Saturday, July 2, 2011

This Fourth of July, why I love America, like most Muslim Americans

This Fourth of July, why I love America, like most Muslim Americans

The Palestinian right to remain and return

The Palestinian right to remain and return

The right to return to one's country of origin is a right enshrined in the rules of international law, and yet it has been denied to the Palestinian refugees, writes Samah Sabawi*

I was 12 years old when for the first time in my life I became a citizen of a country -- Australia. Before that, I was a stateless Palestinian refugee. There were two laments my parents always repeated whenever they spoke of their place of origin, Palestine: if only we could have stayed and if only we could return.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2009 there were more than 10 million refugees around the world in need of assistance. This number does not include the seven million Palestinian refugees, who make up the world's largest refugee population and whose fate is the longest-standing question at the UN.

The plight of the Palestinian refugees began 63 years ago when they were forced out of their homes or fled in fear as the Israeli state established itself on the ruins of their villages and their towns. This plight has not ended, and the issue still stands unresolved today as a poignant reminder that states and governments are continuing to fail the weak and disenfranchised for the sake of political gains and posturing.

Refugees are by definition powerless: in many cases they are either stateless or have lost the protection of their nation state. They depend on international bodies to rescue them. There are two norms which guide the international community in dealing with refugee issues under the UNHCR, the first being to provide protection and assistance to refugees and the second to not return individuals to their own countries against their will or if they are at risk of persecution.

However, various human rights conventions have over the years created additional norms that work as guidelines to resolve refugee issues by providing preventive measures to make it possible for people to remain on their land. Rather than focussing on resettlement alone, these norms safeguard the rights of refugees to return to their homes if they choose to.

The concept of "preventive protection" is especially important in the case of the Palestinian refugees. The right of individuals and communities to remain in their own country is a principle which rejects the expulsion of ethnic communities, or what is now known as "ethnic cleansing." The UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities has affirmed "the right of persons to remain in peace in their own homes, on their own lands and in their own countries."

The Turku/Abo Declaration of Minimum Humanitarian Standards also provides in its Article 7 that "all persons have the right to remain in peace in their homes and their places of residence." The article also states that "no person shall be compelled to leave their own country."

Some in Israel may argue that because Palestinian refugees are not citizens of that state, they have no right to refer to the land from which they come as "their country". However, this claim has been refuted by a litany of legal and human rights experts, and, most important of all, it is refuted by the UNHCR, which defines the Palestinian population as being the indigenous people of the land.

Palestinians who live under Israeli occupation face severe measures aimed at uprooting them. One example is the practice of revoking residency rights: Hamoked, an Israeli NGO, recently filed a freedom of information request with the Israeli government and found that over 140,000 Palestinians who had left to study or work had had their residency rights revoked between 1967 and 1994.

The NGO wrote in a statement that "the mass withdrawal of residency rights from tens of thousands of West Bank residents, tantamount to permanent exile from their homeland, remains an illegitimate demographic policy and a grave violation of international law."

Another example of an Israeli policy at the heart of the creation of the Palestinian refugee crisis is that of house demolition. An Israeli human rights group called the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions (ICAHD) estimates that at least 24,813 homes have been demolished in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza since 1967, and that, according to UN figures, during the 2009 Gaza bombing more than 4,247 Palestinian homes were destroyed.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) reports that Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes and other buildings reached a record high in March this year. According to UNRWA, 76 buildings were demolished, leading to the displacement of 158 people, including 64 children. UNRWA puts the total number of displaced persons in the last six months alone at 333, including 175 children.

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness described the policy as "discrimination against one ethnic group." These actions are illegal under Article 53 of the fourth Geneva Convention, and they have been roundly criticised by the UN and other international organisations, as well as by human rights groups.

There are various other policies that drive Palestinians out of their homes, especially in Jerusalem where Palestinian neighbourhoods are targeted for evictions to make way for Jewish settlers. Once exiled, Palestinians are denied the right to return. This is illegal under international humanitarian law.

The right to return voluntarily and in safety to one's country of origin or nationality is a right enshrined in the rules of international law and also in human rights law. The UN Security Council has also affirmed "the right of refugees and displaced persons to return to their homes." The Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities has affirmed "the right of refugees and displaced persons to return, in safety and dignity, to their country of origin and or within it to their place of origin or choice."

This right is a pillar of international humanitarian law simply because it acknowledges that human beings form attachments to their native land. This is not a case that is unique to Palestinian refugees: it is one shared by indigenous people everywhere. Attachment to the land of one's origin is a natural human condition, and it is precisely why these sentiments and emotional ties are protected.

The Palestinian refugee population will continue to grow because the international community has failed to find appropriate responses to their cries for help. We must intensify our efforts to prevent an increase in the number of Palestinian refugees that Israel uproots from the land and help indigenous people maintain their right to remain on the land.

We also need to pressure Israel to make a repatriation offer to all the Palestinian refugees and to allow them to practice the right to return to their homes should they so choose. Failing to do so will set a negative precedent and could have an adverse consequence for the millions of other refugees.

* The writer is a Palestinian-Australian writer and author of Journey to Peace in Palestine.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

My letter to the Washington Post RE their story on Lifta "Development plan for abandoned Palestinian village stirs up a troubled past "

RE Development plan for abandoned Palestinian village stirs up a troubled past

Dear Editor,

Thank you for publishing Development plan for abandoned Palestinian village stirs up a troubled past, and including the fascinating slide show on Lifta. There are pre-Israeli people scattered all over the world today whose ancestors originally came from Lifta village. The ruins are a poignant and precious reminder of historic Palestine- and a rural past.

It would a huge tragedy if these intriguing ruins overlooking Jerusalem were rebuilt into a modern Israeli housing development. Israel did not totally destroy the remnants of Lifta yet- that fact should not be ignored: Making Lifta a heritage site, for all to enjoy, would certainly go a long way towards starting an end to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict... Imagine a future of sustainable peace and progress where two fully secular, fully sovereign modern nation states (one named Israel, the other Palestine) wisely work together to stop bigotry and injustice for everyone's sake. Tourism for both would thrive and it really could be a win-win situation.

Anne Selden Annab
The Golden Rule... Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

Growing Gardens for Palestine

We asked the children to each choose a short message to send out to the world from Balata/Nablus/Palestine... Free Palestine - We are all one family

We asked the children of Balata what they wanted to tell the world, and here is what they had to say.Aya & Shada - Free Palestine / We are all one family

Notes from Nablus

Portraits of kids, by kids: presenting the faces and voices of Nabulsi youth to the world

Balata refugee camp, Nablus

New Ibish article: Bilin shows Palestinian nonviolent resistance to occupation works

"...the protests are all the more powerful when their objections are firmly rooted in international, and even where possible Israeli, law. In 2004 the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion that the route of Israel’s separation barrier, which is not along its own border but cuts deeply into occupied territory, was unlawful and a human rights violation. In 2007, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the portion of the barrier in Bilin had to be rerouted." Hussein Ibish

Lifta... a poem by Anne Selden Annab

your sons and daughters long
for you-
long for the echo
of their childhoods and peace
in Palestine...

Lifta, your children
know your stones.
They know your slopes
and terraces
and paths.
They know your buildings
and the fresh water spring.
They know the heat of summer sun.
They know your shadows
and sweet spots
where herbs grow
and they know
the taste of home made bread.
They know the history of home
and exile...

They know life moves on
with every generation rediscovering
connections to the past.

poem copyright ©2011 Anne Selden Annab

Jerusalem's Armenians face uncertain future

In this photo taken Friday, May 6, 2011 Armenian Kevork Kahvedjian, sits inside the Elia Photo Service shop that he owns, as he poses for a photo, in Jerusalem's Old City. One of the four quarters of old Jerusalem belongs to the Armenians, keepers of an ancient monastery and library, heirs to a tragic history and to a stubborn 1,600-year presence that some fear is now in doubt...
In this photo taken Friday, May 6, 2011 Armenian priest Father Samuel Aghoyan, prays after lighting a candle as he poses for a photograph in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, inside Jerusalem's Old City. One of the four quarters of old Jerusalem belongs to the Armenians, keepers of an ancient monastery and library, heirs to a tragic history and to a stubborn 1,600-year presence that some fear is now in doubt. Buffeted by Mideast forces more powerful than themselves and drawn by better lives elsewhere, this historic Jerusalem community has seen its numbers quietly drop below 1,000 people

A message for Israel and Evangelicals: Genesis isn’t a policy guide

"with a Palestinian bid for statehood planned for September and escalating tensions in the region, there’s too much at stake to use God as a real estate broker. To avoid a potentially violent flash point, leaders must look to a peaceful constituency – not the political ploys – of the world’s great religions, all converging in this Holy Land." Walter Rogers

A message for Israel and Evangelicals: Genesis isn’t a policy guide With a dogmatic loyalty to Israel born out of a literal interpretation of the Bible, is the American Christian Right the new Jewish lobby in US politics? Mixing religion and statecraft isn’t just dangerous and unwise. It’s sacrilegious.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Ziad J. Asali, M.D.: ATFP Backgrounder on the Question of Palestinian UN Initiatives

Ziad J. Asali, M.D.

ATFP Backgrounder on the Question of Palestinian UN Initiatives

The process for acquiring UN membership

With the exception of the founding states of the United Nations, the UN Charter, Article 4, Section 2, provides that, "The admission of any... state to membership in the United Nations will be effected by a decision of the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council." The UN does not recognize states as such; this is a matter of bilateral relations between individual states that recognize each other....READ MORE

Washington Post: Development plan for abandoned Palestinian village stirs up a troubled past

JERUSALEM — Flanked by busy highways and tucked into terraced slopes of the Jerusalem hills, a crumbling Palestinian village abandoned more than 60 years ago has become the focus of a struggle over memory and heritage.

The nearly 3,000 people who lived in Lifta fled during the war that accompanied the establishment of Israel. Experts say the old village homes, with their distinctive stonework, along with a mosque, a spring and remains of granaries and olive presses, are unique remnants of a vanished way of life....READ MORE

Exploding the myths: UNRWA, UNHCR and the Palestine refugees
Palestinians receive food aid from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency
at a refugee camp in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 13, 2010.
[MaanImages/Hatem Omar]

JERUSALEM (Ma'an) -- As Palestinian leaders prepare to seek UN recognition of statehood in September, there is increasing talk in the US, Israel and elsewhere of disbanding the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, the UN Relief and Works Agency, and handing responsibility for Palestinian refugees to the UN High Commission for Refugees.

Some argue UNHCR would resettle the refugees, robbing them of their right to return to their homes.

But are these ideas based on a sound understanding of international law and refugee practice? Are they based on a real grasp of the mandates of UNRWA and UNHCR?

To set the record straight, Ma'an turned to UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness.

It is argued that if UNRWA was disbanded and responsibility for Palestinian refugees handed over to UNHCR they would be resettled out of Israel and give up the right of return. Is this the case and if not, what would UNHCR’s role be?

Gunness: This is not the case. Palestine refugees are entitled to a just and lasting solution to their plight. This solution would optimally be achieved by the parties and political actors in the context of a negotiated conclusion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and must be in accordance with UN resolutions and international law.

It should also be voluntary which means consulting the refugees. There is no merit to claims that the Palestine refugee issue can be addressed by transferring responsibility for Palestine refugees from UNRWA to another agency.

Please note two important caveats. First, UNRWA and UNHCR work to distinct mandates, operational and legal definitions, areas of operation, operational realities and constitutive instruments. My responses are consistent with these distinctions and should not be read to assume or imply direct correspondence between the two agencies or their refugee definitions. Rather, I should be understood to draw on the shared premises and common concepts that underpin the precepts applied by UNRWA and UNHCR in their efforts to assist and protect refugees in their respective areas of responsibility.

Second, UNRWA is not in a position to speak for UNHCR and does not purport to speak for UNHCR. However, responses to your questions require reference to documents that are posted on UNHCR’s website and are available to the public. My responses are based on UNRWA’s understanding of the plain meaning of these documents as well as the agency's own appreciation of its mission and its knowledge of the system of international law and practice that govern the protection of refugees globally.

Established principles and practice – as well as realities on the ground - clearly refute the argument that the right of return of Palestine refugees would disappear or be abandoned if UNHCR were responsible for these refugees.

Over decades of international practice, refugee situations have been resolved in three principal ways: local integration, resettlement in third countries and voluntary repatriation. Of these, the voluntary return of refugees to their country of origin has come to be recognized by refugees, states and international agencies as the optimal solution to the plight of refugees.

It is equally recognized that for refugees everywhere, a precondition for solutions to refugee situations is the resolution by political actors of the underlying causes of dispute and conflict.

This point is made in the 2008 UNHCR document, Protracted Refugee Situations: A discussion paper prepared for the High Commissioner’s dialogue on Protection Challenges. Paragraph 7 of the document observes that "Protracted refugee situations are usually created and sustained by the failure to resolve … differences in a peaceful manner and in a way that respects human rights."

Paragraph 9 of this document goes on to note that: "[…] the functions of refugee protection and humanitarian action, vital as they are, can make only a very modest contribution to the prevention and resolution of conflicts that oblige people to live in exile for long periods of time. If those objectives are to be attained, political will and political action are required on the part of states, regional organizations and relevant components of the UN system, including the Security Council and General Assembly."

The preface to the UNHCR Handbook on Voluntary Repatriation states that "voluntary repatriation is usually viewed as the most desirable long-term solution by the refugees themselves as well as by the international community. UNHCR's humanitarian action in pursuit of lasting solutions to the refugee problems is therefore oriented, first and foremost, in favour of enabling a refugee to exercise the right to return home in safety and with dignity."

Chapter 1, paragraph 6 of the UNHCR Handbook states that "the right of refugees to return to their country of origin is fully recognized in international law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) established in article 13 (2) that "Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and return to his country." While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as a Resolution of the General Assembly, is not a treaty requiring signature or consent, it sets the code of conduct and serves as a point of reference for all universal and regional human rights instruments subsequently adopted."

The UNCHR Handbook in its subsequent chapters sets out the obligations of states and of UNHCR in protecting the right of return in the context of voluntary repatriation as well as monitoring, protecting and advocating for the rights of refugees who have returned home.

Conclusion 4 of the report to UNHCR’s Executive Committee of 2005, on Local Integration states "Voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement are the traditional durable solutions and […] all remain viable and important responses to refugee situations;" "voluntary repatriation, in safety and dignity, where and when feasible, remains the most preferred solution in the majority of refugee situations;" a combination of solutions, taking into account the specific circumstances of each refugee situation, can help achieving long lasting solutions."

It is often said that UNRWA perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem by granting refugee status through the generations and that handing the refugees over to UNHCR would not allow this. Is this the case?

This is not the case. As I have already noted, Palestine refugees are entitled to a just and lasting solution to their plight. In the absence of -- and pending the realization of -- such a solution, it stands to reason that their status as refugees will remain.

Questions raised about the passing of refugee status through generations stem from a lack of understanding of the international protection regime. These questions serve only to distract from the need to address the real reasons for the protracted Palestinian refugee situation, namely the absence of negotiated solution to the underlying political issues.

UNHCR's Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for determining Refugee Status provides in paragraph 184: "If the head of a family meets the criteria of the definition, [for refugee status] his dependants are normally granted refugee status according to the principle of family unity."

In effect, refugee families everywhere retain their status as refugees until they fall within the terms of a cessation clause or are able to avail themselves of one of three durable solutions already mentioned -- voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement in a third country.

Also, Chapter 5 of the UNHCR publication, Procedural Standards for Refugee Status Determination under UNHCR’s Mandate is very clear that in accordance with the refugee’s right to family unity, refugee status is transferred through the generations. According to Chapter 5.1.2 "the categories of persons who should be considered to be eligible for derivative status under the right to family unity include:" "all unmarried children of the Principal Applicant who are under 18 years."

Chapter 5.1.1 makes it clear that this status is retained after the age of 18. It states "individuals who obtain derivative refugee status enjoy the same rights and entitlements as other recognized refugees and should retain this status notwithstanding the subsequent dissolution of the family through separation, divorce, death, or the fact that the child reaches the age of majority."

In addition, UNHCR typically cites a Palestinian refugee population number in their State of the World's Refugees reports: see as an example this document. This makes clear that the practice of registering descendants of refugees is not disputed.

Can you give real historical examples of where this is the case with UNHCR refugees?

As made clear in the criteria for derivative status above, in all cases, refugees and their descendants retain the status of refugees until that status lapses through the achievement of a just and lasting solution. Again, I will allow published UNHCR documents to speak for themselves.

UNHCR recognizes "protracted refugee situations" as a matter of significant concern. The issue was highlighted in UNHCR's 2002 Agenda for Protection, in a June 2004 UNHCR Standing Committee paper that presented a definition, and in the 2008 High Commissioner's Dialogue on Protection Challenges.

UNHCR defines a protracted refugee situation as one in which "a refugee population of 25,000 persons or more who have been in living in exile for five years or longer." It further describes these situations as one where "refugees find themselves in a long-lasting and intractable state of limbo. Their lives may not be at risk, but their basic rights and essential economic, social and psychological needs remain unfulfilled after years in exile" (From the minutes of the UNHCR Standing Committee 4 – 6 March 2008, under agenda item "protracted situations").

The UNHCR definition does not apply directly to Palestine refugees because the mandate for Palestine refugees is with UNRWA – not UNHCR. However, it is clear that the gist of the concept of protracted refugee situations relates directly to the Palestine refugee context.

During a meeting of its Standing Committee in March 2008, UNHCR informed that "at the end of 2006, over half of the 9.9 million refugees worldwide were living in exile in protracted situations."

It noted that "The 10 largest populations living in protracted situations were: 1. Over 1 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, 2. Nearly 1 million Afghan refugees in the Islamic Republic of Iran, 3. 350,000 Burundians in the United Republic of Tanzania, 4. 215,000 Sudanese in Uganda, 5. 174,000 Somalis in Kenya, 6. 157,000 Eritreans in Sudan, 7. 132,000 Angolans in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 8. 132,000 refugees from Myanmar in Thailand, 9. 128,000 Congolese (DRC) in the United Republic of Tanzania, 10. 107,000 Bhutanese in Nepal."

The meeting was further informed that there had been a substantial recent reduction in numbers of refugees in protracted situations because the durable solution of voluntary return to their countries had been achieved. The minutes record "the substantial decrease in the number of refugees in protracted situations can be attributed to a handful of major repatriation operations in recent years. In 2005 and 2006, more than 1.8 million long-term refugees returned to their country of origin, more than a million of them to Afghanistan alone. Substantial numbers were also repatriated in Africa, particularly Angola, Burundi, Liberia and Sudan."

The UNHCR Global Appeal for 2010 and 2011, Finding Durable Solutions estimated that about 1.2 million UNHCR refugees would return to their homes, during that period. These figures attest to the fact that voluntary repatriation is the "preferred choice" for refugees.

Let me conclude by saying that UNRWA will continue to advocate for the full protection of the human rights of its beneficiaries based on UN resolutions and international law.

Meanwhile, we will remain steadfast in our mission and mandate to bring human development to Palestine refugees through education, health, relief and social services, pending a just and durable resolution of their plight.

Until this has been achieved, we will stand with the refugees as we have done through 63 years of statelessness, exile and dispossession.