Breaking the Vessels

OK, so the Palestinian Authority will not unilaterally declare an independent Palestinian state.  In fact, the whole issue seems a misunderstanding.  Concerned that the US has backtracked on a two state solution based on the 1967 borders and that Israel was getting the world used to the “fact” that the settlements and the Wall, rather than ’67 borders, now defined the parameters of a future Palestinian state (on only 15% of historic Palestine), the PA simply wanted the Security Council to reaffirm that principle.  “What should we do while the Israeli government is busy with fait accompli actions,” asked Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, “but to turn to the Security Council to preserve the option of two states?  We want the Security Council to declare that the two-state solution is the only option and that it would recognize the state of Palestine on the ’67 borders and to live side by side with the State of Israel.”  The PA hoped, perhaps even expected, that the US would go along.  Through an escalation of rhetoric this simple clarification became the basis of speculation, against the background of President Mahmoud Abbas’s threatened resignation, that the Palestinians would attempt to force the hand of the international community and announce the establishment of their state.

But what if it did happen?  What if Abbas would actually announce the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, ask the nations of the world to recognize it, and then apply for admission to the UN?

The Palestinians are caught between a rock and a hard place.  The rock is the steadily tightening noose that is the Israeli occupation.  Israel’s concentration of settlers in strategic blocs in East Jerusalem and the West Bank destroy any Palestinian territorial contiguity, and do so even if Israel removes the dozens of tiny settlements within the densely populated Palestinian “cantons.”  Those settlement blocs have already been incorporated into Israel proper through the construction of some twenty-nine major Israeli highways, meaning that Israel has expanded organically from the 1967 Green Line to the border with Jordan.  Even if the Separation Barrier is dismantled, the entire country has been fundamentally reconfigured; there is simply no more room for a coherent, viable, sovereign Palestinian state.  And the suffering grows progressively worse.  Hostile, callous Israeli soldiers continue to man hundreds of checkpoints throughout the Occupied Territories — checkpoints that, when incorporated into the Wall, take the form of massive terminals in which tens of thousands of men, women, and children are subjected to long hours of waiting and humiliating treatment.  The pace of house demolitions increases daily; 24,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished by Israel in the Occupied Territories since 1967, while Israeli courts have forced at least another 10,000 homeowners to demolish their own homes under threats of unbearable fines.  The Palestinian presence in Jerusalem, the heart of Palestinian religious, cultural, political, and economic life, is rapidly disappearing under a concentrated policy of settlement, expulsion of Palestinian residents from their homes, and land expropriation intended, as Israel declares explicitly, to “judaize” the city.  Without a meaningful Palestinian presence in Jerusalem there is no possibility of peace; indeed, no possibility of reconciliation between the West, which is seen as enabling Israeli expansion, and the entire Muslim world.

The hard place is the unlikelihood that negotiations with Israel, supported by the US and a compliant Europe, will go anywhere.  The Oslo Process, which lasted seven years (1993-2000), saw Israel’s settlement population double to 400,000, while Palestinians found themselves imprisoned in Areas A and B — some 70 islands on but 40% of the West Bank — and that largest prison of all, Gaza.  Oslo was followed by the Road Map which was followed by the “Annapolis Process,” all leading to the present impasse in which the Obama Administration has announced it has no plan.  “Peace process” or not, negotiations or not, stalemate or not, Israel has never been prohibited from continuing to establish “facts on the ground” intended to foreclose a truly sovereign Palestinian state.

For the most part the Palestinian people have resisted.  Two intifadas (four if you include the 1936-39 revolt against British immigration policies and the inability of the Palestinian majority to make its voice heard, and the 1948 war), plus ongoing armed struggle and thousands of non-violent actions from rebuilding demolished homes to the Beit Sahour tax strike.  Occasionally the Palestinian leadership took a bold initiative, as when it succeeded in bringing Israel’s construction of the Separation Barrier before the International Court of Justice and, subsequently, the UN General Assembly, where it was condemned by both bodies.  The current campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) against key Israeli pillars of the Occupation and companies profiting from it represents yet another pro-active initiative of Palestinian civil society.

And then there’s the idea of unilaterally declaring a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, which the Palestinian Authority has floated, intentionally or not, over the past few weeks.  It’s not a new idea.  The PLO declared Palestinian independence back in 1988, but without reference to borders such a move had little effect.  During Oslo, a frustrated Arafat again threatened to unilaterally declare Palestinian sovereignty, but was dissuaded by Israel and the US.  What would make another attempt more significant?  Several things:

  • Rather than a general declaration of independence, the Palestinian Authority would declare a Palestinian state within specified borders, those of 1967 (the 1949 armistice line), which have already been recognized de facto over the years, from UN resolution 242 to the Road Map.  Specifying the borders is what would differentiate this initiative from previous declarations based on principle of independence but without territorial claims, the latter supported even by Israel since it relieves it of pressures to end the Occupation by giving the Palestinians symbolic sovereignty.

    The reasoning behind such an initiative is clear: to reverse both the balance of power and the dynamics of the negotiations.  Because it occupies Palestinian territory, Israel is able to negotiate from a position of strength, while the Palestinians, with no leverage whatsoever, have no way to pressure Israel to meaningfully withdraw.  Appeals to international law, which would have leveled the playing field, were nullified after the US, de facto supporting Israel’s claim that there is no occupation, classified the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza as disputed territories.  Instead of requiring Israel to relinquish its illegal settlements and other forms of control, this policy forces the Palestinians to negotiate every settlement, road, and centimeter of land, unable in the end to compel Israel to make any concessions it does not want to make.  By seeking international recognition of the Palestinian state within recognized borders, including membership in the UN, the Palestinians seek, finally, to end the Occupation while transforming Israel’s presence from that of an occupying power to one of an invader whose unilateral military and settlement activities, as well as its extension of its legal and planning systems into Palestine, constitute nothing less than an intolerable violation of Palestinian national sovereignty.

  • If the Palestinians declared their state within the boundaries accepted by the international community since 1967, it would be doing so not unilaterally but by agreement with the member states of the UN.  The hope would be to secure American agreement, despite frantic Israeli attempts to head off such an initiative, after which the European countries would fall into place.  The vast majority of countries in the rest of the world would at any rate recognize the Palestinian state.

    Predictably, the US has rejected the rumored (or floated) initiative.  The State Department lost no time issuing a statement that “It is our strong belief and conviction that the best means to achieve the common goal of a contiguous and viable Palestine is through negotiations between the parties.”  Two senators who happened to be in Israel, Kaufman and Lieberman, let it be known that the US would veto any such resolution in the Security Council.  The EU immediately fell into lockstep, with the Swedish Foreign Minister, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, declaring that “conditions are not yet ripe” for such a move.  Still, the Palestinians could decide to abandon — or at least balance — their long-standing American-centric approach to achieving self-determination by turning to the broader international community.  Abbas is exploring such an option among the Arab, Muslim, Latin American, African, and Asian blocs of nations.  If the Security Council is unwilling to entertain such an initiative, the Palestinians, with broad-based international support, could turn to the UN General Assembly, which is empowered by a two-thirds majority to call a special emergency session and pass a resolution of approving the move, thus bypassing the US veto.

    The Security Council cannot be bypassed completely; its approval is necessary before a state can become a member of the UN.  But even a symbolic call from the majority of members in the General Assembly to recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders and its urging the members of the Security Council to admit such a state into the UN would send a strong message to the Americans and their European clients.  Unfortunately, the Palestinians’ declaration of statehood, in conformity to international agreements though it may be, conflicts with the concerns of other Security Council members regarding restive peoples in their own countries.  Russia, which opposed the unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo, faces similar actions in Chechnya, South Ossetia, and elsewhere.  China has a similar problem with the Uighurs; France with Corsica; Britain (perhaps) with Wales and Scotland; Turkey with the Kurds; and so on.  The US, which did support the Kosovars’ unilateral action and thus has no grounds to deny the Palestinians, nevertheless faces the perpetual challenge of Puerto Rican independence, not to mention the struggles of insurgents throughout the world.  And yet, having the issue of Palestinian statehood come up before the Security Council — potential sponsors from among the rotating members might be Libya, Burkina Faso, or Uganda — would spur a useful debate and help focus on the responsibility of Israel, the US, and Europe for disappearing Palestinian rights.  And, again and again, the Palestinians have to drive home forcibly and repeatedly that their declaration of statehood stands in complete conformity to the internationally agreed upon endgame of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.  It is defiant only in the sense of their asserting their right to self-determination after years of being let down by the international community and having nowhere else to go.

  • Most important, such a Palestinian initiative would force a solution to their conflict with the Israelis.  If it were to be accepted, years of drawn-out pseudo-negotiations and the deaths of thousands of Palestinians and Israelis could be avoided.  It would also go a long way towards redeeming Obama’s Cairo address and, as is likely, would facilitate better relations with the Muslim world which would open new possibilities in regard to withdrawing militarily and achieving accommodation and stability.  If the US agreed, of course, Europe, and perhaps Russia and China, would fall into place.

    It should be remembered that, in a two-state solution represented by the Palestinian declaration, Israel would remain on 78% of historic Palestine, despite the Jews becoming a minority population with the return of even some of the refugees — a pretty generous Palestinian compromise.  Hamas rejected Abbas’s initiative by stating: If you want to declare a state, do so from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.  Yet, if a Palestinian state would actually emerge on all the Occupied Territories, it is likely that Hamas could not stand in the way of popular support for it — including in the refugee camps.  The state that then arises would have sovereignty over its borders with Egypt and Jordan and the ability to enter into foreign alliances.  It would possess a coherent territory, control of its natural resources (including water, its airspace, and the communications sphere), a viable economy (especially given the inclusion of the Old City of Jerusalem and Bethlehem as tourist venues), and East Jerusalem as its political, religious, and cultural capital and the ability to repatriate refugees.  None of these things will the Palestinians get in negotiations with Israel.  Given an agreed-upon quid pro quo such as a shared Jerusalem, an extra-territorial passage between the West Bank and Gaza, and a qualitative exchange of territory, the Palestinians may cede to Israel certain symbolic sites: a special status in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and the historic core of the Etzion Bloc, making such a settlement more palatable to them.  While the remaining settlements would become part of Palestine, the Palestinians would earn points if they invited the settlers to stay and live in integrated communities.

    A unilateral declaration, if refused by the US with no prospect of genuine negotiations aimed at a Palestinian state in all the occupied territory within a strict time-line, would signal the definitive end of the two-state solution.  At that point the Palestinians could unite on a program of a one-state solution, be it a democratic state of equal citizens or, more workable, a bi-national state.  Crucial to this shift would be a vigorous Palestinian campaign showing that it was Israel that created a bi-national situation through its settlement project and Israel that eliminated the two-state solution, which the PLO had accepted way back in 1988.  If Israel implements the steps it has threatened in response to a Palestinian declaration of independence — in particular the annexation of Area C, some 60% of the West Bank containing the settlements — the apartheid situation that emerges is clear and unacceptable even to the US and Europe.  Israel has thereby torn the veil from the de facto apartheid that already exists and which Israel seeks to perpetuate.  By its own hand Israel has reconfirmed the bi-national reality of Palestine/Israel and driven the stake into the heart of the two-state solution.

For all the risks it involves, a declaration of Palestinian statehood within the 1967 borders — which would garner recognition from the vast majority of states in the world — would seem a win-win proposition.  At least it would break the vessels of an impotent, ineffective, and less-than-honest American-led “peace process” that is going nowhere — indeed, can’t go anywhere because it requires a level of assertiveness on Israel, perhaps even the imposition of a solution, that is completely lacking in either the American or European governments.  It would also galvanize the civil society forces abroad, initiating a kind of ultimate BDS (boycotts, divestment, sanctions) campaign.  Given the failure of the Palestinian Authority to effectively communicate its case, a unilateral declaration would thrust the underlying issues of the conflict — and Israel’s responsibility in particular — into the limelight, generating the sort of discussion in the media and elsewhere that is sorely needed.

All this, of course, is a highly unlikely scenario, though, given Abbas’s anger and frustration at the American’s failure to stop Israeli settlement building (as I write this the Israeli government has just announced the construction of 900 housing units in the East Jerusalem settlement of Gilo), it is not altogether inconceivable.  Although indicative of mounting Palestinian desperation, not all Palestinians support such a move.  Hamas has rejected it, saying the Occupation must end before a state is declared.  Palestinian policy-makers fear that the declaration, if it is seen as merely symbolic, could lock the Palestinians into a position where Israel could claim they now have self-determination but without the ability to actually claim their borders — a limbo reminiscent of the “state without borders” formulation of stage 2 of the Road Map, seen as a mortal danger by Palestinians.  And supporters of the one-state solution, primarily in the Palestinian Diaspora but increasingly in the camps and the Occupied Territories themselves, have already moved on.  But something must be done, and given the failure of the international community to either protect the Palestinians or rein in Israel, I, for one, am at a loss to suggest alternatives that address the urgency of a way out of Israel’s growingly genocidal occupation.

Jeff Halper is the Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD).  He can be reached at <>.  The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions is based in Jerusalem and has chapters in the United Kingdom and the United States.  Please visit our websites: <>; <>; <>.

| Print