Today we mark the 70th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba, the displacement and dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Forced displacement and dispossession are key factors to understand the situation in Palestine and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. At the beginning of the 20th century, most Palestinians lived inside the borders of “historic” or “Mandate Palestine”, now the state of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory (the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip). Five major periods of forcible displacement or forced population transfer transformed Palestinians into one of the largest and the longest-standing unresolved refugee case in the world today. By the end of 2013, an estimated 7.4 million (66 percent) of the global Palestinian population of 11.2 million are forcibly displaced persons including 360,000 Internally Displaced Persons in Israel and more than 5.0 million who are registered with and assisted by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).
Today, Palestinian society is highly fragmented and scattered all around the Middle East and the world and its social fabric has been torn as a result of this mass forced displacement. Palestinian culture and way of life today is highly intertwined with the effects of forced displacement. Even within the occupied Palestinian territory almost half the Palestinians therein are forcibly displaced persons. A look at the Gaza Strip even reveals that the idea of displaced persons are a minority in a society is reversed where the displaced part of the population makes up to 70 percent of the total population. In the West Bank including East-Jerusalem the displaced segment of the population makes up to 30 percent. It is important to consider that a person who fell victim to forced displacement has often fled his or her home with little belongings at hand in addition to the physical and psychological trauma. And in this particular case the Palestinian “host society” was challenged to integrate and accommodate huge proportions of their own population within their social, economic and political system throughout the last decades and constant “waves” of forcibly displaced persons. The nearly impossibility of this task given the reality of living under military occupation since 1967 is easy to imagine. Today, Palestinians whether displaced or not share a common history and heritage of displacement. Many Palestinian academics even argue that Palestinian culture has transformed into a culture of forced displacement. This idea is encapsulated by Mahmoud Dawish’s poem:
The exiles don’t look back when leaving
one place of exile – for more exile
lies ahead, they’ve become familiar
with the circular road, nothing to the front
or to the rear, no north or south.
They emigrate from the fence to the garden,
leaving behind a will with each step across the yard
of the house:
‘After we’re gone, remember only this life.’…
Legal implications of forced displacement
The concept of forced displacement or in legal terms forced population transfer is by no means a new phenomenon. The “unacceptability of the acquisition of territory by force and the often concomitant practice of population transfer” was identified by the Persian Emperor, Cyrus the Great, and subsequently codified in the Cyrus Cylinder in 539 B.C. – the first known human rights charter. “Almost two thousand years later, during the Christian epoch, European powers employed population transfer as a means of conquest, with pertinent examples including the Anglo-Saxon displacement of indigenous Celtic peoples, and the Spanish Inquisition forcing the transfer of religious minorities from their homes in the early 16th century.”
Through the late 19th and early 20th century, criticism of forced population displacement and transfer was expressed through a number of declarations and international treaties, though it was not until the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany that the legislative opposition to these practices became explicit. The Nuremberg Trials which followed the Second World War laid the legal foundations for what would go on to be enshrined within Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention: that population transfer and colonization of occupied territory is considered both a war crime and a crime against humanity. This position was to be further reinforced five decades later under The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (1998). In addition to that, the United Nations has recognized that the violation of these principles is an underlying cause of conflict that threatens international world order and peace.
Challenging displacement and dispossession
In particular since the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is often described in terms of a politicized discourse, which is an obstacle to rational debate and objective reporting of the issue. High levels of polarization and an increasingly radical instrumentalisation of narratives with exclusivist claims will not lead to a sustainable and just peace, and are instead fuelling the conflict. Therefore, it is important to acquire an understanding of the conflict based on compliance with international law to shift the politicized discourse surrounding the conflict towards a rights-based discourse or approach.
In the case of Palestine, this approach would entail solutions based on international law rather than a reliance on political negotiations to bring about a long lasting and just solution. In this light, it should be unacceptable to refer to the illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory as “undermining efforts towards peace” – as is regularly the case in political circles – whilst in reality these settlements constitute a violation of numerous international standards and principles. As such, they represent a manifestation of Israel’s ongoing impunity, and therefore the implementation of international law and standard should not be subject to negotiations, but demanded from the outset. Such a solution would necessarily include the recognition of rights of all involved parties, in particular the Palestinian people’s right to self determination; and the right of refugees and internally displaced persons to reparation (voluntary return, property restitution and/or compensations).