What Do Local Palestinians Really Want?

February 8, 2020

By Patricia Sohn

Abstract. (1) Local Palestinians should decide whether they want a bi-national state, or a separate state.  And they should have it.  (2) The Apartheid argument only makes sense, conceptually, in the context of a bi-national state, based on the UN definition of Apartheid, which is a wholly domestic phenomenon relating to citizen population only.  It does not relate to cross-border or international conflicts.  Applying the Apartheid argument suggests, conceptually, a condition of annexation.  To date, annexation has not been a viable option for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.  (3) Developing Palestinian human capital — and real opportunity — should be a premium and highest priority for Palestinians, and for all parties in international negotiations.  Learning the tools of institution-building and effective, merit-based, rational bureaucracy are critical and should be an educational focus for Palestinian youth.  (4) Palestinians should not be suffering because wealthy people abroad want to continue on old, tired ideological debates, some of which are a century old — and going nowhere.  Generations have suffered needlessly.  (5) Starvation radicalizes.  Opportunity de-radicalizes.

For many years, the conventional wisdom was that Palestinians wanted a Palestinian state.  The Palestinian state was the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) standard policy agenda.  For at least two decades, important Palestinian thinkers and leaders argued in favor, instead, of a bi-national state.  Indeed, Palestinian negotiators have, historically, used the bi-national state idea as part of a negotiation strategy.  It is important to note that Israeli scholars, too, have debated the bi-national state option.  The argument seems to center upon which type of bi-national state, as well as the need to overcome the general population’s (public) rejection of that option.

I had an interesting conversation some years ago with a Palestinian friend and colleague in Jerusalem.  He was willing to be critical of Israel on a number of issues, for example, suggesting that maintaining the Green Line as a border between Israel and Palestine constituted a form of “Apartheid.”  But, in the end, even with the critique, he suggested that most Palestinians in the West Bank now (quietly – not publicly) want a bi-national state and that many – despite being critical publicly – would welcome citizenship in Israel.  Indeed, I would suggest that the now popular “Apartheid” argument hinges, conceptually, on the bi-national state as its operating assumption and goal, even while many individuals state publicly that they do not want the bi-national state option.

I had trouble understanding the Apartheid part of his argument, stuck, as I was, on the UN definition of Apartheid.  I argued that Apartheid, as defined in international law and definition developed directly from the South African case, maintains several criteria as necessary to count as Apartheid.  My conceptual summary of these is as follows: (1) To be Apartheid, the question must regard a domestic situation reflecting a pattern of extreme civil and human rights abuses, including random arrests, torture, and infringement of human dignity and freedom, upon a country’s own domestic population or citizenry.   And, (2) it must include inhumane treatment of civilians and citizens for basic expressions of human freedom, including speech.  That is, it is not about separatist groups or paramilitary activities.  Rather, it is about barring the basic ability to live, speak, and represent one’s self in a humane way.  And, (3) a domestic population, which may be minority or majority numerically, is targeted by the state apparatus with overt policies, public laws, as well as covert policies and practices (including police and military practices) intended to harm the population mentally, materially, and bodily (this, directly from the UN definition) with the goal of denuding that population either of existence altogether or of substantive agency and ability to self-represent in the wider society, political, and economic processes.  And, finally, (4)  the population that is targeted by the state is defined racially, although it might be defined in other communal ways as well and still count under the UN definition of Apartheid by analogy.

Because of all of these factors, I argued that the Israeli-Palestinian case did not constitute Apartheid.  Rather, I argued, Palestinians inside Israel since 1967 have increasingly enjoyed civil and human rights, including an increasingly robust set of options for civil society organizing and representation of their agendas and any civil rights concerns in effective Israeli courts – which Palestinian-Israelis have valued highly over time – and a more complex Knesset (parliament) that is, nonetheless, surprisingly available to a high degree to all domestic populations by my direct, micro-level observations.  Palestinians within the Green Line who are citizens of Israel, thus, at least after 1967, do not relate in any way to the definition of Apartheid.  (Pre-1967 may or may not be another question, and I do not have enough information about it to offer an argument at this time.)  To the contrary, they have robust civil rights frameworks within which they can and do work on a regular basis, as well as increasing openness at the level of social practices and (to use a “southernism” from the U.S.) increasing (although not unproblematic) degrees of “integration.”  Granted, that “integration” has been slow in coming, and early in the civil rights process, post-1967, conditions were difficult for Palestinian-Israelis by comparison to today.

My friend and colleague said something to the effect of – Exactly.  Palestinian-Israelis enjoyed basic (and some extensive) civil rights, education, and increasingly good access to jobs and the economic sphere, while Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza languished under martial law in large amounts of territory, as well as open military/paramilitary conflict.  (Having interviewed Palestinian-Israeli women in the Haifa region of Israel, I knew that, while they see the rather extensive positive changes in civil rights within Israel as important and substantial, they nonetheless do not necessarily see their own subject positions in a perfectly rosy light.  That is, there is still plenty of work to do – in relation to rights, to be sure, but even more in the social sphere. Indeed, Jewish and Arab women’s groups actively engage in political mobilization aimed to address issues of social equality.)

Then it began to dawn on me what some Palestinians might be saying in preferring a bi-national state to the exclusion of further preference for an independent Palestinian state.

For several decades, Palestinian-Israelis (Israeli citizens) have returned survey results suggesting that, in large numbers, they identify as Palestinians nationally but identify strongly with Israeli civic models, including particularly the civil rights regime and broad civil society present in dramatic increases in activity each consecutive decade since 1970.  Most say they prefer to stay in Israel even if a Palestinian state is established.  The most typical answer to the obvious, why, is: the well-established civic framework in Israel.

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, which are the subject of President Trump’s peace initiative plans for a Palestinian state, are on the other side of the “Green Line,” an international border.  I argued to my friend that they do not count under the definition of Apartheid, either, because the Green Line is an international boundary.  Apartheid relates to a domestic state targeting its own domestic or citizen population in all the ways mentioned above.  For the Green Line boundary to disappear would require annexation.  Then, those Palestinians could have citizenship in Israel and all of the civil and human rights thus pertaining – or, if mistreated, then they could make more extensive rights claims (although “Apartheid” would be unlikely in my opinion).  I assumed that annexation is not something that they would want, as annexation has always been, at least publicly, a non-starter for the West Bank and Gaza.  But, a bi-national state, functionally speaking, is a request for annexation.  Annexation is a perfectly honorable solution, as Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have been highly involved in building the civil and human rights framework in Israel at least since the 1970s through civil society mobilization and legal mobilization in the Israel High Court of Justice.

(It must be said here that Israel is highly unusual, internationally, in allowing non-citizen Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to bring human rights cases to the Israeli High Court of Justice since the early 1970s.  Allowing non-citizens from across an international border, particularly under conditions of military conflict, legal standing in the highest court of the country is unusual as a right.  So, some rights already pertain to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, although the war situation makes conditions difficult and variously or intermittently violent at the local level with all of the loss and pain associated with that.)

What does it all mean?  I think it means that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza want all of the civil and human rights that Palestinian-Israeli citizens of Israel have.  I think it means that they want the political institutions and bureaucratic capacity – and historical knowledge thereof – that the Israeli state has developed effectively over time.  At some level, I think some dream of outnumbering Israeli Jews and turning Israel into a Palestinian state.  I think that most others just want a state in which they can live and have the opportunity to pursue their happiness.  For many, that state is, at least in their heart of hearts, a bi-national Israeli state, already in place.  Overcoming the hurdle of establishing well-functioning political institutions with high public trust is something that sounds like a distant dream to some people on the ground (although it is a dream that I, as an historical institutionalist within the discipline of Political Science, would advocate).  Others are ready to stand and start building a Palestinian state with its requisite political institutions and bureaucratic apparatus.  I think that some want to make the Israeli state into a Palestinian Jewish state – that is, a Levantine Palestinian state that is also a Jewish state with a set of non-Jewish minorities – what Israel really is, empirically, I would argue, and has been since the early 1950s.  It is possible that desire might include some historically Palestinian Jews (e.g., Jewish former Ottoman citizens), although that population is complex rather than simple to read.  

As an immigrant society as well as a Middle Eastern population within all religions present, Israel is a fascinating multi-cultural panoply.  Without resorting to exaggeration, Israel has done a remarkable job within its borders of working out its domestic intra-communal issues within the majority Jewish community as well as across the lines of religions. 

I think that some Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza want the opportunity to enjoy that multi-culturalism.  We do not hear very much about that aspect of the Israeli polity – or Palestinian desire for similar attributes – because our news inundates us with flashes of violence in the cross-border conflict, as well as all of the bad news possible, and few stories of the daily coexistence that reflects most people’s lives most of the time within the Green Line.  Full integration would be hyperbole.  Daily coexistence is a reality.  I live in the American South.  Full integration, while not a pipe dream, does not exist here either.  I think it is important to think comparatively and to be realistic in our critiques as well as in our expectations, while always mobilizing to the extent possible for greater degrees of multi-culturalism, integration, and toleration, since we are, in empirical fact, a multi-cultural human globe.

One additional factor that I think is important to keep in mind: 

That “fashion” that became chic in the West Bank and Gaza in the 1990s and has been since – something that looks akin to the “heroin chic” of the U.S. celebrity world in the 1990s – it is presented publicly for external consumption, in image, as a fashion in the West Bank and Gaza.  It is not a fashion.  It is starvation. 

Starvation radicalizes.  Starvation is also supremely solvable.

I want to reiterate the long-term positive effectiveness of using a significant amount of President Trump’s funding package associated with the peace effort for Palestinian human capital development

Opportunity de-radicalizes.  Food, housing, and opportunity – it is the old American Dream.  In many ways, the local Palestinian Dream is not much different.

The second additional factor that I feel must be said:

Palestinian diaspora communities around the world (e.g., ex-pat communities) tend to do well and tend to be affluent.  They do a disservice to local Palestinians regarding whom any peace reconciliation should be centered when they assert pressures to stall the process – or to deny it altogether – in order to lobby for their own rights in a land in which many in the second and third generation have never been resident.  Local Palestinians are educated, but in the West Bank and Gaza they have basic and pressing needs: food, housing, jobs.  By local Palestinians, I mean: (1) Palestinians in the West Bank; (2) Palestinians in Gaza; (3) Palestinians in Israel; and (4) Palestinians in nearby refugee camps.  Twenty-eight year old Palestinian men in the West Bank should not be able to fit into their 14 year-old brother’s t-shirts so that American, Canadian, and European Palestinians can argue for another decade – or another century – about ideology or principles that are by now long-since outdated.  For readers who have traveled in parts of Africa when famines were in place, you will be able to imagine some of the images that I have in mind.

Diaspora Palestinians have rights to visit now, not only in the West Bank and Gaza, but in Israel as well.  They are not blocked at borders unless they have mobilized publicly against the Israeli state.  That is rational.  Conditions have changed, civil and human rights are robust and enforced, and rights frameworks are strong.  The international conflict is ugly.  I do not intend to understate it; rather, it heightens the need for peace and reconciliation. 

Local Palestinians who engaged in sumud (e.g., “tenir bon,” holding fast, or tenacity) and stayed at the local level for the last 100 years should now be allowed to eat.  Allow local Palestinians to make peace.

I still favor an independent Palestinian state.  While critical of the colonizing implications (particularly at the level of those political institutions and models of governance allowed to count as such) of the Mandate system and those like it, I still believe in the ideals of state- and popular sovereignty that dominated the League of Nations and now the United Nations as models for domestic and international peace.  Nevertheless, if local Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza want to be part of the Israeli state with some sort of transitional institutional arrangement for representation, far be it from me to argue against it. 

It is the grassroots people who will decide whether the peace, if any, stands. And — Israel will and must take care of its security needs. On the Palestinian side, the expectations of the people for freedom of movement, rights, representation — including a bicameral Palestinian Parliament — and the ability to pursue one’s happiness at the individual level will be critical; as will the willingness and ability of both sides to manage their own lawbreakers, where any exist, who might challenge the peace.


Dr. Patricia Sohn, Ph.D. is an associate professor. She specializes in Middle East (MENA) and Israel/Palestine politics, and particularly the intersection of courts and politics, religion and politics, and gender politics. She has interests in historical institutional, political sociological, micro-level, and grassroots analysis of state and society.

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