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     Volume 10 |Issue 48 | December 23, 2011 |


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Palestine's Search for Statehood

Irfan Husain

An Iranian woman stands in front of a poster during an anti-Israeli demonstration. PHOTO: AFP

When Newt Gingrich, the Republican hopeful in the American presidential race, said the Palestinians were "an invented people" who did not deserve an independent state, he triggered predictable fury in liberal circles. But apart from demonstrating yet again the extent to which candidates are willing to go to curry favour with Jewish voters, Gingrich did make an interesting point.

Basically, he has asserted that Palestinians were Arabs living under Ottoman rule for centuries, and were never a separate nation. But this is equally true for all the other people around the world who lived under colonial rule: it was only after the retreat or collapse of empires that nation-states came into being. Did they not deserve statehood?

Many states are relatively recent constructs. Italy wasn't unified until the late 19th century. Germany was created from a mosaic of Germanic principalities, duchies and kingdoms under Prussian hegemony in the second half of the 19th century. The post-Second World War era saw a wave of decolonisation and the emergence of scores of new states.

The collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991 witnessed another large batch of freshly created states. Socialist Yugoslavia splintered further into its component states, and Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia and Slovenia emerged.

Thus, history shows us that political geography is not something static: it evolves as wars, revolutions and collapsed empires generate new realities and new aspirations. Perhaps Newt Gingrich missed the irony of his charge against the Palestinians: if ever a people have been invented, it is the Americans.

Here is a nation whose citizens originate from literally every point of the compass. From its discovery by Christopher Columbus in 1492 to the recent waves of migrants from every country under the sun, America has been a beacon to millions, and herein lies its strength. But to suggest that Americans are one people is be blind to history and demographics.

So how do people qualify for statehood? A shared language, history, ethnicity and natural barriers like rivers and mountains help. Religion is often a feature, but there are many examples of multi-religious states. The question then arises as to why, in Gingrich's admittedly blinkered view, does Palestine not qualify. After all, Palestinians have been living in the area for centuries, mostly farming, but also trading.

As we have noted, a common faith is not an essential requirement, and Muslim, Christian and Jewish Palestinians have lived side by side under the Ottomans for hundreds of years. It was only after the start of the resurgence of Zionism in the late 19th century that saw European Jews arriving in Palestine in significant numbers. More were encouraged to come after the 1917 Balfour Declaration committing the British to the creation of a Jewish state. The Versailles Treaty that divided up the German and Ottoman Empires among the victors of the First World War gave the Zionist dream the seal of international approval.

A demonstrator carries a Palestinian flag reading "Free" during a demonstration denouncing
Israeli attacks in Palestine.

Thus, if world Jewry, scattered as it was across the world, deserved a state of its own, why do not the Palestinian people, who have been living in the same place for centuries, have the right to statehood? True, the long suffering of the Jews, culminating in the horrors of the Holocaust, does entitle them to their own state.

But by locating Israel in Palestine, Zionists and their supporters have ensured an unending cycle of violence and despair. One people's statehood has become another's oppression. The founders of the Israeli enterprise grounded their claim to Palestine on the mantra "A land without people for a people without land." Except that the land was never without people.

Now, by questioning the right of the Palestinian people to their own state, servile supporters of Israel like Newt Gingrich are deliberately undermining the whole basis of the two-state approach that is the framework for the fitful peace talks. As it is, the Israelis have been feverishly attempting to negate this possibility by building and expanding illegal settlements across the occupied West Bank. They will only be further encouraged by their American cheerleaders.

As Thomas Friedman points out in the New York Times, the end of the two-state approach means that Israel will end up annexing the entire West Bank. This will result in the Palestinian population either being marginalised through apartheid, or ethnically cleansed. If they are given Israeli citizenship, that will mean the eventual end of Israel as a Jewish state.

In the same issue of the Times, an article by Daoud Kuttab titled 'We are Palestinians' concludes thus: "The majority of Israelis and Palestinians understand they must share the land between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan. The last thing we need is for American politicians to use our lives as a political football."

Kuttab illustrates the problem created by American electoral politics where candidates vie with each other to take an even more extreme position on life and death issues. By doing so, they push the discourse into territory bordering on the lunatic fringe. This is especially so when it comes to sucking up to Jewish voters in a country where they can play a disproportionately large role in close elections.

One reason Barack Obama has been so dismally ineffective in breaking the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock is the fear of alienating the Zionist lobby in the United States. Indeed, the American approach to the conflict has been less about its rights and wrongs, and more about domestic politics. So clearly, left to American and Israeli politicians, this conflict will never be resolved. Whether they have a right to a state or not, the Palestinians are doomed to remain under occupation until something happens to pressurise Israel to halt its illegal construction, and negotiate in good faith.

Two factors might be moving in this direction: Turkey's defection as an Israeli ally, and the momentous changes taking place in Egypt. It is too early to determine the long-term effect of these shifts in the regional tectonic plates, but it clearly spells a weakening of Israel's dominance.

Clearly, the Middle East kaleidoscope has been rotated, and the coloured bits of glass will form a very different pattern.


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