On November 29, 2012, Palestine won its bid to become a non-member observer state at the United Nations.
So, is Palestine now finally, at long last, a nation-state? Can we break out the bottles of champagne we squirreled away in 1948?
What better way to answer these questions than to visit the world of surrealism. In one of his most iconic paintings, Belgian surrealist painter, Rene Magritte, depicted a pipe with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” or “This is not a pipe” carefully scrawled at the bottom.
Although at first blush the statement seems to be a contradiction, it is in fact correct – the pipe is not a pipe, but rather the image of a pipe. When asked about the painting’s message, Magritte once replied that it is, of course, not a pipe – just try to fill it with tobacco.
Let’s apply Magritte’s tobacco test to Palestine.
First question – what does it take to be a state? Well, it requires autonomy from other states. What does that mean? It means a state cannot depend on another state or entity for its existence. This usually means it is in control of its economy, borders, and security.
A state also usually has authority over the territory it controls – this means that if you’re in that state’s territory you are subject to its laws, regulations, and police powers.
A state typically has defined borders – so that the acceptable bounds of its jurisdiction and powers are clear. In order to have effective authority and defined borders a state often must have territorial integrity – state lands need to be relatively connected and close together in order for a country to effectively exercise its control and authority.
Second question – does Palestine meet these requirements? Well, it has a couple of elements that seem to make it state-like. It has a government – even if it acts more like a corrupt bureau of bandits than an effective governing body. In fact, it has two! – one in the West Bank and one in Gaza. But, wait, two governments doesn’t seem to make for a state that can effectively exercise its authority (“state authority” being a singular, rather than, plural phenomenon). Ok, then, ticking the box for government doesn’t get Palestine nearly all the way to statehood.
Well, what about its people? To its credit, Palestine does have a population with a shared national identity, speaking a shared language, and generally enjoying similar cultural and traditional practices. On the other hand, in the West Bank, these people are separated from each other by an illegal Wall, made up of barbed wire and cement blocks, multiple illegal settlements (sometimes housing hundreds of thousands of illegal settlers), and an endless series of checkpoints, which make traveling from point A to point B difficult if not impossible.
Between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, there is no movement whatsoever. Want to enter East Jerusalem as a Palestinian from Gaza or the West Bank? Other than smuggling yourself in, there are few if any legal ways to enter the city. So, ticking the “people” box doesn’t quite get Palestine to statehood either.
Two governments? A separated and divided population? Ceci une State? No, ceci n’est pas une State.
Why? Well, my inquisitive friend, because of the Israeli occupation.
In addition to dividing the Palestinian people and government, Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip, West Bank, and East Jerusalem, which began in 1967, has deprived the Palestinians of contiguous territory and placed control over their economy, borders, air space, and security with the Israeli government.
Much of this loss began many years after the start of the occupation. It began, in point of fact, with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 by then-PLO President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
This was the first great success of the party that would eventually become Fatah, as well as that of its current leader and Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas. The Oslo Accords, which set the stage for a series of agreements in which the Palestinians gave Israel sweeping authority in the Occupied Territories, was negotiated in secret by a few of Arafat’s closest advisors, Abbas included.
Since the signing of Oslo, a Wall has been erected on Palestinian territory, dividing Palestinians from their land and each other. Settlement activity has sky rocketed – in 1991, 232,000 Israeli settlers lived beyond the Green Line, the border that separated Israel from East Jerusalem, Gaza, and West Bank before the 1967 war. Thanks to massive settlement expansion after Oslo’s signing, today, some 650,000 Israeli settlers live in this area.
Amid these challenges, how will Palestine ever become a state? For a growing number of pro-Palestinian activists, academics, and practitioners, facts on the ground, particularly Israel’s massive settlement infrastructure, have torpedoed a two-state solution. For these individuals, there can only be a one-state resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, in which both sides live together in one nation, side by side. For others, a two state solution remains viable – either through a territory swap or a dismantling of settlement infrastructure, similar to the 2005 withdrawal (albeit meaningless) of Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza.
Whatever the solution, one thing is clear – without an end to the occupation, Palestinian self-determination will always remain a beautiful turn of phrase, enjoined by declarations and decrees but never enjoyed or realized by the Palestinian people.
Abbas will celebrate this pyrrhic victory – these , after all, are the only kinds of achievements he’s used to having. The last time he was victorious, a further entrenchment of occupation resulted. This time the Palestinian people can afford no such sacrifice.