What Palestinians Want
Hamas leader Khaled Meshal made international headlines on Dec. 7 when he made a particularly uncompromising speech in Gaza promising never to recognise Israel and to liberate all of Palestine “from the river to the sea” via armed “resistance”.
It’s worth specifically parsing what he had to say about why all of Palestine must be liberated by armed violence. He said “Palestine – from the [Jordan] River to the [Mediterranean] Sea, from its north to its south – is our land, our right, and our homeland. There will be no relinquishing or forsaking even an inch or small part of it… Palestine was, continues to be, and will remain Arab and Islamic… Palestine belongs to us and to nobody else.”
This really is a very simple sentiment, and it is about property. Palestine is our property, the collective and sole property of “our people”, no one else, no one who is not part of this in-group has any rights here. It has little to do with human rights, or self-determination or occupation or the needs of landless refugees.
But that’s Hamas, you may say. They’re rejectionist, they’re Islamists and they don’t even believe in human rights. But sadly, this simple view of the conflict is not confined to Hamas. Even many Palestinians who are secular, who speak the language of human rights and occupation and self-determination actually present almost the same underlying highly simplistic blood and soil nationalist view of the conflict – all the land is exclusively ours and all rights to it belong exclusively to our group.
A good example is Australian Palestinian author and activist Randa Abdel-Fatah. She’s not an Islamist to the best of my knowledge but in an article on an ABC website in the lead up to the UN vote on the status of Palestine she explained her view of the conflict. She wrote:
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about one very simple thing: dispossession. It is about a population of newcomers taking the land, homes and possessions of the indigenous Palestinian people and expelling them. That is the essence of the conflict.
It was the essence of the problem in 1917 when the British presumed the right to give away what it did not possess and promised the Jews a homeland in the British Empire, ignoring the majority Palestinian population in the land.
What she appears to be saying is that all the land is rightfully and solely Palestinian land.
Interestingly, she went on to write another op-ed after the UN vote in which she essentially denounced PA President Abbas as a quisling, favourably quoting another Palestinian activist’s statements that Mahmoud Abbas has “always been the obedient servant of the United States and Israel.” And she denounced the UN vote success via an approvingly quoted Palestinian tweet, “The worst thing that has ever happened to the Palestinian cause is its transformation from a struggle for liberation into a bid for statehood.”
In other words, her conclusions from her analysis appear to be not dissimilar to those of Hamas: The Palestinian cause is not about statehood or human rights or self-determination, it should be an effort to liberate “our” land – meaning all of Israel – from the alien usurpers.
I don’t have room to discuss in detail here why it is both simplistic and ahistorical to simply say that all of the “land” of Palestine is the exclusive property of the Palestinian people, but I will point out that there has never been a past historical state of Palestine, that there was not even a distinct region known in the Middle East as “Palestine” before 1917, and that it wasn’t until considerably later than that when anyone – including amongst Palestinians themselves – began to speak of the Arab inhabitants of Palestine as a separate and distinct people. Needless to say, if there is one single reason that an Israeli-Palestinian two-state resolution has proven elusive it is the prevalence among diverse Palestinians of the views expressed by Meshal, Abdel-Fatah and many others that the goal is not statehood, but getting “back” the land they feel belongs solely to Palestinians.
Freezing east Jerusalem?
The Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat recently pointed out what people who argue that Israel should cease all construction in “settlements” in east Jerusalem are actually asking him to do. He said “When the world talks about a freeze in Jerusalem, I ask, a freeze on what? On the billions we invest in east Jerusalem? Should we stop construction for Arabs, Christians or Jews? Or does someone mean that when an entrepreneur approaches me, I should, heaven forbid, ask him what religion he subscribes to so he can receive a permit to build in Jerusalem? That would be horrendous.”
He’s right. There are only two ways to implement such a freeze. Either you say no one can build anything in the part of the city over the Green line where 450,000 people, more than half the city’s total population, live. Or you institute racial discrimination, saying only those residents who are Arab are entitled to building permits, and Jews are forbidden to build anything, even though legally both have the same status.
This is the background that people who propose such a freeze do not understand. Eastern Jerusalem was annexed by Israel in 1967 and has been run as a unified municipality for more than 40 years, regulating building, planning and other issues for both Jewish and Arab residents. There are 195,000 Jews in east Jerusalem, 43% of the population, compared to 260,000 Muslims or others.
Arab residents of Jerusalem are entitled to Israeli citizenship if they wish it, though only a minority have taken this up, and all others are automatically permanent residents of Israel. Polls show a plurality of them would prefer to remain under Israeli rule if a Palestinian state is established. Furthermore, while most neighbourhoods have a predominant ethnicity, mixing of Jews and Arabs in the same areas is getting more common.
Jerusalem is going to be a wicked problem in any two-state resolution, but anyone who imagines it is going to be solved by making Israel act as if it agrees beforehand that the whole eastern half is “Palestinian land” on which all 200,000 Jewish inhabitants are illegal squatters who have no rights just doesn’t understand the realities of this fast-growing city of 800,000 people.