Rami Khouri
The Jordan Times (Opinion)
February 12, 2010 - 1:00am

Of the many long-running conflicts that see two communities competing for the same piece of land, three in particular have always caught my attention: Northern Ireland, Cyprus and Palestine-Israel.
The first is on the way to being resolved through peaceful political negotiations, with another advance this week in the areas of police powers and administration of justice.

The Cyprus conflict has long lost its military edge, and shows signs of moving towards a breakthrough, due to both internal leadership changes and external pressures and inducements.

The Palestine-Israel conflict remains mired in tension, violence and immense human suffering, even though it has enjoyed the most intense and sustained diplomatic attention. Two developments this week might provide clues to why this is the case, and what might be done to overcome this.

The first is the report to the UN General Assembly by the UN secretary general stating that he cannot determine if the Israelis and Palestinians have in fact complied, as required, with a call by the UN to conduct credible and independent investigations into their actions during the Gaza war a year ago. Ban Ki-moon said that both sides continued to examine the findings of a September 2009 report by a UN Human Rights Council commission report headed by Judge Richard Goldstone, which charged that both sides may have committed war crimes.

The secretary general reported that "no determination can be made on the implementation of the [UN] resolution by the parties concerned", and mostly passed on to the assembly responses that had been provided by Israel and the Palestinians, without making his own judgements.

Israel denied violating international humanitarian law, but said it had disciplined two officers for firing white phosphorous shells towards a UN compound.

The Palestinians reported that they had established a commission of five respected judges and legal experts to examine their side’s conduct.

This was a missed opportunity for the UN and its secretary general to play a crucial peace-making role comprising key elements that are missing in Israel-Palestine but succeeded in Northern Ireland: the sustained, dynamic involvement of an external mediating party or parties that address the core needs, rights and demands of both sides, on the basis of applying international law and UN resolutions fairly and simultaneously to both parties.

There will be another chance to pursue this path when the UN General Assembly meets soon to discuss Ban's Gaza report, and also to consider the Goldstone Report recommendation that its findings be handed over to the International Criminal Court at The Hague if Israel and Hamas do not conduct credible investigations.

The complexity of applying a single standard of law and morality to both sides - the critical foundation on which any successful diplomacy must proceed in the Palestine-Israel and wider Arab-Israeli conflict - was raised in the second development that caught my eye this week: a draft bill in the Israeli parliament to compensate Jews who were forced out of or fled Arab countries after the establishment of Israel in 1948.

Among the arguments for the bill before the Immigration and Absorption Committee last Tuesday were references to a February 2008 US House of Representatives resolution saying that the United States should demand that Jewish refugees be acknowledged and treated in the same way as Palestinian refugees. The Israeli bill also demands compensation for Jewish communal properties, like synagogues and cemeteries.

The prevalent Israeli aim in this bill is not to resolve all refugeehood cases fairly, but to claim that a “population exchange” between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis occurred in 1948 and therefore the Palestinians have no more claims, and there is nothing to be resolved anymore.

The reality is more complex for two reasons: the circumstances under which Palestinians and Arab Jews left their homes and moved or were forced elsewhere are very different and cannot be lumped into a single dynamic of population exchanges. Nevertheless, the resolution of these and other claims by refugees or displaced persons must reflect application of a single standard of refugee law, whether pertaining to restitution, repatriation, compensation or other mechanisms of conflict resolution.

Are the Israelis ready to apply the same principles to the Palestinian refugees that they demand for their own people? Similarly, are the Israelis prepared to allow an impartial international investigation of their conduct in the Gaza war, alongside a similar investigation in Gaza?

Try as people may, we simply cannot escape the principle that adjudicating conflicts through the equal application of the law to both sides is the inescapable bottom line of any successful negotiation that sees both feuding parties directly involved in the process.

The UN secretary general and the Israeli parliament this week remind us how to evade this reality, when in fact we need to discover how to embrace it.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017