John Rees on how the latest Israeli war on Gaza demonstrates where the solution to the conflict lies
Amid the slaughter and destruction in Gaza let us take a moment to remember how this happened. And to ask how is it happening for the third time in five years? Even more importantly we should ask what strategy can bring the Palestinians victory and prevent a future turn in this vicious cycle?
These questions return us to a central debate among Palestinians and their supporters: should the struggle aim at a two state solution in which Israel returns to the territory it occupied before its annexation of further Palestinian land in 1967 and a Palestinian state emerges on what is left, or should a totally new state come into existence in which Palestinians, Christians and Jews can once again live side by side as they did in the area of historic Palestine before the creation of the state of Israel?
Let's look at the roots of this conflict. The Obama initiated Israeli-Palestinian negotiations broke down because the Netanyahu government started a new wave of settlement building. This was followed by a violent Israeli opposition to the emergence of the Fatah-Hamas unity government—itself in part a product of a weakened Hamas position resulting from the coup that overthrew the Morsi government in Egypt. Then Israel failed to deliver the fourth stage of the Palestinian prisoner release. Then, and only then, were three Israeli youths kidnapped in the West Bank, not in Gaza. Netanyahu then went to war in Gaza. In the course of all this far right Israeli extremists took a 16-year-old Palestinian boy, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, and burnt him alive.
What this latest onslaught proves beyond all doubt is that the Israeli state is in its essence an expansionist state. It was born in 1948 out of the dispossession of Palestinians, it cannot co-exist with an independent Palestinian state.
With every decade that passes more Palestinian land has been seized by both the Israeli state and Zionist settlers, no matter what formal agreements are breached to do so. The construction of the Apartheid Wall and the continued spread of illegal settlements has decimated even the reduced territory over which the Palestinian Authority has nominal control since it was set up by the Oslo accords in 1993.
The reality of Israel’s expansion has all but removed the possibility of the often dominant solution to the ‘Palestinian Question’: Israel’s withdrawal from the territory it seized in the 1967 war and the formation of an independent Palestinian state.
The two-state solution undermines the Palestinian resistance
This ‘two-state’ solution is a vanishing possibility on the ground, but it is also an increasingly impossible political solution. The Israelis are not going to accept it and even the slightest moves towards Palestinian statehood, like recent recognition at the UN, are met with outright rejection by Israel. The fact is that no Israeli government could or would agree to withdrawal to the 1967 borders. And Netanyahu has now explicitly ruled this out.
Even more tragically engagement with the two state solution has damaged the Palestinian cause. The project is always pursued through US sponsored negotiations, always involves Palestinian compromises and ends in undermining the standing of Palestinian representatives among the Palestinians themselves.
The sight of Palestine Authority forces in the West Bank being stoned by Palestinians during the recent kidnap crisis is only the logical result of this. The rise of Hamas was entirely based on its willingness to resist Israel when the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority was not. The Oslo peace process undermined and divided the Palestinian resistance. And all the while, indeed as a consequence, the Israeli state continued to expand the settlement programme.
All other options are failing
The rise of the two-state solution was in part a result of the decay of Arab nationalism. The heroic phase of Arab nationalist resistance to European colonialism reached its zenith with the establishment of independent Arab states in the Middle East in the 1950s and 1960s.
These states were rarely democratic but they were relatively economically successful until the end of the long post war boom in the 1970s. Their leaders then embraced neoliberalism and dumped their previous affinity for some kind of Russian inspired nationalisation. The result, over time, was the entirely corrupt and illegitimate dictatorships that became the target of the Arab Revolutions in 2011.
But before that another force arose that seemed to displace Arab nationalism as a vehicle for anti-imperialist sentiment in the Middle East: Political Islam. This burst onto the international scene as a result of the Iranian revolution of 1979. It has found expression in Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Its primary appeal has been its relative willingness to fight imperialism just at the moment when the previous generation of Arab nationalists were colluding with it.
But this current, although still powerful, is now entering a crisis. The crisis is a direct result of the Arab Revolutions. The uneven and disputed process of revolution, the recent gains of the counter-revolution in Egypt, the militarisation of the Syrian revolution, the role of Saudi Arabia, the implosion of Iraq, have exposed the weaknesses and contradictions of the Islamic revival. Its moderate political forces have not been able to retain power and its armed advocates of imposing a Caliphate by force display the kind of political profile that most Muslims find unacceptable and many others see as an existential threat.
Even Hamas, which is a legitimate resistance movement with a considerable base in Gaza, is more unpopular when it is at peace and more popular, unsurprisingly, when it is defending Gaza from Israeli attack.
The one-state solution
All this returns us to the possibility of a one-state solution: a single, democratic, multi-faith state running from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea. There are historic precedents for the one state solution.
Right at the origin of the modern Middle East, in the negotiations that Sir Henry McMahon held with Arab leaders during the First World War, he promised that Arabs would have control over the territory which included Palestine that had previously been ruled by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. This area had been and was then a multi-faith community in which Muslims, Christians and Jews lived side by side. Winston Churchill and McMahon later claimed that Palestine had been excluded from this agreement, but the Cabinet Eastern Committee papers for 5 December 1918 confirmed that Palestine had been promised to the Arabs in 1915.
The Palestine Liberation Organisation adopted a one-state solution as its aim in 1969. In January 1969 Fatah declared that it was not fighting against Jews, but against Israel as a racist and theocratic entity. The fifth national council of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in February 1969 passed a resolution confirming that the PLO's objective was ‘to establish a free and democratic society in Palestine for all Palestinians whether they are Muslims, Christians or Jews’. Only successive attempts to compromise with US-inspired peace processes have moved the PLO away from this initial goal.
The paradox for Fatah is that the one state solution is now more popular among Palestinians than ever, no doubt because experience has taught them that the alternatives are mirages.
In 2007 a Near East Consulting poll of Palestinians found that ‘70% support a one-state solution in historic Palestine where Muslims, Christians and Jews live together with equal rights and responsibilities’, despite an almost 50-50 split between support for Fatah and Hamas among those polled. Another poll this year showed ‘a clear majority (60% overall, including 55% in the West Bank and 68% in Gaza) say that the five-year goal “should be to work toward reclaiming all of historic Palestine, from the river to the sea”.’
Even the Washington Post is writing headlines that proclaim ‘The two-state solution, RIP’. The paper concludes:
‘For at least two decades, a key assumption to U.S. policy on this question is that the final outcome would be two states within the territory that Israel currently controls. That assumption will have to be revised — and US policy in the region will have to be revised along with it’.
It would be wise if all those who want Palestinian freedom provide a good old answer before the US provides a bad new one.
Palestinian Solidarity and the one-state solution
This debate can, of course, only be settled by Palestinians. The international solidarity movement does and should comprise all those who stand for Palestinian freedom irrespective of whether they are advocates of a one-state or a two state solution. It would be a folly from which only the Zionists and the imperialists would gain to divide over this issue.
But, without ever forcing the issue to the point of division, it is right for the left to advance these arguments for a one state solution. The Palestinian resistance has tested to destruction the view that a meaningful independent Palestinian state can emerge from a US backed deal with Israel. Despite, or perhaps because of, the barbarity of the Israeli state it now stands more isolated internationally than ever before.
The governments of the West now face greater opposition than they have ever done for their support for the state of Israel. That movement will be immeasurably stronger if there is a clear, unambiguous voice within it that knows that the Palestinians and others that live within the borders of historic Palestine can govern themselves democratically and freely - once the state that now oppresses them is dismantled and replaced. And once the imperial powers which sustain it are forced to get off the back of the Palestinians. This is now the real meaning of the Palestinian revolution.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.