New-Old Thinking on Palestine: Reconciling the Settler State and the Indigenous Population

There is a famous Jewish maxim that people tend to look for a lost key where there is light and not where they lost the key.

There is a sense right now that the diplomatic efforts to end the Israel/Palestine conflict have been a search for the key where there was light, not where it was lost. These efforts were based on a certain erroneous perception about the origins of the Israel/Palestine conflict and the reasons for its continuation.

Under this false perception, the 1967 June war is the starting point for the conflict, and thus much of what happened before that war is thought to be irrelevant for the peace process. Furthermore, the conflict is perceived as a dispute over the future of the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the fate of the Palestinians living there. Such a perception reduces Palestine geographically to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (22% of historical Palestine), and the Palestinians to the people living in those two areas. More profoundly, this approach is based on the assumption that the conflict in Israel/Palestine involves a dispute between two national movements, with equal right to the territory, that need external help to find a compromise. An outside mediator should therefore adopt a business-like approach by seeking to divide between the sides everything which is divisible.

Taking the idea to its logical extreme, this partition (in particular that of land) has to be based on the balance of power, and, hence, the stronger party, Israel, always gets more. There is thought to be a didactic logic underlying this approach: if the weaker party declines the offers of partition, than offering a lesser deal to it is appropriate. Hence the Palestinians were offered half of Palestine in 1947, around twenty percent after 1967, and nowadays a bit more than ten percent of their homeland.

This “allocative equity” approach, shall we say, has collapsed for a few reasons. The most important one is the political change inside Israel. Since the beginning of the 21st century, the Israeli political system has shifted to the right, such that the electorate and the politicians representing it do not see any urgent need to compromise with the Palestinians over territory or sovereignty. Moreover, there is a consensual support for Israeli unilateral actions as the best means going forward to deal with the conflict (and with that ensuring that in the territory between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean, the only power is Israel). Therefore, unlike the previous forces dominating Israeli politics (the Israeli Left), the present political leaders are not deterred by the demographic reality in 21st century Israel and Palestine.  The vision of a Jewish state in which most of the Palestinians would not have equal rights is a reality many of the Israeli Jews were born into and accept as both morally valid and politically feasible. Any Palestinian resistance is framed today in Israel as “terrorism,” and any criticism from the outside is branded as anti-Semitism.

The new policy has dimmed the dividing line between Israel and the occupied territories. Although there are still differences in the judicial status of Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line, these seem to disappear quickly. The facts on the ground, and an ongoing Jewish colonization of the West Bank, which includes not just small settlements, but proper urban sprawl, render any idea of a sovereign independent Palestinian state impossible.

Thus, in 2018, we are faced with an international community that still sponsors the two-state solution, a fragmented Palestinian leadership that is losing its legitimacy by the day that adheres as well to this solution, and diminishing Israeli support for such a solution.  The real peace effort has been dead for all intents and purposes for a long time.

We are still awaiting, without holding our breath, for Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” that is supposed to reignite the process. Yet, Trump is not going to offer anything that American administrations have not offered before. He is perhaps somewhat more transparent about the American role in the Israel/Palestine Question than prior administrations. Those administrations pretended to be honest brokers in the conflict, but in essence adopted unconditionally the Israeli point of view and disregarded the Palestinian one. In the past, the official position of the State Department was that the Israeli annexation of Jerusalem and the Jewish colonies in the West Bank were illegal, but in practice nothing was done to stop Israel from expanding. Trump seems to be more candid when he admits openly that the U.S. is not an honest broker and that his first priority is to give carte blanche to the Israelis to do what they deem right in the Palestine question. At bottom, Trump’s policy will probably be the same policy, but without the charade of the previous ones.

In fact, it is more likely that Trump will simply desert any meaningful effort to intervene in the Israel/Palestine question. It also seems very unlikely that another international actor, be it the E.U. or China, will take the U.S.’s place. The result is stagnation in the peace process and continued Israeli unliteral policies aiming at solidifying Israeli control over all of historical Palestine.

The imbalance of power is such that currently one can see no internal or external actors who can change this course of action or improve this dismal reality.  This is a good time for reflection of an alternative way forward in the long run, without forgetting for a moment the urgent need to deal on the ground with the catastrophic situation, in particular in the Gaza Strip. The U.N. predicted that in 2020 the Strip will be unsustainable, and therefore we have to be conscious of both the short-term action required and the long-term thinking.

In many ways, the BDS (the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement represents this sense of urgency in engaging with that reality, while strategizing for the future.  The movement was founded about ten years ago in response to a call from Palestinian civil society to the international community to take a more vigorous position towards Israeli policy in Palestine. It identified three basic rights which Israel violates with regard to the Palestinians: the right of the Palestinian refugees to return; the right of the Palestinians who live in the occupied West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip to be freed from military rule; and the right of the Palestinian minority of Israel to equal citizenship in the state. One can only hope that this strategy will succeed. Active for ten years now, it has had some impressive successes in invigorating the global solidarity movement with the Palestinians and galvanizing action worldwide against official Israel. University societies, student organizations, churches, and trade unions take part in this boycott activity, and one hopes that eventually it may impact the realities on the ground.

In the meantime, we should make up for the wasted half of a century, in which everyone one was looking for the key where the light is and not where it was lost. For that to happen we have to recognize the need to revisit the history of the Zionist project in Palestine and adopt a new dictionary and lexicon to fit the realities on the ground and the chances for reconciliation in the future.

The new approach is based on a historical analysis that goes back to the early days of Zionism in the late 19th century and sees the conflict origins in that period of time. In contrast, the old approach disregards the history before 1967 and frames the conflict as one fought over the Palestinian territories Israel occupied in the June 1967 war. The new approach perceives the Zionist movement as a settler colonial one and the conflict as raging between settlers and natives, and not between two national movements per se. Hence from this viewpoint, Zionism is a settler colonial movement, and the Palestinians are the indigenous population of the land.

A settler colonial movement is, in essence, a movement of Europeans outside of the continent looking for a refuge due to religious, cultural, or economic persecution. They were looking for a one-way journey into foreign lands: they hoped to make those lands their new home and indeed their new homeland. Their main obstacle was the presence of native people in the newly coveted lands. In that moment, as the leading scholar of settler colonialism, Patrick Wolfe, commented, a “logic of the elimination of the native” arises. The settlers see the removal of the indigenous population as a prerequisite for any chance of succeeding in their project of building a new nation state.

Historically, in some cases, such as in North America, this logic led to the physical annihilation of the native people; likewise, the Aboriginals in Australia. In other places, the removal was obtained by other means: Apartheid in South Africa and ethnic cleansing in Palestine.  The methods used by the settler colonial movement in Palestine have changed over time, but the vision of a Jewish Palestine with as few Palestinians as possible has not altered throughout the years.

In 1948, the new Jewish state expelled half of Palestine’s population and demolished half of its villages and most of its towns. Although, the war ended with an Israeli takeover of 78% of Palestine, still half of the population remained in its homeland. The Palestinians who remained were less than 20% of the overall population of the new Jewish State (the rest of those who remained lived in the West Bank, which was under Jordanian rule, and the Gaza Strip, which was under Egyptian rule).  And yet even such a minority was considered a demographic threat to Israel, and, as a result, this minority was put under a harsh military regime which robbed the people of their basic human and civil rights.  This regime came to an end in 1966 but was imposed yet again, a year later, in 1967, on another Palestinian community, this time the one living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel occupied in the June war.

Since 1967, Israeli strategists have sought the best way of reconciling the contradiction between expansion of Israel over the newly occupied territories (the 22% remaining of historical Palestine) and the desire not to incorporate additional millions of Palestinians who lived there within the demographic balance of the Jewish State. So far Israel has failed in this quest. Some of the solutions it offered were presented to the world as peace proposals, but because they were not a genuine wish to reconcile with the Palestinians they failed. Other solutions were based on a continued oppression of the Palestinians in these territories.  Any Palestinian resistance to this oppression was brutally crushed.

Neither the Oslo accord of 1993 nor the uniliteral withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza strip in 2005, changed this reality; in fact, the Oslo accord that was broadcast as a comprehensive and lasting peace agreement, made life even more difficult for the Palestinians. However, unilateralism remained the hallmark of Israeli strategy. The policy since 2005 and onward has emanated from this strategy. Israel demarcated clearly what are the future borders of the Jewish State (pre-1967 Israel with area C of the West Bank and Greater Jerusalem) and created Bantustans in the Gaza Strip and the rest of the West Bank.

Recently this strategy also led to some fundamental new thinking among Israeli policy makers about what to do with the Palestinian population in this greater Israel. The answer came in the Nationality Law that was passed by the Knesset in August, 2018. This law charts clearly the present mindset among the policy makers as well as the future strategy of the Jewish State. The law declares that only the Jews have the right of self-determination in what is, and will be in the future, the state of Israel.

There are two elements here that illustrate well how the settler state views its present and future relationship with the Palestinians (who are roughly half of the population living between the river and the sea). First of all, it leaves open the final borders of the Jewish state. This is because there is a recognition that the official state may expand, not contract, in the future, either over area C of the West Bank or even further as far as the River Jordan. Secondly, it is the first clear statement about the death of the two-state solution by an Israeli parliament, as the right for self-determination of the Palestinians is officially denied. This is coupled by other clauses in the law that encourage Jewish colonization wherever possible, cancel the official status of the Arabic language, and ensure exclusive Jewish communities.

In essence, what this law means is that in the foreseeable future there will essentially be two categories of Palestinians.  The first are those who are and will be citizens of the Jewish State. They will be able to vote and be elected, but will not define themselves as a national collective, nor commemorate their history according to their own narrative. Moreover, they will not live in places which are exclusively Jewish, nor will they have any hope for spatial expansion of their own communities. This class of Palestinian will experience discrimination on every level: in subsidies and welfare, governmental budgets, verdicts of the judicial system, and treatment by the authorities.

The second group of Palestinians would be under either the Palestinian Authority or Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In my last book, The Biggest Prison on Earth, I suggested that Israel treat the areas under control of the Palestinian Authority as an “open prison” and the Gaza Strip as a “maximum-security prison.” As such, the open prison allows a certain economic autonomy, limited movement outside the enclave, and the symbolism of independence, although not sovereignty or military capacity.

In contrast, the maximum-security zone is constantly assaulted with all the military might the Jewish state possesses and is collectively punished for any act of resistance.  From an Israeli perspective, this twin model is still relevant – in essence, promising an open prison to Gaza should it accept the Palestinian Authority and warning the West Bank of maximum-security prison treatment, should Hamas take over or Fatah decide on another uprising.

While the Israeli strategy seems now to be anchored in a constitutional law, there is still a lack of clarity and uncertainty about the Palestinian strategy. It may be too early to expect a strategic reaction to the Nationality Law from the Palestinian leadership inside Israel, although it did not catch them by surprise. It was a culmination of a long process of eroding the minimal rights they have enjoyed as citizens since 1948. There is no doubt that like other Palestinian groups they will have to reconsider their future strategy. This internal debate will include a discussion about the usefulness of participating in the Israeli Knesset (does it serve the community or does it provide as they say in Arabic tajmil al-dawla, “the beautification of the [rouge] state”)?

A clearer mode of resistance has unfolded at the fence surrounding the Gaza Strip.  Since April 2018, tens of thousands of young Palestinians have staged a popular resistance, demanding both the end of the siege and the right to return to their original villages which are on the other side of the fence. Recently, they added to their tactics the flying of kites and balloons that can ignite the fields on the other side. This should be seen in conjunction with the already long-standing popular resistance to the apartheid wall and demolition of villages in the West Bank that began after the end of the second Intifada.

While this is not a strategy, it may well indicate a new strategic thinking, although it is too early to ascertain whether this is indeed the case.  Whoever officially represents the Palestinian national movement today (be it the PLO, the PA, the Hamas, or the Palestinian members of the Israeli Knesset), they all adhere to the two-state solution as an end game. The Nationality Law, along with many other indicators, proves beyond doubt that there is no hope for the two-state solution, only for resisting the making of Greater Israel as an apartheid state over all of historical Palestine.

However one looks at it, there is a leadership crisis and a representation conundrum on the Palestinian side.   It began with the move of the PLO from Beirut to Tunis in 1982. The distance meant that new local leaderships were the ones who led the first intifada. The two leaderships combined into one through the Oslo Accord framework and in the form of the Palestinian Authority.  However, the integration was not complete. The PLO structure remained in parallel to that of the PA, which enabled anti-Oslo sections in the PLO to continue to be loyal to the movement. This complex situation was further aggravated by the appearance of the Political Islamic groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which are not part of the PLO.

The PLO nonetheless is not just an organization, it is a symbol and has a constant presence in the life of the Palestinians wherever they are. And yet it has to adapt to the way the reality has unfolded since 1982.  It is clear that it must revamp the procedures of authentic representation in conjunction with the new actors on the ground, the PA and the political Islamic groups. Given the creation of a greater Israel, a more inclusive approach towards both the Palestinian community inside Israel and progressive anti-Zionist Jews may be of importance if the liberation movement wishes to remain relevant, in particular to the younger generation (which itself is still underrepresented in the movement).

What is needed probably is a new definition of what the liberation struggle means in the 21st century. This is a huge task because of the fragmentation of the Palestinian polity since the Nakba. Without unity it would be very difficult to strategize on such a level. But without such a unified strategy it would be difficult to galvanize effectively the already sympathetic world public opinion and maybe even encourage a new opposition from with the Israeli Jewish society.

This history indicates that the issue in Israel/Palestine was and is a struggle between a settler state and the indigenous population.  The struggle continues.  There are still, and will be, two different populations between river Jordan and the Mediterranean: one with privileges and one bereft of any basic rights. The new thinking needs to redress this imbalance.  It is clear that the creation of a Bantustan state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip will not do this.  Moreover, it is very difficult to convince people to give up their privileges.  However, pressure from the outside and clear vision from the Palestinian side may persuade some Israeli Jews to concede that the only way forward is a democratic state for all and that supporting a racist Jewish state might land them on the wrong side of history.

To be on the right side of history means consenting to live as equal citizens with the native Palestinians all over historical Palestine and rectifying the evils of the past through the return of the refugees, dismantling the colonialist institutions such as the Jewish National Fund, and redistributing the wealth of the country. It has been possible to do it elsewhere, and there is no reason not to hope for it in Israel/Palestine.