There are two different ways to think about the bid for Palestinian statehood, which correspond to two different ways to think about the project of Palestinian national self-determination. One is the way the statehood project has historically been presented to Palestinians, and the other is the way that same project has been presented to Israel and to the rest of the world. Only one of these ways pursues goals of decolonization and return.
When speaking to Israelis and the international community, Palestinian leaders speak of their desire to stand side by side in “peace and security” with the Israelis. Palestinian leaders tell Israelis that by accepting a solution based on the ’67 borders, the Palestinians will end all of their claims to the ’48 lands, and respect Israeli sovereignty within its pre 1967 borders. Behind closed doors at Taba, and sometimes more recently in public on Israeli TV, Palestinian leaders cede the Right of Return and recognize that any return of Palestinian refugees to the State of Israel is subject to Israeli approval.
However, when speaking to their own people, and especially to the party faithful, the settlement based on the ’67 border is separated from the issue of the refugees. The right of return is called a “sacred” right, a right which can not be negotiated away. This return would end the Jewish majority in a democratic Israel, enabling Palestinian self-determination on all of their traditional lands not by revolution but election. Founding member of Fatah and Palestinian intellectual Sakher Habash confirmed this view in a lecture given at Al-Najah University in Nablus in 1998 when he called the refugee issue the “the winning card which means the end of the Israeli state”.
It is not easy to tell which of these two ways is actually being pursued at any one time. In fact, since actions of groups can’t be reduced to subjective intentionalities, there is probably no answer as to which is the “real” program.
If we take sides on the Palestinian-Zionist conflict, then we will prefer one of these interpretations to the other, we might even undertake political actions to support one interpretation becoming true. For example, solidarity action and support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions program against Israeli Apartheid supports the second interpretation, by creating an international movement supporting the rights of individual Palestinian refugees to return. For example, prominent activist in the BDS movement, Ali Abunimah, has taken sides on the question of whether the PLO has a right to negotiate away the right of return.
The domestic Palestinian interpretation of statehood should not be dismissed quickly as internal propaganda. It is based on an interpretation of Zionism as a constant tension, as gaining strength from its conflict with the Arab states and the Palestinian people. This interpretation is similar to Daoist thinking which states that the best way to fight your enemy is to stop treating them as your enemy. The idea in its simplest form is simply this: that if Israel gains peace it will lose its national mind, its racist colonial ideology, and will not be able to resist in the long term the return of the refugees once the issue of the refugees no longer presents it with a threat to its existence as a state.
However, we should not uncritically accept the interpretation of Zionism as a tension. Zionism is after all not only a program for racist ideas but a racist construction – the building of settlements all over historic Palestine is an architectural way to institute the domination of Jewish Israelis in every place of the land. The fact that barely a single Arab town has been founded inside the state of Israel since 1948, while hundreds of new Jewish towns have been created, speaks to the reality that the idea of Zionism is not only existing in people’s heads. Zionism, for Israelis, is not only in their fears, in their ideas, but also in their streets and walls and monuments. Peace with Israel does not mean necessarily the end of Zionism anymore than peace with the indigenous people of Canada means the end of racist Canadian nationalism.
Another reason to critique the view of Zionism as a tension is the material benefit that the so called “Peace Process” brings to the Palestinian political elites who perpetuate it. It is absolutely in the financial interest of the Palestinian national bourgeoisie to cede the right of return and create good economic relations with Israel. They do not need to worry about the refugees – to them the refugees remain a cheap labour pool who guarantee the large size of the reserve army of the unemployed which ensures that wages will remain low.
In the end, which version of the statehood comes true depends on work done by Palestinians and Palestinian solidarity activists around the world. It also depends on the UNRWA and whether the Palestinian “state” will mean the dismantling of Palestinian refugee camps across the region. Perhaps most importantly it depends on the establishment of an anti-colonial discourse which allows us to talk about Palestine not as a problem of competing nationalisms but as a settler-colonial problem.
Even if a Palestinian state is created, Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip will most likely continue, except in the nearly unimaginable scenario of Palestinians gaining rights over borders, airspace, and the right to militarize. Without an effective military deterrent, Israel will effectively be able to bomb Palestinians into submission every time any conflict erupts between them. And given the number of radical Israeli settlers and the intensity of their motivation, it would be very foolish to assume that border skirmishes between Israel and a newly formed “Palestinian State” could only be started by Palestinian militants.
This means that even after the creation of the Palestinian state, a struggle for equal rights for all Palestinians under the occupying power could continue. But it is hard to imagine this taking place unless the Palestinian citizens of ’48 and the Palestinian Refugees come together with citizens of the new Palestinian state in a new or renewed organization that sees their liberation as its ultimate goal.
But we should be honest – the struggle does not always continue, especially if the institutions that embody it are co-opted or disbanded. To pursue the goal of decolonization, the ongoing strategy must be to strengthen the liberators and weaken the oppressor, and this means to work on all levels to strengthen the anti-colonial strategy of the Palestinian nationalist movement, while at the same time working to undermine the racist ideology of the state of Israel.