To say there is no longer a consensus among the Palestinian people on the ultimate political solution is to state the obvious. On the one hand, those claiming political leadership over the Palestinians are pursuing a sovereign state alongside Israel. On the other, the voices calling for a single democratic state in all of the land that constituted Mandate Palestine until 1948 are growing louder. Indeed, Palestinian and other analysts are taking advantage of US President Donald Trump’s statement that he could live with either outcome to push the boundaries of debate beyond two states.
The lack of consensus on a common framework of analysis to articulate the Palestinian condition prevents the adoption of clear messages to articulate both what has befallen the Palestinians and what we aspire to. It also obstructs the development of effective strategies for achieving these aspirations.
The dangers of a debate focused on the political settlement
The reality is that there is no political settlement in sight that would realize the rights of the Palestinian people. Israel is working on a number of scenarios to achieve a political settlement of the conflict that brings it the maximum amount of Palestinian land with the minimum number of Palestinian people through annexation or by simply maintaining the status quo until it can end the conflict to its advantage.
Beyond this reality, there is a problem in the debate itself. By focusing on the ultimate settlement and whether it should be one state or two, the discussion too often leapfrogs the need for a process of decolonization as well as reparations for the damage inflicted upon the Palestinians.
Decolonization and reparations must be part of the final settlement, whether it is that of a Palestinian state in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) adopted at the Palestinian National Council in 1988 as an expression of the Palestinian right to self-determination, or that of one state in all of the former British Mandate Palestine in which all citizens are equal.
The leap to one state involves a particular risk if it erases the Green Line that demarcates Israel from the OPT -- a line Israel itself is eager to erase. As discussed in previous analysis, erasing the Green Line risks eroding important sources of power the Palestinians have -- ones that they will need to ensure that any final settlement is grounded in decolonization and secures reparations.
These sources of power include the international consensus on the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people, the applicability of international humanitarian law (IHL) in the OPT, the related fact that the occupying power has no right to sovereignty there, and Palestinian membership of the state system. The fact that Palestine is part of the state system gives it the power to, among other things, challenge Israel through the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court -- however ineffectively these avenues have been used to date.
Perhaps at the end of the day a just one-state solution will become a reality, and then there will be no need to insist on holding on to the Green Line to ensure that IHL is applied to the OPT. Until then, however, Palestinians must not give up the sources of strength and power they have today. Otherwise, we risk losing the tools offered by IHL and legitimizing the Israeli settlements instead of advancing our cause.
It is clear that the process of decolonization and reparations cannot be the result of negotiations with the current Israeli regime (or indeed with past regimes). Israel has consistently blocked the emergence of the sovereign Palestinian state envisaged in a two-state solution, and it will certainly not agree to carry out the political and legal transformation required for the goal of one state.
Indeed, Israel is apparently collaborating with those Arab states that have recently formed the Arab Quartet (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) to impose a non-sovereign state on the Palestinian people in parts of the OPT as a final settlement that would end all claims.
Decolonization and reparations, therefore, are the matter of a struggle that seeks to change the balance of power in favor of the Palestinian people -- with negotiations about the ultimate political solution to follow once Israel has been forced to accept a settlement based on decolonization, reparations, and respect of fundamental rights. Such a struggle must utilize all available Palestinian sources of power, including those mentioned above.
Until a final settlement is possible, there are interim goals that can guide the struggle for decolonization and reparations. However, it will be impossible to achieve consensus on such interim goals -- let alone the political solution -- without clarity and consensus about the appropriate framework of analysis of the Palestinian condition.
A multiplicity of frameworks obscures strategy and goals
There are multiple frameworks of analysis competing to be applied to the devastation of the Palestinian homeland and people caused by the implementation of the Zionist project since its launch in 1897, the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 in 78 percent of Palestine, and the Israeli occupation of the remaining part of Palestine in 1967.
In recent years, an increasing number of scholars and analysts have called for applying a settler colonial framework to Palestine, drawing comparisons between the policies of elimination of indigenous populations by settler colonial movements in Africa, the Americas, Australia, and elsewhere, including Palestine.
Debate about Zionist settler colonialism has given prominence to other, associated frameworks, in particular ethnic cleansing and forcible population transfer. Arguments are also made for an indigenous peoples’ frame for Palestinians as a people that predate Israel’s settler colonial society. This framing has the additional advantage of being able to draw on UN-recognized indigenous rights of a people to its native country, land, and natural resources.
Other scholars have chosen the prism of racial discrimination, highlighting Israel’s discriminatory legal system, racist policies, and violations of the Anti-Racism Convention on both sides of the Green Line. This line of argument has led to the call to see the Palestinian case through the lens of apartheid, with scholars and analysts drawing on international law and highlighting analogies with the former apartheid regime in South Africa. There are also those who speak of “sociocide” or “cultural genocide,” and those who argue that genocide as defined by the Genocide Convention applies to the case of the Palestinian people.
All these frameworks of analysis can certainly be applied to the Palestinian condition. In fact, in some contexts -- particularly in academia -- it is useful to explore these and other analytical frames because this builds understanding and knowledge about new ways to articulate Palestinian rights. However, what Palestinians need is a framework of analysis that does more than create knowledge: We need one that is also strategic.
Choosing the Most Strategic Framework of Analysis
A framework of analysis is strategic if it allows Palestinians to make effective use of their available sources of power in a struggle for decolonization and reparations that pursues a set of clear core goals. The question that arises at this point is: What are the Palestinians’ core goals? To date, the “goal” has been largely defined as a sovereign state along the 1967 borders with Israel. Yet referring to what is actually a political settlement as a goal confuses the issue. The Palestinian struggle has always been about Palestinian rights in and to the land of Palestine.
The original solution adopted by the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1960s was that of a secular democratic state in all of Palestine. This was followed in 1974 by a decision on an interim solution for a state in any part of Palestine that was freed, and in 1988 by a decision for a state on the 1967 borders. However, the purpose of all these political solutions was to fulfill Palestinian rights in and to the land of Palestine.
Therefore, and in the absence of clarity about the ultimate political solution, the core goals must be the fundamental rights that are the essential elements of the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people and that, as such, must form part of any future political solution. These are: Freedom from occupation and colonization, the right of the refugees to return to their homes and properties, and non-discrimination and full equality of Palestinian citizens of Israel. These three goals, as essential elements of self-determination, were eloquently laid out in the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel until these goals are achieved.
If we agree that these are the three core goals of the Palestinian people, then we can identify the framework of analysis that would be most strategic in pursuing decolonization and reparations and ensuring that they are intrinsic to the final political settlement. The two frameworks of analysis that are most comprehensive and have been most consistently promoted are that of settler colonialism and of apartheid. The settler colonial framework is strategic in many ways: It captures the historical experience of Palestinians as the indigenous people of the country and asserts that our cause is a cause of freedom and self-determination.
The international framework of decolonization and self-determination of the 20th century focused on liberation of the territory, return of the displaced, and sovereign statehood. As such, it is also a framework that mobilizes solidarity and support, in particular among formerly colonized nations in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere, whose political backing is urgently needed, for example, in the UN General Assembly and for bringing a case to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The settler colonial framework also has added value because it opens up a legal argument that can be used by Palestinians as a source of power. International law deals with colonialism, which includes settler colonialism. Unlike military occupation under IHL, which is internationally tolerated if it is temporary and is conducted in accordance with the Fourth Geneva Convention, colonialism is absolutely prohibited today and treated as a serious violation of universally-binding norms of customary international law. Therefore, all states and the UN have a legal obligation to give no recognition, aid, or assistance to the practice of colonialism by any state, and to cooperate and adopt measures, including sanctions, in order to bring it to an end.