[Marxism] Ghada Karmi on Palestinian rights

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Nov 28 06:28:08 MST 2019

LRB, Vol. 41 No. 23 · 5 December 2019
Ghada Karmi on Palestinian rights

In Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting 
the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country … The Four Great 
Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong … is 
of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 
Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.

--Arthur Balfour, 1919

In 2005 I was working for the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Twelve 
years had passed since the 1993 Oslo Accords. The PA had been set up the 
following year to administer civil life in Gaza and in some parts of the 
West Bank, designated ‘Area A’ under the Accords. This was supposed to 
be a temporary arrangement, lasting five years: by 1999, all outstanding 
issues between the two sides were expected to be resolved. Many 
Palestinians couldn’t help seeing the Oslo Accords as a step towards the 
creation of their own state. I remember the hope, even jubilation, among 
so many that a resolution to the conflict was finally in sight. 
Investment flowed in from wealthy Palestinians abroad, and the PA 
behaved like a government in waiting. Yasir Arafat, chairman of the 
Palestine Liberation Organisation, became president and a full cabinet 
of ministers was appointed, as if the Palestinian state were already in 

By 2005 these hopes had been dashed and disillusionment was setting in. 
I was appointed as a consultant to the Ministry of Information, a hollow 
position if ever there was one. I soon discovered I had no power to 
change anything or influence any decision. The reason was simple: the 
ministry itself had no power, and neither did the PA. Supposedly in 
charge of civil matters, it answered to Israel in every respect. I 
watched with dismay the empty show, pretend authority and make-believe 
that characterised the PA’s conduct. Israel was in absolute control of 
Palestinian life, land and resources, and its denigration of Palestinian 
rights was a daily fact of life.

Bad as things were in 2005, they have steadily worsened since. The 
vibrancy of Palestinian society in the face of this oppression, its 
creativity, the artistic projects and innovations it keeps coming up 
with, and the patience and good humour with which it withstands Israel’s 
maltreatment are remarkable. All this activity has fooled many people 
into believing that Palestinians in the West Bank lead reasonable lives, 
despite the occupation. In reality they are prisoners who, thanks to 
their resourcefulness and energy, have managed to improve conditions 
inside their prison. The prison gates remain firmly shut.

Only in these conditions could the Trump administration have announced 
that it no longer considers Israel’s settlements in the West Bank to be 
‘inconsistent with international law’. The administration signalled its 
position when, shortly after taking office, Trump declared that he would 
move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That move was followed, 
this summer, by his proposed ‘deal of the century’, the end stage of 
that process of delegitimisation of Palestinian rights and wishes 
started by Balfour a century ago. The first, ‘economic’ part of the 
Trump plan was revealed at a workshop in Bahrain. It included a proposal 
for a $50 billion investment fund to spend on infrastructure and 
business projects in the Palestinian areas as well as in Egypt, Jordan 
and Lebanon, with funding to come mainly from Arab sources. Details of 
the second, ‘political’ part of the plan have yet to be disclosed: it 
was due to be announced in November but has now been postponed sine die. 
According to unauthenticated leaks published in Israel Hayom, however, 
it envisages a mini-state of ‘New Palestine’ on 12 per cent of the West 
Bank, comprising non-contiguous cantons, with a capital somewhere inside 
Jerusalem’s expanded municipal boundaries. This part of the mini-state 
would be connected to Gaza by a bridge, and to Jordan by two land 
corridors. Gaza would be expanded into northern Sinai on land leased 
from Egypt, where an industrial zone and airport would be built. Hamas 
would surrender its arms and come under the control of the Palestinian 
Authority. The new state would be demilitarised, its security provided 
by Israel but paid for by the Palestinians. Finally, the Palestinian 
right of return – declared an inalienable right by the UN General 
Assembly in 1974 – would be officially cancelled: Palestinian refugees 
would receive compensation from an international fund and be allowed 
more rights in the countries where they are now living.

These proposals – if the leaks are even vaguely accurate – promise to 
extinguish any notion of Palestinian rights. But Trump’s deal, however 
extreme, essentially follows the principles that have governed Western 
‘peacemaking’ from the start: that Palestinian demands must always be 
subordinated to Israel’s needs and wishes, and that Israel must not be 
pressured into complying with anything it doesn’t want to comply with. 
Given this inherent pro-Israel bias, the issue for peacemakers is how to 
pacify the Palestinians at least in the short term. An agreement might 
have been reached decades ago if Israel had given up its post-1967 
acquisitions to make room for a small Palestinian state. But Israel was 
never willing to give up territory, and all concessions had to be on the 
Palestinian side. Yet no concession the Palestinians made was ever 
acceptable to Israel. At the last marathon peace talks, in 2013-14, the 
Palestinians offered to accept Israeli settlements in the West Bank in 
return for land in Israel and a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem; 
in addition, they would no longer insist on the right of return. When 
the talks broke down, Martin Indyk, the US negotiator in charge of the 
process, who is usually sympathetic to Israel, laid the blame at 
Israel’s door, since settlement-building continued even during the 
talks. No negotiations have taken place since.

A wiser Palestinian leadership would have seen long ago that no Western 
peace proposal would ever give the Palestinians their rights. Such a 
leadership would have acted well before the Oslo Accords fragmented the 
West Bank and made unified resistance to Israeli control almost 
impossible. In the 25 years since Oslo, Israel has colonised more 
Palestinian land and consolidated its presence in Jerusalem and the West 
Bank. It has established two hundred settlements, populated by 622,000 
settlers, many of them armed and aggressive towards local Palestinians. 
Israel’s serial violations of international law in the Occupied 
Territories, clearly documented and condemned by international agencies, 
including the UN, have gone unpunished; the EU-Israel Association 
Agreement of 2000, which grants Israel preferential trade access to 
European markets, has never been downgraded or suspended to punish 
Israel for reneging on its commitments under Article 2 of the agreement, 
which deals with mutual respect for human rights.

‘I am guided by several principles when it comes to the West Bank,’ 
Benjamin Netanyahu said at an event this summer to celebrate forty years 
of the Samaria Regional Council, which governs the settlements. ‘The 
first: this is our homeland. The second: we will continue to build and 
develop it. Third: not one resident or community will be uprooted in a 
political agreement. Fourth: the Israeli military and security forces 
will continue to rule the entire territory up to the Jordan Valley.’ 
Palestinians need to face up to this new reality. The whole of 
Israel-Palestine is now a single entity under Israel’s rule: it is one 
state in all but name – but with markedly different rights for its 
various classes of citizen. Its population comprises 6.6 million Israeli 
Jews with full citizenship and rights, 1.8 million Israeli Palestinians, 
also possessing citizenship but with restricted rights, and 4.7 million 
Palestinians with no citizenship and no rights. This last group has been 
oppressed by years of Israeli military rule, and myriad discriminatory 
practices. A damning UN report – published in 2017 but quickly withdrawn 
from UN websites following an outcry from Israel and the US – documents 
an ‘apartheid regime’. Several World Bank reports, the latest in 2019, 
have found that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank has led to an 
‘unsustainable’ economic situation, with zero growth in the territories 
in 2018, and two out of three young people unemployed.

Meanwhile, Israel’s near total blockade of Gaza’s land, sea and airspace 
has caused chronic shortages of food, medicine and building materials. 
In retaliation to Gazans’ launching of incendiary devices over the 
‘security barrier’ separating Gaza from Israel, Gaza’s fishing boats 
have been restricted to operating within six nautical miles of the coast 
(the Oslo Accords allow a twenty-mile limit). A 2012 UN study predicted 
that by 2020 Gaza’s coastal aquifer would be damaged beyond repair, 
leaving its people without drinking water, the majority kept alive 
thanks to international aid. This situation is the result of the Western 
decision to allow Israel to flout international law with impunity. It 
has been permitted to rule over a population without offering them 
citizenship, and to deny them the protections of the Fourth Geneva 
Convention, to which they are entitled as occupied people. Israel’s 
justification is that the 1967 Palestinian territories are ‘disputed’ 
rather than ‘occupied’ – a claim that is not accepted in international 
law. Either way, Israel has acted as the sovereign state ‘in its own land’.

Had it not been for the existence of the PA, this anomalous situation 
would have been challenged decades ago. The illusion that the PA created 
in people’s minds, Palestinians included, was seductive: the 
Israeli-Palestinian relationship briefly looked like one of near 
equivalence. During my time in Ramallah, I nearly fell for it myself. 
But the reality has become ever clearer – this year alone the Israeli 
authorities have demolished 140 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, in 
areas nominally under PA control. Trump’s proposal for a ‘New Palestine’ 
confirms that the possibility of a real Palestinian state is further 
away than ever.

And yet, in general, Palestinians have kept in sight this constantly 
dangled, endlessly receding prospect. They were promised a state, and it 
is still their ambition to achieve one. But if one looks at the facts on 
the ground, and accepts that such a state is close to being an 
impossibility, what should they be aiming for instead? They currently 
live under a system of ever increasing oppression and inequality: this 
is the situation that has to be addressed. And the only way of 
addressing it is to demand civil and political rights on an equal basis 
with the rest of the population under Israel’s jurisdiction. Such a 
demand would put the ball in Israel’s court: either it vacates the 
Palestinian territories it occupies, or it confers the same rights on 
its inhabitants that Israeli citizens enjoy.

There are honourable antecedents for a campaign of this kind. The South 
African freedom struggle aimed from the start for equal rights for all 
citizens. Its message inspired an international anti-apartheid movement. 
The ANC and other South African organisations may have approved of armed 
struggle – which the PLO renounced in 1993 – but many of the tactics 
used to challenge apartheid were non-violent. A Palestinian Freedom 
Charter modelled on South Africa’s would be a promising start. The 
parallels are not exact. Black South Africans were in a majority of 
three to one over whites at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle, 
whereas the ratio of Israelis to Palestinians is close to 1:1. White 
South Africans never aimed to replace the black population, as Israel 
aims to replace the Palestinians. They sought to exploit them. But the 
parallels were close enough for Nelson Mandela. ‘We know too well,’ he 
said in 1997, ‘that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the 
Palestinians.’ The civil rights movement in the US, despite its origins 
in anti-slavery (very few echoes there with the Palestinian cause), 
provides another model for peaceful, effective action in support of 
equality and social justice. That movement’s use of litigation, mass 
media, boycotts, marches, sit-ins and civil disobedience inspired 
widespread solidarity in America and beyond, eventually forcing the 
federal government to enact a raft of anti-racist legislation.


There would be many advantages for the Palestinians under a system of 
equal rights in a single state: full citizenship; equal representation 
in parliament, where legislation on refugee repatriation could open the 
way for progress on the right of return; equal access to education, 
employment and social services; and all the benefits of a normal civic 
life. Above all, Palestinians would be able to remain on their land. But 
the obstacles in the way of implementing such a system are immense. 
Zionists will see it as the end of Israel as a majority-Jewish state, 
and so the end of Zionism. Jewish Israeli citizens with a sense of 
supremacy and entitlement, many of whom hate and fear Arabs, will reject 
any attempt at equivalence. So will the Israeli state, which has thrived 
for 71 years on exploiting Palestinian land and resources while 
subjugating the non-Jewish population.

The Palestinians, for their part, will see the pursuit of equal rights 
within a single state as an abandonment of their cherished national 
project. The sovereignty they have aspired to and fought for would have 
to be sacrificed, and with it the end of resistance to Israel. Many 
people are invested in the project of an independent state, and many 
both inside and outside the PA have personally benefited from the status 
quo; they will fight hard to keep what they have. Whatever fine talk 
there might be about equality, and whatever legislation might exist to 
enforce it, they will worry that in a political entity that stretches 
from the Mediterranean to the Jordan Valley they would always be de 
facto second-class citizens, like the present-day Palestinian citizens 
of Israel. Understandably, people whose lives have been blighted by the 
occupation long to live in a place where the Israeli army is out of 
sight and mostly out of mind.

There are principled reasons, too, not to let go of the dream. A 
struggle framed in terms of national liberation, as the Palestinian 
cause used to be, is only concluded when the flag is raised on an 
independent nation-state. For the PLO that originally meant the whole of 
Mandate Palestine, most of which became Israel in 1948, and not the 
fifth of it that remained after 1967. For thirty years the organisation 
enjoyed enormous support in pursuit of this goal among members of the 
Non-Aligned Movement, the Arab League and the UN General Assembly. With 
that support came a series of hard-won victories on the diplomatic 
front, especially at the UN, where several General Assembly resolutions 
backed proposals for a Palestinian state encompassing all of the 
pre-1967 territory as part of a two-state solution; that success 
culminated in 2012 when the General Assembly recognised a ‘state of 
Palestine’ by a majority of 138.

Why throw away these gains? Especially when, on the back of them, 
Palestine has been accepted as a member of international bodies such as 
Unesco and the International Criminal Court. Polling of Palestinians 
(and Israelis) has consistently shown support for a two-state 
arrangement, though the figure fell to 43 per cent in 2018 (down from a 
high of 70 per cent in 2013). The PLO, still the sole legitimate 
representative of the Palestinians, will be deeply opposed on historical 
and strategic grounds to any alternative. These are weighty objections, 
but the withering away of the two-state solution has been obvious for 
more than twenty years. A glance at the map of the Occupied Territories 
confirms that a functioning state in what remains of them is 
inconceivable; a moment’s reflection on the extent – and continuing 
expansion – of Jewish settlements makes it plain that they cannot be 
dismantled. In this respect, the US declaration in their favour merely 
reflects the facts on the ground. Without a drastic upheaval in the 
balance of world power, or an unlikely change of heart on the part of 
Western states, a two-state solution will remain a dream. Unless some of 
those who campaign for it can come up with an effective way of making it 
happen, continuing to push for two states is an irresponsible waste of time.

Yet the two-state solution, even if it had ever been possible, would 
never have offered the Palestinians the justice they need. A statelet on 
pre-1967 lines which can only be an annex to Israel, without the 
capacity to expand its land or population, is no solution for a 
dispossessed people of 12 million worldwide. Only a system of equal 
rights within a single state can give the Palestinians the basic right 
to live decent lives in their own homeland, and eventually to repatriate 
those of their compatriots who were expelled in 1948 and thereafter. 
There is no real constituency for this solution, not because it is a bad 
idea, but because it falls outside the existing paradigm and to depart 
from that paradigm requires an intellectual leap. The PA’s senior 
negotiator, Saeb Erekat, made that leap in 2017 after the US recognised 
Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. ‘Now is the time to transform the 
struggle,’ he said, and turn it into a movement for ‘one state with 
equal rights for everyone’.

The primary aim of a campaign for equal rights for Palestinians is not 
the creation of a single state in Israel-Palestine: that already exists. 
It would be a campaign for a democracy in which the old questions – 
whether the Jewish Israeli population constitutes a national group, 
whether Palestinian Arabs have the right to self-determination – don’t 
arise. As a first step, the Palestinian Authority must be persuaded to 
transform itself from the pseudo-government of a non-existent state into 
a campaigning leadership heading a mass movement for equal rights across 
Israel and the Occupied Territories, welcoming Jewish Israelis who share 
this vision. Difficult as this project undoubtedly is, there is no 
longer any other way forward, for Palestinians or Israelis.

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