A Palestinian house reflected in an Israeli glass building in Haifa. (Credit: Sherene Seikaly, 2003)
As President Barack Obama embarks on his listening tour in the Middle East, he is likely to witness the impact of two decades of the Oslo peace process. Twenty years, dozens of summits and millions of dollars have brought Palestinians and Israel no closer to establishing a viable peace.
The US-brokered agreement has been associated with a mantra of establishing two states for two peoples, living side by side. In fact, Israel has existed as a state since 1948 and Palestinians have remained internally displaced within that state, exiled from it and occupied by it in adjacent territories. More significantly, Jewish Israelis and non-Jewish Palestinians, Israeli citizens and stateless civilians alike, are inextricably populated throughout a single territorial entity under Israeli control. The call for two states is really a call for the separation of two populations based on ethno-national homogeneity. The proposal has failed, not just because of a lack of accountability, but because it is fundamentally flawed. Like prescribing aspirin to deal with cancer, Oslo offered truncated self-rule as a prescription for Jewish-Israeli settler-colonialism and domination.
Much like Marcus Garvey’s proposition in response to the Black Question in the United States, Zionists insisted upon the creation of a Jewish homeland in response to systemic anti-Semitism in Europe. The horror of the European Holocaust catalyzed the Zionist option and has, since then, eclipsed all other responses to institutionalized and ethnic-based bigotry. It has thus been excruciatingly difficult, if not impossible, to critique Jewish-Zionist domination in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) without falling prey to accusations of anti-Semitism. Fundamentally, however, both the opposition to anti-Semitism as well as to Jewish-Israeli privilege is rooted in an anti-domination discourse.
Establishing a Demographic Majority
Due to the insistence upon maintaining a Jewish demographic majority, Israel’s establishment and maintenance has necessitated the ongoing forced displacement of Muslim and Christian Palestinians. Well before Israel’s establishment, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s chief architect and two-time prime minister, said that in order to be successful, Jews must comprise 80 percent of the population, hardly a plausible ratio in light of a vibrant Palestinian society in 1948. As put by the Israeli historian Benny Morris during an interview discussing his book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited,
Ben Gurion…understood that there could be no Jewish state with a large and hostile Arab minority in its midst…that has to be clear, it’s impossible to evade it. Without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen there.
And so based on that vision, Zionists demolished 531 Arab villages and expelled some 700,000 Palestinians from what is today Israel proper. The “problem,” so to speak, is that Zionist forces did not expel all Palestinians. Instead, the 100,000 Palestinians remaining within Israel at the conclusion of the 1948 war today constitute a 1.2 million-person population, approximately 20 percent of Israel’s total population.
Had Israel declared its borders along the 1949 armistice line, maintaining an 80 percent demographic balance may have been possible. Israel, however, has never declared any borders and, in accordance with a plan first elaborated by Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon immediately after the 1967 war, it has steadily expanded into the rest of Mandate Palestine, home now to 4 million Palestinians.
As of October 2012 , the balance of Jews to non-Jews throughout Israel and the OPT was approximately 5.9 million Jewish Israelis, including the settler population, and 6.1 million Palestinians.
At this juncture, Israel could abandon its commitment to a Jewish demographic majority and establish a state for all its citizens without distinction to religion. Its leaders and supporters reject this pluralistic, democratic option outright and equate it with the destruction of Israel.
Alternatively, Israel could annex the territories and impose an apartheid regime, wherein a minority rules over the majority. Israeli leaders reject this option but, notably, a significant majority of Israelis support it, as revealed by an October 2012 poll  published in Haaretz. Although Israel refuses to formally acknowledge it, this reality currently exists as a matter of fact.
Perhaps Israel’s best option for preserving a Jewish demographic majority is the establishment of a Palestinian state and the de jure establishment of international borders—the choice it abandoned more than four decades ago. Indeed, this option has received the most fervent support from the international community and the formal Palestinian leadership, represented by the Palestinian Authority, as well as Israel’s most strident supporters.
Nevertheless, Israel has obliterated the two-state option since the signing of Oslo in 1993. It sanctioned, funded and encouraged, as a matter of national policy, the growth of the settler population in the West Bank, including occupied East Jerusalem, from 200,000 to nearly 600,000. It built 85 percent of the separation barrier on occupied West Bank land, circumscribing its largest settlement blocs and effectively confiscating 13 percent of the territory. Rather than prepare Area C (62 percent of the West Bank, now under interim Israeli civil and military jurisdiction) for Palestinian control, it has entrenched its settlement-colonial enterprise. Israel’s siege has exacerbated the cultural, social and national distance between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. And its intense Judaization campaign in East Jerusalem has accelerated the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians there, hardly preparing it to become the independent capital of the future Palestinian state.
For liberal Zionists who believe that the preservation of Israel as a Jewish state and the protection of Palestinian dignity and freedom are compatible, this predicament is especially curious—why would Israel sabotage its best available option? Crudely put, because Israel’s preferred option is the one that it has always pursued: the establishment of absolute control over Palestinians as a fragmented and dispensable underclass, without distinction to their status as citizens of Israel or civilians under occupation.
Zionists did not historically conceive of Palestinians as a national polity entitled to self-determination; they were not considered a “people” at all. Palestinian self-representation, resistance and international recognition, however, have forced even the most ardent Zionists to reconsider this proposition. Notwithstanding their accepted standing as a people today, Israel continues to deal with Mandate Palestine’s non-Jewish indigenous population as a demographic, national and cultural impediment to its settler-colonial project rather than a constituent or future neighbor.
Upon its establishment, Israel passed a series of laws that privileged its Jewish inhabitants and further dispossessed and marginalized its non-Jewish indigenous population. Two laws are particularly relevant: the Citizenship Law (1952) bifurcated Jewish nationality from Israeli citizenship and denationalized the Palestinian population. In doing so, the state instantly created a two-tiered system of rights: one available for Jews, who could be both nationals and citizens, and one for non-Jews, who could be citizens only. The Law of Return (1950) extended the right to Israeli citizenship and associated state benefits to any Jewish person, now a Jewish national as well, anywhere in the world.
Together these laws ensured that Jewish persons who lived beyond Israel’s boundaries and had no relationship to it had more rights than the state’s own non-Jewish Palestinian citizens, even when their meager numbers did not constitute one-fifth of Israel’s population, as they do today. Not only was a nascent Israel cementing its Jewish demographic majority, but by instituting a series of similar laws, it also preserved Jewish political, social and economic privilege.
Notwithstanding the significant demographic majority of Jews to non-Jews within Israel proper, Israel has treated its Palestinian citizens as a fifth column. The State Department’s 2005 Annual Human Rights Report notes that there is
institutionalized legal and societal discrimination against Israel’s Christian, Muslim and Druze citizens. The government does not provide Israeli Arabs with the same quality of education, housing, employment and social services as Jews.
In addition to their socioeconomic subjugation, Israel has also worked to thwart the national identity of, and social solidarity among, its minority and indigenous Palestinian population.
In furtherance of its demographic priorities, some of these Israeli policies have had the express purpose of reducing the size of its Palestinian population. The Nationality and Entry into Israel Law (Temporary Order), better known as the Ban on Family Reunification, for example, prohibits the adjustment of status and acquisition of citizenship among spouses from the Occupied Palestinian Territory and “enemy states,” not coincidentally all the states with a high concentration of Palestinians: Lebanon, Syria, Iran and Iraq. In its January 2012 decision upholding the law, the Israeli High Court of Justice explained, “human rights are not a prescription for national suicide.”
But the threat is not just numeric; it is just as much about competing narratives and memory. At stake is the state’s own national mythology.
In 2011, Israel passed the State Budget Law Amendment. Popularly known as the Nakba Law, it penalizes, by revoking state funding, any institution that either challenges Israel’s founding as a Jewish and democratic state or commemorates Israel’s Independence Day as one of mourning or loss. The threat any such commemoration poses is a challenge to Israel’s narrative of righteous conception.
The Prawer Plan, named after its author, former deputy chair of the National Security Council Ehud Prawer, seeks to forcibly displace up to 70,000 Palestinian Bedouins from their homes and communities in the Negev Desert to urban townships to make room for Jewish-only settlements and a forest. The plan, approved in September 2011, has no demographic impact, as these Palestinians are already Israeli citizens. It does, however, violently sever these Bedouin communities from their agricultural livelihoods and centuries-long association with that particular land.
Similarly, in 2001 the High Court of Justice rejected an appeal from internally displaced Palestinians to return to the villages of Ikrit and Kafr Bir’im, near the Lebanon border, from which they were forcibly displaced in 1948. Like the Negev-based Palestinians, these Palestinians are Israeli citizens and therefore pose no demographic threat. In fact, they currently live only miles away from their demolished villages. Their return to them only threatens a Zionist narrative that Palestine was a land without a people for a people without a land. To further the erasure, Israel plans on building Jewish settlements where these communities once lived.
Israel’s land and housing planning policies in the Galilee demonstrate that the threat is not just about demographics and memory but the cohesion of Palestinians within the state, and the potential for Palestinian nationalism. In Nazareth, home to 80,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel, bidding rights for public building opportunities are reserved for citizens who have completed military service. This excludes nearly all of Nazareth’s Palestinian population, who do not serve in the Israeli military for historical and political reasons. In other Galilee cities, “Admissions Committees” can legally exclude Palestinians from their residential communities for being “socially unsuitable” based on their race or national origin alone. Together with its policy of Jewish settlement expansion within Israel as well as a matrix of similarly discriminatory urban planning laws, Israel forces its Palestinian citizens to live in noncontiguous ghettos throughout the state.
Palestinian refugees fundamentally disrupt these national goals: their return would shatter Israel’s Jewish majority, their presence is a living testament of Palestinian narrative and memory, and their historical claims dislocate the ghettoization of Palestinians within Israel today. The absence of refugees, however, does not reverse Israel’s policies aimed at diminishing the number of Palestinians, concentrating them geographically and separating them from one another.
Abandoning the right of return for refugees in this context is therefore not “pragmatic” at all. Refugees are not the impediment to establishing a viable peace; its most formidable impediment is Israel’s insistence upon Jewish primacy throughout Israel and the OPT.
A Palestinian state is hardly adequate to remedy these conditions. At best, it responds to Israel’s hegemonic ambitions by establishing an Arab Muslim and Christian corollary where Palestinians can assert their own ethno-national dominance. It disregards the broader Palestinian question, which stems from their forced displacement, exile and occupation. In contrast to the international enthusiasm today for a Palestinian state, in 1976 the UN General Assembly, in response to the establishment of Transkei, a self-governing authority within the South African Republic, passed Resolution 31/6 A, which condemned
the establishment of bantustans as designed to consolidate the inhuman policies of apartheid, to destroy the territorial integrity of the country, to perpetuate white minority domination and to dispossess the African people of South Africa of their inalienable rights.
Even a single democratic, secular state without a concomitant anti-domination movement will not suffice to remedy these conditions. Irrespective of the number of states, the goal should be to dismantle those institutions that confer privilege to any particular ethnic, religious or national group. As indicated by the outstanding poverty gaps between blacks and whites in South Africa after the nominal end of apartheid in the early 1990s, this must include more than a simple removal of discriminatory laws. Transitional justice must feature rehabilitative policies as well. Equality under the law alone will do little to alleviate the criminalization of minority, indigenous communities, as indicated in the United States by the striking proportion of incarcerated Native Americans in the states where their numbers are still significant. To adequately remedy institutionalized discrimination and subjugation, reformed state institutions should also be imbued with an ethos of socioeconomic dignity for all its citizens and residents.
Failure to do so in Israel and the OPT will likely result in the de facto ghettoization, systematic impoverishment and criminalization of Palestinians regardless of their pre-existing status as citizens, civilians or refugees. Under such circumstances, in a one-state solution, their condition would be like Native American reservations, and in a two-state solution, they will be like South African bantustans. Both ought to be rejected in favor of a democratic and dignified one-state formula as only the first step.
Racism toward Palestinians also plays out on the soccer pitch. Read Dave Zirin’s take .