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Embracing the Anti-Apartheid Struggle in Israel/Palestine

by VIRGINIA TILLEY

Debate and reportage from Israel-Palestine continue anxiously to focus on the symptoms, rather than the deeper direction, of the conflict. Media controversy whirls about how the Palestinians can navigate the immense challenges of the Gaza withdrawal, the electoral challenge from Hamas, and whether the PA can contain wildcat militancy. It even still whirls about whether the Sharon government intends to withdraw West Bank settlements or build them up-an impressively naïve concern. But these controversies distract us from an underlying reality far more earth-shaking.

We have reached a historic cusp, predicted by Israel for decades: that once Israel consolidates its territorial control, even the most courageous and principled Palestinian struggles for meaningful political action become futile. Of course, it has been phrased differently: “When we have settled the land,” Rafael Eitan famously said in 1983, “all the Arabs will be able to do about it will be to scurry around like drugged cockroaches in a bottle.” That is, whatever political cohesion Palestinian politics can sustain would be funneled into the debility of a Bantustan. Today, this Bantustan is being called a “state,” but the model hasn’t changed, and many Palestinians indeed recognize, with mixed dismay and alarm, that they are operating in a bottle that is quickly being sealed. Having aimed for exactly this debacle, Sharon and his circles are not contemplating withdrawing settlement cities. They are already sitting back and rubbing their hands in anticipation, waiting for Palestinian politics to implode as predicted.

Unfortunately, some in the human rights community are missing this cusp, by failing to respond to it. This isn’t to say they don’t recognize it. Fateful pronouncements are emerging from all over the political spectrum, warning that the two-state solution is defunct or imminently so. Some fall silent at that pronouncement, leaving the implications unstated. But others call urgently for renewed action to save the two-state solution, as did Jeff Halper recently in Counterpunch (“Setting Up Abbas,” 8-9 October). Halper argued that a narrowing option still exists between the two-state solution of the “road map” on one hand and what he calls “apartheid”-political exclusion and physical separation of Palestinians in what is effectively one state-on the other hand. The latter option, Halper suggests, is the one to be feared. “We cannot afford to have our attention deflected by any other issue, important as it may be. It is either a just and viable solution now or apartheid now. We may well be facing the prospect of another full-fledged anti-apartheid struggle just a decade and a half after the fall of apartheid in South Africa. In my view, the next three to six months will tell.”

But this warning is itself dangerous. First, in conditions where delay only enables the Sharon government’s freedom of action, why urge more delay? And what can the next three to six months tell that the past decade has not? Can we anticipate, in the next few months, that Sharon will suddenly announce withdrawal of the West Bank settlements? Or that the administration of George W. Bush will announce that it will cut Israel’s aid package to leverage their withdrawal? Or that some new European “peace initiative” will be launched that can make any difference? Absent such possibilities, waiting by a desperately concerned human rights community only risks fostering its indefinite paralysis-happy news for Israel’s ongoing program of aggressive land acquisition, for which the two-state agenda has always been only the fading cover.

Second, what exactly should these renewed collective efforts hope to achieve? The objectives of the peace camp can be flagged by their slogans: “stop the wall,” “end the occupation,” “free Palestine.” Yet a certain anachronistic quality now surrounds these venerable pillars, and consensus on their details is indeed far from solid. In a recent cogent article on the growing boycott movement, Muhammad Jaradat observed that “Visitors and partners of Palestinian NGOs who visit the region say that they often leave with the impression that Palestinian civil society has a multiplicity of agenda. Different and contradictory messages are sent not only by the Palestinian Authority and civil society, but even by civil society organizations themselves.”

Jaradat attempts to clarify those messages by reporting on a recent meeting among Palestinian NGOs which debated them. Yet aside from some points agreed as basic (such as the centrality of the 1948 nakba to the Palestinian predicament), the stated goals remained vaguely out of kilter with present conditions: “1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall; 2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and 3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.”

But what do these goals mean? The first is patently obsolete if it means withdrawing the West Bank settlements. Those hulking cities, towns, industrial zones, and related infrastructure are not going anywhere.

But “end the occupation” is not a dead hope. If apartheid is upon us, then we indeed face an anti-apartheid struggle. But, far from being a horrifying thought, this should be cause for major optimism and the reinvigoration of all energies.

At this writing, “end the occupation” is being retranslated to a different and more vigorous meaning: end military rule over the native population under Israel’s control; give everyone under Israeli authority the full rights and freedoms of Israeli civil law. Similarly, if we accept that ending “colonization” no longer realistically means returning all occupied land to the indigenous people, we can allow it to obtain another and, again, more formidable meaning: ending settler-colonial-style exclusion of the native people from full citizenship in what Israel proudly claims to be-a democratic state. Gaining full democracy, and a real voice in policymaking, is indeed the only leverage by which Palestinians can arrest the growth of settlements, the Wall, and their ruinous effects on Palestinian communities.

Once these basic premises change, all others do as well. For example, “the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality” can be asserted and defended effectively only by drawing on universal human rights norms which support equal rights. But in drawing on these universal principles, no legal or moral separation can then be made between the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel and the rights of Palestinian non-citizen residents of Israel. The same principles must apply to all people living in territory under Israel’s control. Similarly, respecting the right of Palestinian return requires clarifying to which territory they can return. Some two-state advocates have agreed that they might return (initially) only to territory in the Palestinian state, if it includes East Jerusalem (which it will not). Yet if there is no Palestinian state, then return to any part of Israel-Palestine becomes juridically indistinguishable from returning to Israel proper (the 1948 boundaries). Insisting on the right of Palestinian return must then be placed in a new context: within negotiations about the immigration laws of a non-ethnic state, that will necessarily continue to reflect historical Jewish concerns but must also reflect stable principles of equity, nondiscrimination, and historical justice reflecting the Palestinian experience as well as third-party citizens.

The implications of this shift affect everyone. For example, as an anti-apartheid slogan, “free Palestine” must be rethought entirely and may not make sense. But other bastion calls like “stop the wall,” “end the occupation” and “equal rights” all take vastly more moral strength from an anti-apartheid framework. International human rights law has little to say today about ethnic nationalism (except regarding rights of indigenous peoples, a group from which Palestinians have historically disassociated themselves). By contrast, it has a great deal to say about equal rights and democracy, including social, economic and cultural rights of people and cultural groups within a single government. The famous South African experience will also provide vision, methods, and a ream of hard-won experience in launching a campaign to unify profoundly divided and embittered populations into a coherent nation.

In sum, an anti-apartheid struggle, the Palestinians would suddenly inherit an immense wealth of human rights law, coded principles, and world experience. Not for nothing did Ehud Olmert warn that an anti-apartheid struggle by Palestinians would be “a much cleaner struggle, a much more popular struggle–and ultimately a much more powerful one.” Already, a ripple of new energy is moving through the networks of debate and activism. One-state articles are beginning to proliferate-and all carry undertones of excitement and new inspiration.

This shift in paradigm still stumbles over some early worries, however. Mahmoud Musa (President of the Association for One Democratic State in Palestine-Israel) recently circulated a short email survey probing some common pitfalls. One common objection is that an anti-apartheid campaign is badly timed. The PA, for example, now opposes any open discussion of a one-state program because it would immediately undermine its fragile standing with Israel and the US. The PA itself was, of course, the product of the two-state strategy and its very existence is implicated by any assertion that the option has crashed. Moreover, it still manifests, however ambivalently, as the only democratic mechanism available to craft Palestinian political unity. Some who admit that the two-state option is effectively dead therefore argue that Palestinians should accept a Bantustan state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in order first to end the state of hostilities and assemble an effective united Palestinian voice. In the more relaxed conditions of peace, a coherent democratic leadership could better conduct the necessary negotiations and confidence-building measures toward unification and democracy.

Certainly the Palestinians urgently need political unity. But otherwise, this argument is a dangerous illusion. Entrenching the Bantustan Palestinian state will only generate obstacles far harder to overcome, in several ways:

(1) Most obviously, because its borders will be temporary pending “final status” talks, forming a Palestinian “state” it will allow Israel to continue building its settlement infrastructure in the West Bank landscape in ways that further fragment, disadvantage, and ruin Palestinian village and town networks, while enabling Israel’s appropriation of natural resources (water, arable land, transportation routes) in ways destructive to Palestinians’ long-term social and economic needs.

(2) Bantustan statehood will set the Palestinian government up for failure, through economic unviability, political fragmentation, and extremist splinter movements. This failure will provide Israel with ammunition to abdicate responsibility for the messy outcome, sustain military restrictions on Palestinian borders and security, and convey moral credibility for rejecting any talk of unification with a population Israeli propagandists will denounce as politically incompetent, intransigently hostile, and ideologically radical.

(3) Accepting Bantustan statehood will constitute explicit Palestinian endorsement of Jewish ethnic statehood and so make later campaigns for unification far more difficult to argue, both morally and juridically.

(4) Even debilitated statehood will generate a new quisling Palestinian political elite, which will benefit financially from performing according to Israel’s dictates: here, by blocking not only unification and genuine democracy but any real Palestinian nationalism and sovereignty over the twisted scrap of land allowed to it.

Indeed, the only real argument for this “staged” approach is that Israel can be expected to help it happen, precisely for the above reasons, and so might provide the tiny wedge of space necessary to Palestinian democratic processes. But since Israel wants only a debilitated Palestinian state, which will force its citizens to turn to Jordan and Egypt for political rights, debility and fragmentation is what Israel’s “help” will generate. It is never wise to take the dominant society’s plan for ghettoization as some kind of staged approach to later equality and integration. We can look to the ANC in South Africa on this one: they refused to accept the Bantustan plan as a step toward democracy, because they knew it was a trick and a trap — which it was.

Musa also surveyed other fears: for example, from the Israeli Jewish perspective, that democracy will only enable a Muslim majority to subordinate the Jewish minority. Aside from mere anti-Muslim racism (very prevalent in this fear), the recent surge of Palestinian movements favoring openly Islamist government is a valid concern here. But it only constitutes another compelling reason to move quickly toward a full democratization campaign. A climate of Islamist thought is expanding in Palestinian politics for several reasons: weak and corrupt PA leadership; the quisling position of the entire PA as an institution, which blocks its reform; Hamas’s success in providing basic social services to a desperate population otherwise neglected; Palestinian Islamic networking with other growing Islamic movements in the region, such as in Iraq; grotesque actions by the United States in the region, which are legitimizing Islamic movements as a principled alternative opposition to US imperialism relative to craven Arab governments (and the PA); and the glaring failure of the EU, the US, and the entire international community to stand behind the secular-democratic values they purport to endorse.

Greater vision is needed on all sides, therefore, to steer the Palestinian movement in a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional direction that can secure equal rights and freedoms for Jews, Muslims, Christians, secular citizens, and mixed citizens-i.e., everyone in the country. But this debate is not to be avoided out of fear; it is to be launched at once, with all energies at hand, while conditions still permit its success. Every country and organization in the world can help to launch these debates (the major church councils and inter-faith forums are obvious actors). And, as in the anti-apartheid campaign, waiting for US government action or approval to do so is futile and far from necessary.

A third fear is actually a major incentive: Palestinian worries that ongoing Jewish-ethnic domination of political and economic resources will result in their own enduring marginalization. But promising inter-ethnic business opportunities abound in this scenario. Israel’s primary potential market and trade relations are in the Middle East, which is a mostly Arab region and, in some areas (like Saudi Arabia), Muslim to the point that Muslim businesses are distinctly advantaged. Palestinian-Jewish cooperative ventures should greatly facilitate otherwise disadvantaged Israeli connections to these huge markets and indeed suggest the potential for enormous profit. Christian Palestinians also have long-standing historical business networks in the region. In fact, sensible business communities in all ethnic sectors should be slavering for a democratic solution.

Mahmoud Musa’s first survey question to democratization advocates, however, was not only punchy but the most pertinent: “Are you dreaming?” The first answer, to paraphrase Conan Doyle, is that if one option has become impossible (two states), then the merely improbable (one state) must be pursued. But the better answer is, what great political venture didn’t start with dreaming? Zionism itself was, famously, a dream. Palestinian nationalism has always been a dream. But the one-state “dream” has logistical viability and true moral authority — the authority of democracy, equal rights, and the rights of indigenous people to a secure life in their homeland. So let us take a lesson from one of the great dreamers of this conflict, Theodor Herzl, and apply it to the one-state mission: “If you will it, it is no dream.”

With that vision in mind, everyone must look at each other with new appreciation for our common humanity. The assumption of an anti-apartheid struggle is that everyone stands as representatives for the generation of their grandchildren, who will be national brethren. How does one approach and treat the grandparents of those brethren? The need to open debate on that question, at all levels, is the real challenge in the next few months

VIRGINIA TILLEY is associate professor of Political Science and International Relations, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and author of The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock. She is currently at the Centre for Policy Studies, Johannesburg, South Africa and available at tilley@hws.edu.

 

 

 

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