Palestinians want liberation, not recognition

Jun 21, 2024
Free Palestine graffiti on a wall in Hebron

This commentary is part of a Century International series exploring a shared future for Palestine and Israel that guarantees the fundamental rights of both communities. The Gaza war has exposed the bankruptcy of the existing policy frameworks. Our “Shared Future” series intends to spur conversation and promote new, better options for security, rights, and governance—for Palestinians and Israelis.

Israel’s genocidal war against Gaza is one of the worst crises of modern times. Tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians are dead, and millions are homeless or displaced.

The war in Gaza clearly calls for a new and different international response—a break from the past. Yet Western policymakers, including those in Washington, continue to push a sham peace process and a two-state solution that has long been a mirage. Western policies have only made the situation worse for Palestinians, deeply entrenching Israeli occupation, land theft, and control over Palestinians everywhere.

It is time for the international community to take seriously Palestinian political desires, which today are focused not on state recognition, but on liberation and decolonization of the entire territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. This notion of liberation is broad, but essential features are equality for all the inhabitants of the land—and the dismantling of the settler colonialism and the apartheid regime that exist now.

This turn toward liberation and away from statehood and a two-state solution includes multiple, sometimes competing strands. Many Western leaders have responded to Palestinian demands and newly bold political discourse with discomfort and rejection, especially among those who have resolutely ignored Palestinian voices and aspirations. It is, however, time for Western policymakers to pay attention to the growing Palestinian consensus on liberation instead of recognition and accommodation. Rather than being dismissive—or mischaracterizing liberation as entailing the expulsion of Israeli Jews (it does not)—they ought to listen to Palestinians who have been articulating liberation as an inclusive project of equal rights for all.

In the years after the 1993 Oslo Accords, the international community focused on statehood, international recognition, and investment in the institutions of the Palestinian Authority. But in the 2010s, as it became clear that the Oslo process was a failure, Palestinians and solidarity movements began turning away from the project of statehood to focus on the dismantling of settler colonialism and its oppressive systems. This focus has grown even more pronounced during Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza. Palestinians are demanding the liberation of Palestine, a call echoed by the global solidarity movement with Palestine.

Liberation, Palestinians assert, demands the dismantling of Israeli settler colonialism and the Israeli apartheid regime, which is premised on Jewish supremacy, from the river to the sea, and ensuring equality to all. To end Israel’s colonial apartheid regime, they further demand that the international community stop treating Israel with exceptionalism, impose an arms embargo, sanction Israel, boycott the state and its institutions, and divest from Israeli companies. They want no Western interference as Palestinians rebuild their own political institutions and leadership; dismantling the Palestinian Authority is part of their demands. As general principles, they want Palestinian self-determination in all areas of life and politics, without outsider-imposed “solutions”; the right of return for Palestinian refugees; Palestinian right to land and control over natural resources; and finally, the right of Palestinians to live in dignity and equality in their homeland.

These demands are part of an emerging Palestinian agenda, which has legitimacy among a broad spectrum of Palestinians. And yet the Western policy response has proceeded with little Palestinian input—just as it has for more than a century—and with no accountability for the failed Oslo experiment. If Western leaders continue to force policies and solutions on Palestinians, the status quo of Israeli domination and violence against Palestinians will continue.

A Historic Crisis
For the last fifteen years, Western countries and leaders have scaled down their efforts to advance a political resolution to Israel’s apartheid and control over Palestinians and Palestine. But present realities make it impossible for the West to continue ignoring the Palestinian predicament.

Israel is annihilating Gaza, in what has been referred to by the International Court of Justice as a plausible genocideAt the time of the writing, Israel had killed 36,550 Palestinians in Gaza—including more than 15,000, children—with 10,000 more dead estimated to be buried under the rubble. More than 85 percent of the 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza, half of whom are children and most of whom are refugees, are now displaced. Israel has destroyed or damaged more than half of the homes in Gaza, 80 percent of commercial facilities, 86 percent of school buildings, all the universities, and 267 places of worship. It has obliterated Gaza’s health sector, with only 15 out of Gaza’s 35 hospitals functioning (and at that, only partially). Israel has also made 83 percent of groundwater wells dysfunctional. Israel is denying the entry of humanitarian aid and is using starvation as a weapon of war. As of April 1 (the most recent figures available), 32 people, of whom 28 are children, have died from starvation and dehydration, and man-made famine in Gaza is imminent. According to Oxfam, in Northern Gaza, people try to survive on an average of 245 calories a day, “less than a can of fava beans.” According to the UN, more than 1 million Palestinians face “catastrophic” levels of hunger—the most severe ranking possible. This is the highest number of people facing catastrophic hunger ever recorded by the Integrated Food Security Classification system. One in three children below the age of two is “acutely malnourished.” Humanitarian organizations and experts warn that if uninterrupted aid is not allowed immediately, tens of thousands are at risk of dying of starvation and disease.

A Disingenuous Two-State Obsession
Alarm bells are ringing in Western capitals as the assault on Gaza continues and Israel refuses to implement the International Court of Justice provisional measures that would protect Palestinian in Gaza from famine and ensure aid delivery. But rather than acknowledging the assault on Gaza for what it is—the realization of an Israeli system of colonial dominance based on apartheid and ethnic cleansing—Western powers have merely resorted to the two-state paradigm as the only possible solution. These powers’ diplomatic efforts are focused on putting the two-state paradigm back on the negotiating table.

For many politicians in the West, recognizing a Palestinian state is about saving Israel from itself. Palestinian rights and justice don’t factor in.

“When this crisis is over there has to be a vision of what comes next, and, in our view, it has to be a two-state solution,” President Biden said in late October, referring to the war in Gaza. This vision, he added, would require “a concentrated effort for all the parties—Israelis, Palestinians, regional partners, global leaders—to put us on a path toward peace.” Other Western leaders have made similar comments. David Cameron, the British foreign secretary and a former prime minister, said in January that “most important of all is to give the Palestinian people a political horizon.” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell  has also pushed for a two-state solution. “Which are the other solutions they [the Israeli government] have in mind?” he said in January. “To make all the Palestinians leave? To kill them?” Foreign ministers at the G20 group of nations meeting in Brazil in February also emphasized that a two-state paradigm was “the only solution to the conflict.

The renewed commitment to a two-state solution is based on a different political logic than before. While the long-standing position has been that establishing two states should be the end goal of a negotiation process between Israelis and Palestinians, the new approach puts recognition of a Palestinian state at the beginning of the process. Now, Western governments are speaking about recognizing a Palestinian state, including at the UN, as the starting point for advancing a permanent two-state solution. “A two-state solution is the only hope to break the endless cycle of violence,” Australian foreign minister Penny Wong said in April. She added that the international community was “now considering the question of Palestinian statehood as a way of building momentum towards a two-state solution.”

But despite all this lip service to the creation of two states, Western governments know they’re being disingenuous when they call for a two-state solution. Israeli leaders have repeatedly declared in public what they’ve reportedly told their Western interlocutors in private: that Israel will not recognize a Palestinian state. In January, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu once again rejected the idea out of hand: “I will not compromise on full Israeli security control over all the territory west of Jordan—and this is contrary to a Palestinian state,” he said.

So when Western governments claim the creation of a Palestinian state will serve as the starting point for negotiations, they are at best acting in willful ignorance—and at worse, they are committing policy malpractice.

Israel’s Interests Drive Western Proposals
Considering that Western governments have, until recently, been hesitant to even insist on Oslo process standards, it might be tempting to see their recent advocacy for a Palestinian state as representing a positive turn toward the recognition of Palestinian rights, especially the right to self-determination.

But it’s unlikely that powers like the United States are actually invested in centering Palestinians in their policies. Instead, evidence suggests that Western governments continue to think about Palestine solely within the prism of Israeli interests and security and as a way to pressure Israel, treating Palestinian rights as a bargaining chip.

Israel is in its most significant legitimacy crisis since its establishment. Recent years have seen a consensus in the international human rights community that Israel is practicing apartheid, which is a crime against humanity. International law experts are warning that Israel is committing genocide. The country is on trial for violating the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and a separate case before the International Court of Justice will determine the legality of its decades-long occupation of Palestinian territories. Likewise, the International Criminal Court prosecutor has applied for arrest warrants for Netanyahu, and Yoav Gallant, the Israeli minister of defense. Israel is losing public opinion in the West, especially among younger generations, and is increasingly seen as an unhinged, genocidal state, and as a pariah. UN experts and human rights organizations have called for an arms embargo. A Dutch appeals court has ordered the Netherlands to halt the export of F-35 fighter jet parts to Israel, Canada has announced a suspension of arms deliveries (though this does not apply to military export permits approved before January 8), and in the UK more than 130 members of parliament have called to suspend arms transfer to Israel. Calls for sanctions are growing, too.

While most countries in the Global South recognize the state of Palestine, most of the West does not. However, Norway, Spain, and Ireland recently announced their official recognition of a Palestinian state, in a departure from the long-standing Western position of recognition as part of a peace process. Recognition is “a prerequisite for achieving peace in the Middle East,” said Norwegian prime minister Jonas Gahr Støre. While state recognition could be motivated by a commitment to Palestinian self-determination, it is also a “political and symbolic move,” as Palestinian commentator Yara Hawari wrote in a commentary in April. “It is pertinent to ask whether some states are pushing for this symbolic political move amid an ongoing genocide to avoid taking much more tangible actions, such as arms/trade embargoes and sanctions on the Israeli regime, to support Palestinians and reaffirm their right to sovereignty,” Hawari wrote.

For many politicians in the West, recognition of Palestinian state is therefore about saving Israel (from itself, as the West sees it), rather than about guaranteeing Palestinian rights or justice. Recognition is meant, among other things, to rehabilitate Israel’s legitimacy and overturn the demise of the two-state solution by preventing the possibilities for new political formations and narrowing (yet again) the question of Palestine to the 1967 occupied territories. Recognition, as David Cameron has said, aims at making the two-state solution “irreversible.” Cameron has been clear on this intent. “We have a responsibility there because we should be starting to set out what a Palestinian state would look like; what it would comprise; how it would work,” he said in January. “As that happens, we, with allies, will look at the issue of recognizing a Palestinian state, including at the UN. This could be one of the things that helps to make this process irreversible.”

Israel’s security is also a primary consideration. “There is no long-term security for Israel unless it is recognized by the countries of its region,” said Wong, the Australian foreign minister, in April. “The normalization agenda that was being pursued before [the] October 7 [Hamas attacks] cannot proceed without progress on Palestinian statehood.” She added that “Israel’s own security depends on a two-state solution.”

Western powers are offering a “statehood” without any of the substantive features of a sovereign state—which is merely a facade of progress.

A Racist Logic

The focus on Israel’s security while Israel is committing a plausible genocide against Palestinians speaks to the racist dehumanizing politics of the West, which values Israeli life over Palestinian life, and which does not see Palestinians as deserving of security. This logic is not new; the late Edward Said recognized it at the time the Oslo Accords were first signed. “The primary consideration in the document is for Israel’s security, with none for the Palestinians’ security,” he wrote in the London Review of Books in October 1993.

Western policymakers tend to portray recognition of a Palestinian state as an attempt to shake up the status quo, but a closer look shows that this recognition is an empty and meaningless act; it is not a departure from the status quo but rather a continuation. The UK’s five-point plan, which is now being deliberated by Arab and Western states, calls for : “the establishment of a technocratic Palestinian government to administer the West Bank and Gaza; the release of all hostages; guarantees that Hamas will not launch future attacks against Israel; and the relocation of its top leaders in the besieged strip to another country.”

While I do not subscribe to the idea of Palestinian statehood within a framework of two states, those who do support a two-state framework ought to recognize that what Western governments and other world powers are proposing, without Palestinian participation, is not real Palestinian statehood, but capitulation. Western powers are offering a “statehood” without any of the substantive features of a sovereign state, continuing the status quo established after the Oslo Accords. What these powers are planning for the Palestinians is the further solidification of the Palestinian Authority—a corrupt, authoritarian, and oppressive ruling power and a de facto subcontractor of Israeli occupation, which has no legitimacy among Palestinians. Core issues remain unaddressed, such as the status of East Jerusalem; questions of land, territory, and sovereignty; the control of borders, sea, and air; a population registry; the right of return; and more. The proposal thus offers a façade of progress, when in practice Palestinians will remain under Israeli colonization and occupation and the oppressive rule of the Palestinian Authority.

Palestinian Call for Liberation

It is time to listen to Palestinians and take their desires and demands seriously. Centering the Palestinian Authority does not equal listening to Palestinians; rather, it undermines them.

Looking closely at Palestinian political mobilization in the last decade shows a move away from statehood to a renewed commitment to Palestinian peoplehood and liberation. The younger generation of Palestinians—those who lived through the failure of the Oslo Accords—have been emphasizing that Israeli-Zionist settler colonialism and Israeli domination over Palestinians can only end with decolonization and liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea. “Palestinians already recognize our territorial sovereignty over all of historic Palestine as an essential truth, no matter how we may differ in political outlook,” Palestinian activist Fahad Ali wrote last August. This territorial sovereignty “is not legitimized nor jeopardized by foreign recognition or lack thereof.” The future of Palestine, this generation of Palestinians stresses time and again, relies on bringing all Palestinians under a unified struggle against Zionism and for freedom and liberation.

Many recent developments show that Palestinians seek substantive liberation, and not truncated sovereignty in the form of a fake state. A partial but not exhaustive list of popular Palestinian liberation initiatives includes: the 2018–19 Gaza Great March of Return; the May 2021 Unity Intifada; the rise in armed resistance groups such as the Lion’s Den in the West Bank; and the protests against the Palestinian Authority. Palestinians are forging a path and vision of liberation, which transcend formal political leadership and interests. The Gaza Great March of Return was an important articulation of this renewed sentiment and a recentering of Palestinian refugees and ’48 Palestine as core to the question of Palestine. The march was led by grassroots activists across the political spectrum, and comprised weekly popular protests of thousands of people that began on Land Day (March 30) 2018 and continued until December 2019, to demand the end of Israel’s brutal siege and the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

The West Bank has seen frequent popular mobilization and armed struggle against Israeli occupation in recent years. The Palestinian Authority routinely suppresses these actions, often detaining and torturing activists—which prompts more protests in response. The Palestinian Authority’s killing of Nizar Banat in June 2021 spurred widespread protests against the governing body. Palestinians protesting in the West Bank have been chanting slogans like “people want the fall of the regime” or “the fall of the president,” which indicates that Palestinians see the Palestinian Authority as an obstacle to resistance, and an illegitimate leadership that serves the interests of Israel and a local corrupt elite.

The Unity Intifada of May 2021 reflected the changes in the political discourse and popular mobilization among Palestinians. Palestinians within the 1948 borders, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, the shatat (or diaspora), and exile communities mobilized in unison against Israeli colonial domination, insisting on the unity of the Palestinian people and the commitment to liberation. Trying to capture the spirit of this important juncture, Palestinian activists wrote the Manifesto of Dignity and Hope: “In these days, we write a new chapter, a chapter of a united Intifada that seeks our one and only goal: reuniting Palestinian society in all of its different parts; reuniting our political will, and our means of struggle to confront Zionism throughout Palestine.”

Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza has only reinforced the commitment to this vision. Building on the May 2021 uprising and the unity it demonstrated, Palestinians in Palestine and in exile released a similar statement in March:

In 2021, we once again asserted that our story of justice cannot be erased, no matter how cruel and brutal Israeli oppression may be. In our Unity Intifada, we rose with dignity and manifested a simple truth: that Palestinians are one people, that we belong to the whole of Palestine and it belongs to us. . . . We have now entered the century of our liberation, and the occupying power is weaker than ever before. This is the moment in which we, the Palestinian people, must collectively rise to seize our victory and free ourselves. Look at Gaza. She is showing us the way, reclaiming our agency and advancing the struggle for a better life, not only in Palestine but beyond it as well.

A Change Must Come

Western countries cannot keep ignoring the changes in the political landscape and Palestinian rights, wishes, and demands. Palestinians are paying the most horrific cost: an all-out war that a broad range of international experts have deemed to be genocide. Politically, Western governments cannot force a solution on the Palestinian people, even if they have the collaboration of the Palestinian Authority. The push of Western countries for a two-state solution is about containing Palestinian resistance and is consistent with the West’s racist history of ignoring Palestinian political desires. Rather than promoting Israeli settler colonialism and apartheid at all costs, it is time to place Palestinian rights, freedom, and liberation at the center of international concern.

But if Western powers continue to try to foist supposed solutions like the two-state model onto Palestinians, they can expect more of the same, as Israel continues to run amok—as long as it is able—with its project of colonization, occupation, dispossession, and ethnic cleansing.

 

Article republished from The Century Foundation, 12 June, 2024

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