In 1948, one of the greatest refugee crises in human history began. The displacement of the Palestinian people has created one of the longest refugee crises of the twentieth century. At the heart of solving this ongoing conflict is the question of Palestinian statehood, and how it can—or if it should—be achieved.
In ancient times, Palestine was the Jewish holy land. Jerusalem was and remains the holiest city in Judaism. However, after a series of rebellions against the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries, the Jews were forced into exile. By the twentieth century, the majority of the world’s Jews lived in Central-Eastern Europe, and in North America. However, mounting persecutions and ethnic violence against Jews in Europe, culminating in the Holocaust, saw the number of Jews in Palestine swell.
However, in the centuries following the Jewish diaspora, Palestine became home to a new population. The Palestinian people speak their own dialect of Arabic, distinct from the Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian varieties. They have their own culture, history, and experiences. After the Ottoman Empire, which controlled Palestine until 1918, ceded Palestine to the British following World War One, a separate Palestinian national identity began to emerge.
The creation of Israel largely stemmed this movement. However, while a return to the pre-1948 norm is out of the question, the issue of Palestinian statehood remains unsolved.
What is self-determination, and why does it matter?
Israel was founded at a time where the legal concept of the self-determination of nations was gaining serious currency across the third world. Against a backdrop of de-colonisation, and with the strong backing of the Soviet Union, the struggle of oppressed peoples to exert their political, social, and cultural independence erupted in the decades following the Second World War. Self-determination exerted a certain magnetism over oppressed peoples the world over.
Self-determination is a legal concept, as well as being widely considered a human right. At its core is the idea that a nation should be free to exercise its social, cultural, and political development without interference. Traditionally, it has involved the creation of states, and the participation of these states in the international community.
Its exercise in Palestine is difficult. The patchwork history of the region lends itself to fierce divisions. However, it is important to remember that, as with all human rights, self-determination is not merely an abstract concept. It has a human dimension, and affects real people.
I recently read an article written by a young Australian-Palestinian journalist named Jennine Khalik. Khalik’s article recounted the life and death of her grandfather, Kassem, in a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. Kassem lived for 67 years in Nahr al Bared camp, and died stateless, having never returned to his homeland.
Generations of Palestinians were born, raised, and died in the squalor of such camps, and in the fringes of the Israeli state in Gaza and the West Bank. For those lucky enough to escape, they would often spend time “vacationing” in the camps (as Khalik called it), returning to reunite with their loved ones amid power shortages, arbitrary security searches, and paramilitary raids.
Kassem passed away in November of last year, and Khalik wrote to express anger and frustration at the injustices her grandfather had endured. Kassem’s identity was intertwined with his statelessness, and without a state to issue a passport, Kassem could never return—not even for a daytrip—to his homeland.
There is an inseparable link between statelessness and the effectual exercise of basic human rights. Writing in the early 1950s, Hannah Arendt highlighted the importance of having the support of a recognised political community. She argued that, if a human being loses the support of their political community, they lose the qualities by which they are treated as a fellow human being.
Without a place to call home, and without a recognised political status, the Palestinians are left, in effect, ‘rights-less’. Further, without this recognition, the Palestinian people are left in legal and political limbo, without any effectual mechanism to assert their independence at law.
Palestinians’ Right to Return
For many Jews, particularly those behind the Iron Curtain, the right to return home became synonymous with self-determination. For Palestinians outside the de facto borders of Israel, the inability to return home also constitutes a major impediment on their ability to pursue their cultural, national, and political development.
Despite much rhetoric, international law has failed to afford stateless Palestinians a practical chance of returning home.
In 1948, two important international resolutions were passed by the nascent United Nations. On December 10, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). On December 11, the General Assembly adopted Resolution 194, which concerned the right of displaced Palestinians to return home. Article 11 of this resolution provided that those Palestinians who wished to return home should be allowed to. Those who didn’t should be properly compensated.
The UDHR promulgated in the same year, afforded at Article 13(2) the right of persons to leave, and to return, to their own country. Unfortunately, these resolutions are non-binding and thus a solution to the problem of Palestinian statelessness needs to be found through politics.
However, the right to return as a means of exercising self-determination is bogged by political realities. The absence of political will is the main hurdle preventing the roughly 4.3 million Palestine refugees from returning home. As one United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) representative explained, political will and political action are required for there to be any lasting change to the conflicts keeping the Palestine refugees in exile.
Solutions: Recognition of the State of Palestine
But what of those Palestinians within the de facto borders of Israel? Their situation pivots, in part, on the issue of recognition.
The idea of ‘recognition’ is closely tied to the idea of self-determination. In essence, it is the basis through which a nation can participate in the global community. Since the 1970s there have been increasingly successful moves in the international community to recognise Palestinian statehood.
Particularly, the last five years have been quite productive in seeing the international legal status of Palestinians improve. In November 2012, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution that granted Palestine ‘non-member observer status’. This status allows these states to participate in the work of the UN without formal membership. In effect, it afforded to Palestine the same status within the UN system as the Vatican City. While not much, it can be seen as a symbolic step to providing the Palestinians with more leverage in their dealing with Israel. It is a start.
Additionally, the number of countries around the world that recognise Palestine as an independent state is on the rise. Among these include China, India, Russia and many more have made official statements that acknowledge their recognition of the State of Palestine. Interestingly, most of the countries that recognise the State of Palestine have themselves exercised, or advocated, self-determination as an innate right.
Unfortunately, the question of recognition continues to raise more problems than it solves. While a movement towards international recognition slowly gains momentum, the plight of stateless Palestinians remains. They continue to live, and die, far from their homeland. A feeling of helplessness pervades. As Khalik, reflected on her grandfather’s life, wrote: “”I felt and feel helpless. Still helpless. It’s caught in my throat. It is all much bigger than me; more powerful than me. And who can I save when I couldn’t even save my own grandfather?”
Feature image by Ana Pérez López