Palestine and the subversion of international law

For Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, freedom of movement is non-existent. But to flee and thus to lose one’s right of return places Palestinians in a situation that is even worse. How international law underpins Israel’s policy of ethnic cleansing.

The first time my siblings and I visited Palestine with our father was in 2007, precisely forty years after he had left it as a refugee. It was a difficult decision for him. All of us had been multiple times, and we had pleaded with him to go back.

But his emotions got in the way. His recollections of home were magical, like a child’s. Although he was born into poverty, he had experienced moments of unfettered joy with his family in Hebron. After hearing about the city’s transformation from relatives, he had preferred not to visit at all than to see his Hebron altered.

We had heard something very similar from our maternal grandfather, who as a Jew had been forced to flee Trieste after Mussolini’s racial laws in 1938. He returned briefly after the War, writing a detailed and deeply sad letter to a friend detailing the anguish it was causing him. First, he had lost Trieste physically; now, not finding it as he remembered it, he was losing it again. There was very little that survived of the once-elegant, prosperous and culturally diverse city of his youth.

Our father had become stateless when he fled Palestine in 1967, losing his Palestinian ID and with it his right of return. I was born stateless, too, because in Italy at that time only fathers could provide citizenship to their children. I became an Italian citizen along with my father when that law changed in 1983, entitling him to the same citizenship as his wife, my mother. My father could have returned to Hebron then, as a tourist, but he had already said his final goodbye to his homeland and house where he was born.

Then, after years of ignoring our requests, he suddenly changed his mind. I believe he did so only because he understood how important it was for all of us to travel to Palestine with him. Still, the thought of returning was tormenting him. We met in Jenin at the home of the family of Amal, my stepmother and mother of our two younger half-brothers, Tareq and Sami. My father said right away that he would not go to Hebron. Despite the long journey, he was interested only in visiting Jerusalem.

We had all travelled to Jenin separately, carrying different papers, and this affected our visit to Jerusalem more than I could ever have imagined. Amal and our younger brothers had entered Israel via Jordan, crossing the Allenby Bridge into the West Bank. They were using Palestinian ID cards, since applying for a Palestinian passport would have required them to tell the authorities about their Italian nationality, thus forfeiting their right of return. Our father had travelled with them on his Italian passport.

My sister had arrived from Syria with a Jordanian passport, while I had done the unimaginable and landed in Tel Aviv. After I arrived, the guards took my passport, separated me from the queue of tourists and interrogated me until late in the evening, leaving my friends to wait outside for almost ten hours. This is the treatment reserved for undesirables, usually political activists, NGO workers or, like me, foreigners with Palestinian surnames.

Jerusalem and Jenin lie only around 70 kilometers apart; yet, for Palestinians, the journey between the two cities can be extremely lengthy. In the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the H2 area of Hebron, there are 645 Israeli barriers either permanently or intermittently controlling, restricting and monitoring Palestinian movement. These physical impediments have been in place since 1967; together with the permit requirements and designation of areas as restricted or closed, they prevent Palestinians from getting what they need, causing problems in their personal lives, making it harder for them to earn a living, and further dividing the West Bank.

Because our father, my sister and I were traveling on tourist visas, we could move around freely. But obtaining a permit to enter the Holy City is exceedingly hard and time-consuming for Palestinians without foreign passports, meaning that Amal and our brothers were travelling irregularly. Dad stacked our six passports so that the three with visas were on top and the three without were on the bottom. The suspense and fear we felt during that cab journey were almost intolerable. Each time we crossed a checkpoint we hoped that the Israeli guards wouldn’t examine our papers too meticulously.

That trip to Jerusalem with my stepmother and half-brothers awoke in me a deep and lasting curiosity about the status of Palestinians and the value of their documents. For the first time I realized that, because of our various backgrounds, different regulations applied to different members of our family. What were these rules restricting Palestinians’ access to Palestine? And what were the international laws sanctioning this clearly political objective?

Al Khalil checkpoint in Hebron, 2015. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Status and control

The newly created Palestinian Authority issued the first Palestinian passport in 1995, two years after the signing of the Oslo Agreement on 13 September 1993. Compared to other passports, the Palestinian passport obviously isn’t worth much. The Palestinian Authority has no power over any decision concerning the movement of Palestinians, particularly when it comes to the entry of diaspora Palestinians into Israel. A PA passport confers upon its holder the status of a permanent resident of the Occupied Territories rather than a citizen of Palestine. Since the entity that issues it isn’t a state, it’s nothing more a travel document. Even so, it is an important symbol of Palestinian nationality.

In order to be eligible for a PA passport, Palestinians must first be included in the Palestinian population registry, which is controlled by Israel. The authority to determine resident status has become an important instrument of Israel’s rule. A colour code is applied to Palestinian ID cards proving residency. Green IDs are issued to Palestinians residing in the West Bank and Gaza, and blue IDs to those residing in East Jerusalem and Israel. From demography to mobility, this ‘colour’ divide has impacted on every aspect of the Palestinian population’s lives for decades. The checkpoints scattered around the West Bank necessitate that Palestinians have their IDs even when traveling within the Occupied Territories, and different rules apply depending on the colour of their IDs.

Between 1949 and 1967, when Jordan and Egypt controlled the West Bank and Gaza, they operated an ‘open bridges’ policy that permitted Palestinians to work and travel freely within the territories as well as to cross their borders. However, they were prevented from entering Israel and thus from visiting their relatives and former homes. After Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank in the war of 1967, this changed: Palestinians in the occupied territories could legally enter Israel.

However, beginning with the first Intifada (1987–1991), the Israeli government mandated that all Palestinian residents seeking to leave the areas must obtain a license from the to do so. ‘Exit cards’ have been a requirement ever since. Israeli authorities have the power to grant or deny Palestinian residents’ travel permits without reason or notice. Due to the difficulty in obtaining a permit to use Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, and the subsequent risk of being refused passage, most Palestinians in the West Bank have since preferred to enter and exit Israel through Allenby Bridge into Jordan. Inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, on the other hand, mostly choose to depart through the Rafah crossing into Egypt, due to increasing difficulties in accessing the West Bank.

Due to restrictions on licenses or high costs, the number of Palestinians traveling from Gaza to the West Bank dropped by 98% during the months preceding Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and enforcement of a buffer zone surrounding the entire territory. While movement within Gaza remains unlimited (or did until 7 October 2023), only a select few groups of people receive permits to enter and exit Egypt through the Rafah crossing, and then only in cases of extreme urgency, for example when special medical treatment is required.

The situation in East Jerusalem is unique. Palestinians from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank who wish to visit must apply for a special permit from the Israeli authorities. Except for men and women over the age of 55 and 50 respectively, Palestinians with West Bank IDs are required by the Israeli authorities to get permits before entering East Jerusalem through one of the authorized checkpoints. Even within the city itself there are restrictions on freedom of movement. Palestinians living in East Jerusalem must have an Israeli-issued ID card that grants them ‘permanent resident’ status. These cards can be revoked at any time, for example if one travels abroad for an extended length of time, whether for business or any other reason.

Even medical treatment in Israeli or East Jerusalem hospitals must be approved by Israel. Fifteen percent of West Bank patients’ permit applications remain unauthorized by the time of their scheduled hospital appointment. Every year a significant number of ambulance transfers to East Jerusalem are delayed because of the so-called ‘back-to-back’ method. This involves transferring patients from Palestinian ambulances to Israeli ones at checkpoints, because of limitations imposed by the Israeli authorities. Overall, the result has been to cut off East Jerusalem from the remainder of the Occupied Territories.

The Palestinian Authority lacks the social and political leverage to make the occupying power accountable for its actions, for example under the terms of the Hague Regulations of 1907 (articles 42–56), the Fourth Geneva Convention (CG IV, articles 27–34 and 47–78) of 12 August 1949 and certain provisions of the Geneva Convention Additional Protocol I of 8 June 1977. According to international law, occupation should never be anything other than temporary. The current situation is therefore more accurately described as the unequal distribution of rights between two populations living on the same land, now fully controlled by the Israeli state.

Statelessness reproduced

Having a Palestinian identity card or passport is essential for preserving the ability to decide one’s nationality until citizenship is achieved, regardless of whether one lives in East Jerusalem, the West Bank or Gaza. Losing that privilege doesn’t take much; you then join an endless line of stateless people across multiple generations who will never be able to claim Palestinian citizenship in the event of the recognition of a Palestinian state, should that day ever arrive.

All international refugees are protected by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) through the 1951 UN Convention. Refugees’ right to a permanent solution, whether through integration into the host country, voluntary return to the country of origin, or resettlement in a third country is a fundamental objective of the Convention. But because of Palestine’s exclusion from the 1951 UN Convention, these guarantees do not extend to Palestinian refugees. Leaving the Occupied Palestinian territories therefore places Palestinians in the most precarious position possible.

Palestinian exiles in the host Arab governments have a long and troubled history, and their situations today vary greatly from one region to another. While some 300,000 people remain in refugee camps in Jordan, the majority of the 1.5 million Palestinian population in the country are Jordanian citizens and have assimilated socially and economically. In Syria, in contrast, they remain stateless, while also having full social and economic rights. The civil war in Syria has made life worse for everyone, and Palestinian people, like Syrian citizens, live under a permanent state of emergency that gives the Syrian state broad and unchecked powers, including the restriction of fundamental civil and political rights. For the 200 thousand Palestinians who live in cramped refugee camps in Lebanon, the situation is even worse. They face heavy restrictions on their ability to work and extreme poverty is the standard.

The lack of a right to a permanent solution for Palestinian refugees, means that future generations will have to deal with the same problems when it comes to access to education, healthcare and employment. Without a long-term plan, the number of Palestinian refugees will only rise, and there will be no way for them to escape their situation. As long as their parents’ home country does not grant the right to citizenship to even the youngest among them, they will continue to be considered Palestinian refugees. While the guarantees enshrined in the 1951 UN Convention encourage people to flee if they feel they must, the Palestinians are the only people on Earth for whom the dangers of fleeing outweigh those of staying. In discouraging them from leaving the conflict, international law subverts itself.

If you want to know what it means for a Palestinian to leave Gaza through the Rafah border, you need to know these things.

The UNWRA paradox

Symbols of great catastrophes can be found in the most inaccessible locations. Raqqa and Srebrenica are among the many places around the world that unexpectedly became front-page news, sparked passionate debate, and served as a symbol of historical events. Now Rafah is set to join that list.

One million four hundred thousand people are currently sheltering in Rafah, southern Gaza. Rafah covers 64 square kilometres of territory. It is so crowded that from satellite pictures it is hard to make out the empty lot that divides the few permanent buildings from the many makeshift ones. It appears to be particularly challenging for individuals who have sought refuge there to differentiate between mud and wastewater, as they navigate in quest of supplies and toilets.

Many have made solemn vows to stay and never leave Gaza, despite the war. Relocating would be tantamount to capitulating to ethnic cleansing and submitting to the goal of ‘Greater Israel’ to which Binyamin Netanyahu openly aspires. However, when confronted with the dangers faced by children, the ill and the elderly, the staying becomes intolerably difficult even for the most courageous. Though the pass to enter Sinai is less impenetrable than before, the cost of transportation now ranges from seven to fifteen thousand dollars per person, depending on the traffickers; some people have been unable to cross even after paying.

Currently, the displaced people are crammed into UNRWA buildings. However, the organization that was established to assist them is no longer able to do so following Israel’s accusations of twelve staff members’ involvement in the October 7 attack. An independent report commissioned by the UN has found that Israel has not provided any evidence to prove this claim. But there has been no legal inquiry, the role of journalists has supplanted that of the courts, and collective punishment without trial has been carried out instead.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) was supposed to be temporary when it was established in 1949 to aid the more than five million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Not only has it since established itself as a permanent institution, but it has also evolved into a de facto welfare provider. Except for a tiny number of international professionals, almost all of UNRWA’s more than 30,000 employees are Palestinian refugees. Like a governmental administration, UNRWA provides the majority of jobs for the locals in some areas, including Gaza. Today, UNRWA is the biggest organization in the UN. Its mission is renewed every three years; the most recent extension ends on 30 June 2026.

But while UNRWA enabled the establishment of a social safety net that spared many Palestinians from certain economic collapse, it also absolved the international community of all responsibility for confronting a social and political international crisis. The existence of UNWRA allowed the world to bury the Palestinian problem without ever achieving a lasting resolution. If a Palestinian seeks refuge in a country that provides humanitarian aid through UNRWA, without having obtained the right to citizenship of that country (or another status), then they are considered a refugee unable to support themselves without the help of UNRWA. Their descendants are also considered refugees, if they too have not been granted the right to be free from refugee status wherever they were born.

Despite its critical role in assisting Palestinian refugees, UNRWA renders Palestinian refugees and subsequent generations totally reliant on humanitarian assistance. It feeds the hungry with fish rather than teaching them how to fish. Israel has threatened to close UNWRA, and given the circumstances, it would be a good thing if it did – but not for the reason that Netanyahu thinks.

If UNRWA were to be abolished, the Palestinian people would have to be entitled to a different status. They would have to be citizens of a recognized state or be recognized as refugees under the 1951 Convention. If they were citizens of a state, they would be protected by the laws of that state; if they were recognized as refugees by UNHRC, they would gain the fundamental rights – to flee persecution, to hold an alternative citizenship, and to be able to return.

But if, by seeking to close down UNWRA, Israel’s objective is to cause detriment to all Palestinians, under the guise of pursuing justice, then there are urgent grounds for concern. For a long time, the international community has passively and disgracefully observed the exacting of collective punishment, ignoring the fact that it affects not just those who are targeted. When the ideals we have established to safeguard the human race are threatened, we are all rendered more vulnerable and more susceptible to injustice.

The international community thought it could rely on the system established at the end of WWII that left enormous power to nation states without any real mechanisms of independent control over their actions. Worse: even those mechanisms that were already too weak to enforce the rights of humans and protect their interests are now being jeopardized.

Justice, peace and security are vital both for the present and for a future in which, due to climate change and resource scarcity, global conflicts will increase. But only through real and consistent changes of the international system will that be possible. Just as we created independent organs to protect the best interest of people in our democracies, so we should guarantee independent and stronger powers to institutions and legislations that stand above the power of nation states.

*

Occasionally, I consider initiating legal action against the state of Israel in order to reclaim the ancestral land of my grandparents, the birthplace of my father and uncles. If there were an Israeli family residing on the land, I would refrain. But our land is currently unoccupied. If I won, I would restore the area by replanting the trees. My father would be given the privilege of sowing the first seed.

He was born in 1948, the year of the Naqba. His mother fled from Jerusalem to Hebron while she was pregnant with him, riding on a donkey, like Maryam’s journey with Jesus. They continued their journey, passing through Bethlehem and reaching a more southern location. In 1967, his home in Hebron was confiscated by the State of Israel and remains under military administration to this day.

But at the age of 78, my father does not need to go home. Hebron is and will forever be where he was born and grew up. It is for us that he aspires, for his progeny, for his grandchildren. He deserves to witness a transformation that will benefit future generations. It would close the circle.

Attaining justice is the sole means through which every wronged individual should rightfully gain peace. I desire for my father to have the chance to obtain justice. I know that for every stride he has taken on this earth’s surface since fleeing his land, it has been his only true wish.

Published 15 May 2024
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© Widad Tamimi / Eurozine

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