Wednesday, September 15

OP-ED: One state or two states?

Is peaceful resolution between Palestine and Israel ever possible?

A major fallout of the latest Israeli conflict over Gaza is the departure of Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 years as the prime minister. The Israel-Palestine truce over Gaza seems to be holding up so far — it has been nearly a month now.

Whether Israel’s truce over Gaza lasts for another six months or a year, or the new PM Bennet will be able to translate this truce to a more permanent solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, is an open issue. But it is unlikely that a mere change in the government leadership of Israel will happen anytime soon unless the future of the territory is amicably agreed upon by the warring parties.

Since 1948 there have been three major wars in the area over this division, all over claims on this territory by the two contestants, with a result that has led to a continuing shrinking of what was once a Palestinian territory. American author Mitchel Bard states that the first settlements in the West Bank were started by Israeli governments from 1968 to 1977 with the explicit objective to “secure a Jewish majority in key strategic regions of the West Bank.”

Expanding settlements

But the Oslo accords of 1993 and 1995 between Israel and Palestine Liberation Organization, led by Arafat at that time, officially paved the way for more Jewish settlements in the West Bank by creating three administrative areas — Area A, Area B, and Area C. Area A comprised about 18% of West Bank, Area B 22%, and Area C the remaining part of the territory.

According to the agreement, Area A was to be administered entirely by the new Palestinian Authority, Area B jointly by Israel and PLA, and Area C totally by Israel where a small Palestinian population lived in the midst of Jewish settlers. Israel had full authority to expand the settlement in that Area C, with a result that today there are more than 450 settlements there with a Jewish population of more than 475,000 and counting.

The Palestinians who live in the so-called PLA-governed area of West Bank and Gaza number about 5.1 million (3 million in West Bank and 2.1 million in Gaza). Most of this population lives in less than half of West Bank territories.

Demand and international support for a sovereign Palestinian state has been around since Israeli occupation of West Bank and Gaza after the 1967 Arab Israeli war. The Oslo accord created a pseudo-autonomous Palestinian territory in only one-third of West Bank and Gaza, but it left open the question of a truly sovereign Palestinian state in all of West Bank and East Jerusalem which the PLA wanted to be the capital of the Palestinian state.

The bane of the ongoing dispute between the Palestinians and Israel is not just a sovereign Palestinian state, but what a future state will constitute. Will a sovereign Palestinian state be limited to Area A, which is only 18% of the West Bank and the 20-mile-long strip of Gaza far away from West Bank, or include the other parts of the West Bank now known as Areas B and C?

Area B, which is 22% of the West Bank, is heavily populated with Palestinians but not entirely under Palestinian Authority (Israel controls all security aspects). Area C, which is the largest area of the West Bank (60%) is entirely under the Israeli government which is continuously expanding Jewish settlements there. Palestinian Authority has no control over the area or its governance and security. It is essentially an extension of Israel.

A sovereign Palestinian State?

So, what will a sovereign Palestinian State resemble if it happens at all? Israel will not give up its hold on Area C since it has invested a lot in that area since 1968. There are nearly half a million Jews living in that territory in settlements spread all over the area. Some of these are five decades old, and the many settlers there now straddle across two generations. (The new Prime Minister Bennett is a second generation settler of Area C.)

Will Israel force these settlers to move out of West Bank if a new Palestinian state were to be formed in the old West Bank? This is not likely to happen, and no Israeli politician, left or right, will agree to this return of the territory to a new sovereign Palestinian state.

During President Trump’s time (2020), Trump had already outlined a vision of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where he talked about Israel annexing 30% of Area C and allowing the rest to be merged in a future Palestinian state.

But the hawkish Netanyahu had a more aggressive plan where he visualized annexation of the entire Area C by Israel. And in that plan of Netanyahu, East Jerusalem was no part of the Palestinian State.

Is that how a Palestinian State should be? A population of 5.1 million crammed in 40% of the West Bank and a 140 square kilometre of an enclave called Gaza? Remember, all of the West Bank is a landlocked territory (except Gaza), and all its links to the remainder of Arab world are through Israel or via Jordan. Access to Gaza is through Israel also.

The two territories also depend on common aquifers for water supply. A sovereign Palestinian State will have to depend on the goodwill and collaboration of Israel for the movement of its people, supplies, and perhaps defense as well. A sustainable Palestine will be possible only when Israel agrees to a sustainable area for the Palestinians to build a country in. A moth-eaten new state will neither help Palestinians or the Israelis.

What happens to Israel?

But considering a Palestine built on a fragment of West Bank, can one think of what will happen to Israel and its population if such a state were to be born? Today, 20% of Israeli population consists of Arabs, many of whom identify themselves as Palestinians. What would prevent these Arabs from moving to the part of the West Bank that Israel would like to retain?

As Israeli citizens, they could move there unless the government curtails freedom of movement for a section of its citizens which would be infringement of their constitutional rights. Can we envisage a future Israel then where rights will be determined on the basis of religious groups?

Rashida Tlaib, a first-time US congresswoman of Palestinian descent has proposed a radical solution to the conflict.

“One state,” she said in response to a question about whether she supports a one or two-state solution. This is a remarkable opinion, because Rashida’s family, which was uprooted from the Palestinian land, had emigrated to the US. She claims her proposal is pragmatic because the two-state is almost impossible now around the racist policies of Prime Minister Netanyahu.

A two-state solution would be impossible without actually hurting Israelis as some of the Israeli families have been in those communities (settlements in West Bank) for almost five decades. She is of the opinion that Israel will not be able to push them out and uproot all of these people without another catastrophe.

A point of debate

Whether Congresswoman Tlaib is throwing a spanner in the Palestinian conflict with her one-state solution when the international world is asking for a two-state solution is a point of debate. But she being a Palestinian herself must know better if the Palestinians will survive in a democratic one state with equal rights than as a sovereign country in a minuscule space with a mighty Israel breathing down its neck all the time.

Her reasoning is that Palestinians may fare better in a unified Israel because, together with the Arabs who are now Israeli citizens, they will comprise half the population of Israel. And if, which is a big if, Israel gives equal voting rights to all its citizens in a democratic country that Israel claims to be, the Palestinians will be better off than living in a tattered territory living at the mercy of Israel, should they be given sovereign status.

A sovereign state may give the Palestinians an independent country, but not necessarily independence from domination of a mighty neighbour. In the end, what counts is the happiness of people and their right for existence.

Right now, what matters is an agreement between the two warring parties on a solution that leads to peace in that territory, be it one state or two states. An amicably settled resolution that guarantees peace for the next generation of both areas is all we ask for.

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.

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