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Book Review

The question of Palestine in light of international law and conventions

Zafar Bangash

PALESTINE AND THE LAW: GUIDELINES FOR THE RESOLUTION OF THE ARAB - ISRAELI CONFLICT By Musa Mazzawi. Ithaca Press, Reading, Berks, UK. 1997. pp. 433. Hbk: œ35.

Debate about Palestine is often shrouded in the fog of individuals’ preferences. There is always a prior commitment to one side or the other and every piece of evidence is used merely to reinforce one’s own argument or debunk the other’s.

Given that much of the history of Palestine has been submerged under the debris of what was previously the truth, creating new facts on the ground, an average reader can be forgiven for being confused about events in that unfortunate land and its tortured people. It is also a well-established fact that one side in the conflict - the Zionists - have a virtual monopoly on the flow of information, thereby turning the entire debate over its head. The victims - the Palestinians - have been branded as ‘terrorists’ while the real perpetrators of terrorism - the Zionists - are presented as innocent victims.

In Palestine and the Law, professor Musa Mazzawi does not focus on the political arguments. He is concerned about the legal aspects of the debate. This is a herculian task since like the political and propaganda aspects, one side - the zionists - have a clear advantage over the other - the Palestinians. The reason is that the zionist point of view has not only been presented by their own writers but also by numerous others in the west, be they British, American or others. Almost all western governments supported the establishment of the State of Israel in Palestine.

>From that point of view, it was and remains a colonial enterprise. The majority of Jews who have settled in Palestine came from Eastern Europe, Russia, and now increasingly from America. Professor Mazzawi does not, however, concern himself with political or demographic questions. He concentrates on the legal aspects of the debate and with tightly-knit arguments, peels off the layers of deception that have been woven by the zionists to obfuscate the real issues.

He briefly outlines why he felt the need for this book. With a keen eye for detail, Mazzawi points out that the Oslo accords signed in Washington DC on September 13, 1993, leave a number of crucial questions in a limbo. Several points were incorporated either without consulting legal experts or, were left deliberately vague to allow both sides to claim victory. Either way, this has left the Palestinian side in a weaker position. The Israelis can dictate the pace of implementation. If they drag their feet in implementing their side of the bargain, the Palestinians have little recourse to secure compliance. In the four-year period, this is precisely what has happened.

After giving a brief history of Palestine and the British promise to the Jews for a homeland therein, Mazzawi reviews at length the question of British mandate over Palestine. A sticking point in this debate was whether the mandate given to Britain by the League of Nations could be transferred to the United Nations.

Essentially, the question was, whether the UN was the automatic successor to the League. Quoting extensively from leading jurists, the author comes on the side that the UN was qualified under the charter to assume responsibility for the mandate once Britain referred the matter to it.

There has also been considerable debate about whether the UN general assembly was entitled to hand over the territory of one people to another without reference to the wishes of those most affected by it. Equally important is the issue of the authority of the general assembly which can only recommend but not enforce decisions. The enforcement mechanism exists only in the security council.

Again, Mazzawi quotes numerous legal opinions and ultimately comes on the side of those who argue that the assembly is entitled not only to make recommendations but if the majority of its members support that decision then it has binding force.

On November 29, 1947, the general assembly adopted a resolution on the future of Palestine partitioning it between the Arabs and Jews. Jerusalem was accorded a special status. ‘The Resolution - No 181 (II) - was passed by a vote of 33 in favour, 13 against, with 10 abstentions (including the United Kingdom)’ (p.94).

While pointing out the injustice inherent in the resolution which handed over the larger and better part of Palestine to the Jewish minority, he goes on to accept its legal validity in principle. Professor Mazzawi overlooks the fact that the US had to postpone the vote three times to exert pressure on members like the Philippines and Haiti to secure their support. The target countries were either US colonies or heavily influenced by it, coercing them to vote for the resolution to achieve a two-thirds majority. James Forrestal, then US defence secretary, described US moves in the general assembly as ‘bordering on the scandalous.’

While Mazzawi is only concerned about the mechanical nature of the vote, a more rigorous analysis would have led to questioning its validity as well. Even if one were to accept the general assembly’s authority - a big if - the manner in which the vote was secured should have raised a question mark in the mind of a law professor. The law ultimately is designed to safeguard the inherent rights of people.

Be that as it may, the author raises some pertinent questions. For instance, he sheds much light on the status of Jerusalem. He points out that while Israel rests its case for existence on the validity of the general assembly vote, in the very next breath, it ignores the status of Jerusalem. The UN had accorded Jerusalem the status of ‘corpus separatum - a separate and distinct entity’ under UN jurisdiction (p.242), according to the same resolution. This was further reinforced by numerous resolutions of the UN security council over the course of two decades.

This, strictly from a legal point of view, is important. The zionist State of Israel is busy altering the status of Jerusalem unilaterally and in total disregard of numerous security council resolutions. This is also attested to by the fact that of all members of the world body, hardly two or three have accepted Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem. Even the US, the patron saint of Israel, has not moved its embassy to Jerusalem, notwithstanding the grandstanding by US congressmen and women about the city.

Professor Mazzawi makes an equally compelling case for the return of the Palestinian refugees. He debunks the myth that they had left their homes on the advice of the ‘advancing Arab armies’ who had promised to liberate the whole of Palestine. The return of refugees is not predicated on their leaving home non-voluntarily. Theirs is a fundamental right that cannot be abrogated by the circumstances in which they left.

A detailed discussion of security council resolution 242, which calls for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from lands occupied in the June 1967 rounds up the argument. The zionists and their friends have argued that the resolution does not call for Israeli military withdrawal from all Arab lands, nor more important does it deal with Israeli civilians.

Professor Mazzawi points out, in reference to earlier UN resolutions as well as to the debate prior to the adoption of resolution 242, that member-States were absolutely clear about what they were voting for. Representatives of several countries had already pointed out that Israel had to vacate all occupied Arab lands. Some delegates made specific reference during the security council debate on the resolution for Israeli troops to return to the June 4 position. And, according to the UN charter, there is no allowance for acquiring land by force.

In addition to the finely argued legal points, this book is useful for a number of other reasons as well. The appendices include entire texts of such documents as the ‘Declaration of Principles’ signed on the white house lawn in Washington DC in September 1993, and resolutions - of the general assembly as well as the security council - pertaining to Palestine. Those who are interested in the future of Palestine would do well to equip themselves with all the pertinent facts.

This book will help them do it. While scattered information is available in different places, putting it into one volume is extremely helpful. One may disagree with some of the positions put forward by professor Mazzawi, there is no denying the usefulness of the book which offers much by way of understanding the crucial question of Palestine from the legal point of view. This has been made all the more pertinent in view of the fast-breaking developments in Palestine and indeed the entire region.

Zafar Bangash is the editor of the Canadian-based Crescent International

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 17

Rajab 11, 14191998-11-01

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