Will a Palestinian state, no matter how sovereign, fulfill the Palestinian right to self-determination? In this policy brief, Al-Shabaka Policy Advisor Ali Abunimah reviews the evolution of the concept of self-determination, its applicability to the Palestinian people, and its gradual erosion since 1991. He argues not only that self-determination must return to the center of the Palestinian struggle; he also shows how the Palestinian exercise of this right can be compatible with eventual coexistence with Israeli Jews.
How the “peace process” eroded self-determination
In his 1974 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasir Arafat addressed “the roots of the Palestine question,” declaring, “Its causes do not stem from any conflict between two religions or two nationalisms. Neither is it a border conflict between neighboring States. It is the cause of a people deprived of its homeland, dispersed and uprooted, and living mostly in exile and in refugee camps.”
How ironic then that the “peace process” has reconceived the Palestine question precisely as little more than a border dispute between Israel and a putative Palestinian state. The “roots” were first reduced to a laconic list of “final status issues”: borders, settlements, Jerusalem and refugees and then gradually buried. Lost has been any commitment to self-determination in principle or in practice.
Although they have rarely been formally discussed, it has long been conventional wisdom in peace process circles that the “final status” issues have already effectively been settled, largely according to Israel’s requirements (we have heard ad nauseam the refrain “everyone knows what a final settlement will look like”). The United States and its hand-picked Palestinian leaders have accepted that large Israeli “settlement blocs” housing most of the settlers, will remain where they are in the West Bank.
The same formula has been adopted for Jerusalem, as per the so-called Clinton parameters: Israel would get “Jewish neighborhoods” and the Palestinian state would get “Arab neighborhoods.” What this means in practice is that Israel would keep everything it illegally annexed and colonized since 1967, and Palestinians might get some form of self-rule in whatever is left – which is shrinking daily as Israel aggressively escalates its Judaization of eastern Jerusalem. While everything east of the 1967 line is divisible and “disputed,” the same does not apply to the west. Palestinians would not be entitled, for example, to seek the return of their West Jerusalem neighborhoods ethnically cleansed and colonized by Israel in 1948. The “peace process” has actually created an incentive for Israel to accelerate its colonization of eastern Jerusalem because Israel knows that whatever is left uncolonized would become the new maximum ceiling of what the United States and other peace process sponsors would support as Palestinian demands.
Similarly, the refugee question has been virtually “settled” as well. Palestinian Authority-appointed chief negotiator Saeb Erekat revealed in a paper he circulated last December that Fatah leader and acting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had proposed to Israel that no more than 15,000 Palestinian refugees per year for ten years return to their original lands in what is now Israel.1 According to Erekat, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had countered with an offer of 1,000 refugees per year for a period of five years. In other words, the parties had already agreed to abrogate the fundamental rights of millions of Palestinian refugees, and were haggling only over the difference between 5,000 and 150,000, or less than three percent of the Palestinian refugees registered to receive services from UNRWA (the United Nations Works and Relief Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East).
So what is left to negotiate? Camille Mansour’s policy brief accurately summarizes the outstanding issues – as seen from within the peace process – the final borders and attributes of sovereignty of the Palestinian state. Mansour doubts that negotiations in present circumstances would lead to a peace treaty in which “Palestinian sovereignty requirements could be attained.”
Let us assume for the sake of argument that Israel were to agree to a Palestinian state in the West Bank including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip that satisfies official Palestinian positions and provides for a state no more or less sovereign than any other. The question that then arises is: Does this sovereign state provide for the self-determination of the Palestinian people? Does it restore and guarantee their fundamental rights? As argued, below, the answer is a clear no. And this underscores the need to distinguish the limited goal of sovereignty from that of self-determination.
Sovereignty is exercised by a state through the fulfillment of commonly agreed functions: effective control of territory, borders and resources, and maintenance of political independence among others. Self-determination is exercised by a people legitimately inhabiting a given territory. Self-determination may result in a sovereign state, but it may not. It is fundamental to understand this difference and to recognize that self-determination remains at the heart of the Palestinian struggle.