right to defend itself against terror operations." Small wonder that Shimon Peres called the killing "a necessary operation", because "he [Al-Rantissi] was a terrorist". Sharon, meanwhile, congratulated his aides, promising that Israel will "continue its policy". Through this killing and similar operations, Israel aims to "break the will" of the Palestinian people, as Azmi Bishara put it. Israel is trying to eradicate the Palestinians' faith in their legitimate rights and turn them, in the eyes of the world, into terrorists.
This new -- or is it old? -- reality makes it incumbent on the Palestinians to choose, and fast, between two options. Either they forget their cause and believe that they simply do not exist. Or, they continue to believe in their cause and work towards their objectives, but how? Some Palestinians believe that force is the only solution. Some do not rule out force, but think it has to be a last resort. Others still reject violence on principle. Law does not exclude the use of force, but it tries to keep it within certain bounds.
On the domestic level, the state appropriates the use of violence against those who break the law or harm others. On the international level, the use of force can only be carried out by the international community as a whole within the framework of existing organisations (the UN Security Council in particular). A state, while having a natural right of self-defence, has to exercise this right according to the UN Charter and through UN organisations, or in coordination with them.
The right of self-determination for nations under occupation means above all the right to resist. Force is permissible, but resistance comes in other forms as well. The use of force should be within the framework of commitments to international humanitarian law. In other words, self-determination does not grant those living under occupation the right to violate humanitarian principles. On the contrary, the use of force should be based on these principles and should draw from them much-needed strength and legitimacy. Alternatively, when the occupying state, acting on grounds of security, military necessity or self-defence, resorts to force, it has to do so within the bounds of international humanitarian law. The end does not justify the means.
Israel's breach of international humanitarian law (the violations committed by the Israeli occupation) does not entitle the Palestinians to commit breaches of that law (suicide attacks against unarmed civilians). The opposite is also true. Suicide operations do not absolve Israel from the provisions of humanitarian international law (for example, Israel is not allowed to bomb civilians areas, use civilians as human shields, attack ambulances and kill without trial). These legal principles are binding on everyone irrespective of the situation, ius cogens, to use the legal term.
To sum up, international law grants people under foreign occupation the right to resist -- a right that may, but does not necessarily, involve the use of force. Every state has the right to defend itself, but this has to be done within the terms of Article 51 of the UN Charter, which applies in the case of an immediate threat to the country in question and disappears with the end of such a threat (extra-legal assassinations cannot be considered self-defence, according to the Charter). Finally, no one resorting to force is above the provisions of international humanitarian law or humanitarian principles.
Many believe that the Palestinian cause is just and that force is the only option open. But the Palestinians have a primary duty not to undermine their own cause. They are entitled to fight for freedom, but only within the law, particularly international humanitarian law. One should not, however, equate the victim and the criminal. Israel is the one occupying Palestinian lands. The occupation imposes facts on the grounds and is an illegal and unjustified state of affairs. Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands is at the heart of the conflict, not religion, culture, or ethnicity as some claim.
Many believe that the use of force may not be the most appropriate option for the Palestinians at present and accordingly call on Palestinians to confine themselves to peaceful expression. This position is called pragmatic by some and capitulating by others. Regardless of how you look at it, however, the Palestinian cause belongs to the Palestinian people as a whole. Their right of self- determination is the only reference point worth considering. It is impermissible for any Palestinian group to hijack the cause and "excommunicate" others. The Palestinians need to "put their house in order", to use the words of Ahmed Al-Tibi, and agree on a common plan of action for all national and Islamist factions.
The Palestinians need to gain points, not lose them. They need to come together and rise, like a phoenix, from the ashes. As Edward Said once said, "our goals are still the same, political independence and self-determination. But now we have to find new and creative methods to reach these goals."
* The writer is a Palestinian scholar born in Zababdeh in the West Bank. Other articles and papers of his can be found at www.profpito.com/palestine