Constantly Dangled, Endlessly Receding

Ghada Karmi on Palestinian rights

In Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country … The Four Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong … is of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.

Arthur Balfour, 1919

In 2005 I was working for the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Twelve years had passed since the 1993 Oslo Accords. The PA had been set up the following year to administer civil life in Gaza and in some parts of the West Bank, designated ‘Area A’ under the Accords. This was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, lasting five years: by 1999, all outstanding issues between the two sides were expected to be resolved. Many Palestinians couldn’t help seeing the Oslo Accords as a step towards the creation of their own state. I remember the hope, even jubilation, among so many that a resolution to the conflict was finally in sight. Investment flowed in from wealthy Palestinians abroad, and the PA behaved like a government in waiting. Yasir Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, became president and a full cabinet of ministers was appointed, as if the Palestinian state were already in existence.

By 2005 these hopes had been dashed and disillusionment was setting in. I was appointed as a consultant to the Ministry of Information, a hollow position if ever there was one. I soon discovered I had no power to change anything or influence any decision. The reason was simple: the ministry itself had no power, and neither did the PA. Supposedly in charge of civil matters, it answered to Israel in every respect. I watched with dismay the empty show, pretend authority and make-believe that characterised the PA’s conduct. Israel was in absolute control of Palestinian life, land and resources, and its denigration of Palestinian rights was a daily fact of life.

Bad as things were in 2005, they have steadily worsened since. The vibrancy of Palestinian society in the face of this oppression, its creativity, the artistic projects and innovations it keeps coming up with, and the patience and good humour with which it withstands Israel’s maltreatment are remarkable. All this activity has fooled many people into believing that Palestinians in the West Bank lead reasonable lives, despite the occupation. In reality they are prisoners who, thanks to their resourcefulness and energy, have managed to improve conditions inside their prison. The prison gates remain firmly shut.

Only in these conditions could the Trump administration have announced that it no longer considers Israel’s settlements in the West Bank to be ‘inconsistent with international law’. The administration signalled its position when, shortly after taking office, Trump declared that he would move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That move was followed, this summer, by his proposed ‘deal of the century’, the end stage of that process of delegitimisation of Palestinian rights and wishes started by Balfour a century ago. The first, ‘economic’ part of the Trump plan was revealed at a workshop in Bahrain. It included a proposal for a $50 billion investment fund to spend on infrastructure and business projects in the Palestinian areas as well as in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, with funding to come mainly from Arab sources. Details of the second, ‘political’ part of the plan have yet to be disclosed: it was due to be announced in November but has now been postponed sine die. According to unauthenticated leaks published in Israel Hayom, however, it envisages a mini-state of ‘New Palestine’ on 12 per cent of the West Bank, comprising non-contiguous cantons, with a capital somewhere inside Jerusalem’s expanded municipal boundaries. This part of the mini-state would be connected to Gaza by a bridge, and to Jordan by two land corridors. Gaza would be expanded into northern Sinai on land leased from Egypt, where an industrial zone and airport would be built. Hamas would surrender its arms and come under the control of the Palestinian Authority. The new state would be demilitarised, its security provided by Israel but paid for by the Palestinians. Finally, the Palestinian right of return – declared an inalienable right by the UN General Assembly in 1974 – would be officially cancelled: Palestinian refugees would receive compensation from an international fund and be allowed more rights in the countries where they are now living.

These proposals – if the leaks are even vaguely accurate – promise to extinguish any notion of Palestinian rights. But Trump’s deal, however extreme, essentially follows the principles that have governed Western ‘peacemaking’ from the start: that Palestinian demands must always be subordinated to Israel’s needs and wishes, and that Israel must not be pressured into complying with anything it doesn’t want to comply with. Given this inherent pro-Israel bias, the issue for peacemakers is how to pacify the Palestinians at least in the short term. An agreement might have been reached decades ago if Israel had given up its post-1967 acquisitions to make room for a small Palestinian state. But Israel was never willing to give up territory, and all concessions had to be on the Palestinian side. Yet no concession the Palestinians made was ever acceptable to Israel. At the last marathon peace talks, in 2013-14, the Palestinians offered to accept Israeli settlements in the West Bank in return for land in Israel and a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem; in addition, they would no longer insist on the right of return. When the talks broke down, Martin Indyk, the US negotiator in charge of the process, who is usually sympathetic to Israel, laid the blame at Israel’s door, since settlement-building continued even during the talks. No negotiations have taken place since.

A wiser Palestinian leadership would have seen long ago that no Western peace proposal would ever give the Palestinians their rights. Such a leadership would have acted well before the Oslo Accords fragmented the West Bank and made unified resistance to Israeli control almost impossible. In the 25 years since Oslo, Israel has colonised more Palestinian land and consolidated its presence in Jerusalem and the West Bank. It has established two hundred settlements, populated by 622,000 settlers, many of them armed and aggressive towards local Palestinians. Israel’s serial violations of international law in the Occupied Territories, clearly documented and condemned by international agencies, including the UN, have gone unpunished; the EU-Israel Association Agreement of 2000, which grants Israel preferential trade access to European markets, has never been downgraded or suspended to punish Israel for reneging on its commitments under Article 2 of the agreement, which deals with mutual respect for human rights.

‘I am guided by several principles when it comes to the West Bank,’ Benjamin Netanyahu said at an event this summer to celebrate forty years of the Samaria Regional Council, which governs the settlements. ‘The first: this is our homeland. The second: we will continue to build and develop it. Third: not one resident or community will be uprooted in a political agreement. Fourth: the Israeli military and security forces will continue to rule the entire territory up to the Jordan Valley.’ Palestinians need to face up to this new reality. The whole of Israel-Palestine is now a single entity under Israel’s rule: it is one state in all but name – but with markedly different rights for its various classes of citizen. Its population comprises 6.6 million Israeli Jews with full citizenship and rights, 1.8 million Israeli Palestinians, also possessing citizenship but with restricted rights, and 4.7 million Palestinians with no citizenship and no rights. This last group has been oppressed by years of Israeli military rule, and myriad discriminatory practices. A damning UN report – published in 2017 but quickly withdrawn from UN websites following an outcry from Israel and the US – documents an ‘apartheid regime’. Several World Bank reports, the latest in 2019, have found that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank has led to an ‘unsustainable’ economic situation, with zero growth in the territories in 2018, and two out of three young people unemployed.

Meanwhile, Israel’s near total blockade of Gaza’s land, sea and airspace has caused chronic shortages of food, medicine and building materials. In retaliation to Gazans’ launching of incendiary devices over the ‘security barrier’ separating Gaza from Israel, Gaza’s fishing boats have been restricted to operating within six nautical miles of the coast (the Oslo Accords allow a twenty-mile limit). A 2012 UN study predicted that by 2020 Gaza’s coastal aquifer would be damaged beyond repair, leaving its people without drinking water, the majority kept alive thanks to international aid. This situation is the result of the Western decision to allow Israel to flout international law with impunity. It has been permitted to rule over a population without offering them citizenship, and to deny them the protections of the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which they are entitled as occupied people. Israel’s justification is that the 1967 Palestinian territories are ‘disputed’ rather than ‘occupied’ – a claim that is not accepted in international law. Either way, Israel has acted as the sovereign state ‘in its own land’.

Had it not been for the existence of the PA, this anomalous situation would have been challenged decades ago. The illusion that the PA created in people’s minds, Palestinians included, was seductive: the Israeli-Palestinian relationship briefly looked like one of near equivalence. During my time in Ramallah, I nearly fell for it myself. But the reality has become ever clearer – this year alone the Israeli authorities have demolished 140 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, in areas nominally under PA control. Trump’s proposal for a ‘New Palestine’ confirms that the possibility of a real Palestinian state is further away than ever.

And yet, in general, Palestinians have kept in sight this constantly dangled, endlessly receding prospect. They were promised a state, and it is still their ambition to achieve one. But if one looks at the facts on the ground, and accepts that such a state is close to being an impossibility, what should they be aiming for instead? They currently live under a system of ever increasing oppression and inequality: this is the situation that has to be addressed. And the only way of addressing it is to demand civil and political rights on an equal basis with the rest of the population under Israel’s jurisdiction. Such a demand would put the ball in Israel’s court: either it vacates the Palestinian territories it occupies, or it confers the same rights on its inhabitants that Israeli citizens enjoy.

There are honourable antecedents for a campaign of this kind. The South African freedom struggle aimed from the start for equal rights for all citizens. Its message inspired an international anti-apartheid movement. The ANC and other South African organisations may have approved of armed struggle – which the PLO renounced in 1993 – but many of the tactics used to challenge apartheid were non-violent. A Palestinian Freedom Charter modelled on South Africa’s would be a promising start. The parallels are not exact. Black South Africans were in a majority of three to one over whites at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle, whereas the ratio of Israelis to Palestinians is close to 1:1. White South Africans never aimed to replace the black population, as Israel aims to replace the Palestinians. They sought to exploit them. But the parallels were close enough for Nelson Mandela. ‘We know too well,’ he said in 1997, ‘that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.’ The civil rights movement in the US, despite its origins in anti-slavery (very few echoes there with the Palestinian cause), provides another model for peaceful, effective action in support of equality and social justice. That movement’s use of litigation, mass media, boycotts, marches, sit-ins and civil disobedience inspired widespread solidarity in America and beyond, eventually forcing the federal government to enact a raft of anti-racist legislation.

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There would be many advantages for the Palestinians under a system of equal rights in a single state: full citizenship; equal representation in parliament, where legislation on refugee repatriation could open the way for progress on the right of return; equal access to education, employment and social services; and all the benefits of a normal civic life. Above all, Palestinians would be able to remain on their land. But the obstacles in the way of implementing such a system are immense. Zionists will see it as the end of Israel as a majority-Jewish state, and so the end of Zionism. Jewish Israeli citizens with a sense of supremacy and entitlement, many of whom hate and fear Arabs, will reject any attempt at equivalence. So will the Israeli state, which has thrived for 71 years on exploiting Palestinian land and resources while subjugating the non-Jewish population.

The Palestinians, for their part, will see the pursuit of equal rights within a single state as an abandonment of their cherished national project. The sovereignty they have aspired to and fought for would have to be sacrificed, and with it the end of resistance to Israel. Many people are invested in the project of an independent state, and many both inside and outside the PA have personally benefited from the status quo; they will fight hard to keep what they have. Whatever fine talk there might be about equality, and whatever legislation might exist to enforce it, they will worry that in a political entity that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Jordan Valley they would always be de facto second-class citizens, like the present-day Palestinian citizens of Israel. Understandably, people whose lives have been blighted by the occupation long to live in a place where the Israeli army is out of sight and mostly out of mind.

There are principled reasons, too, not to let go of the dream. A struggle framed in terms of national liberation, as the Palestinian cause used to be, is only concluded when the flag is raised on an independent nation-state. For the PLO that originally meant the whole of Mandate Palestine, most of which became Israel in 1948, and not the fifth of it that remained after 1967. For thirty years the organisation enjoyed enormous support in pursuit of this goal among members of the Non-Aligned Movement, the Arab League and the UN General Assembly. With that support came a series of hard-won victories on the diplomatic front, especially at the UN, where several General Assembly resolutions backed proposals for a Palestinian state encompassing all of the pre-1967 territory as part of a two-state solution; that success culminated in 2012 when the General Assembly recognised a ‘state of Palestine’ by a majority of 138.

Why throw away these gains? Especially when, on the back of them, Palestine has been accepted as a member of international bodies such as Unesco and the International Criminal Court. Polling of Palestinians (and Israelis) has consistently shown support for a two-state arrangement, though the figure fell to 43 per cent in 2018 (down from a high of 70 per cent in 2013). The PLO, still the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians, will be deeply opposed on historical and strategic grounds to any alternative. These are weighty objections, but the withering away of the two-state solution has been obvious for more than twenty years. A glance at the map of the Occupied Territories confirms that a functioning state in what remains of them is inconceivable; a moment’s reflection on the extent – and continuing expansion – of Jewish settlements makes it plain that they cannot be dismantled. In this respect, the US declaration in their favour merely reflects the facts on the ground. Without a drastic upheaval in the balance of world power, or an unlikely change of heart on the part of Western states, a two-state solution will remain a dream. Unless some of those who campaign for it can come up with an effective way of making it happen, continuing to push for two states is an irresponsible waste of time.

Yet the two-state solution, even if it had ever been possible, would never have offered the Palestinians the justice they need. A statelet on pre-1967 lines which can only be an annex to Israel, without the capacity to expand its land or population, is no solution for a dispossessed people of 12 million worldwide. Only a system of equal rights within a single state can give the Palestinians the basic right to live decent lives in their own homeland, and eventually to repatriate those of their compatriots who were expelled in 1948 and thereafter. There is no real constituency for this solution, not because it is a bad idea, but because it falls outside the existing paradigm and to depart from that paradigm requires an intellectual leap. The PA’s senior negotiator, Saeb Erekat, made that leap in 2017 after the US recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. ‘Now is the time to transform the struggle,’ he said, and turn it into a movement for ‘one state with equal rights for everyone’.

The primary aim of a campaign for equal rights for Palestinians is not the creation of a single state in Israel-Palestine: that already exists. It would be a campaign for a democracy in which the old questions – whether the Jewish Israeli population constitutes a national group, whether Palestinian Arabs have the right to self-determination – don’t arise. As a first step, the Palestinian Authority must be persuaded to transform itself from the pseudo-government of a non-existent state into a campaigning leadership heading a mass movement for equal rights across Israel and the Occupied Territories, welcoming Jewish Israelis who share this vision. Difficult as this project undoubtedly is, there is no longer any other way forward, for Palestinians or Israelis.