As if the political situation in the Middle East could become no more volatile, we now have not just WikiLeaks but another document scandal, this one pertaining to the failed Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. Dubbed the "Palestine papers," the documents represent the largest leak in the history of the Middle East conflict, comprising a whopping 1,600 confidential records.
Spanning successive White House administrations, the Palestine Papers were leaked to Al Jazeera and the Guardian of London and have already created a firestorm of controversy for the Palestinian Authority which gave away key political demands to the Israeli side. In the long-term, however, the documents could wind up shaming not just the Palestinians, Israelis and the United States but also countries as far afield as Chile.
That is because Palestinian negotiators seem to have caved when it came to standing up for their people's historic "right of return." Since Israel expelled Palestinians in 1948, refugees have been floating around various corners of the Middle East hoping to one day return to their ancestral homes. Yet, according to leaked documents, Palestinian negotiators agreed to the mere return of 10,000 people over the course of 10 years, a minuscule fraction of the overall number of refugees totaling more than 5 million.
According to reports, Palestinian president Abu Mazen remarked that it would be "illogical" to expect that Israel would accept five million refugees as this would signify "the end of Israel." If true — and needless to say the Palestinian authority has derided the papers as false, taken out of context or manipulated — then the document release sorely discredits negotiators. What is even more bizarre, however, was a scheme launched by then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to relocate Palestinian refugees to South America.
The surreal discussion took place in June, 2008 when Rice met with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Berlin. At the time, Rice was following up on the Annapolis peace conference of the previous year and final status negotiations between the PLO and the Israeli government of Ehud Olmert. According to minutes from the meeting, Rice remarked "maybe we will be able to find countries that can contribute in kind. Chile, Argentina, etc (ie, give land)." Though the suggestion was certainly outlandish, Rice may have been influenced by a previous decision to transfer 117 Palestinian refugees to Chile between March and April, 2008, shortly before the Berlin negotiation.
Grim Conditions at Al Tanf
The 2008 transfer, a truly dramatic exodus, brought Palestinian refugees from far-flung Middle Eastern camps all the way to South America. The Palestinians had long been stuck in the miserable makeshift Al Tanf camp located in a bleak no man's land along the Iraqi-Syrian border. For years, the refugees had sought a stable home without success. The majority of Palestinian refugees who arrived in Iraq came from the city of Haifa in 1948, and their children grew up in the new adopted country. Under Saddam Hussein, the Palestinians were treated favorably but after the dictator's fall the refugees once again came under persecution. In the midst of war and instability, some were deprived of their residency papers which made it impossible for the refugees to come and go from Iraq.
The Syrian Al Tanf camp, which received aid from the UNHCR and its partners - mainly UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East), UNICEF, the World Food Program, the Palestinian Red Crescent and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, had been set up originally to harbor Palestinians fleeing persecution in Iraq as no other nation would take them in. When they first arrived, the refugees thought their stay in Al Tanf would be merely temporary but they ultimately wound up having to stay there for nearly four years, during which time they had to endure pests such as snakes and scorpions, not to mention extreme temperatures, sandstorms as well as snowstorms, floods and inadequate access to medical care.
Bachelet to Palestinians: "I Know What It Means to Be a Refugee"
Coming to the aid of the Palestinians, Chile offered asylum to some of the refugees in response to a UN appeal. Though the refugees were relieved to be leaving Al Tanf, they were apprehensive about their uncertain future. In Chile meanwhile, the authorities undertook an ambitious program aimed at reinserting the Palestinians into national life, while providing crucial assistance in the areas of housing, food, clothing, education, health, language skills and employment. After forty hours of grueling travel from Damascus, the refugees arrived in La Calera, a small farming town north of the Chilean capital of Santiago. "Leave your suffering in the past and let Chile be the fountain of your newfound happiness," declared Deputy Interior Secretary Felipe Harboe.
In certain respects, Chile was an agreeable and logical destination for the refugees. The country has large tracts of sparsely populated land and has Latin America's largest Palestinian population, estimated at some 350,000 people. The Palestinian community in Chile dates back a century: the first to make the trek to South America fled the Ottoman Empire and the First World War. Today, most Palestinians are middle class textile merchants and have integrated well into Chilean society.
The town of La Calera has long been home to Chileans of Middle Eastern descent, and as the refugees arrived they were greeted by local residents waving Palestinian flags and singing the Palestinian anthem. Later, the town served Arabic food, played local folk music, and danced to Chile's national dance, called the "cueca." The refugees, relaxed but exhausted, smiled and nodded while murmuring "gracias" to the crowd. "We are confident that here we will be able to live in peace," one refugee remarked through an interpreter. After the ceremony the exhausted migrants were escorted to their apartments.
As I discuss in some detail in Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan), former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet was herself a political exile in her youth: fleeing Chile during the military rule of Augusto Pinochet, she found shelter in communist East Germany. As the Palestinian refugees arrived, the socialist politician harked back to her own past. "I want to tell you that I know exactly how it feels to arrive in a new country as a refugee," Bachelet remarked during a reception for the Palestinians.
What about "The Right of Return"?
For the Palestinians, undertaking a new life in Chile was infinitely superior to languishing at the Al Tanf refugee camp. Yet, this outlandish story raises fundamental questions about the Palestinian struggle and its long term political prospects. By accepting Chile's invitation, the Palestinians sacrificed their "right of return." For Israel, it must have seemed like a sweet deal: if the Palestinians carved out a home 8,000 miles away in the Andes, this could relieve pressure on Israel to return land.
For the Palestinian community in Chile, relocation of their compatriots to South America gave rise to some mixed feelings. While the local community thanked the Bachelet government for its generosity, it maintained the Palestinian historic right of return under United Nations Resolution 194. The local Palestinians argued that Chile, which had already signed the resolution, would be violating the principle of right of return by agreeing to the refugee relocation.
The Chilean authorities, activists argued, should continue to lobby the Israelis and the international community so as to relocate the Al Tanf refugees to their legitimate homes. It would not be until later that the Palestinians would come around, reluctantly, to the Chilean plan. Mauricio Abu-Gosh, president of the Palestinian Federation of Chile, remarked that the right of return should be upheld but that the first priority should be to rescue the refugees from their plight.
Two years later, in the wake of the release of the Palestinian Papers, Abu-Ghosh was outraged when he read of the revelations. Israel, he remarked, was "making the rules" in defiance of UN Resolution 194. Ghosh added that Chile was certainly a desirable country for foreign immigration but Rice's notion of turning the Andean nation into a new homeland for Palestinians was "impractical." Daniel Jadue, vice president of the Palestinian Federation of Chile, declared that the news was "completely unacceptable." Rice's suggestion, Jadue explained, indicated that the negotiation was "dishonest," and "clearly inclined toward Israel."
What is behind the Palestinian-Chilean connection? Perhaps, Rice was inclined to suggest Chile as a possible relocation point given that the Bachelet government was a pliable U.S. ally in the wider region. Though the Chilean president was a socialist and publicly declared her support for other leftist governments in South America, her government pursued friendly relations with the United States. Indeed, as I have written, Bachelet did her utmost to convince Washington that not all Latin American leaders were fire breathing populists or identical in political orientation. According to documents released by WikiLeaks, Bachelet told U.S. diplomats that there were many moderates in Bolivia and President Evo Morales was very different from Venezuela's Chávez.
The Palestinian Papers raise some provocative questions. Did the Bush administration ever broach Rice's idea officially with Chile and Argentina? If WikiLeaks has any documents pertaining to this issue, then Julian Assange should consider releasing any information which would fill in the gaps from the Palestine Papers. If there are further revelations, this could cause severe embarrassment not only to the U.S. and Israel, but also to the Palestinian Authority. What is more, further reporting could discredit the Chilean government which publicly supports the creation of a Palestinian state but which privately may seek to hide any skeletons lurking in the closet.