This month marks half a century of Israel’s military occupation, the longest in modern history. A less abstract way of describing its duration is to point out that more than 90 per cent of Palestinians in the occupied territories are younger than the occupation itself. This means the overwhelming majority of the population has never known freedom or respect for their human and national rights, which much of the rest of the world takes for granted.
In the run-up to this tragic anniversary, much is being said and done to call for the end of Israel’s occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state. The two are often conflated, but they are not necessarily the same thing. Self-determination fundamentally means the right to determine your own future. That does not have to mean a separate state.
As such, this anniversary should be an opportunity not to repeat the tired two-state mantra, but to push for a paradigm shift towards a one-state solution with equality for all citizens, be they Israeli or Palestinian, Jewish, Muslim or Christian. The argument over one or two states is nothing new, but it has been oversimplified into which is more desirable. There are in fact two concurrent debates: which is preferable, and which is actually feasible.
There should not be anything undesirable about equal rights, whether in Israel/Palestine or anywhere else. To argue against equality on racial grounds – primarily by claiming that this threatens Jewish supremacy – is racist.
And denying a one-state solution ignores the fact that each side’s claims and attachments – whether legal, religious or historical – do not stop at the 1967 border. Israel claims the occupied territories as biblical Judea and Samaria, while wanting the world to forget that it was established on the Palestinians’ homeland, to which its dispossessed inhabitants will forever be deeply connected.
Indeed, maps, images and artwork in both Israel and the occupied territories include the entirety of historical Palestine rather than the pre-1967 borders. A one-state solution recognises these competing claims and attachments without giving one primacy over the other. This would be a historic compromise not by Israel, but by an indigenous people willing to share their homeland with those who so callously and violently dispossessed them.
Many people say a one-state solution is utterly naive and impractical, but this is wrong on two fundamental counts. Firstly, it immediately removes all but one of the major stumbling blocks that have consistently thwarted a two-state solution. In one state, there is no need to demarcate borders or divide Jerusalem, and instead of evacuating or dismantling Jewish-only settlements, they can accommodate both peoples.
The only remaining major obstacle would be the refugee issue, but without being bogged down by the others, there would be more room to focus on this particular one, increasing the likelihood of its resolution. Meanwhile, mechanisms to establish and enforce equality can be borrowed from other countries with relevant experience, such as post-apartheid South Africa, and modified if need be for the particulars of Israel/Palestine.
Secondly, many if not most one-state naysayers argue that it is impractical simply because Israel would never allow it. But for a solution to be lasting, it must be just, and for it to be just, it must be rooted in the rights of the oppressed, not the diktats and prejudices of the oppressor.
Besides, Israel has amply shown – in its continuing entrenchment of the occupation, its relentless colonisation, its ministers’ statements and the platforms of its governing parties – that it will not accept a Palestinian state at all, let alone a viable one.
If we are to confine the parameters to those acceptable to Israel, we might as well say goodbye to the very notion of Palestinian rights, which Human Rights Watch pointed out last week have suffered “systematic abuses” over the last 50 years as a means of maintaining Israeli control.
This brings us to the debate about the feasibility of the two-state solution, which renders the one over desirability moot. Year after year, we hear statements about how we are approaching the point of no return vis-à-vis a Palestinian state, given Israel’s settlement enterprise. The truth is, we passed that point long ago.
The reluctance to admit this is convenient for those invested in the “peace process” because they can avoid having to admit they have failed, and having to acknowledge the one-state reality. The delusion of a two-state solution is as entrenched as the occupation it seeks to end.
There was national upheaval in Israel about evacuating several thousand settlers from the Gaza Strip (which was done for demographic reasons, as then-president Shimon Peres admitted, not to advance the prospect of peace).
This renders impossible the prospect of evacuating several hundred thousand settlers from the West Bank and East Jerusalem – their illegal colonies strategically spread like tentacles throughout the occupied territories – even if there were the political will to do so, which there has never been. In fact, settlement expansion continues to pick up pace, with approval this week of the construction of an entirely new colony and 1,800 more housing units in existing settlements.
It is thus little surprise that amid understandable disillusionment and realities on the ground, support for a two-state solution among Palestinians is waning. According to a joint Israeli-Palestinian poll funded by the EU and published in February, 44 per cent of Palestinians support two states, while 36 per cent support one state.
The most interesting thing about the poll’s findings, however, is the level of support among Israelis for a solution “by which Palestinians and Jews will be citizens of the same state and enjoy equal rights”. Media reports of the results split them according to whether the Israelis surveyed were Jews or Arabs, with 19 per cent and 56 per cent supporting one state, respectively.
When one considers that Israeli Arabs make up some 20 per cent of the population, this equates to around a third of Israelis overall, almost the same proportion as Palestinians. In fact, more than a quarter of settlers, whose colonies are a hallmark of Israeli apartheid, support equality in one state – more than the percentage of Israeli Jews who are not settlers.
This shows that a one-state solution is not a pipe dream, not in Palestine and not even in Israel. One of the biggest obstacles it faces is the obstinance of the two-state mirage in the framework of international diplomacy over the conflict, and in the minds and expectations of people worldwide who have been conditioned to not even consider one state as an option, let alone as the only viable one.
This 50th anniversary should be an opportunity to intensify efforts to chip away at this outdated mindset, and to make people realise that amid this debate there is already a one-state reality. The challenge is to strive for a state that is built on equality, not on the endless subjugation of half its population.
Not that long ago, that very idea was deemed fanciful in apartheid South Africa.
Sharif Nashashibi is a journalist and political analyst