Can Palestine be partitioned? Taking the discussion back to basics

Anyone who follows developments related to Palestine will have heard countless times the lazy assertion that “everybody knows” what a final outcome will look like.

It is common refrain from a Middle East peace process industry that seeks to define the limits of permissible discussion about political outcomes. Anything that does not fit with Israel’s priority to remain a “Jewish” state is automatically deemed “not pragmatic” or “utopian” at best, or “extremist” and betraying a desire to “destroy Israel” at worst.

US President Barack Obama echoed this consensus in his recent Middle East speech when he said:

What America and the international community can do is to state frankly what everyone knows – a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.

Of course that depends on what the meaning of “everyone” is. Nadim Rouhana, founding director of Mada al-Carmel, the Arab Centre for Applied Research in Haifa challenges this broken conventional wisdom in a new article: The Colonial Condition: Is Partition Possible in Palestine?.

Rouhana, a professor at Tufts University, and a drafter of the Haifa Declaration and the One-State Declaration takes on the very idea that partition (“the two-state solution”) is an appropriate framework for Palestine:

Proponents of partition argue therefore that resolving this conflict should simply be a matter of devising a well-designed internationally supported negotiation process, because the parameters of partition are all “well-known.”

But such an argument overlooks the practicalities of colonialism and the complex political and physical realities it has been producing on the ground for generations. The argument fails to notice the colonizers’ patterns of violent domination and ingrained sense of superiority that has to come with the process of colonization, the continuous dispossession and demographic control of the native population, and the epistemological and psychological systems that have emerged among the colonizing population to deny or justify dispossession and domination. It also fails to see why the colonized indigenous population cannot accept surrendering their homeland and/or renouncing their original belonging to it, why they resist, and why they withhold granting legitimacy from the colonial project. The partition argument also pays no heed to the historical evidence about resolving conflicts caused by settler colonialism.

Rouhana points out that, historically, conflicts that emerged in a context of settler colonialism have never been brought to an end with a stable partition between the indigenous people and the settlers. A two-state solution ignores the rights of Palestinians inside Israel, and in the context of Zionism’s explicit goal of creating an exclusively Jewish state, any partition that left a substantial minority of Palestinians inside the “Jewish” state’s borders “could lead under certain circumstances to further ethnic cleansing and war crimes.”

This is precisely the argument I have put forward in an article that will appear in the September issue of Ethnopolitics (my article is part of a “Symposium” which means the journal will publish critical responses to it from three other scholars).

The key point here is that Palestine has too often been analyzed as an exceptional case, without reference to either the broader literature and field of ethnic conflict, and without careful comparison to other cases.

Rouhana, who has said he plans to expand his paper into a longer article, reaches a conclusion that ought to be increasingly obvious to all except those to whom everything is already “well known”: Partition or not, Palestinians inside Israel are going to continue to press for their full national and political rights which will push Israel in the direction of “bi-nationalism.”

“If that is the direction anyway,” Rouhana asks, “why should Israelis and Palestinians not start thinking about alternatives to partition?”

As the growing discourse about a one-state solution demonstrates, they already are, and it is a debate that will only continue to grow as the mirage of a two-state solution recedes ever further from political feasibility and lived reality.

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Ali Abunimah, following Nadim Rouhana, focuses on the large and growing Palestinian Arab minority in Israel to show that the Zionist mini-state is unsustainable. It is unsustainable only because a state built on racist discrimination and ethnic supremacism is unjust. Similarly, a state built on ethnic cleansing of the majority of its recently-indigenous population is unsustainable because it is unjust. And, a state that holds under settler-colonial and military domination, bantustanization, and siege a population comparable in size to its own, is unsustainable because it is unjust. Of course, "Palestine CAN be parititioned", as it was, violently, in 1947-49, and as colonial India was at the same time. So, the question is not whether or not partition is "do-able". The question is: Can any of the burning problems of Palestine -- occupation, settler-colonial domination, racist discrimination, ethnic cleansing, war and militarism -- can any of these problems be solved without the overthrow of the Zionist regime? That is how the problem should be posed. Then, we can say that the programmatic framework for the struggle in Palestine is REGIME CHANGE, and that its proponents are PRO-DEMOCRACY activists. That is how the Palestine struggle can be situated within the Arab revolution and the world revolution.

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I think the main problem here is not so much about the injustice that the partition of Palestine would create for refugees and the dangers for Palestinian Israelis (all nations of colonial origin have been born out of such injustices, yet they still exist). The main problem for the "two-state solution" is that Israel has never been honestly committed to it, and has rather used it as a cover for their ongoing ethnic cleansing in the West Bank, while it pretended to be interested in a "negotiated solution". It is too obvious that Israel is hell-bent on keeping the whole "Judea and Samaria", while penning its indigenous population in impoverished reservations out of sight (if not outright expelled). Any look at a map of the West Bank will reveal the complete absurdity of this "two-state" idea, while Israel keeps building settlements as deep as the Jordan Valley, populated by religious fanatics who Israel is unwilling but also unable to evacuate. I don't think the "two state solution" would have been impossible at some point, and could have provided an exit to the conflict (if disregarding the rights of several millions of Palestinians), which would have probably been accepted by the majority of Palestinians inside the Occupied Territories. But such possibility is long dead now. Israel has made sure of it. Its current proposals are only pathetic attempts like those of South Africa to establish bantustans as "independent" nations. And, just the same, Israel will have to receive the "one man one vote" medicine for its chronic colonial disease.

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Greetings, the "one State" solution does contain the "basics" of idealism, however, there would still be a very large "elephant" in the room. Namely, how do you get a whole Nation of "People" that have suffered the worst treatments and cruelties devised by man, to peacefully assimilate with the Nation of "People" responsible for inflicting that misery upon them? The Palestinian Arabs, it is to be remembered, began their journey as vassal slaves in process of being "ethnically cleansed" from their own lands, as innocents; the British literally gave Palestine to a group of well heeled Jews, the Palestinian's had no say in the matter. Of course they subsequently tried to fight back, as they had the perfect right so to do. We need to pull some heads out of the sands of time. For even in a "One State" solution, the Jews will still be "all powerful", will still be occupying lands homes and resources that rightfully belong to the evicted Palestinians, whilst the evicted Palestinians remain homeless, rendered economically puerile, deprived of generations of peaceful healthy, educated, humanitarian development. Notice how the Jews have built their settlements on all the "Prime" elevated, most desirable areas? There are many other problematical aspects to the one State solution. One rarely mentioned is that, this has obviously been the Jewish intention all along, they have made no secret of it, and they have plans to deal with the Palestinian's, none of them complementary or humanitarian, all of them designed to clear all Palestinian Arabs out of the Lands they want as Israel, and subsequently moving on to "Greater Israel". These are the stated intentions of learned and influential Jews going back forever. I say NO to the "one State" solution, and I pray the great Palestinian diaspora will not surrender their pride, dignity and honour to to this Jewish manipulation. The United Nations must recognise the two State solution within the Green Line, and then serve notice on the Jews to remove themselves out of Palestine very quickly, or else. The Palestinian's will at last have their homeland in which to develop and care for one another and themselves; pride dignity, honour, justice and the right to "self determination" restored. The one State solution ensures that the Palestinian Peoples become non-existent, a truly "disappeared people", no longer a race time honoured by history, and totally erased from all future maps of the World. "Palestinian's where are ye"? You have not endured all these years of cruelty and indignation to simply now submit to this Jewish "coup de grace". IN GODS NAME HONOUR ALL YOUR MARTYRS AND INSIST ON YOUR RIGHTS TO YOUR OWN STATE OF PALESTINE. Regards, Thomas.

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There are many substantial reasons why both Israel and Palestine have claims to the land. I'm not saying either is right, just that there are valid reasons. If you are interested in promoting solutions as opposed to just promoting one cause over the other - there must be foundational truths.

1) Palestinians are indigenous to Israel's land. They have a right to be there, and a right to return. Israel continues to violate international law, commit human rights violations, and its settlers display a dangerous sense of imperialism. This should never be tolerated by the international community.

2) That being said, Palestinian supporters must acknowledge certain truths as well. Hamas is the elected party - and they have killed many innocent Israelis. They are currently holding an Israeli soldier and refuse to account for his health or whereabouts. Even if you vehemently disagree with Israel's actions, it does not justify killing innocent people (that is not in regards to the soldier). Any mutually-beneficial solution will never be made unless Hamas is removed or they change their policies. It's not a matter of right or wrong - just a political reality.

Again, I am not saying any claim is superior. Rather, I am saying that any "solution" (and by that I mean any mutually-beneficial result or even an agreement) is much less black and white than these comments illustrate. Partition in this case is not the same as South Africa because black people in South Africa never elected a party who vowed to destroy the country. I am a zionist (belief in the idea of the state of Israel), but I do not condone Israel's actions (especially in regards to actions in Gaza, expanding settlements, etc...) and I support the rights of Palestinians. I'm simply trying to state that the situation is more complex than these one-sided arguments and this should be acknowledged if actually discussing tangible progress or solutions.

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.