The Australian Greens and Palestine: confronting the 'inconvenient truths' of the party's right of return policy

In 1948, more than 800,000 Palestinian men, women and children were forced to flee their homes.

[After a year of debate, and under pressure from right-wing forces, the NSW Greens decided on December 4 to retreat from supporting the global pro-Palestine boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign. Below, Tony Harris discusses the background to the policy.]

By Tony Harris

November 25, 2011 -- This article first appeared at Watermelon, and is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission -- In March last year, 35 prominent Jewish Australians signed a petition renouncing their automatic right of return to Israel, labelling such a right a “racist privilege” while Palestinians, ethnically cleansed from Israel in 1948, are denied their rights of return under international law.

This goes to the heart of the problem of finding a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Palestinians are the largest refugee group in the world, and constitute the most protracted and long-term refugee problem – around 7 million of the 11 million Palestinians are refugees, 5 million living in refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere, under the supervision of the UN agency set up in 1951 specifically to deal with this population: the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNWRA).

The Australian Greens pride themselves on determined and principled defence of the rights of refugees. Green politicians and activists can righty take credit for focusing attention on the inconvenient truths of the rights of asylum seekers under international law, and in the process, helping to shift Australian public opinion over the appalling abuse of rights under current Australian federal government asylum seeker policies. The Greens national website gives prominence to the fact that asylum seekers are not illegal, citing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Palestinian refugees who in May marched on the border with Israel, during the annual Nakhba commemoration, were not illegal either. Yet 14 paid for this right with their lives, shot by Israeli troops, in an extreme version of a Tony Abbot, “turn back the boats” exercise.

The right of return is the other side of the coin of seeking asylum. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights expresses this in a single sentence: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and return to his country.” This is reinforced under the International Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Alongside this is the even more explicit Palestinian “right of return” under United Nations General Assembly resolution 194 of 1948, which was accepted by the new Israeli state as a condition of its entry into the UN. This resolution states that Palestinian “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss or damage to property.”

Australian Greens' position.

There is an emerging strategy by the Greens national parliamentary leadership, following the national furore over support in the Greens for the BDS campaign against Israel, to try and present a “small target” over the Israel Palestine conflict. This has involved a limited “cherry picking” from the Greens national policy, focusing solely on the question of the “two-state solution” and by extension, support for the Palestinian Authority’s UN bid for recognition of a Palestinian state. But the Greens also have a policy on the “right of return” and the national leadership is bound to assert it. It calls for: “a just and practical negotiated settlement of the claims of the Palestinian refugees that provides compensation for those who are unable to return to their country of origin, Israel or Palestine”.

The insertion of the term “practical negotiated settlement” is an example of the usual caveat that finds its way into a political party platform but does not absolve the Australian Greens interpreting this provision in line with international law. As has been pointed out above, this is less equivocal. Any “negotiated practical” outcomes cannot bargain away the right of return, and the alternative of compensation has to be offered as an option. In terms of who is defined as a refugee under international law, a guide is provided by the UNWRA definition: persons living in Palestine from the 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 together with "descendants of fathers fulfilling this definition”.

In this context there also needs to be a refutation of any notion of “trade-off” between Palestinian refuges and those Jews who moved to Israel from the Middle East and North Africa after 1948. While of these Jews were drawn to the new Israeli state, and others encouraged to do so by Zionist activists, there is no doubt that many were forced to flee from Arab states in the aftermath of the foundation of the State of Israel. The forced transfer of populations, whether Palestinian or Middle Eastern Jews, would today rightly be described as crimes against humanity under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

One crime cannot be traded against another and the right of return of Palestinians is not diminished by the unwillingness or inability of Israeli Mizrahis to return to their countries of origin. Their right to do this, and be offered the option of compensation, is valid, in its own right. It needs to be put onto the Arab states, especially in the context of the human rights-based Arab Revolution, that they have responsibilities in this regard no less than Israeli responsibilities towards Palestinian refugees.Similarly, the willingness or otherwise of Arab states to grant proper settlement and citizenship rights to post-1948 Palestinian asylum seekers does not negate the Palestinian right of return.

In confronting this issue then, the Australian Greens would be well advised to take up Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign reminder that it was “the economy stupid”.For the Australian Greens approach to the resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict “it’s the right of return, stupid”. This has consequences for the other part of the Greens Israel-Palestine policy: the two-state solution.

The right of return and the two-state solution.

A right of return by Palestinians confined to just the 22 per cent of historic Palestine, with nothing more than a token right of return to Israel, will not be acceptable to them or comply substantially with international law. This means that Israel will have to potentially absorb a considerable Palestinian population, substantial altering its demographics. On the other side of the fence any Palestinian state is likely to contain a sizeable number of Israeli Jews. The need to resolve the illegality, and land grabbing, of the West Bank Jewish settlements aside, there are likely to be a considerable number of Israeli Jews remaining, perhaps being offered Palestinian citizenship. Indeed there is a strong argument that the settlements have effectively killed off a two-state solution, guaranteeing a bi-national state as the only effective resolution to the conflict.

Further, a Palestinian state on 22 per cent of Palestine will not be economically viable and combined with a degree of Israeli dependence on the Palestinians as a labour source is likely to see the two states economically integrated. This of course would bring to the fore cross-border class tensions between a dominant Israeli, and subordinate Palestinian, capitalism on the one hand and potentially common class interests of Palestinian and Israeli workers and economically marginalised on the other.

All this begs the question why not just cut to the chase and have a bi-national state (which this writer supports), which is increasingly likely to end up as the default position. Nonetheless, a two-state solution may give a much sought after national identity to both Israeli and Palestinian peoples in resolving the conflict, but will inevitably encompass a bi-ethnic, cross-border, political, economic and social reality.

The Greens' political problem

Many in the Australian Greens have been focusing on the search for a “static”, electorally acceptable, policy which will keep the pro-Israel foreign policy and political establishments off their backs, and keep at bay their bete noir and staunchest critic, federal Labor Party MP Michael “Yankee Doodle” Danby (as Wikileaks reveals, he has communicated regularly with the US embassy). The unfolding of the Arab revolution and the associated Palestinian resistance will at best render this strategy irrelevant. A good example of this was the debate over the BDS in the Australian Senate in July where the Greens sole response, assertion of a two-state solution, ignored the then unfolding drama of the blocking of the Gaza peace flotilla. In this context the Greens need to engage with the unfolding dynamics on the ground.

The right of return as a core Palestinian demand has been restored with the recent developments within the Palestinian resistance, which lay emphasis on a human rights-based approach (see extensive discussion of these developments by various commentators on Al Jazeera, at the Electronic Intifada, and elsewhere). This is typified by the BDS campaign, which has shifted focus from the final geo-political outcome of the Israel-Palestine conflict to the immediate reality of Israel’s violation of international law and human rights norms as regards the occupation, the right of return and discrimination against Arab Israelis. This is in the context of a shift in the nature of Palestinian resistance from armed struggle to wider civil resistance, with non-violent actions such as the BDS and protests against the separation wall. These civil resistance techniques are not new to Palestinians; this kind of action has been brutally suppressed down the years under both Israeli and British colonial administrations. But they are being re-energised through the rights-based resistance and the wider Arab revolution, as well as through a growing international support in such activities as the BDS and Gaza peace flotillas.

This rights-based civil resistance represents a “bottom up” approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict, emphasising that Israel has here-and-now obligations under international law that do not wait upon a final political settlement. This is an alternative to the bankrupt “top down” approach taken by the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in recent years, under pressure from the Western powers, which has been exposed by the publication of the Palestine Papers. It is also an alternative to the static and authoritarian policies of Hamas in Gaza and come from frustration at the inability of Hamas and Fatah to resolve differences and give democratic and accountable political leadership to the Palestinian resistance.

The Fatah-led bid at the UN for the recognition of a Palestinian state (problematic though it is for many Palestinians) is in large measure a response to this groundswell and to the wider Arab revolution to which it is linked. There is also great potential for links to growing Israeli opposition to the policies of the right-wing Netanyahu government, through the universalities of a rights-based agenda, notwithstanding difficulties in such areas as debates over the BDS and issues like the Palestinian right of return.

The political outcome of the Israel-Palestine conflict will need to involve two peoples sharing the one land. And there is also a wider historical symmetry between the Jewish and Arabic peoples as the common victims of Western imperialism and racism, an important narrative that is largely absent from the debate. There is a lay-line of human suffering that runs through the death camps of the Holocaust and the demolished Arab villages of the Nakhba; a timeline of Western imperialism and racism that extends from World War I, and its aftermath in both Europe and the Middle East, to the West’s backing of the “solution” of the Israeli colonial project. But since 1948 it has been the Palestinian people who have been expected to pay the price of this imperialism and racism. Palestinians, including refugees, have shown their determination not to pay this price.

Many in the Australian Greens have become frustrated with this situation, and the perceived excessive dominance of the issue in recent party debate. But it is history that has placed the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the Middle East generally, at the centre of world politics. The Greens must decide whether to be relevant in this issue, and engage dynamically with the Palestinians in their struggle, the wider Arab revolution of which it is part, and with the developing opposition within Israel. This struggle will intensify in the medium term as Israel, the US and their allies reject the UN Palestinian bid.

Following through with support of the bid and its rejection will confront the Greens with the need to engage further with these dynamics on the ground. This would inevitably bring the Greens into further conflict with the pro-Israeli stance of Australia’s foreign policy establishment. The Greens must avoid the temptation to adopt a static, small-target approach for reasons of electoral safety, and follow though, showing the same determination as in the asylum seeker debate, and confronting the inconvenient truths of the conflict, such as the Palestinian right of return.

[Tony Harris was involved in the early formation of the Greens in NSW in the 1980s (after being expelled from the Australian Labor Party) and is currently a member of Victorian Greens. He is author of Basket Weavers and True Believers: making and unmaking the Labor Left in Leichhardt Municipality, 1970-1991 (Leftbank Publishing 2007). Harris' blog, Watermelon, "is a political blog: an assertion of a leftist perspective within and alongside Green politics. And the colours are not just red and green, but also black-the seeds of libertarianism throughout".]