A Secular Democratic State in Historic Palestine – A Promising Land

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A Secular Democratic State in Historic Palestine – A Promising Land

“Because it is a distortion of being more fully human, sooner or later being less human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so. In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both.” –Paulo Freire

The ongoing, tumultuous popular upheavals in the Arab world are ushering in a new phase that may break the rusty but still formidable imperial and neoliberal fetters that have consciously, systemically, and structurally inhibited human development in the entire Arab region. In addition to its anticipated emancipatory impact on peoples across this region, this process of radical transformation promises to further the struggle for self determination and ethical decolonization in historic Palestine.

Decolonization should not be understood as a blunt and absolute reversal of colonization, putting us back under pre-colonial conditions and undoing whatever rights had been acquired to date. Instead, decolonization can be regarded as a negation of the aspects of colonialism that deny the rights of the colonized indigenous population and, as a byproduct, dehumanize the colonizers themselves.

whatcomesnextverticalA secular, democratic unitary state in historic Palestine (in its British Mandate borders) is the most just and morally coherent solution to this century-old colonial conflict, primarily because it offers the greatest hope for reconciling the ostensibly irreconcilable — the inalienable rights of the indigenous Palestinian people, particularly the right to self-determination, and the acquired rights of the indigenized former colonial settlers to live in peace and security, individually and collectively, after ridding them of their colonial privileges.

Morality and legality aside, Israel has adopted a strategy of “territorial seizure and apartheid,” as the publisher of the Israeli daily Haaretz put it, [2] that obviates the practical possibility of implementing a two-state solution in line with a minimalist interpretation of relevant UN resolutions. Blinded by the arrogance of power and the ephemeral comfort of impunity afforded to it by the US-led West, Israel, against its own strategic Zionist interests, has failed to control its insatiable appetite for forcibly displacing more of the indigenous people of Palestine and for expanding its colonial control of their lands, undermining any real possibility for building a sovereign Palestinian state.

The fact that the single democratic state is morally and legally superior, however, does not necessarily make establishing it an easy task. It can only result from, among other factors, a long, intricate process of what I call ethical de-colonization, or de-Zionization, involving two simultaneous, dialectically related processes: reflection and action, or praxis. [3] Ethical decolonization anchored in international law and universal human rights is a profound process of transformation that requires, above everything else, a sophisticated, principled and popular Palestinian resistance movement with a clear vision for justice and a democratic, inclusive society, with equal rights for all, Palestinian refugees included. This resistance must include the growing ranks of anti-colonial Jewish-Israelis, just as the South African struggle against apartheid included anti-racist and principled whites. It is also premised on two other pillars, a democratized and free Arab region, which now looks considerably less imaginary, and an international solidarity movement supporting Palestinian rights and struggling to end all forms of Zionist apartheid and settler-colonial rule.

In parallel with the process of ending injustice and restoring basic Palestinian rights, and while oppressive relationships are being dismantled and colonial privileges done away with, a conscious and genuine process of challenging the dichotomy between the identity of the oppressed and that of the oppressor must simultaneously be nourished to build the conceptual foundations for ethical coexistence in the decolonized future state. Only then can the end of oppression give birth to a common, post-oppression identity that can truly make the equality between the indigenous Palestinians and the indigenized settlers as just, sustainable and peaceful as possible.

Among the most discussed paths to resolving the question of Palestine, the civic, democratic state solution lays out the clearest mechanism for ending the three-tiered regime of injustice that Palestinians have suffered under since 1948 when Israel was created as a settler-colony on the ruins of Palestinian society. The three tiers are the occupation and colonization of the Palestinian – and other Arab –territory occupied by Israel in 1967; the system of institutionalized and legalized racial discrimination,[4] or apartheid, to which the indigenous Palestinian citizens of Israel are subjected to on account of being “non-Jews;” and the persistent denial of the intrinsic rights of the Palestine refugees, especially their right to return to their homes which was affirmed by UN resolution 194. An overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society has identified [5] these rights as the minimal requirements for the Palestinian people to exercise its inalienable right to self-determination.

A two-state solution cannot adequately, if at all, address the second injustice or the third, the core of the question of Palestine. But what about the bi-national state concept?

Bi-nationalism, initially espoused by liberal Zionist intellectuals [6], assumes that Jews around the world form a nation and is consequently premised on a Jewish national right in Palestine, on par and to be reconciled with the national right of the indigenous, predominantly Arab population. Bi-nationalism today, despite its variations, still upholds this ahistorical and morally untenable national right of the colonial-settlers.

A bi-national state solution also cannot accommodate the right of return as stipulated in UNGA resolution 194, not to mention the fact that it infringes, by definition, the inalienable rights of the indigenous Palestinians on part of their homeland, particularly the right to self-determination. Recognizing national rights of Jewish settlers in Palestine or any part of it cannot but imply accepting the right of colonists to self-determination. Other than contradicting the very letter, spirit and purpose of the universal principle of self-determination primarily as a means for “peoples under colonial or alien domination or foreign occupation” to realize their rights [7], such a recognition of national rights for a colonial-settler community may, at one extreme, lead to claims for secession, or Jewish “national” sovereignty, on part of the land of Palestine, undermining Palestinian self-determination.

A Jewish state in Palestine (“a state of the Jewish nation”), no matter what shape it takes, is by definition exclusionary; it cannot but contravene the basic rights of the land’s indigenous Palestinian population and perpetuate a system of racial discrimination that ought to be opposed categorically. Any other exclusionary regime in Palestine that denies citizens some of their rights based on their identity — ethnic, religious, gender, sexual, etc. — must be rejected just as strongly.

Accepting modern-day Jewish Israelis as equal citizens and full partners in building and developing a new shared society, free from all colonial subjugation and discrimination, as called for in the democratic state model, is the most magnanimous — rational — offer any oppressed indigenous population can present to its oppressors. Only by shedding their colonial privileges, dismantling their structures of oppression, and accepting the restoration of the rights of the indigenous people of the land, especially the right of Palestinian refugees to return and to reparations and the right of all Palestinians to unmitigated equality, can settlers be indigenized and integrated into the emerging nation and therefore become entitled to participating in determining the future of the common state.

The indigenous population, on the other hand, must be ready, after justice had been reached and rights had been restored, to forgive and to accept the former settlers as equal citizens, enjoying normal lives — neither masters nor slaves. The above explained process of de-dichotomization at the identity and conceptual level, not just in the concrete reality, that must proceed in parallel to the realization of rights is the most important guarantor of minimizing the possibility of lingering hostility or, worse, a reversal of roles between oppressor and oppressed once justice and equal rights have prevailed. The ultimate goal should be justice, equality and ethical coexistence, not revenge.

As the One State Declaration [8], issued by several Palestinian, Israeli and international intellectuals and activists in 2008, states:

“The historic land of Palestine belongs to all who live in it and to those who were expelled or exiled from it since 1948, regardless of religion, ethnicity, national origin or current citizenship status.

“Any system of government must be founded on the principle of equality in civil, political, social and cultural rights for all citizens. Power must be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all people in the diversity of their identities; …”

In a future democratic state cultural particularity and diverse identities should be nourished, not just tolerated, by society and protected by law. Palestine was for centuries a fertile meeting ground for diverse civilizations and cultures, fostering communication, dialogue and acculturation among them. This heritage, almost forgotten under the cultural hegemony of Zionist colonial rule, must be revived and celebrated, regardless of any power asymmetry in the new state. We also must keep in mind that half of the Jewish-Israeli population, the Mizrahi/Arab Jews, have their cultural roots in Arab and other Middle Eastern cultures, making future coexistence even more likely.

While many Palestinians living in the occupied territories or in exile cannot entertain the idea of ever co-existing with Israelis in a post-colonial reality, mainly due to the current harsh conditions of Zionist racism, oppression and dispossession, most would agree that in the period that predated the Zionist conquest, when Jews were part of society, co-existence was ordinary. Unlike Europe, the history of Arab and Islamic civilizations does not include massacres or pogroms targeting the indigenous Jewish populations.  Indeed, Jewish culture reached a highpoint under Arab-Islamic rule in Andalusia. Co-existence after establishing justice, far from being an artificial, “imported” concept, would connect with deep roots in our own history.

Moral reconciliation between conflicting communities is impossible if the essence of the oppressive relationship between them is sustained. The objectively contradictory identities of the oppressor and oppressed cannot find a moral middle ground. So long as oppression continues to characterize the communities’ relationship only coercion, submission and injustice are possible outcomes. Reconciliation and coexistence, then, can only result from ethical decolonization.

It is fair to assume, however, that the colonizers will use what they have at their disposal to perpetuate their colonial privileges and thwart transformative change towards justice. Some analysts go as far as predicting that Israel would use its nuclear weapons, its “Samson Option,” rather than accept the dismantling of its Zionist apartheid regime. Even without such dramatic predictions, one can surmise that the colonial community in Palestine will not only circle the wagons, as it were, against any common threat to the oppressive order; it will also shed any pretence of democracy or supposed respect for human rights and commit unprecedented egregious crimes against the indigenous Palestinians to maintain the system of oppression.

As the price of resistance rises, so will scepticism, including among some Palestinians, about the very merit of the struggle for emancipation and justice. This practical consideration coupled with ethical principles should guide effective resistance to Zionist apartheid and inform its adherence at all times to the highest moral standards. Resistance and solidarity forms that adopt a rights-based approach, as in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, provide a good example. Other than being the right thing to do per se, an ethically consistent struggle in line with international law and universal principles of human rights will encourage Jewish-Israelis to join in “co-resistance” which is the most assured path to ethical co-existence. [9]

By emphasizing equal humanity as its most fundamental principle, the secular democratic state promises to end the fundamental injustices that have plagued Palestine and, simultaneously, to transcend national and ethnic dichotomies that now make it nearly impossible to envision ethical coexistence in a decolonized Palestine, based on equality, justice and freedom—a truly promising land.

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For footnotes, please visit this page.

This post is part of “What Comes Next?: A forum on the end of the two-state paradigm.” This series was initiated by Jewish Voice for Peace as an investigation into the current state of thinking about one state and two state solutions, and the collection has been further expanded by Mondoweiss to mark 20 years since the Oslo process. The entire series can be found here.

Omar Barghouti

Omar Barghouti is a human rights activist and author of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS): The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights (Haymarket, 2011).

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