Palestine: Goes with the Territory

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Palestinian activists speak to Anne Ashford about their strategies to end the current occupation.

The Palestinian movement today faces a paradox. The Palestinian cause has more support than ever, thanks to the growth of the anti-war and anti-capitalist movements, but conditions inside Palestine are more difficult than they have been for years. At the European Social Forum thousands of activists heard testimony from campaigners inside the Occupied Territories, such as Mustafa Barghouti from Ramallah who has played a leading role in mobilising international protests against Israel's apartheid-style wall around the West Bank. Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament Azmi Bishara also spoke at the ESF about the increasing racism faced by Israel's 1 million strong Palestinian population - second class citizens in the Zionist state.

Mustafa Barghouti is among a number of Palestinian campaigners who argue that Israel's decision to turn the Occupied Territories into a South African Bantustan should signal a change in tactics by the Palestinian movement. In place of building a Palestinian state side by side with Israel, Palestinians should revive the idea of a single, democratic state covering the whole of historic Palestine. In stark contrast to the past, this new strategy would involve reclaiming the state from within Israel. Echoing the slogan of Azmi Bishara's National Democratic Assembly - 'A state for all its citizens' - Mustafa Barghouti argues Palestinians have little choice but to launch a struggle for civil rights and democracy for both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs inside a single state.

It is not just activists who have begun to re-explore a 'one-state solution'. In December 2003 Palestinian prime minister Ahmad Qurei voiced the frustrations of the leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organisation who had staked so much on the 'peace process' of the 1990s. As Ariel Sharon announced his plans for unilateral disengagement from Gaza, Qurei argued, 'This is an apartheid solution to put the Palestinians in cantons. Who can accept this? We will go for a one-state solution... there's no other solution.'

Some Israelis have reached similar conclusions. Jeff Halper, a well known activist in the fight against the Israeli army's demolition of Palestinian homes, proposes shifting the focus of campaigning from ending the occupation to 'achieving a democratic state': 'The slogan "One person, one vote" should provide a common mobilising call for an international movement which must reach the scope and effectiveness of the campaign against South African apartheid.'

Mustafa Barghouti

Mustafa Barghouti is the secretary general of the Palestinian National Initiative, a political movement based in the Occupied Territories which calls for democratic reforms to the Palestinian National Authority. In 1979 he helped to establish the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, a network providing health and community services to around 1 million Palestinians.

In a column published by the English language Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly in May this year, he argued that Ariel Sharon's 'disengagement plan' and the construction of the wall around the West Bank mean that the establishment of a Palestinian state side by side with the existing Israeli state is no longer possible:

'If Sharon is to be left unchecked by a president fearful of his re-election prospects and unwilling to provoke his Jewish and right wing Christian constituencies, then the two-state solution is dead. As with the refugees, the principle of settling the future of Jerusalem by mutual negotiation will be lost. Jerusalem will never again be part of an independent Palestine. The only remaining option is a single state.'

Palestinians can take heart from the experience of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, however:

'Sharon's vision for an independent Palestine is akin to the Bantustans established as homelands for black South Africans in 1951. Essentially ethnic reservations, these Bantustans were also depicted to the international community as a step towards decolonisation and a solution to South Africa's demographic problem which, as in Palestine, saw the ruling minority outnumbered by an undesirable majority. It soon became clear, however, that the scheme was designed to legitimise the expulsion of the black population. The strategy collapsed and the world rallied to defeat apartheid.'

The revolt against Sharon by his own party, Likud, underlines the basic problem for proponents of a two-state solution - Israeli leaders will not give the Palestinians anything resembling a viable, independent state. The vote by Likud members to reject Sharon's plan 'can only convince the Palestinians that there is no hope for the peace process and that, if two states are impossible, they have no option but to struggle for their freedom, survival and equal rights within a single state. How would Sharon react to such a dramatic retaliatory step by the people he has conspicuously sought to demonise and destroy? Rather than the triumph he imagined as he stood in the White House, he may find his strategy to crush the Palestinian people turned hideously against him.'

Azmi Bishara

As a member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, representing the National Democratic Assembly (NDA), Azmi Bishara has become one of the best known voices defending the rights of Israel's 1 million Palestinian citizens. Born in Nazareth to a Christian Arab family, he has faced many attempts by the Israeli authorities to silence his criticisms of the racism faced by Palestinians within Israel, who are treated as second class citizens by the Jewish state. In a 1998 article he explained the NDA's concept of 'a state for all its citizens': 'Israel is not a state of its citizens - it is a state of the Jews and a Jewish state at the same time. The struggle for equal citizenship contradicts the essence and substance of Zionism - it is by nature an anti-Zionist struggle.

'If Palestinians and Israelis must live together, we must be able to imagine a separation between nationality and citizenship, because we already have two national identities. We have an Arab-Palestinian identity and we have an Israeli-Jewish identity. They are not one nation. They are two national identities. And these two nationalities can have one common citizenship, and two different systems. Some of the so called "final status issues" can only be solved in the framework of this kind of political thinking, as a two-state solution cannot for instance solve the refugee issue.'

He sees the fight against the Zionist concept of a Jewish state as key to the Palestinian struggle. In a column published by Al-Ahram Weekly in January 2004 he argued that recognition of the Jewish identity of Israel by Palestinian leaders hinders the struggle for liberation. In an article written for Al-Ahram in July 2004 he argues, 'It is difficult to understand these unilateral gifts to Zionism itself from the leadership of a people under occupation. Ultimately, if our struggle has not been against racism and occupation, what was the point and for what purpose have we made so many sacrifices?'

Ziad

Ziad is an independent Palestinian activist living in the West Bank:

'Without the return of the Palestinian refugees, a "one-state" solution would be tantamount to accepting the Zionist dream of "Greater Israel". This goes deeper than the "one-state" and "two-state" labels, as a truncated Palestinian "state" in the West Bank and Gaza was never going to empty the camps around the Middle East. Meanwhile Palestinian refugees living in most Arab countries are denied even the most elementary rights by Arab governments which mask their decision to treat them as third class citizens by proclaiming their "steadfastness" in defending the right of return.

'The presence of Palestinian refugees increases pressure on Israel's Jewish majority. Israel is often trumpeted as "the only democracy in the Middle East". Here is a simple way of putting that claim to the test: give all the inhabitants of Israel and Palestine - Jew and Arab alike, including the refugees - a vote on what kind of state they would want to live in.

'Faced with the military might of Israel, some Palestinian activists have begun arguing for non-violent resistance in place of the armed struggle. Grassroots activists who want to broaden the base of Palestinian activism are clearly not the same as PLO leaders who hope to use their ability to control the conflict as a bargaining chip in negotiations. During the first Intifada in 1987 thousands were involved in the struggle through the Popular Committees which coordinated protests, strikes and civil disobedience. The scale of protests against the wall today shows that such a mass movement can be built again. However, rejecting the armed struggle on principle will not necessarily achieve this. The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) made a turn towards civil disobedience in response to the capture of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, only to have to return to the armed struggle last year as the Turkish army renewed its offensive against the Kurds.

'Another difficulty lies in a change of direction towards a fight for civil rights within a single state as this will effectively mean the recognition of Israel, even if the long term goal is to achieve a unified Palestine. In the short term, Palestinian activists could be cut off from the solidarity movement in the wider Middle East. The cause of Palestine mobilises people across the Middle East. Activists in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and many other Arab countries have begun to build movements in solidarity with Palestine in the face of brutal repression from their own governments. In Jordan and Egypt a rallying point for these movements has been their boycott of Israel, in opposition to their governments' recognition of the Zionist state. This has radicalised the solidarity movements, accelerating the shift from opposing Zionism and US imperialism to direct confrontation with the state.

'The question of links between Palestinians and the wider Arab world is about more than Arab nationalist rhetoric. Israel's oppression of the Palestinians is not only driven by a dynamic within the Zionist state. It is a reflection of Israel's broader role in the Middle East, as a watchdog for the imperialist powers. The Palestinians by themselves cannot defeat both Israel and the US, but the struggle in Palestine can be a detonator for resistance across the Middle East.

'Yet the experience of Iraq shows just how vulnerable US imperialism can be. If the US is defeated in Iraq, it is not only Israel's fervent supporters among the Republican neoconservatives who will be humiliated, but the whole US ruling class. More importantly, defeat for the world's only superpower will inspire millions around the Middle East-and across the world-to build a truly global movement against imperialism.'