Friday, June 22, 2007

1967/2007: some comments (2)

One State, Two Countries
We may live in what is effectively one state but it encompasses two countries. Palestine and Israel overlap geographically but mentally these are two different lands. Alquds and Yerushalaim may both be translated into English as
Jerusalem but the two terms convey different memories and cultural meanings. In an important sense these are two different cities. And they will remain so for the foreseeable future, regardless of the political situation. This is a richness that we should embrace, not fear.

For too long maps have been used in this conflict as critical evidence in an ownership dispute. If my map was right than yours must be wrong; if your map included my territory than you must want to take my place. This two-dimensional view is flat and stupid. Real life have depth; and real places have more than one name. The atavistic desire to name and signpost in one correct official way, and to erase all other signposting, is a modern obsession which we can overcome.

So Yafa is a city in Palestine, just like Nablus and Haifa, and Hevron is a city in the land of Israel, just like Tel Aviv. Can we come to terms with such claims without feeling threatened?

The Political Framework is not everything
From the time I can remember, political debates concerning the future of Palestine/Israel focussed on the political ‘solution’. A Palestinian state or a Jordanian-Palestinian confederacy, border changes and territorial swaps, and the future of Jerusalem – these were the issues under discussion. But we should rid ourselves of the illusion that a political 'solution' - whatever form it may take - is sufficient to provide a closure for the conflict. There are issues which will not be decided by a political compromise, and are more important than the borders: from cultural memory of 1948 to the economic integration and separation between these unequal sides, from the control of land and water to access to work. I believe these issues explain why even when we were supposedly very close to finding a political “two-states” solution, it always escaped us, like a receding horizon. The economic future of Israelis and Palestinians, and the memory of the past are two core issues that cannot be “resolved”; they require ongoing engagement by both sides.

The Real Challenges are Different
Israelis and Palestinians have been spoiled for global attention: our daily dramas have occupied the world newspapers headlines for many years now. But probably not for long. In the coming decades we will find ourselves facing global challenges very different from the ones that have preoccupied people and politicians in the 20th century. Our world is threatened by the ecological holocaust of climate change and environmental degradation; our civilisation will find itself struggling to survive on depleting energy and water resources. The way we live today is wholly unsustainable and will have to change, and we don’t have much time.

Perhaps the last reminder for our shared human condition was the 1927 earthquake which shook Palestine and left many dead. When the earth trembled 80 years ago it did not care to distinguish between Jews and Arabs. Similarly, the future disasters will involve all of us, and affect all of us: climate change does not stop at checkpoints, and without energy and water none of us could live.

Horrible as this 90-year conflict has been, it may well seem insignificant in comparison with the ecological devastation awaiting us.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

1967/2007: some comments (1)

This June marks forty years to the 1967 year, forty years of Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. I will take this opportunity to make some comments on the conflict, and more especially around the issue of a political solution and the idea of "one state"; this is the first post of two or three. My thoughts were prompted by a very interesting interview of Laila al-Haddad with Ali Abu Nimah, author of One Country.

One State is not a “solution”, it’s the reality

There should be little doubt that the events in Gaza this month - whether seen as “liberation”, the result of a Palestinian “endemic terrorism”, a "military coup" or the logical consequences of years of a suffocating blockade and a refusal to accept the outcome of democratic elections - however they are portrayed, the Gaza developments make the prospects of a “two states solution”, and a sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel, even more far fetched than before. In the coming weeks Israel will try to deny its responsibility to a territory it still very much controls. If this succeeds, the recipe may well be copied in the West Bank. But more likely is that the deteriorating situation will demonstrate the limitations of Israeli ‘disengagement’ as a political strategy, and that the territory of historical Palestine or Land of Israel - the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River - is still one integral unit, politically and economically. For the past forty years, this territory has been under the ultimate control of one sovereign power. This is a state of affairs which most commentators– regardless of their political persuasion - insisted on seeing as temporary. But as the years go by such view is becoming untenable.

The territory which Israelis and Palestinians think of as their country (whatever name they give it) was created as a political unit in 1920, its borders delimited by the British and French colonial powers. The 30 first years (1917-1948) under British rule created a strong sense of territorial/national identity among both indigenous Arab Palestinians and the largely newcomer Jewish community. The 19 years of partition – a short interval on a historical timeline stretching 85 years – came to an end in 1967 when the territory was again united under complete Israeli rule, and so it remained ever since. Even when, in 1993, a Palestinian Authority was given limited powers in some areas, its legal powers depended on the Israeli sovereign power, which continued to exert control on most aspects of life, from radio frequencies to the population register.

The partition of historical Palestine for 19 years, between 1948 and 1967, between Israel (controlling 78% of Mandatory Palestine), Egypt ruled Gaza and Jordanian ruled West Bank, was sufficient to create considerable differences between these areas. These differences are today maintained in the international attitude towards the 'occupied territories' and in the legal framework through which their population is denied of civil rights. And perhaps there was a time when the 1967 borders could have served to partition the territory to two nation states, Israel and Palestine. The number of Israelis and Palestinians who believe that this is still possible is now, I believe, becoming insignificant.

It is unclear if an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza was ever a viable option. Forty years of Israeli occupation, in which the Palestinian territories have become enmeshed into Israel in manifold ways, certainly made it impossible: the total economic dependence of the West Bank and Gaza on Israel; the common perception, based on a shared memory of mandatory Palestine that the territory between the sea and the river is one whole (ask Israeli and Palestinian children to draw a map of Palestine or Israel – they will draw the same map, and it will not include the 67 borders); the presence of 500,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank; the physical layout of settlements, roads and more recently the walls and barriers inside the West Bank; and above all, the failure of the Oslo process since 1993 to deliver its anticipated result, a Palestinian state alongside Israel – all these make the “two state solution” wishful thinking at best, a naïve attachment to the national idea. At worst, it represents the vested interest of Palestinian elites (now including Hamas) to retain the pretence of ‘independence’, and a Israeli refusal to acknowledge that Israel has become an Apartheid state, in which more than 40 percent of the population are denied of civil rights and live in dire poverty under military rule.

'One binational state' is therefore neither a desirable 'solution' nor a 'threat'; it is the reality, in which more than one generation was born and raised. Whatever differences in legal rights, freedom of movement and economic prospects between the different groups of population in the territory of mandatory Palestine, فلسطين פלשתינה (א"י) , they are all under the effective rule of one sovereign state; this situation is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. It is time we face up to the consequences of this simple observation.