As we approach a United Nations vote on membership for a Palestinian state, pundits and politicians continue to demand that the Palestinians withdraw their application, or at least delay it. Some, including Congress, have even turned to extortion, threatening to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if the vote ensues.
A U.N. vote is a valid subject for debate, of course, and many Palestinians have questioned the wisdom of this strategy. Yet there is something disturbing and paternalistic about the Palestinians once again being told by Americans, Europeans, and Israelis what is best for them.
As the Arab Spring unfolded earlier this year, the world cheered as the people of the Middle East rose up to demand rights that had been denied for too long. Yet when Palestinians do the same, they are met with scolding and resistance. This resistance ultimately comes down to something simple and often left unsaid: despite suffering more than six decades of displacement, exile, and occupation, the Palestinian people are not seen as being worthy or deserving of a country. And unfortunately, the result of this patronizing and destructive attitude will be the death of the two-state solution.
There are numerous reasons that the Palestinians have for so long been denied a fair hearing. Perhaps the central reason, though, is that many, especially in the U.S., often assume that the Palestinians exist only in opposition to the state of Israel; that Palestinian national identity was created only as a cynical response to the creation of the Jewish state and has therefore existed only since 1948. Some even go a step further and remain, on some level at least, informed by the false and offensive notion, articulated by former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, that “there is no such thing as Palestinians.”
Anyone with knowledge of the last 100 years of Palestinian history, however, would hesitate before wielding such claims and would be ashamed to chide the Palestinians for asking for their national rights to be officially recognized. Yet such bogus claims persist and are used regularly in American discourse to undermine the legitimacy of Palestinian aspirations and to extinguish any meaningful discussion.
Palestinian national identity began in the early part of the 20th century, well before the creation of Israel. This is a fact, not a matter of opinion. Since that time, the indigenous Arabs of Palestine, both Christian and Muslim, were aware of themselves as Palestinians. Exactly 100 years ago, in fact, my great-grandfather, Issa al-Issa, founded a newspaper called Filastin (“Palestine” in Arabic) in the city of Jaffa. During its 56 years of publication, Filastin came to epitomize both the sophistication and the complexity of Palestinian society, not to mention the burning desire among Palestinians for freedom and independence.
The Palestinians, who were subject to Ottoman and then British rule for the first 47 years of the last century, were during this time engaged in a struggle for independence and sovereignty, much like their Irish and Indian counterparts. Like those Irish and Indian revolutionaries, about whom we learn so much here in the U.S., the Palestinians resisted their English occupiers throughout most of the British Mandate of Palestine, which lasted from 1918 to 1947. My forebears fought against the British Empire in the hope of achieving nationhood free of foreign tyranny, something that eludes the Palestinians to this day.
Throughout this period, with the growth of Zionism as a response to increasingly virulent anti-Semitism in Europe, hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants poured into Palestine based on British promises—given without the permission of the country’s majority, the Palestinians—of a Jewish homeland, as outlined in England’s Balfour Declaration of 1917. Indeed, it was in the three decades prior to 1948 that the roots of this conflict took hold. Ultimately it was the Zionists who prevailed. In 1947 and 1948, well over half the Palestinian population—roughly 750,000 people—was forcefully displaced or fled from fear of Zionist attack. Thus the state of Israel was born and subsequently built over the remains of more than 400 Palestinian towns and villages now erased from the map; to this day, their inhabitants remain refugees.
For 63 years, Palestinians have been denied their human and national rights, while Israel has enjoyed those rights at their expense. In this context, Americans must finally recognize the Kafkaesque journey the Palestinians have had to make in hopes of achieving the self-determination that always seem to be put off or sabotaged, but that is in fact owed to them under international law; the very same 1947 U.N. resolution (GA 181) that served as the birth certificate for Israel also provides for the creation of a Palestinian state. This fact adds yet another layer of irony and hypocrisy to those who admonish the Palestinians for going to the U.N.
Contrary to those who perpetuate the image of Israel as always on the brink of annihilation, creating a Palestinian state is not an existential threat to the Jewish state. Today, Israel is the only sovereign power between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea; it possesses one of the strongest militaries in the world, by far the strongest in a region where it remains the sole nuclear power. Israel also has the unwavering support of Congress and the White House, which provide it with an extraordinary amount of military and economic aid as well as political and diplomatic cover.
In fact, due to blind American support, Israel can survive without a Palestinian state—and without even respecting Palestinian rights— much as it has for decades. But the denial of Palestinian rights and aspirations comes at a cost and will increasingly require that Israel find new ways to subjugate the Palestinians. This is not a recipe for a healthy state, let alone a democracy. So the question Americans and Israelis who claim to act in the interest of Israel’s survival should ask is this: What kind of Israel do they want to survive?
There are more than 5 million Palestinians living either as citizens of Israel or in the occupied territories. There are another 6 million living in exile. To continue to deny them their full human and civil rights is not only morally reprehensible, but logistically unfeasible. The eventual collapse of apartheid in South Africa and of segregation in the U.S. offer lessons in the unsustainability of state-sponsored discrimination. If Israel and the U.S. continue to delay Palestinian freedom (whether at the negotiating table or at the U.N.), there will come a day when Palestinians recognize that more than four decades of illegal territorial expansion and occupation have killed the dream of a viable Palestinian state. In turn, Palestinians may well pursue one state for both Israelis and Palestinians, with equal rights for all.
If both the U.S. and Israeli governments are serious about achieving a lasting peace, it is time they realize that, especially in today’s Middle East, the Palestinian people will not slink into the shadows and accept whatever crumbs the powerful deign to throw at their feet. The sooner that realization translates into sound policy, the better. Time is of the essence.