by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*
Since the start of this century alone, and since the Israeli government withdrew from the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military has fought four wars involving Gaza, with the most recent one culminating in an apparent ceasefire on May 21, 2021. The Oslo Accord, the U.S.-backed peace deal brokered more than a quarter-century ago between the Israelis and the Palestinians, was supposed to prevent these conflicts. Given that the Madrid Conference and the Oslo Accord created the framework for the two-state solution, a solution which the global community—represented by the United Nations, the two 20th century superpowers the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (later Russia), and the European collective in the form of the E.U.—endorsed, the failure of this initiative may well signal the start of a breakdown of modern political systems. Importantly, failure to achieve peace through the two-state solution unmasks its flawed bases: the decadence of colonialism and nationalism, and the fragility of the foundation of the Western political order. In this context, the trigger of the recent Gaza war, the mass eviction of Sheikh Jarrah, becomes a notice—a warning about the outcome of a world order built on the irreconcilability of justice, nationalism, colonialism, and pluralism in the two-state scheme.
In 1993, the government of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed the Oslo Accord. The initial agreement was strengthened through a second one, the Taba Accord in Egypt in 1995. These agreements were backed by the United States, the United Nations, Russia, and the EU—formalized in 2002 as the Quartet—but they drew on the Madrid Conference of 1991. Together, these initiatives were designed to produce two independent states: Israel and Palestine. Palestine was intended to be a country consisting of Gaza and territory in the West Bank delineated by the 1967 border; and the remainder was to be Israel. Thirty years later, only Gaza remains outside the control of the government of Israel, while the land in the West Bank, including east Jerusalem, has been shrinking due to systemic expansion and creation of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land.
The Origins and Evolution of the Conflict
The 75-year long conflict in Palestine is the result of a catastrophic failure on the part of colonial states. The central Western systems that created the conditions and ideology, which in turn produced the conflict in Palestine, are nationalism and colonialism. Nationalism used here in the sense of race- or ethnicity-based ideology that created a national identity that excluded or discriminated against non-white, non-Christian social groups within Europe. Colonialism, and the human rights abuses inherent in its practice, was a crime European powers committed against indigenous peoples in distant lands. The Palestinian conflict became so dire because it involved both colonialism and this kind of nationalism.
The colonialist crimes Europe committed against indigenous peoples were actions of expansionism and hoarding. European powers conquered, occupied, and exploited indigenous communities in Asia and Africa for wealth and power. Among these indigenous communities were the people who lived in the territories now referred to as Israel and Palestine.
The Ottoman Empire administered Palestine beginning at the start of the 16th century CE. As part of the outcome of the First World War, the League of Nations placed Palestine under U.K. administration in 1922. This British Mandate incorporated the “Balfour Declaration” of 1917, expressing support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” During the Mandate, and over the span of 25 years, large-scale Jewish immigration to Palestine took place, especially during the 1930s with the Nazi persecution of Jews. In 1919, Jews in Palestine numbered fewer than 100,000. By 1940, their number was estimated to exceed 600,000 people—comprising nearly half of the non-Jewish Palestinians at that time. To curb this trend, the U.K. imposed restrictions on Jewish migration, but migration continued, leading to Palestinian rebellion in 1937. Unable to stop the unrest, the UK turned the Palestine problem over to the UN in 1947.
Unable to manage the increased tension, the U.N. proposed replacing the Mandate with a Partition Plan: dividing Palestine into two independent states, one a Palestinian Arab state and the other a Jewish state, with the city of Jerusalem placed under an International Trusteeship system. In response to this resolution, Zionist Jews declared independent the State of Israel, a one-sided declaration that triggered the 1948 war involving neighboring Arab States.
The war forcibly displaced half of the non-Jewish Palestinian population. A second war between Israel and neighboring Arab states broke out in 1967, after which Israel occupied the Gaza Strip—a region previously under the control of Egypt, the West Bank including East Jerusalem —previously under the control Jordan, the Sinai Peninsula (Egypt), and the Golan Heights (Syria). Once again, the war brought about a second displacement of another half a million of Palestinians. The UN Security Council issued Resolution 242, outlining the principles of a just and lasting peace, calling on Israel to withdraw from territories occupied in the conflict, intreating for a just settlement of the refugee problem, and the termination of all claims or states of belligerency. In 1974, the UN General Assembly “reaffirmed the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination, national independence, sovereignty, and to return.”
Up to this point, the two-state solution has originated from a promise inserted into the UK Mandate, made explicit by the UN Partition Plan, and sanctioned by subsequent UNSC resolutions and General Assembly statements after each war. Given the fact that the United Nations and the League of Nations were intergovernmental organizations under the influence and control of Western governments, the mismanagement of the Palestinian crisis must be seen as their burden—they created the conditions that produced the problem, they failed to solve it, and they continue to impose the same systems that made it endure.
The European crime against European Jews, the Holocaust, was the application of white nationalism. This is an important fact, because it drives the narratives of the conflict in Palestine, and it prejudices the policy and politics relevant to the Palestinian matter. Informed and driven by white nationalism, Nazi Germany executed a policy of eradication against Jews. Germany’s defeat, and the subsequent pursuing of remedial justice, drove Jewish nationalists to recast Judaism as a basis for both a religious and ethnic identity. This ideology found a home in Zionism, and its proponents advocated for the creation of a nation-state for Jews. However, such a nation-state was not created in Europe, where the Holocaust’s atrocities took place. Instead, Zionists reclaimed the ancient land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, a land already densely populated and inhabited by people of many religious and ethnic background who had been making it their home for centuries.
European powers, eager to transfer the people whom white nationalists tried to exterminate, endorsed the mass transfer of Jews from any part of the world to Palestine. European Zionists lauded this population transfer as a welcomed event, rather than seeing it as a crime against both European Jews and the indigenous Palestinians slated for a new wave of colonization.
Once in Palestine, Zionists produced a value system that qualified a Jewish person’s immigrating to Israel as praiseworthy ascent, (עֲלִיָּה — aliyah, oleh), and a Jewish person’s emigration out of Israel as a blameworthy descent (ירידה–yerida). Having gained control of the land and the political regime that emerged thereafter, the Zionist rulers established systems that encouraged and forced non-Jews to leave their homes and made it hard for them to return. These systems were designed to cause non-Jews to lose access to their land or homes should, for example, they travel outside the country for education or work and not check back in within a designated timeframe, while Jews could claim Israeli citizenship even if they continued to live in other countries as dual citizens.
In short, the establishment of the State of Israel arrived with systems of discrimination designed to reduce the indigenous population and to increase the number of migrant Jews, a process historian Gérard Prunier describes in his work on Darfur as a “discreet, slow-motion genocide.” The political strength of such a drawn-out campaign against an unwanted ethnic group is that it crushes a population slowly “without resorting to the massive violence that would attract the world’s attention,” “blunting the edge of the sensation-seeking modern media.” Israel’s persistent winnowing of its Palestinian population is, as Prunier said of Sudan’s winnowing of its Darfurian population, “a thoroughly modern genocide, benefiting from the unspoken agreement of the international community.” The new settlers needed to find new homes and new resources in a place with limited resources and homes; this meant displacing people already there to make room for another class of people.
While migrant Jews were often leaving homes or preserving second homes in the old world and claiming new ones in Israel, most indigenous Palestinians had no other place they could call home. When war displaced them, they were forced to form refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Gaza. Together, it is estimated that about 6 million Palestinians comprise a global diaspora, 3 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, 2 million Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip, and 2.5 million Palestinians live inside the so-called Green Demarcation line (1948 Israel), totaling nearly 14 million people who identify as Palestinian or whom the state of Israel, which is increasingly recognizing only Jews as full citizens, designates as second-class citizens.
In the context of colonialism, the idea of two states as a solution should not even be a consideration. The two-state solution is a colonial patchwork the British Empire devised which, as the text of the Balfour Declaration reveals, acknowledges the existence of a nation, Palestine, and intentionally wills the establishment of a second state, a Jewish State “in Palestine” through forced population transfer. As it stands, the two-state solution is the arbitrary division of a homeland inhabited by a diverse population into two nation-states: one for Jews only, even with non-Jews already living in it—Israel; and one for everyone else, including Jews—Palestine.
The Systems that Make the Two-State Solution Impossible
In the nearly three-quarters of a century since the birth of the two-state proposal for Israel and Palestine, all practical steps the government of Israel has taken in the occupied land have made any prospect of a viable homeland for the Palestinians less likely. In fact, an April 2021 Report by Human Rights Watch concluded in that Israeli authorities “methodically privilege Jewish Israelis and discriminate against Palestinians… Authorities have dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated, and subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity to varying degrees of intensity. In certain areas, these deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.” Jewish settlements have shredded the West Bank, and Gaza is severed politically and geographically from the West Bank, the current seat of power of the Palestinian Authority.
The West Bank and the Gaza Strip aside, the size of the community of non-Jews, Muslim and Christian Arabs, within the 1948 border, is increasing in size and political influence. In the past two years alone, Israel has held four elections that failed to produce a sizable majority by any political party to form a government. In the most recent round of elections, Muslim and Christian Arabs secured 15 seats in Knesset, enabling them to play a determinant role in forming a government or forcing a fifth round of elections. Short of the illegal transfer of non-Jews out of Israel, and given the recent legislative initiatives that define Israel as a Jewish state for Jews only, the two-state solution does not solve the inferior status of non-Jews in Israel. Legally, they will remain second class citizens. That does not make Israel a human right-respecting democracy. In fact, as the results of the elections show, the political system does not make Israel a functional government—for most of the last two years, it was run by a caretaker administration with limited authority.
The two-state solution, even if it were to solve the problem of who governs Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, does not solve the current and future status of non-Jews within Israel without endorsing an apartheid system.
The events leading to and including the recent 11-day war underscore the immovable obstacles facing the two-state solution that has been on the table for nearly a quarter of a century. The forced removal of residents of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood exposes the land-for-peace principle embedded in the Oslo Accord as a disguise for the crime of involuntary mass eviction of indigenous people from their homes and lands.
The Palestinian demonstrations within the 1948 territories, in support of Sheikh Jarrah residents, signal the rejection of non-Jewish Israeli citizens of their de facto legal and social second-class status.
Furthermore, the protests that erupted in the West Bank highlight the fragile quiet that the Palestinian Authority has imposed, a Palestinian Authority that has failed to achieve the stated goals of the Oslo agreement, flopped to unite the Palestinian people behind a national agenda, and botched its management of the economic and human resources of the Palestinian people.
The rockets launched from southern Lebanon, attributed to Palestinians living in refugee camps in that country, reassert the voice of diaspora Palestinians, reminding the world that they cannot remain stateless forever. Lebanon, like other countries with large Palestinian refugee camps, will not grant them citizenship and permanent residency because doing so would disturb their own fragile demographic equilibrium and would make them legally complicit in the whole or part destruction of social group—a crime against humanity as defined in the ICC treaty.
Even Jewish communities in Europe and the United States are now feeling the heavy burden of justifying occupation and apartheid at the hands of Israeli governments. Social groups like IfNotNow, a movement of Jews to end Israel’s occupation and transform the American Jewish community, is realizing that they cannot continue to defend politics and policies that are in conflict with their values as human beings and their faith as religious people.
All these facts and events point to the fact that neither Zionism nor Arab nationalism (Arabism) is a suitable political system for governing a region claimed by people who come from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. White nationalism produced the landmark crime against humanity in Europe, the Holocaust; other forms of nationalism—be it Zionism or Arabism—risk producing a similar outcome. Race- and ethnicity-based nationalism is a failed platform for creating national homes for naturally diverse communities.
The current status quo is unsustainable. Therefore, a new path forward must emerge by design or by default.
By design of the systems now in place, the key obstacles before the two-state solution—Palestinians’ right of return, full citizenship rights in either nation-state, self-determination, national autonomy, and mutually security—are outstanding issues that the backers of the two-state solution are incapable or unwilling to solve without endorsing the crimes of apartheid and forced displacement of communities.
By default, the failure of the two-state solution opens the door for the only logical alternative: the single state solution. A single state solution, guided by a robust constitution and stable governing institutions operating under a formula for power sharing among the major social groups including Jews, Christians and Muslims, can create a stable governing structure and institutions within Palestine and lay the foundation for true peace in the region.
If stakeholders and regional and global actors do not embrace the single-state solution, inertia will take over. There does not have to be a major regional or global war in the region to birth the single state. It will emerge when the current systems and conditions lead to a failed state in Israel and the West Bank, creating chaos and uncertainty that will result in another wave of migrants leaving Israel and worsening conditions in Palestinian refugee camps.
It should not take more convincing to see the potential for a failed state within Israel under Zionism: the inability of Zionist politicians to form a government after four rounds of elections should suffice. It that is not enough, the absurdity of seeing a leader of the right-wing Israeli party, who bragged about killing Arabs, securing his ascent to power thanks to Israeli Arab politicians’ support should indeed suffice.
The Palestinian Authority’s failure to unite Gaza and the West Bank, or to hold elections in the West Bank and Gaza after 15 years of delays, shows that the Palestinian Authority is a power structure beholden to outside backers and which lacks the functional institutions necessary to govern. The violence against Palestinian refugees and Palestinians within Israel, and the rise in anti-Semitism in the U.S. and Europe during and after the 11-day Gaza War, underscores the need for a permanent and just resolution of the Palestinian matter.
The sooner the world community recognizes that peace cannot be built on a body of crimes and injustices, the sooner they will be able to stop the cycles of killing, destruction, and uncertainty that are consuming Palestinians, the region, and the world. Zionists and the sponsors of the two-state solution have chosen a heterogeneous place to establish an exclusively homogenous nation-state that cannot stand for equality before the law. Western powers specifically, who sowed the colonialist and nationalist seeds of this conflict are now responsible for acknowledging the conflict’s injustice and endorsing its resolution, one which must triumph diversity, justice, and the right for people to exist within their homeland.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA is a member of the faculty at the University of Iowa with joint appointment in International Studies, Religious Studies, and College of Law. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he might be affiliated.