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Palestine; A Secular Democratic State is the Only Viable and Long-lasting Just Solution

Jamil Hilal

Palestinian demand for a sovereign territorial state was voiced soon after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the imposition of British colonial rule on Palestine. It rose with the arbitrary division of the Middle East among the dominant imperialist powers at the time (Britain and France). In 1917, Britain issued the Balfour Declaration committing itself to facilitate the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, ignoring the will of the indigenous inhabitants of the country (the Palestinians) and their right to self-determination. The demand for a Palestinian state became insistent once it became clear that Arabs would not have its unified nation-state that the British promised them on the eve of the First World War. The demand for Palestinian independence acquired a special urgency once the Palestinians realized the aims of the Zionist project, and the full implications of the Balfour Declaration. This demand was behind the struggle that Palestinians waged both British imperial domination, and Zionist colonization. It also explains why Palestinians stood against the partition of their country into an Arab and a Jewish state in 1947 as they saw it, rightly, as unjust and violating their rights. Furthermore, many of the international resolutions and initiatives exhibited, and still do, blatant double standards in the application of the principle self-determination when its application concerns Palestinians.

It is important to recall that religious pluralism was not the cause of the conflict between Palestinians, and settler Jewish Zionists (later Jewish Israelis). The Palestinian national movement before 1948 called for a democratic state to include the various ethnic and religious communities that made Palestine their home.

The well organized and well armed European Zionist movement, aided by Britain, was able to defeat the predominantly peasant Palestinian society, with its badly organized national movement led by notable semi-feudal families. The highly disorganized and badly armed military contingents sent, in 1948, by neighboring Arab states (under British and French imperial rule at the time) to aid the Palestinians were easily defeated by the better trained and equipped Zionist forces. Thus was declaring, in May 1948, on 78% of Mandate Palestine, much more than the 51% allotted to it by the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan. The remaining 22% of the territory - compromising what came to be known as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – fell under Jordanian and Egyptian rule respectively. Only a fraction of Palestinians remained in the areas on which Israel was established, as most were subjected to various forms of ethnic cleansing as new Israeli historians came to acknowledge in the last two decades.

Zionism is a special offshoot of European nationalist settler colonialism with an exclusivist (ethno-religious) state-building project. Like European colonialism elsewhere it faced a national liberation movement that sought self-determination, emancipation and independence. The Palestine question is a colonial question, and the last colonial question to remain unsolved in the 21st century. This explains why Israel has found it necessary after sixty years of its creation to build a segregated wall round itself for fear of losing an imagined essentialist character.

A majority of Palestinians became refugees and a United Nations agency (UNRWA) was established to administer their affairs in some sixty camps that it established for the most destitute of the Palestinian refugees in the area surrounding the Zionist state. Palestinians who manage to stay put were given Israel nationality but were were treated, and continue to be treated, as second class citizens and as non-Jewish minorities, and not as a national minority. This is consistent with the self-definition of Israel as combining Jewishness and democracy, and of confining full democratic and equal rights to Israeli Jews only.

The remaining 22% of Palestine (i.e., West Bank and the Gaza Strip) came under Jordanian and Egyptian rule, respectively. The 1948 Nakba (or the catastrophe ´as it is known among as Palestinians and Arabs) devastated the Palestinian national movement, and it took nearly two decades, and another two wars (the 1956 Suez invasion and the Israeli occupation of Gaza Strip, and the 1967 six-day war with Israel occupying West Bank and Gaza Strip as well as Sinai and the Golan Heights) for it to fully re-invent itself as a Palestinian resistance movement under the name of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Palestinian national movement; from a one-state to a two-state solution

The vision of establishing a secular democratic Palestinian state for all its citizens irrespective of religion, ethnicity, gender or national origin was the vision carried by the Palestinian movement before 1948 and espoused by the PLO in the late sixties of the last century, but was rejected by Israel and the West. In 1974 (following the Israeli-Arab war of October 1973) the notion of a two-stage struggle was adopted by the PLO in which a Palestinian state was envisaged to exist next to Israeli state, while the establishment of a full democratic state in historic Palestine was left to a later stage of the struggle. This transitional co-existence of two states (one Palestinian, the other Israeli) was articulated further in November 1988 during the first Palestinian intifada, when the PLO endorsed as a strategy the formula of two states for two people. The implementation of right of return for Palestinians refugees (as specified by United Nations Resolutions 194) remained an integral part of the two-state solution.

It the was the Oslo accords (signed in 1993 between Israel and the PLO) that specified the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza Strip as the territory of the future Palestinian state. However it soon became clear that Israel continued to view the 1967 occupied territories as disputed areas, thereby giving itself the right to continue its colonial activities, and to solidify its annexation and Judaization of East Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. Israel was not going to accept a sovereign state on 22% of Palestine, and in this it was supported by the United States.

The endorsement of the main stream of Palestinian national movement of a Palestinian state on 22% of historic Palestine took place within the context of fast change in the situation of the PLO and the impact of regional and international shifts on it during the decades of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. It is necessary to stress the limitations imposed on the PLO by its lack of a national territorial base of its own, which led to frequent conflicts with the host governments, as happened in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

Th rapid bureaucratization of the PLO during the seventies limited its agility and created vested interest within sectors of its leadership and cadres which benefited donations received from Arab oil-rich states, and the support it enjoyed from the Soviet Union and other socialist countries which favored a realistic solution of a state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This is not to deny that the PLO played vital role in rekindling and unifying the Palestinian national struggle and identity that empowered the marginalized refugee population in the diaspora (shatat), particularly those in the 60 or so camps. Attempts by the PLO to widen its relations with the Western countries were conditional on its acknowledging the right of Israel to exist. The loss of the PLO of its Lebanon base made it vulnerable to pressure and ultimately to accept a state on 22% of Palestine, but not the right of return for Palestinian refugees which was sanctioned by United Nations’ resolution 194.

The dispersal of the PLO forces as a result of the Israeli invasion of the Lebanon in 1982 added political weight to the role of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip in the PLO strategy. The major aim for Palestinians in these areas was, and remains to free themselves from a colonial-settler occupation. The first intifada which erupted in December 1987 aimed at ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state, particularly following the announcement by Jordan in 1988 of cutting its entire administrative links with the West Bank. The disintegration in the late eighties of the PLO’s main international ally (the Soviet Union, and the socialist camp), and the political and financial siege imposed on the PLO by the rich Gulf states and the West as a result of its stand on Gulf War in early nineties, left the leadership of Palestinian movement exposed and vulnerable, and ready join the Madrid conference in 1991.

The Oslo accords signed between the PLO and Israel in 1993 reflected the core PLO leadership reading of the balance of forces existing at the time. That leadership thought that it could - once it returned to the West Bank and Gaza Strip – achieve an independent Palestinian state. Hence it accepted the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) as self-government with limited powers on a part of these territories, and agreed to leave the issue of statehood to final status negotiations (scheduled for 1999, that is after five year a transitional period of the self-governing authority). The main final status issues left for negotiations were: Jerusalem, refugees, the Israeli colonial settlements, and borders. When the final status negotiations were held at Camp David summit in July 2000, it was the Palestinians who were asked to render concessions to the Israel on all four issues.

One major consequence of the Oslo accords was the marginalization of the PLO national institutions and associations. The result was the effective dismantling of the entire organizational superstructure that the PLO had constructed since the late sixties which provided a complex network of relations that connected Palestinians in their diverse and scattered communities, and provided them with a forum for their political deliberations. The freezing of the PLO institutions and mass and professional organizations left Palestinians outside the 1967 occupied territories with a deep feeling of abandonment and desertion.

The final demise of the two-state solution

The second intifada - which erupted soon after the collapse of the Camp David negotiations - deepened the polarization within the Palestinian political movement into two main political camps; one populist nationalist (represented by Fatah), the other populist Islamist (represented by the Islamic Resistance Movement or Hamas), with the left camp occupying a marginal space as it remained politically fragmented and organizationally sectarian.

Hamas is not Taliban; if anything it shares with Hizbullah in Lebanon its formation in the context of resistance against the Israeli occupation in Palestine and Lebanon. There are important differences between the two organizations that are to do mainly from the differences between the Lebanese and Palestinian situations in terms of state formation, social structure, confessional and religious composition and political geography. The fact that both were formed in a context of confrontation with the Israeli military occupation explains the nationalist tenure of their discourse, and policies, despite their different ideological origins.

In June 2006 all the Palestinian organizations, except Islamic Jihad, signed a document calling for a political settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based, effectively, on the creation of a Palestinian state next to the state of Israel. The document restricted the area of armed resistance to within the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It called for the formation of a government of national unity ready to open peace negotiations. The following day the Israeli army invaded areas of Gaza, under the pretext that an Israeli soldier had been taken prisoner. The Israeli incursion included the bombing of electricity power stations and PA public offices, arrests of PA ministers and legislators in the West Bank, and the continuation of a policy of destroying homes, targeted assassinations, and the military checkpoints restricting movements of goods and people.

The Legislative Council elections in January 2006 pointed to a radical transformation within the Palestinian national movement. The new Palestinian political system ceased to be dominated by one political party (Fatah), and had now two competing political parties (Hamas and Fatah), with different outlooks, programs, and regional and international connections.

The fact that Hamas has been labeled by Israel and in the West as terrorist could not diminish its popularity, despite the financial and political sanctions that were imposed on Hamas’s government by Israel and the Quartet (U.S., Russia, EU, and UN) soon after its formation in March 2006. Such sanctions are seen to fit the long tradition of double standards in dealing with the Palestinian question by the West. These sanction where intensified following the control by Hamas of Gaza Strip as the power struggle between the tow movement took a violent turning in June 2007. But Israeli and Western reactions to Hamas’s electoral win demonstrated clearly that their calls for ‘reform” and democratization of the PA were merely a cover for a demand for changing its political agenda to suit that of Israel and the U.S. This is clear from the demands made by the Quartet on Hamas. These were: First, Hamas’s hasw to acknowledge of Israel’s right to exist, without this being conditional on Israel’s acknowledgment of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination or sovereign statehood; second, Hamas has to renounce violence (i.e., all forms of resistance), and dismantle its armed-wing (and other armed-wings of Palestinian factions) without a condition on Israel to end its occupation and to dismantle its colonial settlements; third, Hamas’s has to stand by the agreements made between the PLO and Israel (including Oslo, and the Roadmap), although the latter no longer abide by these agreements.

The resounding failure of the Oslo accords in establishing an independent Palestinian state, and the ineptness of the PA (dominated by Fatah) and its humiliation by Israel are important factors that stand behind Hamas’s popularity. Hamas position against the Oslo accords, and against the ineptness of PA, its extensive welfare activities among the poor, and its continuing to raise the banner of resistance to the Israeli occupation are the main factors behind its electoral victory, although it was a victory in an election that meant little as it was carried out under the Israeli military occupation and siege, as Hamas and the other political factions will soon discover.

Israel’s failure to fashion a client Palestinian entity

It was Israel’s failure to turn the PA into a subservient tool of its policies led Sharon, who was opposed the Oslo agreement, to reinvade the West Bank in March and April of 2002. He exploited the events of the 11th September 2001, and the sensibilities of the neo-conservative ideology of the Bush Administration, to label the PA as terrorist, and Arafat as another Osama Bin-Laden. He use various measures to weaken the PA, and to fragment Palestinian territory in an attempt to implement unilaterally a system that has been described as creeping apartheid. The mysterious death of Arafat and his replacement by Muhmud Abbas after his election in January 2005 did not change the situation. Abbas went out of his way to declare his commitment to end the infitada, and declared his unconditional acceptance of the Roadmap, and worked successfully to persuade all the Palestinian factions to declare unilaterally a truce (a hudna), but the Israeli army continued its targeted assassinations, the construction and fattening of settlements in the West Bank, and the construction of the Separation Wall acquired a faster pace. With the formation of the Hamas government in March 2006, Israel unilateralism found its ultimate cover for an open war on Palestinian movement, and for the burial of any viable and sovereign Palestinian state. The control by Hamas of the Gaza Strip gave the successor of Sharon (i.e. Olmert) an additional pretext to use the polarization and division within the national movement to continue his policies of creeping annexation and bantustanization. The meeting at Annapolis in November 2007, and the economic conference in Paris in December 2007 has altered nothing in Israel’s policy of annexation as much land as it can with the minimum of Palestinians in order not to jeopardize the Jewishness of the Israeli state.

The Annapolis conference reaffirmed Bush’s letter of assurances to Sharon (published in April 2004). The letter absolves Israel from any obligation to withdraw to the 1967 borders, from dismantling its settlements, from its annexation and from its policy of Judaization and annexation of Jerusalem. The letter absolves Israel from any responsibility towards the Palestinian refugees’ right of return.

Bush’s vision of a Palestinian state is a vision synchronized between the American neo-conservatives and the Zionist right-wing. It is a vision that sees a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within what Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. State Secretary, called during the Israeli war on Lebanon in August 2006, the New Middle East. That is, a subservient and a client Middle East to be fashioned by imperialist wars and military occupations that we have been witnessing in the Middle East (Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip 1967), and which is likely to continue and expand.

The July-August 2006 Israeli war intended to destroy Hizbullah and Hamas - whose resistance forced Israel to withdraw from the south of Lebanon in 2000 - and thus to demonstrate the heavy price it is determined to extract from those who challenge its military might and regional supremacy. But it is also a war that intended to send a message to Iran, and Syria, to what they could face if they do not toe the line demanded by the U.S.A. But as the wind did not blow in the right direction for them, Israel and the U.S. set their sails. By many accounts the 21st century Israeli-American wars in the region are initiating a substantially different Middle East from the one intended by the engineers of these wars.

Between an apartheid client entity on parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip or a democratic secular state

The policy imperatives of political Zionism were oriented towards occupying land but with no, or the minimum of, Palestinians. It is a necessary requirement of establishing a Jewish state protected from what it sees as a demographic peril that the growing numbers of Palestinians pose for such a project. This imperative is behind much of repressive Israeli policies towards the Palestinians. It is behind its drive for building colonial settlements, by-pass roads (or apartheid roads), the construction of the Segregation Wall, the annexation of Jerusalem and large tracts of land including the Jordan Valley.

In short Israel’s policy has amounted to a systematic negation of the necessary conditions for the establishment of viable and sovereign Palestinian state. During the forty years of its occupation Israel has succeeded in creating a totally dependent, unproductive and captive Palestinian economy, with total Israeli control of trade, natural resources (mostly land and water), urban planning, investments, movements of individuals and goods, and control of Palestinian borders.

The colonial-settler ideology that dominates Israeli political scene does not have the conceptual or moral tools to acknowledge responsibility for the historic injustice (through ethnic cleansing, and settler colonialism) inflicted on Palestinians. It sees no problem in Palestinians refugees remaining dispersed or in exile. In fact part of its envisioning a rump Palestinian state is the possibility of turning Palestinian refugees into expatriates who carry Palestinian travel documents or passports which allow them to enter the territory of the Palestinian state but not to exercise their right to of return to their original homeland.

Israel’s extreme right-wing (which included both Kadima, Likud among others parties) still adheres to a policy which stood throughout the 1990s against the idea of segregation, as it saw in it the giving away of part of Israel. It stands for the intensification of colonial settlements, with some calling openly for the transfer of Palestinians by force or voluntarily through economic and other forms of pressures.

What the Israeli leadership did not concludes from its review of the 2006 war against Lebanon is the limits of Israel’s military power however supreme it might have been thought to be, exactly in the same way the occupation of Iraq has shown the limits of American imperial military power. Both wars demonstrate once again that the balance of power is not determined solely by military strength, and that it liable to change.

Barring separate sovereign Palestinian statehood, and rejecting a secular democratic state in historic Palestine

The Segregation Wall is already there annexing the large settlement blocs, the Jerusalem area and the Jordan Valley. The Wall is intended to ensure the following: First that a Palestinian state will not be established on all the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967. Second that calling a collection of Bantustans a state does not make it viable and sovereign, nor will it be acceptable to the overwhelming majority of Palestinians. Third, the Separation Wall, together with the siege imposed on the Gaza Strip (with its 1.5 million inhabitants and 1.3% of the area of historic Palestine) and the totalitarian control regime imposed by Israel on Palestinians are sufficient, from the Israeli perspective, to prevent the emergence of a bi-national state on historic Palestine, which all Zionist political parties fear.

It is to halt the march towards a democratic one-sate that Israeli leaders began to talk about a Palestinian state on parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It was Sharon, who was vehemently against a Palestinian state west of the river Jordan, began to advocate a Palestinian state to avert the demographic threat facing Israel as a Jewish state was real. By 2010 Palestinians, living in historic Palestine, will equal the Jewish population in the area.

Thus disengagement from Gaza Strip, in 2005, has to been as part of a strategy to safeguard the Jewish character of Israel, by isolating it physically from Palestinians without surrendering its overall control over the area. It is part of a policy of vacating densely populated Palestinian centers. The result of this process would be a bantustanized Palestinian population within well-guarded confines.

Imagining and pursuing a just future

European and United Nations conceptions had from earlier on demanded a two-state solution starting with the United Nations’ Partition Plan in 1947 and ending with the Roadmap and Annapolis. But such proposals have always favored the Zionist colonial project, both before 1948 and following Israel’s establishment. The Palestinian movement since the twenties of the last century and to the early seventies favoured one state on the whole of historic Palestine, and considered the two-state solution to be divisive of Palestine and an unjust solution to the cause of the Palestinians.

Israel’s systematic undermining of a solution that facilitates the establishment of a sovereign and viable Palestinian state on part of historic Palestine can only lead to the perpetuation of the conflict. This puts heavy responsibilities on the Palestinian movement to end the Hamas-Fatah political polarization before it explodes into a round of in-fighting that would bring more disasters to the Palestinians. The way out of this leadership crisis is a rejuvenated and democratized political movement, unified within renewed PLO institutions that are relevant to the present, and to the tasks required to keep the unity of aims of the Palestinian people and the interaction between its diverse communities, and necessary for coordinating resistance activities to the Israeli occupation.

Because of the impasse of the present situation the Palestinian movement should articulate a detailed proposal for a democratic bi-national state, and begin to canvass for such an idea among Palestinians, and, more importantly among Israelis. This should be done not as a scare tactic to get Israel agrees to a separate Palestinian state, but because the bi-national solution is the most fair and long-term of all other solutions to the conflict.

Without a new balance of power that is reflected in the alignment of forces inside Israeli society itself, the ruling Zionist elite in Israel will continue to obstruct the emergence of a sovereign Palestinians state acceptable to a majority of Palestinians. It will also do all it can to prevent the solidification of conditions for a bi-national state (or a secular democratic state) through the bantunization of the Palestinian population, and calling the outcome a state, or if this fails attempt to move these population centers to Jordan and Egypt. However the chances of such maneuvers have no chance of succeeding.

The Palestinian liberation movement needs to revisit the original vision that the Palestinian national movement had before 1948, and which was re-articulated by the PLO during the late 1960s; that is the vision of the establishment of a secular democratic state (or a bi-national state) in Mandate Palestine for all the citizens of the country.

As a matter of history the idea of a binational state was entertained by Zionism leaders and intellectuals before 1948 when the balance of demography was decidedly in favour of Palestinians, and the idea of an independent Zionist state did not seem easily realizable. At that time the Palestinian national movement was insisting on a one- state solution on historic Palestine promising Jews full and equal rights on a par with other religious communities within a democratic Palestinian state.

The attraction of the one-state solution (be it one state for two peoples or a secular democratic state with one person, one vote) is that it solves many problems: refugees, Jerusalem, the wall, borders, democratic co-existence and equal rights, as it proposes a different paradigm to the two-state solution which could risk power relations between the two states that are not in favor of the Palestinian state, unless this was seen as a transitional phase to the bi-national state. The main difficulty with the one-state solution resides in Zionism as a colonialist ideology and its insistence on a Jewish state conceptualizing Judaism as a nation, not a religion or an aspect of culture.

The elevation of the Jewishness of the Israeli state above all other considerations, and its concretization in an apartheid system symbolized by the Segregation Wall means the isolation of Israel from its geography. Israel cannot remain the regional super power that it sees itself to be. Such a role and attitude can only drag Israel into a ghetto culture and jingoism that prioritizes force as the determining factor in its relations with the other states and peoples of the region. This is explicit in the six major wars Israel had with its neighboring states since its establishment in 1948. Such a self-representation and posture by Israel is a signal of moral bankruptcy that is likely to lead to the erosion of its international political legitimacy, and internal loss of values and direction that can only breed a culture of violence. Already there are Israeli voices that have been saying that Israel is only able to pursue its colonial and apartheid policies because of its willingness to serve Western (mainly American) imperial interests, including acting as a galvanizing center for global neo-conservative forces.

From DIALOGUE REVIEW ( www.dialogue-review.com )