The Pope's Emphasis on Palestinian Rights
Published on Wednesday, May 16, 2001 in the Boston Globe
The Pope's Emphasis on Palestinian Rights
by Elaine C. Hagopian
WITH THE FOLLOWING words, repeated often during his visit to Syria, Pope John Paul II articulated the international consensus on Palestinian national and individual rights: It is time to return to the principles of international legality: the banning of acquisition of territory by force, the right of people to self-determination, respect for the resolutions of the United Nations and the Geneva convention.

The pope's call embodies the whole range of international law and the accumulated UN Resolutions calling for Palestinian national self-determination, for Palestinian refugee right of return, and for removal of Israel's June 1967 occupation (military and illegal settlements) of Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank.

Seeking to consolidate its position in the Arab Gulf after the 1991 war, the Bush administration wanted to dissolve the destabilizing Palestinian issue. Given the weakness of the PLO and the disarray of the Arab states, the United States convinced Israel that it could secure an advantageous peace, one that would meet its interests in the occupied territories without the burden of incorporating the Palestinian residents into Israeli citizenship.

From its inception in October 1991, the Madrid-Oslo ''peace process'' had as its only legal underpinning the UN Security Council Resolution 242. Israel's interpretation of its language was at variance from the international consensus regarding UN Resolution 242. Hence Israel did not view itself as an occupying power in the territories, referring to the latter as ''administered territories.'' Therefore, it was not subject to international law requiring it to withdraw.

In this, Israel had US support as evidenced by Secretary of State James Baker's letters of assurance issued before the opening of the Madrid Conference. To the Palestinians, he said: ''The US will accept any outcome agreed by the parties.'' No recognition was given to the relevant international laws or UN resolutions. If that had been the case, negotiations would have set the schedule and modalities of Israeli withdrawal from the territories. In his letter to the Israelis, Baker noted: ''Israel holds its own interpretation of Security Council Resolution 242 alongside other interpretations.''

In January 1997, Secretary Warren Christopher went further by attaching to the Hebron Protocol a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recognizing Israel's ''right'' to determine from which areas it would ''re-deploy.'' The word ''withdraw'' disappeared from the Oslo vernacular.

In spite of signs to the contrary, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat believed the result of negotiations would be a viable Palestinian state in the whole of the occupied territories, with minor adjustments, and some acceptable arrangement on refugee rights. He not only negotiated poorly but, with each interim agreement, gave credence to Israel's interpretation of 242.

Final-status negotiations were set for July 2000 at Camp David. Arafat was told not to sign away Palestinian rights to fully sovereign statehood and refugee return. Having given in to US-Israeli pressure on interim agreements, his refusal to sign was interpreted as some sort of ploy. The so-called concessions by Barak had two problems: As an occupying power, ''concessions'' were not Israel's to make; and close examination of the ''generous concessions'' announced in the media show the profile of bantustans choked by Israeli settlements, roads, and border controls. The Jerusalem ''concessions'' were all fluff, no substance. In return, Barak expected Arafat to be complicit in denying the inalienable rights of Pelestinian refugees, 70 percent of the Palestinian population.

Failure of the Israelis to withdraw military and illegal settlements from the occupied territories and make way for a viable Palestinian state and implement Palestinian rights of return have led to the present situation. Palestinians have a right to resist occupation under international law. Israel seeks to retain the territories, and through an orchestrated media campaign, portrays Palestinians as the aggressors.

Hence, the pope's reaffirmation of the principles of international legality and recognition of 242 as calling for Israeli withdrawal from all the occupied territories is important. Having seen the failure of Madrid-Oslo, the pope reminds us that the consensus on the actual meaning of 242, previous UN resolutions on Palestine, and other relevant international laws and conventions are the only bases for a durable peace.

Elaine C. Hagopian is professor emerita of sociology at Simmons College.

© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company