Palestinians everywhere – including over seven million Palestinians in exile – have a right to Palestinian nationality. This right is guaranteed by international law, but British mandate and Israeli colonial authorities have continued to manipulate the concepts of citizenship and nationality to deny exiled Palestinians their nationality. This policy brief offers recommendations to exiled Palestinians and their representatives in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) for how to lay the groundwork for future Palestinian nationality and citizenship legislation that challenges the Israeli regime’s racist policies.
Citizenship and nationality are not the same. While they are often conflated, delineating the difference between them must form the basis of the Palestinian response to Israeli apartheid policies. Citizenship is the process through which individuals enter into an agreement with states; they must therefore undergo a rigorous vetting process and must meet that state’s eligibility requirements. This also means that states can contest the rights of individuals to citizenship, thereby stripping them of citizenship under certain stipulations. But states cannot denationalize an individual. Under international law, nationality is innate and broadly defined as the link between an individual and a territory. International law protects individuals’ rights to nationality and requires all states to confer the nationality of a given territory on the peoples connected to it.
The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne enshrined Palestinian nationality into international law based on their attachment to the former Ottoman province by bloodline and/or residence. But British mandate authorities contravened the treaty by denying Palestinian nationality through citizenship laws, which they promulgated in 1925 and through which they prioritized naturalizing Jewish migrants as Palestinian citizens at the expense of over tens of thousands of Palestinians who had migrated to the Americas since the late 19th century. British policy thus effectively rendered these migrants, who continued to carry obsolete Ottoman documents, stateless Palestinian nationals.
Since its establishment, when it reset the existing nationality and citizenship laws, the Israeli regime has deliberately manipulated citizenship and nationality to secure a Jewish state. Like British mandate authorities, the Israeli regime has continually presented itself as the only authority with the right to confer both citizenship and nationality on all subjects with legal claims to belong to colonized Palestine. It has thus prevented Palestinians in exile from becoming Palestinian nationals or Israeli citizens – and prohibits Palestinian citizens of Israel from claiming their status as Palestinian nationals.
Palestinians have long objected to their exclusion from Palestinian nationality. During the British Mandate, Palestinians in Palestine and abroad repeatedly protested British policies through petitions submitted to the Government of Palestine and to the League of Nations, articulating their rights to Palestinian nationality using the language of international legal treaties. But over the last several decades, the question of Palestinian nationality has been largely absent from Palestinian political discourse. But with the UN recognition of Palestinian de jure sovereignty in 2012, the PLO pushed for Palestinian citizenship and nationality rights based on the Treaty of Lausanne, to no avail due to the legal complexities involved.
As the sole representative of the fragmented Palestinian people, the PLO must act as the guarantor of Palestinians’ rights to nationality, irrespective of corrupt Israeli and Palestinian leadership. One of the ways it can do so is through invoking the Treaty of Lausanne as an internationally recognized legal basis for nationality, as it did in 2012. However, Palestinians across the diaspora must also work with the PLO, and especially with its diplomatic corps, tasked with representing Palestinian refugees and exilees, to set the criteria for determining what it means to be Palestinian.
To do so, exiled Palestinians and their representatives in the PLO must:
- Create forums for Palestinians across the world to gather and set the criteria to determine who qualifies to register for Palestinian nationality. While the Treaty of Lausanne makes provisions for this, it is incumbent on Palestinians to articulate these rights in their own terms, much like indigenous communities in North America have been discussing for decades.
- Issue a population registry of exiled Palestinians to ascertain the number of Palestinians in the diaspora who qualify for Palestinian nationality.
- Draft a comprehensive nationality law that is based on the rights of Palestinians to their nationality, as determined by international law and by consensus. This would lay the groundwork for Palestinian citizenship conferral.
- Support Palestinians residing in foreign countries and holding secondary citizenship who demand to be recognized as Palestinian nationals by their host states.
- Demand Israel be held accountable for contravening international law in denying millions of Palestinians it expelled from Palestine in 1948 and 1967 their rights to Palestinian nationality. This must be done regionally and internationally, in every state where Palestinians reside.