Seeing Clearly Through a Veil of Blood
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict from the Perspective of Human Rights and the Law [1]

Nadia Hijab, September 2002

In 1993, with the Oslo Accords, we seemed so close to peace. Today there is horrible bloodshed. What happened? The fact is that no one is spelling peace with a "j". You might point out that there is no "j" in peace. You would be right. There has been no justice in any of the attempts to achieve peace between Palestinians and Israelis. If the Palestinians were willing to accept an unjust settlement, there could have been "peace" long ago.

The question is, what constitutes justice today? To understand the elements of a just peace, we need to draw on human rights and the law. Only the principles that underpin rights and the law can help us to see clearly through the heavy veil of blood that envelops the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Without clear principles, we will be swayed by sympathy for whoever is dying—the 8-year-old Palestinian boy who went out to buy sweets and was shot dead by Israeli soldiers, or the 15-year Israeli girl who was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber. We will never see our way clearly enough to support action for a just peace.

Human Rights: The Dividing Line Between Old World and New

While there is "violence on both sides", there are also basic rights and wrongs in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and these are clearly defined by the law. Which law? The law based on the human rights principles adopted by the international community after World War II, when unspeakable horrors happened and the world swore, "Never again". Today, we live in a world different from the one that existed before 1948. The dividing line between the Old World and the New World is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations on 10 December 1948.

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination.

—Eleanor Roosevelt
Chair of the UN Commission of Human Rights in 1948

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights incorporates many of the principles found in all world religions and philosophies. Thus, it serves as a common platform for us all, irrespective of our personal faith or origins. It is a statement of the different way that, in the New World, human beings will treat each other, and how they will judge one another.

The principles of human rights have been translated into international laws that cover all aspects of human life in times of peace[2] as well as in times of war.[3] When countries sign these laws, they agree to enforce them at the national level. And countries that have signed can hold each other accountable for their adherence to these laws.

Several of these laws and the principles that underpin them have been applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Three resolutions passed by the United Nations are key to moving towards a just peace: UN General Assembly Resolutions 181 of 1947 and 194 of 1948, and UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967. Implementing these three resolutions would bring peace to the Middle East. What's more, all the parties to the conflict—Israel, the Palestinians, the Arab states, and the United States—accept these three resolutions. Implementing the last resolution—242—first would immediately end the bloodshed.

Resolution 242: A Clear Principle

Resolution 242 calls for Israel's withdrawal from territories occupied during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.[4] The Security Council, where the US has veto power, unanimously adopted this resolution, which was accepted by Israel and all Arab states. Resolution 242 is based on a clear statement of principle set out at the start: "The inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war."

This is the New World: states are no longer permitted to gain territory by war. In the world of human rights and international law, colonialism is no longer acceptable. We have moved on from the days of colonialism when the Europeans rampaged through Asia, Africa and the Americas, stealing natural resources and creating captive markets and cheap labor.

Yet, although Resolution 242 was accepted by all concerned, the international community has allowed Israel free rein in the Occupied Palestinian Territories for 35 years, imposing no sanctions as Israel took land and water, created captive markets, and supplied itself with cheap labor. This passivity in the face of flagrant illegality is particularly glaring compared to the constant call for application of UN resolutions to Iraq (which no longer occupies Kuwait).Not only is the occupation itself illegal, but all Israel's actions in the Occupied Territories are illegal, according to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which Israel has signed and accepted, as has the US. International law views occupation as a temporary status during which the occupying power is obligated, first, to end the occupation as quickly as possible and, second, to safeguard the rights of the occupied population during the temporary period in which the occupation is maintained.[5]

Any move by the occupier against the rights of the population under occupation, or to change the status of the occupied land through, for example, annexation, confiscation of resources, population transfer, or destruction of civilian property is illegal and may constitute a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. Collective punishments—home demolitions, curfews, and sieges of entire towns and villages—are also against the Geneva Conventions.

Every one of these violations has been and is being perpetrated against the Palestinians under occupation: their basic human rights to life, liberty, freedom of movement and association, education, work, health are denied every day. Before the 1993 Oslo Accords were signed between the Israelis and Palestinians, Israel had settled 200,000 Israelis in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. During the Oslo "peace process" between 1993 and 2000, another 200,000 Israeli settlers moved on to Palestinian land.

There are several flaws in the Oslo process. The most serious is that it did not call for an immediate end to occupation, but rather set in train a process of negotiation around the occupation. The Palestinian Authority agreed to provide security for the Israeli soldiers and settlers of occupation, while various committees held endless negotiations about water, legal affairs, the economy—in short, everything except an end to occupation.

But ending the occupation should not be open to negotiation. The principle of 242 is clear: the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war. We must demand that world powers push for immediate implementation of 242 and an end to Israeli occupation, and end death and destruction. Between September 2000, when the second uprising against the occupation erupted, and August 2002, Israeli soldiers and settlers have killed 1,658 Palestinians.[6] The vast majority of Palestinians killed have been civilians; 294 were children.

And, since that date, 612 Israelis, the majority of them civilians, have been killed by Palestinians. The attacks against Israeli civilians violate human rights and international law. The Palestinian Authority has condemned them, as have respected Palestinian intellectuals and activists who issued a petition against suicide bombings in June. But the complete breakdown of law and order and the pervasive presence of Israeli armed forces and settlers make it impossible to control those who have turned to violence in their desperation to end the military occupation.

In March and April 2002, Israel launched fierce attacks on Palestinian towns, the ostensible aim to bring "security" and end suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. But there were no such attacks before the occupation began—and very few attacks until the peace process collapsed in July 2000 and Palestinian civilians were killed by Israeli forces in the wake of protests against Sharon's September 2000 visit to Al Aqsa mosque, which sparked the uprising. Beginning in June 2002, Israel imposed collective punishment on 800,000 Palestinians, confining them to their homes 24 hours a day for days on end, a curfew enforced by tanks in and around all the major population areas in the West Bank.

"The occupation is killing all of us", is the Israeli peace bloc Gush Shalom's succinct summary of the realities on the ground. The UN Security Council should impose the withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and settlers to the 1967 borders. Not one soldier, not one settler, should be left. Negotiations can take place about outstanding issues after Israel's withdrawal from the occupied territories.

It is worth noting that some mainstream Israelis are calling for the same thing. In early June, the former chief of Shin-Bet (the Israeli intelligence service) Ami Ayalon and the Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior called for Israel to leave the occupied territories. "We need to leave the settlements as soon as possible, with or without an agreement with the Palestinians," Melchior said. "We simply cannot afford to be an occupier in today's world."

Several hundred Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the army of occupation. Israeli reservist officer Guy Grossman explained why he had joined Ometz Le'Sarev (Courage to Refuse) in a stand against "the continued occupation of Palestinian land. This war is unjust. It saps my country's sanity and morality and corrupts its soul. There is not and can never be a benign occupation. For 11 years my friends and I risked our lives and sanity to perpetuate this unbearable reality—the daily humiliations at checkpoints, the arbitrary closures and destruction of homes. I saw the kids grow up with hatred in their eyes—eyes that I was ashamed to meet".[7]

Ending the occupation will bring an end to the bloodshed and enable the Palestinians to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. Once the occupation is ended, the other outstanding issues can be addressed: final borders, the status of Jerusalem, and the Palestinian refugees. These can be resolved by implementing UN General Assembly Resolutions 181 and 194.

Resolution 181 Then and Now: Absolute Justice Vs. Achievable Justice

UN Resolution 181 of 29 November 1947 partitioned Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state. Israel came into being but Palestine did not. This was partly because the Palestinians and Arabs rejected the Partition Plan, which they considered unjust.

Based on the historical facts, the Partition Plan was indeed unjust. Up until 1917, the population of Palestine was overwhelmingly Arab. On 2 November 1917, Britain promised the Zionist movement that it would support "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people . . . it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine." [8]
At that time, the "existing" population consisted of 650,000 Arabs, the majority Muslim, a significant minority Christian, and a small community of Jews. They had for the most part, whatever their faith, continuously lived on the land for centuries. Several thousand European Jews also lived in Palestine, having begun to immigrate since the 1880s to escape persecution in Europe.

Moreover, in 1915, Britain had promised the Arabs living under Ottoman rule independence in exchange for their help during World War I—promises violated by the 1917 commitment to the Zionists.[9] Britain went on to conquer Palestine and other Arab lands from the Ottoman Turks, obtained mandatory power over Palestine from the League of Nations, and opened the country to large scale Jewish immigration from Europe. This action set in motion bloody conflict between the Arabs and Britain, Arabs and Zionist immigrants, and Britain and the Zionists.

In 1947, Britain turned the Question of Palestine over to the UN General Assembly, which adopted Resolution 181. This recommended the partition of Palestine into an Arab State and a Jewish State, allocating 56% of the land to the Jewish state and 43% to the Arab state, with Jerusalem and Bethlehem designated as an international zone. At this time, 68% of the population of Palestine was Arab and 32% was Jewish,[10] and Jews owned no more than 6% of the land. The Arabs rejected the very principle of Partition as unjust. The Palestinians had had nothing to do with the pogroms of the Jews in Europe over the centuries, or the Nazi Holocaust of World War II. Why should they pay the price by turning part of over their country to the Zionist movement as part of a British colonial enterprise? The first Arab-Israeli War broke out in 1948. Israel won, occupying not just the 56% of Palestine allocated by the Partition Plan, but 78% of the country. In 1967 Israel occupied the rest of Palestine.

Today, Resolution 181 offers the best hope for just peace—even though it was unjust in 1947. How is what was once unjust now just? It helps to reflect on what we might call absolute justice versus "achievable justice". For Palestinians, absolute justice would mean turning the clock back to 1917. Turning the clock back 100 years to achieve absolute justice is impossible. Even assuming that absolute justice could somehow be achieved, shutting down Israel and evicting five million Israeli Jews would create new injustice today. A two-state solution is the closest thing to justice that can be achieved today.

Israel may perhaps one day recognize how much it owes Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization. The reason that the majority of Palestinians are now willing to accept a two-state solution with a state of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza—which constitute just 22% of mandate Palestine—is because the PLO has been talking them into it since 1974. That was the year when the PLO first spoke of establishing a state on any part of Palestine that was liberated (delicate phrasing was necessary because, in those days, PLO officials were killed by radical groups for even hinting at a two-state solution).

The support for a two-state solution was ever more clearly stated by the Palestinians—in 1988 at the Palestine National Council session held in Algiers, and in 1993 as part of the Oslo Accords, which included the PLO's formal recognition of Israel. The Arab states were also ever more clear in accepting a two-state solution, beginning with a Saudi Plan in 1982 and culminating in the Saudi Plan formally endorsed by the League of Arab States in 2002.

Yasser Arafat could not accept Ehud Barak's so-called "generous offer" at Camp David in July 2000 because it did not provide for a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza as US negotiator Robert Malley revealed a year later. "To accommodate the settlers, Israel was to annex 9 percent of the West Bank; in exchange, the new Palestinian state would be granted sovereignty over parts of Israel proper, equivalent to one-ninth of the annexed land. ... In Jerusalem, Palestine would enjoy custody over the Haram al Sharif, the location of the third-holiest Muslim shrine, Israel would exercise overall sovereignty over this area, known to Jews as the Temple Mount. ... As for the future of refugees—for many Palestinians, the heart of the matter—the ideas put forward at Camp David spoke vaguely of a 'satisfactory solution' ... ."[11]

Currently, the discussion around borders is focused on what Israel wants to accommodate its settlements, all illegal under international law. Discussions on permanent borders between Israel and Palestinian should take into account the land allocations made in the Partition Plan, and the PLO's willingness to accept much less. Achievable justice involves a fair agreement on borders. In the meantime, the State of Palestine should be immediately accepted as a UN member state pending agreement on borders. The status of Palestine would be the same as that of Israel, which, unlike most world countries, does not yet have recognized borders pending agreements on the West Bank, Gaza, and the Syrian Golan Heights occupied by Israel in 1967.

Resolution 194: the Right of Return

Resolution 194 adopted on 11 December 1948, provides for the right of return or compensation for the 750,000 Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from their homes during the first Arab Israeli war. Another 500,000 Palestinians became refugees during the 1967 War. Today, out of some 8 million Palestinians, 4.6 million live in exile and 2.2 million live in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt (1.2 million are citizens of Israel). Here, again there is a need to look at what might constitute absolute justice and achievable justice. Absolute justice would mean that every single refugee and exile would return to the homes from which they came in present-day Israel.

Achievable justice would mean recognizing the rights of Palestinians in and to Palestine, including the right of return set out in Resolution 194. It would also involve recognition of, and an expression of regret for, Israel's responsibility for the refugee problem, which is now well documented by mainstream Israeli historians.[12] Since not every Palestinian will be able to return to their original homes, achievable justice in implementing the right of return would give priority to those that have the most need to return—the Palestinians who still live in refugee camps and/or are stateless. This would be based on a fair distribution between those returning to Israel and those returning to the future Palestinian state—together with compensation to the Palestinians who do not return, again giving priority to those most in need of compensation.

It is worth noting that the State of Israel has accepted both resolutions 194 and 181. The preamble to the resolution admitting Israel to the UN membership specifically refers to Israel's undertakings to implement 181and 194. Today, the question is not whether but how to finally implement these resolutions to achieve what the majority consider just.

A main reason for Israel's refusal to implement the Palestinian right of return is its desire to preserve the Jewish character of the State of Israel. Let us assume for a moment that not a single Palestinian refugee will return to Israel. As things stand today, the population of Israel includes over a million Arabs who carry Israeli passports. However, because Israel is defined as a Jewish state, the Israeli Arabs are, by definition, not full citizens of the Jewish state. This is not just a matter of definition: Israeli Palestinians have identified 20 laws that discriminate against them in basic aspects of civic life, including laws of citizenship, emigration, education, and land ownership.[13]

Therefore, irrespective of the Palestinian right of return, the State of Israel will need to address discrimination by law and in fact against those of its citizens who are not Jews. This includes the need to address and amend the Israeli Law of Return, which allows any Jewish citizen of any country in the world to immigrate to Israel. Meanwhile, Palestinians languish in refugee camps. Where's the justice in that?

There needs to be a point, very soon, when Israel becomes the state of all the citizens who live in it (as must the future Palestine). States must be states of all their citizens: non-discrimination is a basic principle of human rights. The US is the model: wherever they come from, all immigrants become US citizens, equal in rights and duties. The US model is not perfectly implemented in practice, but it is better even than in Europe. The separation of religion and state is one of the factors that make it possible for all citizens to be equal in the United States. Another factor is the application of the rule of law. A third is respect, so far, for civil and political rights, such as freedom of speech.

Defining citizenship on the basis of faith or ethnicity is a recipe for civil war, as can be seen from the modern history of other states in the region such as Lebanon. There are different ways to define a Jewish state. Israel has succeeded in coming into existence, and has created a home for many Jews and a bond with Jews worldwide. At some stage, the relationship of other Jews to Israel must become that of historic, religious and cultural ties, rather than seeing Israel as a haven of last resort for all Jews for all time.

But, for this to happen, we must all fight against anti-Semitism, latent and blatant, which remains a threat to Jews wherever they are. At the same time, we should also be aware that some anti-Jewish feeling today has no roots in the anti-Semitism that originated in Europe, but is fuelled by the injustice of Israel's occupation of Palestine. As part of the struggle both against Israeli occupation as well as against anti-Semitism, it is important to highlight the growing number of Jews and Israelis—including those refusing to serve in the army of occupation—who speak up and take action for the human rights of Palestinians.

The Law Protects: Ways US Citizens Can Help Apply the Law

In sum, UN resolutions provide for:

1) An end to the Israeli occupation of territories taken in 1967—Resolution 242;
2) Two states, Palestine and Israel, leaving in peace and security—Resolution 181;
3) A just implementation of the Palestinian refugees right of return—Resolution 194.

The law protects. It protects Israel, which was accorded statehood by UN Resolution 181. However, the law cannot be applied piecemeal. It must also be applied to protect Palestine and the Palestinians who are exposed to death and destruction and have been for decades.

September 2002 marks the 20th anniversary of Sabra and Shatila (16—18 September 1982), when Israeli forces surrounded two Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and sent in rightwing Lebanese militias who massacred unarmed Palestinians over the course of three days. As part of an agreement to end the 80-day siege of Beirut by Israeli forces during its invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the US had promised the PLO that it would protect Palestinian civilians after the PLO left Lebanon. Yet the US withdrew its marines, and the Israelis went in. An Israeli court found Ariel Sharon "personally responsible" for the massacre of Sabra and Shatila and said he should never hold office again. Yet here he is today, Prime Minister of Israel during two of the bloodiest years of the 35-year-old Israeli occupation. When justice is denied, blood flows, and continues to flow.

Citizens of the US have a responsibility to demand that their Government apply the law to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The US is the strongest supporter of Israel politically and financially, with aid and military equipment worth close to $4 billion a year, much of which has been used to devastate Palestinian society and economy. There are many actions US citizens can take in support of a just peace:

1) Work to Change US Policy on Military Aid to Israel
Organize at the district level to let your elected representatives know that Americans want military aid to Israel stopped until the occupation is ended. In districts that house military corporations, US citizens can call on shareholders, workers, and executives to stop selling arms to Israel until the occupation is ended, because the occupation violates international and US law.

2) Support the Human Rights of Palestinians Under Occupation
There are initiatives to support the Palestinians' right to education ( and the right to shelter by rebuilding demolished homes (

3) Support International Protection for the Palestinians
Call on elected representatives to promote a US policy at the UN in favor of an international force to protect the Palestinian people from Israeli attacks until the occupation is ended. Many US citizens are travelling to the occupied territories to join the International Solidarity Movement (, in the absence of an international force, placing themselves between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians.

4) Support Non-Violent Resistance to Occupation
The ISM actions are an example of resistance to occupation that is non-violent. Many Palestinian civil society organizations oppose the occupation using methods of resistance that are non-violent (LAW—the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment;—a human rights organization founded by Hanan Ashrawi; Badil Resource Center) There are also several Israeli organizations active for a just peace (Gush Shalom; the human rights group B'Tselem; Rabbis for Human Rights; and Adalah: Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel; Courage to Refuse).

There is a Campaign taking shape in the US today to apply the law: the US Campaign to End Israeli Occupation. The US Campaign is a coalition of organizations and individuals focused on changing US policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in support of freedom from occupation and equal rights for all. The Campaign is based on human rights and international law, providing a non-sectarian framework for everyone supporting its Call to Action. Its strategy is to inform, educate, and mobilize the public regarding the US role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, working through organized constituencies interested in promoting an end to occupation and a just peace. Working together, we can spell peace with a "j".

[1]This paper is based on talks delivered between April and June 2002 to several audiences, including: the New York University Law School panel organized by the Middle Eastern Law Students Association, the Jewish Law Students Association, and the International Law Society; the Black Radical Congress (Harlem); the Council for the National Interest (Washington DC); and the Friends Philadelphia Yearly Meeting M.E. Working Group. Nadia Hijab has written widely on the M.E. Her first book, Womanpower: The Arab debate on women at work, was published by Cambridge University Press. She co-authored Citizens Apart: A Portrait of Palestinians in Israel (I. B. Tauris). She was Editor-in-Chief of the London-based Middle East magazine and a frequent commentator on the BBC before moving to New York in 1989 as senior advisor to an international organization. Since 1999, she has been an independent consultant on human rights, human development, gender, and the media. She is past president of the Association of Arab American University Graduates, and a member of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

[2]The Universal Declaration was the basis for two international laws adopted in 1966—the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These three documents are known as the International Bill of Rights.

[3]The international community developed and adopted the Geneva Conventions in 1949, which set out principles and rules in case of war.

[4]During the June War, Israel occupied the Syrian Golan Heights; the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula as well as the Palestinian Gaza Strip, which had been administered by Egypt since 1948; and the Palestinian West Bank, which had been annexed by Jordan in 1948.

[5]From Fact Sheet "Ending the Occupation: It's the Law" under preparation by the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.

[6]Figures of Palestinian dead from the period 29 September 2000—24 August 2002; figures of Israeli dead from 29 September 2000 to 19 August 2002. Sources: Jerusalem Forum and Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, quoted in Jewish Peace News.

[7]The Miami Herald, 17 April 2002.

[8]The Zionists were European Jews who believed that a Jewish state was the solution to pogroms and discrimination in Europe The first Zionist conference was held in Basle in 1897. For a definition of Zionism see

Sherif Husain ibn Ali, governor of Mecca and Medina, had specified in detail the boundaries of the Arab lands that would become independent, which clearly included Palestine. Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, confirmed "Great Britain is prepared to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs in all the regions within the limits demanded by the Sherif of Mecca"—second note from Sir Henry McMahon to Sharif Hussein of the Hijaz, October 1915. British Government, "Correspondence between Sir Henry McMahon and Sherif Hussein of Mecca," October 24, 1915, Parliamentary Papers—Cmd. 5957 (1939).

[10]Total population 1,912,112: Arabs 1,303,887—68%; Jews 608,225—32%—The Anglo-Palestine Yearbook 1947-8 (London: Anglo-Palestine Publications, 1948), p.33.

[11]See "Fictions about the Failure at Camp David" by Robert Malley in The New York Times, 8 July 2001; and "A Reply to Ehud Barak" by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in the New York Review of Books.

[12]See Benny Morris, The birth of the Palestinian refugee problem, 1947—1949, Cambridge University Press, 1987.