Will Palestinian statehood bring self-determination?

March 4, 2016

In Uncategorized

The Palestinian Authority (PA) suffers an extreme case of that increasingly common political affliction, responsibility without power.  Its domestic legitimacy hinges on an ability to display plausible evidence of progress towards ending Israel’s occupation, while providing effective economic administration in the interim.  But the occupation sets strict limits on what can be achieved economically, and even within those, the PA’s ability to deliver depends entirely on international support, which is itself conditioned on the PA enforcing Palestinian quiescence in the absence of any political progress.

As Ha’aretz correspondent Amira Hass recently wrote,

In the permanent temporary situation created by the Oslo Accords, Israel still dictates the dimensions of non-development in Palestinian territory through its control of the borders, of the vast expanse of the West Bank known as Area C and of Palestinian freedom of movement.  But responsibility for coping with the impoverishment and unemployment falls on the shoulders of the PA, the buffer between the principal culprit and the people.

So much for the PA.  But what of an independent State of Palestine?  Demilitarised, sandwiched between a hostile Jordanian-Israeli military alliance, unequally integrated with a far more powerful economy – wouldn’t Palestine be no less subject to external command than other weak states with strong neighbours in an internationalised economy?[1]  In which case, isn’t the idea that Palestinian statehood would enable meaningful self-determination for the Palestinian people wishful thinking?  Given how economically dependent and militarily overawed any State of Palestine is likely to be, is statehood – in short – worth it?

I have written in support of a two-state settlement for many years.  Still, when I imagine a “free and independent Palestine” under the thumb of factional authoritarians and billionaire creeps; economically in thrall to Israel and the Gulf dictatorships, and no longer visible on the international agenda (with continuing and new abuses now reclassified “internal”), I must admit, the prospect does not inspire.

One might respond that the achievement of Palestinian statehood presupposes a broader-based, more legitimate leadership than this.  But the history of post-colonial states and post-apartheid South Africa shows that even such leaderships can quickly corrupt, while populations that have mobilised against an outsider enemy do not therefore also mobilise against an enemy within.  On the contrary: at the point of liberation people are often emotionally invested in the leadership that has secured it, and eager to resume civil life.[2]

Much, of course, would depend on the politics of the transition: how much instability and civil conflict it would generate, how much destruction Israel would wreak before submitting, how many returning refugees the new state would be required to cope with, how smoothly the reintegration of Gaza and the West Bank was handled, and how much international aid would be made available in assistance.  But in any event, it is not inconceivable that in important respects the quality of life in an independent Palestine (at any rate, in the West Bank-East Jerusalem – it is hard to see how life in Gaza could deteriorate much further) might decline.

So, is the struggle for Palestinian statehood misguided?  I don’t think so.  Even if ending the occupation turned out in the short-term not to improve or even in certain respects to worsen material conditions, still, the fight to improve those conditions must tackle the occupation – the cause of so much distortion of Palestinian society, the witting and unwitting ally of the most repressive elements within it, and almost inevitably the overriding target and principal enemy of progressive Palestinian forces for as long as it exists[3] – as a priority.  If ending the occupation won’t automatically produce a more democratic and egalitarian society, it is nonetheless a prerequisite to this.  And at present, the only politically viable alternative to the occupation is a Palestinian state.

Even if Palestinian sovereignty would in substance be highly circumscribed, being rid of the IDF, Shin Bet, settlers and border police; the Wall, roadblocks, curfews and “firing zones”; the house demolitions, torture and beatings; the tax theft, trade restrictions and suffocating Gaza siege; and, to sustain all this, the periodic massacres and wholesale devastation of infrastructure – deliverance from all this would truly be a liberation worth the name.  If a State of Palestine accomplished nothing else but to free Palestinians from the daily terror of occupation, it would represent a step – one of many required, but not the least of them – towards justice and normalcy.



[1] Noam Chomsky has described ‘the likely outcome of a two-state settlement’ as ‘a Palestinian mini-state that would be contained within a Jordanian-Israeli military alliance (perhaps tacit), surviving at the pleasure of its far more powerful neighbours and subsidised by the most conservative and pro-American forces in the Arab world, in the oil-producing monarchies’. (Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians – updated edition (London: Pluto Press, 1999), p. 44)

[2] In any case, people are more quickly and fiercely aroused by dangers which cross identity boundaries than by dangers arising within those boundaries, even when the latter are statistically more serious.  Those boundaries can be re-drawn, but this takes time and often struggle.

[3] One might argue (not entirely decently) that in the absence of Palestinian resistance, Israeli repression would be less severe.  If Palestinians were to accept or welcome their being ruled by a foreign army, that army would have less reason to persecute them.  This is true – Israeli repression sharply increased in response to the first intifada of 1987-1993, for example – but, at any rate in this historical period, it appears difficult or impossible for populations to permanently acquiesce in their own domination by a perceived foreign power.  In any event, this is for Palestinians to determine.  As a practical matter, a Palestinian state will become a realistic prospect only if a large number of Palestinians are driven by Israel’s occupation and its attendant abuses to mobilise for statehood.  If most Palestinians, whether from exhaustion and despair or for some other reason, decide that ending Israel’s occupation is not worth the heavy price of resistance, then the discussion is moot.