This year is the 250th anniversary of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s legendary Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality. In its dedicatory epistle to the Republic of Geneva, Rousseau, citizen of that virtuous city, described the democratic vision he claimed was inspired by it: “I should have wished to be born in a country where the sovereign and the people could have had only one and the same interest, so that all the motions of the machine might only tend to the common happiness; since this is impossible unless the people and the sovereign are the same person, it follows that I should have wished to have been born under a democratic government.”
The Palestinian people desire such an equal happiness as did Rousseau for the citizens of Geneva. Last month, the Swiss government invited dozens of international luminaries and VIPs to this same Geneva, in order to celebrate a peace plan between Israelis and Palestinians. The plan calls for a two-state solution, the sharing of Jerusalem, the dismantling of some settlements and the keeping of some others and, most fundamentally, for Palestinian refugees (the Palestinians being largely a refugee population with more than 5 million refugees) effectively to give up the right of return to their original homes and properties inside Israel as the necessary “painful compromise” for peace.
All those guests – Jimmy Carter, Lord Carrington, Hans-Dietrich Genscher – are citizens of countries imbued with the very institutions whose creation are due, in no little measure, to Rousseau’s seminal texts. The Geneva accord has been universally welcomed as a moment of great hope; a serious response at last to Sharon and his bleak enterprise. Some movement, some protest, by those in the international arena who have been standing idly by while their own citizens the world over have demanded action. We need hope, the papers said. This is it. There is a partner for peace.
How, then, to explain that the accord directly contradicts the values shared by those dignitaries at Geneva? Or how to portray the despair it has engendered among the vast majority of Palestinians? For not only is our predicament in facing the Israelis desperate; it has just been made worse. We are now confronted with utter incomprehension about the very nature of the Palestinian struggle for liberty and rights, about the most simple of our realities: the recognition of our right to our homes. How to explain that this accord, far from being the long-overdue reaction to Sharon and his violent ideology, is instead the formal articulation of that very ideology? Or that the Palestinian democratic, peace-loving and moderate voice was wholly absent from Geneva?
If there was time, one could begin at the beginning: 1948, the Nakba, when we became a refugee people; or explain the cataclysmic result of that dispossession, and how the right of return to one’s home, enshrined in UN resolutions since 1949, is more than an aspiration; it is both an individual and collective right, and one that accrues to any refugee anywhere. Instead, let us start just over three years ago at the Camp David meeting between Ehud Barak, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat in the autumn of 2000.
This meeting was the culmination, of sorts, of the Oslo process that had begun in 1993. This mechanism had put the refugees on hold, considering it too explosive an issue to negotiate immediately. Yet it was never addressed or discussed by Israel, since it absolutely rejects any mention of the rights of refugees. This central issue, for Palestinians, is understood only in apocalyptic and existential terms, signifying to the average Israeli the destruction of Israel.
Nothing had been done in the years of the Oslo process to start educating the public on what the state of Israel might look like if some of the refugees were to choose to return to their homes. Nor did Oslo bring the refugees into the peace process. Rather, they were excluded, and the Israeli left led their electorate to believe that the issue could be abandoned.
At Camp David, seven years after the Oslo accords, Barak presented Arafat with just such an ultimatum, and insisted any rejection of this deal would cast the Palestinian leader into the role of terrorist. There is no partner for peace, said Barak, after Arafat refused the terms. Meanwhile, what remained of the Israeli left was determined to prove Barak wrong, and that it was possible to find a Palestinian partner who would sign away refugees’ rights.
For those Palestinians in the mainstream who have been seeking a viable settlement, a personal position on the right of return hardly matters. Once understood that the Palestinian people (over 50% of whom are under 18 and are temporarily beaten but not vanquished) consider it the essence of their identity, the very basis of their struggle, then peaceful negotiations with Israel mean that this simple truth is recognised as the starting point of any authentic peace process.
If Palestinian officials, or ex-officials, attempt to abandon their people, their people will inevitably rise up against them. And most importantly and practically, any deal signed under such premises will not hold. Having severed their peoples’ voices from the opportunities for a reasonable process, these Palestinian negotiators have lost any chance of representing them. Worse, they have redefined their people as a nation of terrorists, outside the laws of civilisation, and are further, much further, away from the chance of a peaceful settlement for both peoples.
This is what has been driving the internal conflict within the Palestinian body politic in so dark and ugly a manner these last three years: in the Palestinian authority headquarters in Ramallah and in secret meetings across Europe. For Palestinians, it is between those who see democracy as the only viable way forward (and who are, indeed, the Palestinian peace camp), and a few individuals who, because of coercion by the Israelis and Americans, will sign any deal at all, even if it excludes the majority of their own people.
How has the Palestinian grassroots reacted to Geneva? Across the board, from the mainstream political parties as well as from the refugee camps, the petitions and the declarations have flooded in. Just read any half-dozen and you see immediately that they are unequivocal. For the absolute majority of the Palestinian people, the refugee issue is right at the core of the conflict, and it has to be addressed.
This understanding is couched in age-old principles of international law, of human rights and human dignity, of mutual recognition and tolerance. Sadly, none of this has been reproduced in the newspapers or on the television screens of democratic Europe over the weeks since the accord was signed. This is the very civil society those at Geneva declared they were keen to include: democratic, peace-loving, the voices of the future. Indeed, Rousseau’s citizens reside not only in the fair city of Geneva, they also dwell – in sincere hope and unconquerable expectation – in the refugee camps of Khan Younis and Shatila.
· Karma Nabulsi is a fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford, a former PLO representative and adviser at the peace talks 1991-93