Is statehood the desired end goal of decolonization struggles or is it instead a useful tool along the way to achieving national liberation? The answer to this question has been at the heart of many national liberation movements since the twentieth century.

Israeli and Palestinian activists take part in the weekly protests in support of Palestinian families at the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, January 2022. Ilia Yefimovich/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

Most struggles for decolonization have pursued the creation of a sovereign independent nation state as a right that is enshrined in international law with the 1960 United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1514, which defined colonialism as a crime and specified that “all people have an inalienable right to complete freedom, the exercise of their sovereignty and the integrity of their national territory.” This resolution granted colonized people the internationally recognized right to political independence and self-determination. But for some anti-colonial theorists, like Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, the right to self-determination does not entail necessarily the creation of a nation state, since there is no guarantee that such a state would liberate its people.[1] For these theorists, self-determination requires the establishment of accountable and inclusive political systems that can take various forms.[2] Most anti-colonial movements, however, have considered the nation state necessary for liberation, given that it affirms people’s right to have rights, as Hannah Arendt argued, and thus actualize their sovereignty.

For the last 50 years, the Palestinian national movement has debated the question of whether the attainment of a Palestinian state would mark the end of Palestine’s colonization by the Zionist movement. Palestinians have long considered Zionism a European settler-colonial project and resisted it from the moment that Britain endorsed the Jewish national movement in 1917. But ideas have changed over time about the best means to liberate Palestinians from colonialism and what precise form self-determination and freedom should take. Many Palestinians today argue that the pursuit of a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip within the confines of the international consensus on the two-state solution has compromised their rights, such as the right of return, and increasingly fragmented the Palestinian people and weakened their national movement. Others maintain that a Palestinian state, even within these limits, is a necessary, if insufficient, step toward achieving Palestinian liberation. Many, however, now reject the two-state solution as a failed project and Palestinian debates about decolonization revolve instead around the models of a one-state solution, a binational state or a process that transcends the nation-state structure.

 

The History of Statehood as a First Step Toward Liberation

 

Throughout the three decades of British Mandatory rule, Palestinian nationalists called for a sovereign democratic state with equal rights for all citizens living in Palestine.[3] This demand was overshadowed in 1948 by the sheer need for survival following Israel’s displacement of most of the Palestinian population who lived in the 78 percent of the country that Jewish settlers conquered. The magnitude of the dislocation, coupled with the political repression that Palestinian refugees now faced across the multiple Arab countries where they lived in destitution, explain why the Palestine Liberation Organization’s founding mission statement in 1964 called for the return of the refugees (a right enshrined by UN Resolution 194 in 1949) and the liberation of their homeland from Zionist “occupation and colonialism” (including the exodus of all Jews that had immigrated to Palestine after 1917). It did not focus on the creation of a sovereign independent state as a defined goal.

In 1967, Israel’s resounding victory over Egypt, Jordan and Syria and its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip—the remaining 22 percent of Palestine that Israel failed to conquer in 1948—resurrected the demand for statehood and revived the national movement. The Palestinian National Council (PNC), which is the legislative body of the PLO, voted unanimously in 1971 to support a resolution specifying that the goal of the national liberation struggle was the establishment of “a democratic Palestinian state” in historic Palestine, where “all [Muslims, Christians and Jews] who wish will be able to live in peace there with the same rights and the same duties.”[4] But the 1971 proposal was not a mere rehashing of the movement’s pre-Nakba demands. It also served as a rejection of three alternative outcomes. The first, UN Security Council Resolution 242, which was issued as a diplomatic framework to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict in the shadow of the 1967 war, denied the political existence of the Palestinian people. The PNC’s proposal to establish a “democratic Palestinian state” also provided a more just alternative to the UN Partition Plan of 1947, which would have reduced the scope of a Palestinian state to 45 percent of the country and deprived it of most of its economic resources. Critically, the PNC’s proposal explicitly denounced the handful of ideas that had been floated since the 1967 war to establish a much smaller “statelet” in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.[5]

As Edward Said put it in 1979, the PLO never resolved “the question of whether it is really a national independence or a national liberation movement.”  Would the acceptance of sovereignty over a small part of historic Palestine undermine the dream of dismantling settler colonialism—the legal, economic and institutional pillars of Jewish supremacy—in all of it?
The PLO’s hard rejection of a Palestinian state located only in the 1967 territories softened in the aftermath of the 1973 war. The prospect of negotiations between Israel and Egypt over a “land for peace” agreement threatened to further remove the question of Palestine from the diplomatic framework for peace and triggered intense debate among the PLO’s various political factions. The result was a new, vaguely worded, PNC resolution that called for the establishment of “a national authority on any part of Palestine liberated.” Adopted in October 1974, what came to be known as the the PLO’s “Ten-Point Transitional Program,” underscored the interim nature of this “national authority” and affirmed that it would constitute only the first phase in “the struggle for a democratic Palestinian state” in Palestine as a whole.[6] Nonetheless, it signaled for the first time the provisional willingness of the national leadership to consider the idea of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel. This shift paved the way for PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s invitation to speak before the UN General Assembly, a historic event followed by the passage of UNGA Resolution 3236, which affirmed the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people to “self determination….national independence and sovereignty.”

Despite the long-sought international recognition of Palestinian national rights won by the “Ten-Point Program,” the ambiguity of its language continued to hover over the Palestinian national movement through the rest of the 1970s and most of the 1980s. As Edward Said put it in 1979, the PLO never resolved “the question of whether it is really a national independence or a national liberation movement.” [7] Would the acceptance of sovereignty over a small part of historic Palestine undermine the dream of dismantling settler colonialism—the legal, economic and institutional pillars of Jewish supremacy—in all of it?

Once again, developments on the ground would reframe the debate. In November 1988, a year into the first Palestinian Intifada against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, most of the PLO leadership surrendered its aspiration to create a single democratic state in all of Palestine and acquiesced to the international consensus on partition as the only viable basis for peace. Israel’s war on Lebanon, which ended in September 1982 with the expulsion of the PLO and the slaughter of between 2,000 and 3,500 people in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, had marked the failure of armed struggle. These losses were compounded by the peace initiative adopted that month by the Arab League, which called for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the 1967 territories.

With its symbolic Declaration of Independence in 1988, the PLO accepted the idea that national liberation was attainable only by negotiating with Israel, rather than by defeating Zionism. In 1993, its decision to sign the Oslo Accords with Israel and establish a Palestinian National Authority (PA) in the West Bank and Gaza Strip further signaled the leadership’s conclusion that partition of Palestine was the only means to materialize the Palestinian right to self-determination. Despite their awareness that the text of the accords made no mention of the creation of a Palestinian state as the end goal, the leadership insisted that the creation of a Palestinian nation state was achievable. Their claim was bolstered by the support of the international community, as expressed in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and the 2003 Quartet Road Map to Peace. The quest for diplomatic recognition, however limited, was advanced in 2012 when the United Nations recognized Palestine as “a non-member observer State” following a three-year campaign waged by Palestinian Authority president and PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

Paradoxically, the PLO’s singular focus on statehood has served to undermine Palestinian liberation. Rather than advancing the unity of the Palestinian people, its limited statist project has reinforced the geographic and political barriers between them.
Paradoxically, the PLO’s singular focus on statehood has served to undermine Palestinian liberation. Rather than advancing the unity of the Palestinian people, its limited statist project has reinforced the geographic and political barriers between them by excluding those living outside the West Bank and Gaza: The Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinian refugees, who constitute the crux of the Palestinian question. Meanwhile, the “statehood-first” agenda has also proven unable to stop Palestinian dispossession, let alone protect citizens’ rights and political freedom. Responsibility for this failure lies first and foremost with Israel, which ensured that the Oslo process reformulated rather than ended Zionist colonization. In particular, Israel’s continuous war on and siege of Gaza, the presence of over 650,000 Israeli Jewish settlers in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the construction of the 437-mile-long separation wall have destroyed the territorial viability of a future Palestinian state in the Occupied Territories.

The Palestinian political class also bears responsibility. One of the key components of the Oslo Accords was the establishment of the PA, which has undermined, and de facto superseded, the authority of core national Palestinian political institutions, such as the PLO and its Palestinian National Council, which historically represented Palestinians both inside and outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The entrenchment of the PA’s authoritarian regime and its refusal since 2005 to hold elections have further emptied the state project of any emancipatory potential, whether for the Palestinians living within the confines of the Occupied Territories or outside it. The Palestinian body politic is thus fractured at every level, while Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza endure a one-state colonial reality with Israel as the only sovereign.

 

The Future of Decolonization in Palestine: Three Models

 

The fact that Palestinian national sovereignty has not been achieved within the framework of a two-state solution is unsurprising. Since the early twentieth century partition plans have divided populations and undermined their rights rather than dismantled structures of colonial domination or resolved national conflicts.[8] Therefore, in any attempt to change the status quo and exercise their right to self-determination, Palestinians will need to reject the partition paradigm. Moreover, it will be necessary to confront the colonial structure of Zionism, rather than accommodate it.

The Oslo peace process and the partition paradigm are premised on the principle that the only way to affirm Palestinian political existence is to acknowledge Israel’s. This principle has proven to be a trap for the Palestinians, given Israel’s insistence since 2011 on being recognized as a Jewish state in any final status agreement and not a democratic state of all its citizens. The Palestinians, including the PA, cannot agree to such a demand for it would deny the Palestinians their collective history, national identity and their right to all of the land under Israeli sovereignty. Palestinians today are debating what kind of political strategy they should adopt to decolonize their present reality and whether it requires giving up the pursuit of statehood altogether. This debate revolves primarily around three different approaches, or models, for moving beyond the two-state solution.

Redefining the Democratic Palestinian State

Most Palestinians, particularly those living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and many in the diaspora, believe that statehood is the best model for protecting the rights of citizens and affirming the sovereignty of the nation. They assert that the only way to decolonize Palestine is by establishing a single state encompassing all of historic Palestine. Most one-state advocates argue that because the Zionist movement (represented by the Israeli state since 1948) supports an exclusively Jewish right to self-determination at the expense of Palestinians’ Indigenous rights—rather than in tandem with them—decolonization would require the dismantling of all Zionist institutions.

The supporters of a one-state solution are thus seeking to reformulate the PLO’s 1971 democratic state platform by emphasizing a civic, rather than an ethnic, definition of Palestinian nationality as protected by international law, one that was introduced by the Treaty of Lausanne and implemented during the British Mandate.[9] This state would extend equal rights to Jewish citizens as individuals but not as a group, maintaining that only Palestinians have the right to self-determination by virtue of their Indigeneity.[10] Defenders of the democratic state idea do not see the inequality inherent in denying Jewish citizens their collective political rights; they maintain that a single Palestinian state would provide the only ethical solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since it would dismantle the native/settler binary by “de-dichotomizing” political identities in the country.[11]

A Binational State

Many Palestinians, however, find the proposal for a single democratic Palestinian state ethically wrong and unrealistic for its failure to acknowledge the collective political rights and right to self-government of those who do not define themselves as Palestinians or Arabs. They propose instead a binational state in Israel-Palestine as an alternative, one that would be similar to Belgium or Switzerland. Such a binational state acknowledges that both Israeli Jews and Palestinians have a right to self-determination while maintaining that this right cannot be fulfilled through partition or in a single nation state. Instead, it is protected only through a democratically inclusive process of constitutional self-creation, one that includes Palestinians and Israelis working together to establish a state that is not ethnically defined. The underpinning assumption here is that the state is a juridical order, one that relies on democratic engagements to establish a robust constitution. Such a constitution would guarantee the creation of democratic and accountable political structures that would protect the equality of all citizens, including their individual and collective rights.[12]

In the binationalists vision, decolonization will require centering Arab-Jewish relations, allowing “for the narration of Palestinian and Jewish experience in the Middle East alongside each other,” rather than at the expense of each other.
Binationalists recognize that decolonization will necessitate structural changes and tend to focus as much on the process as the outcome. In their vision, decolonization will require placing Arab-Jewish relations at the center of the decolonization process, allowing “for the narration of Palestinian and Jewish experience in the Middle East alongside each other,” rather than at the expense of each other.[13] They argue that such an approach would force Palestinians and Israeli Jews to engage rather than avoid each other—that unraveling the intertwined history of the settler and the native will require both groups to work through their mutual histories of national trauma. It will also require them to engage together in addressing questions of transitional justice and reparations.

Sovereignty Through a Bottom-up Approach

For a small cohort of intellectuals and activists, particularly in the diaspora and also inside Israel, the state should not be an aspiration for political liberation for it is a site of inherent violence and thus bound to be oppressive. It is to be rejected on the grounds that sovereignty should lie with the people, or the nation, not with the state per se. Partisans of this view do not consider the state as the only political construct that can protect people’s rights, especially given how globalization has undermined the importance of territorial sovereignty. Advocates of this approach challenge the PA’s attempt to monopolize the definition of who belongs to the Palestinian collective and want to restore a more inclusive sense of the Palestinian nation.[14] For activists, such as those in the groups Ibna’ al Balad, Musawa and Al-Manar, the focus must be on the Indigeneity of the Palestinian people and on decolonizing Israel from within its boundaries. They seek to do so by challenging Israel’s control of the land by affirming Palestinian presence and counter-narrative agency.[15] They insist that the only path to liberation for all Palestinians requires the national movement to shift its focus away from the telos of a delimited nation state and toward a more inclusive understanding of liberation and equality.

 

Moving Forward

 

Engaging in a decolonization process that would include a future democratic state will not be easy. For most Palestinians, especially for those living under Israel’s continuous assault in the 1967 territories and those living in refugee camps in the diaspora, a process of this kind would be unrealistic, if not defeatist, given the privileges and international immunities that Israeli Jews continue to enjoy and the political disarray of the Palestinian national movement today. In the meantime, Palestinians everywhere have shown that there are multiple ways to work toward decolonization, which vary depending on their circumstances.

Palestinians everywhere have shown that there are multiple ways to work toward decolonization, which vary depending on their circumstances.
For many inside Palestine and Israel, the focus remains on the politics of sumud, the daily bottom-up acts of resistance such as the recurring March of Return against the Israeli wars on Gaza, mass resistance against house demolitions in Jerusalem and challenges to Israeli courts in their assaults on the Palestinian citizens of Israel. For other activists and politicians, the priority should be on combating the tribalism and corruption of the PA, as much as on reviving the PLO or creating representative platforms that can reunite the Palestinian body politic and articulate a new political strategy of liberation.

Whatever modes of resistance Palestinians adopt, their success in decolonizing Palestine will inevitably hinge on developments taking place regionally and internationally. The Cold War provided an opportunity for Third World countries to advance the cause of their anti-colonial struggles and legitimize their quest for national independence. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of South African apartheid and the emergence of the unipolar world under the United States in the 1990s has shifted the world’s attention away from decolonization and toward nation building and democratization. But the failures of democratization—as seen for example in the aftermath of the US wars on Iraq and Afghanistan and in the defeat of the Arab uprisings of 2011—have shown that redefining the state is neither easy nor always inclusive. The signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020 normalizing Israel’s relationships with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, and the latest Russian war on Ukraine, are meanwhile highlighting the perseverance of colonial and authoritarian systems of domination even in the face of challenges by average citizens. At a time when the world order seems to be shifting, the liberation of Palestine cannot be divorced from the larger struggle—within the Arab region and outside it—for freedom and independence. It is also clear that the state cannot be transcended. Instead, citizens must work to contain it and hold it accountable. They must affirm the state’s obligation to represent rather than oppress them, to honor rather than crush their ethnic, religious and political diversity and to acknowledge that the acceptance of differences is what forms the basis of any democratic polity that can ensure equality for all.

 

[Leila Farsakh is associate professor and chair of the political science department at the University of Massachusetts Boston.]

 


 

Endnotes

 

[1] Gary Wilder, Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization and the Future of the World (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015). Adom Getachew, Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019).

[2] These forms can include federal political structures made of democratically accountable and autonomous political entities like the European Union today or as seen in the incorporation of Martinique and Guadeloupe into France based on a referendum that rejected separate statehood for these two French speaking islands. For more details see Wilder and Getachew.

[3] Lori Allen, A History of False Hope: Investigative Commissions in Palestine (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020).

[4] Alain Gresh, “The PLO and the Naksa: The Search for a Palestinian State,” Electronic Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 8 (Spring 2008) p. 48.

[5] Sabri Jiryis, “On Political Settlement in the Middle East: The Palestinian Dimension,” Journal of Palestine Studies 7/1 (Autumn 1997), p. 5.

[6] Leila Farsakh, ed., Rethinking Statehood in Palestine: Self-Determination and Decolonization Beyond Partition (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2021), pp. 4–5.

[7] Edward Said, The Question of Palestine (New York: Vintage Books, 1979) p. 134.

[8] Arie Dubnov and Laura Robson, eds., Partition: A Transnational History of Twentieth-Century Separatism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019).

[9] Susan Akram, “Palestinian Nationality and ‘Jewish’ Nationality: From Lausanne Treaty to Today”, in Farsakh, ed., Rethinking Statehood in Palestine.

[10] Ali Abunimeh, The Battle for Justice in Palestine (Chicago: Haymarket Press, 2014).  Bashir Bashir, “The Strengths and Weaknesses of Integrative Solutions for the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” The Middle East Journal 70/4 (2016). Hani A. Faris, ed., The Failure of the Two-State Solution: The Prospects of One State in the Israel-Palestinian Conflict (London: I.B. Tauris, 2013).

[11] Omar Barghouti, “The Secular Democratic State is the Only Possible and Ideal Solution,” Journal of Palestine Studies 76 (2008). [Arabic]

[12] Israel has a bill of rights but no constitution or defined borders. The Palestinian authority in the West Bank and Gaza has failed to produce a constitution endorsed by the Palestinian parliament or the Palestinian National Council.

[13] Bashir Bashir and Rachel Busbridge, “The Politics of Decolonization and Bi-Nationalism in Israel/Palestine,” Political Studies 67/2 (2019) pp. 388-405.

[14] Ruba Salih and Sophie Richter-Devroe, “Palestine Beyond National Frames: Emerging Politics, Cultures and Claims,” South Atlantic Quarterly 117/1 (2018). Barakat, “Writing/Righting Palestine Studies: Settler Colonialism, Indigenous Sovereignty and Resisting the Ghost(s) of History,” Settler Colonial Studies 8/3 (2018).

[15] Ilan Pappe, “Indigeneity as Resistance” in Farsakh, ed., Rethinking Statehood in Palestine.

 

How to cite this article:

Leila Farsakh "The Question of Palestinian Statehood and the Future of Decolonization," Middle East Report 302 ( ).

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