*This piece is published in collaboration with Chatham House. It is part of a series which addresses the future of governance and security in the Middle East and North Africa, and their impact on the role of the state in the region.
The Palestinian political leadership’s obsession with the idea of statehood as a means to realise self-determination and freedom, has proved to be detrimental to the struggle of decolonising Palestine. This leadership – under the pressure of regional and international actors – committed a strategic mistake by prioritizing a “statehood under colonialism” paradigm instead of leading processes to decolonise Palestine first and then engage in processes of state formation. Statehood under colonialism is a fundamentally flawed paradigm and a distraction from the core impediment to peace and justice.
The adoption of this “miscalculated priority” could be illustrated through four “critical junctures” in history and until the present day. These include the 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence, the signature of the 1993 Oslo Accords – which was, in essence, a security arrangement – to eventually establish a state, the state-building project under the premiership of Salam Fayyad, who declared that Palestinians are getting “closer to the Rendezvous with freedom” as the state exists in all but name,1 and finally the Palestinian Authority’s UN statehood bid led by President Mahmoud Abbas, which continues to unfold until the present day. “Statehood” becomes the narrow and only lens through which the political leadership examines the national liberation project, and against which their strategies are assessed. It also becomes the analytical and operational lens that the international actors use to justify their policy interventions, aid packages, and political benchmarking. Yet, this alignment on the objective and approach reinforced the impasse.
Crucially, what is common between these four “critical junctures” is not only the centrality of the “idea of the state” in the Palestinian political thinking, but also the resulting outcome and consequence. At the end of each juncture, Palestinians have emerged weaker, more fragmented, and further away from statehood. This is not a mere coincidence nor an unintended consequence, but this outcome is directly linked to the failure of the adopted political strategy as “statehood mania” did not only sustain the status quo and the asymmetry of power in favour of the colonizer, but also disempowered the people/nation as a core element of any state, and instead empowered the “wrong national institutions” under the colonial condition. It empowered security structures and institutions to solidify the existing matrices of control, instead of expanding the already narrow margin for freedom or expanding the capacity and capabilities to realise freedom.
More precisely, the statehood obsession has created structural deficiencies in the Palestinian governance and political systems that fundamentally altered the role of the governed, the people. With every statehood iteration, the Palestinian people were further alienated from the core of the political system and governance structures. This did not only result in the erosion of the legitimacy of these governing bodies and their strategies, but more importantly, it stripped the Palestinian people from their transformative capacity and weakened their ability to effectively resist the colonial and oppressive structures.
The dismissal of this core ingredient (people) in the “statehood mix” is not only a home-grown failure, but indeed an externally sponsored top-down enterprise that aims to invest in building “modern state institutions” regardless of their inclusivity, responsiveness, or accountability to the people, let alone their functionality and effectiveness. A resident of Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank told me, “The phrase Dawlat al-Moasassat puzzles me. First, where is the state, and second how come Al-Dawla (the state) has a space for all these institutions (al-Moasassat) but not for the people. What is a state without the people?” Another refugee from Balata refugee camp in the occupied West Bank told me, “I was watching the UN statehood bid on TV like any other person watching the speeches from anywhere in the world. Yes, I dropped a tear when people clapped, but emotions don’t make a state, and declarations don’t change realities. I looked for the state the day after, but I did not find it, and now years after I can only see sarab al-Dawla [statehood mirage]”.