The Failure of the Two-State Solution: Hope for Palestinian Youth

Carnegie Ethics Online Monthly Column

July 22, 2019

Gaza Beach, 2006. CREDIT: Gus at Dutch Wikipedia/Public Domanin

On December 28, 2016, in one of his final public remarks as secretary of state, John Kerry assumed a tone of urgency, stressing that "the two-state solution is the only way to achieve a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians." For decades, discourse surrounding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has centered on the theory of separation as the principal means of achieving sustainable peace. However, in the face of the innumerable obstacles posed by the situation on the ground, the political impasse triggered by a growth in radical ideology and nationalism, and growing doubt that an independent Palestinian state based on the current discourse would adequately address the interests of young Palestinians, perhaps separation does not represent a solution after all.

In Palestine and across the Middle East, young people constitute a much larger portion of the population than in Western states; however, their needs have largely gone unnoticed and their opinions often violently oppressed. The consequences of their marginalization were made clear with the outbreak of the Arab Spring, as millions of youth across the region found a voice following decades of suppression. The next generation of Palestinians must follow suit and answer the increasingly urgent question of how to reframe the conflict discourse and avoid succumbing to a future of perennial suffering in silence under the status quo. Would the quest for equal rights be better served through a civil rights-based approach with the aim of achieving an integrative solution to the conflict?

The Failure of the Two-State Solution

Perhaps the most evident failure of the two-state proposal lies in the deep fragmentation of Palestinian territory. First and foremost, Israel's accelerating settlement construction policy has established a vast network of settlements and supportive infrastructure deemed illegal under international law. The number of settlers in the West Bank has now surpassed 600,000, scattered across over 140 different settlements. These "facts on the ground" ensure that a future Palestinian state would constitute an administrative nightmare—a fragmented, shattered entity with little true sovereignty.

Palestine

This raises the question of whether Israel will be able, or more importantly, willing to extricate itself from the West Bank and face the inevitable backlash from right wing and religious communities that would follow. In January 2016, Israelis elected the most far-right government in the country's history, with 78 of the 107 members of the Knesset openly opposing the two-state solution. More recently, in an alarming, yet ultimately successful move to remain in power, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu established a coalition with the Kahanists, an extreme right-wing, openly racist party, in a "race to the right" election process.

In light of this territorial fragmentation, a Palestinian state will fall far short of even the most limited requirements of sovereignty, including physical contiguity, territorial sovereignty and security, environmental and economic autonomy, and a stable governing structure. Indeed, one could argue that the situation on the ground has already created a one-state reality, not only because of the impossibility of demarcating and defending permanent borders and the mutual population penetrations, but also due to the interwoven nature of issues such as control of holy sites, resources, and access to land, roads, and seaports. In reality, Israel controls the Occupied Palestinian Territories in a manner that is consistent with full sovereignty, albeit without the consent of the Palestinian population, a reality that will likely continue despite superficial Palestinian "independence." Simply put, the two-state solution has failed, not only because of a concerted effort to undermine it, but because separation is and perhaps has always been inherently impossible.

Finally, it is clear that the conflict paradigm that emerged out of the Oslo process has established an inherently unjust scenario for Palestinians; one which will not provide a secure future for coming generations. Taking full advantage of its strategic and territorial superiority, Israel has reframed the conflict as rooted in the 1967 debacle, ensuring that a "resolution" would only determine the future status of the West Bank, ignoring the Gaza Strip, rights for Palestinian-Israelis, and the status of the millions of refugees. Consequently, a "solution" based on Israel's predefined parameters will effectively de-historicize the conflict and inevitably fail to mend underlying wounds. We see this inherently doomed paradigm epitomized in efforts like White House advisor Jared Kushner's "Peace to Prosperity" proposal, which, by blatantly ignoring Palestinian input, proposes a plan that would effectively bribe Palestinians into silence under continued occupation, in hopes that deeper issues can be swept under the rug. In truth, processes ranging from the Oslo process to Kushner's "peace plan," which may be in nature more purposefully nefarious than inherently flawed, will continue to fail, as they force a top-down approach that merely repackages Israeli occupation.

The Youth Factor

Emerging out of the failed peace process, young Palestinians have largely lost hope in their leadership's ability to achieve a negotiated settlement with Israel and their confidence in the two-state solution continually dwindles. Most young Palestinians have grown increasingly disinterested in fighting what they see as a long-lost, bureaucratic battle for statehood and would rather divert their attention to tangible initiatives that can further their own immediate interests and give them a sense of dignity, such as education, economic opportunity, and social engagement. This has contributed to a weakened "drive" for statehood and a more substantial desire for individual rights regardless of the political solution.

According to Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, surveys show that youth support for a one-state solution is significantly higher than that of older generations. In Shikaki's words, "Youth look at the domestic political process and they conclude what they see is so hopeless, it is so detrimental to their interests and long term success because the system is so dysfunctional that if a Palestinian state is created, it will be corrupt, authoritarian, inefficient, just another failing state waiting to collapse." Similarly, in the words of Murad, a 23-year-old resident of the Aida refugee camp located just two miles north of Bethlehem, "We just want to live our lives, pursue our education, get jobs, and build a family. We can't do this with the occupation. To us, our rights are what is important. A Palestinian state is not able to achieve this." This accounts for the rising number of professionals and talented young people who are leaving the Gaza Strip in hopes of better opportunities elsewhere. The establishment of a volatile Palestinian state that does not address these core concerns would only lay the groundwork for prolonged social and political upheaval, just as it has across the region.

So, with dwindling support for a Palestinian state in its current form, how can young Palestinians reinvigorate their goals of achieving self-determination and equal rights? To answer this, we must examine the sustained efforts of youth across the region. Although many of the movements would later be beaten down by authoritarianism and extremism, the Arab Spring provides a historic example of the modern-day capabilities of youth to articulate their frustration and ideas, mobilize through mass grassroots efforts, and successfully overturn once seemingly immovable dictatorial power establishments. In the same vein, Palestinian youth represent the only hope of establishing a protracted, peaceful civil rights movement that abandons the failed Oslo paradigm and garners regional and international support for equal rights and an end to the occupation.

One of the main obstacles to progress is the Palestinian Authority (PA) itself. Emerging as a product of the Oslo Accords, the PA was founded to serve as a semi-autonomous government structure with the goal of facilitating the eventual establishment of an independent Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. However, the PA has come under growing criticism regarding issues ranging from internal corruption and inefficiency to failure to lessen the burdens of occupation, let alone achieve actual independence. A 2016 poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that a majority of Palestinians actually view the PA as a burden and over 64 percent want President Mahmoud Abbas to resign.

More significant than the rampant corruption and institutional and financial weaknesses of the PA is the fact that the governing body fails to adequately represent the entirety of the Palestinian population and actually enhances the occupation, rather than providing an effective channel for resistance. Silence and cooperation under the ongoing occupation has been the main condition for continued funding and the central reason the PA is permitted to continue with limited self-autonomy; peaceful forms of Palestinian protest are also silenced due to dependence on external support.

There are several specific ways that the PA actually helps maintain the Israeli occupation and the overarching conflict paradigm. Firstly, the PA relieves Israel from the bulk of the costly routine responsibilities of conducting a protracted military occupation, all while serving as a facade of independent government. It assumes roles ranging from providing goods and services to those living under occupation to establishing an internal security network that cooperates with the Israeli military to prevent resistance. The PA security forces have been known to forcibly stifle protests against the Israeli occupation and have been accused of carrying out torture and infringing on free speech. Palestinian tax revenue is actually controlled by Israel, which has repeatedly withheld funding from the PA in retaliation for acts of Palestinian resistance that range from violence to attempts to further the case for independence in the United Nations. A report issued by the Ramallah-based Coalition for Accountability and Integrity found that the security sector received over $1.078 billion of the overall $3.86 billion Palestinian budget, a portion that was larger than both health and education combined. As a result, the PA security forces have been dubbed "subcontractors" that allow Israel to maintain the occupation while avoiding direct contact that damages Israel's image abroad. In other words, the "dirty work" is carried out by the PA, allowing Israel to selectively extricate itself from the equation, yet maintain overarching control over the entirety of the territories.

Secondly, the PA has become an unproductive conduit of Palestinian energy, as anger is channeled into petty internal disputes and accusations of corruption that merely contribute to the continued disintegration of potential Palestinian socio-political clout. Popular frustration has not been effectively translated into mobilization against the Israeli occupation, but rather towards internal disputes like the that between Fatah and Hamas. While resistance was once expressed through grassroots-led actions like the First Intifada, Palestinians now depend on the weak PA and its futile negotiation attempts in hopes of achieving self-determination and an end to the occupation.

It is clear that the only way to shift the conflict discourse away from the failed two-state paradigm and toward an integrative movement for self-determination is by dissolving the PA and forcing Israel to reassume full occupation responsibilities over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where it will face two options: the consolidation of the one-state reality, or the termination of the occupation entirely, which, according to precedent, seems highly unlikely. The first option would render the Palestinian-Israeli relationship increasingly reminiscent of apartheid South Africa. This would clearly frame the conflict paradigm as one between a settler-colonial power and the indigenous population and could lay the foundation for a unified, youth-led grassroots political movement.

At this point we are confronted with perhaps the most challenging question. Can Palestinians form a united front and sustain a committed nonviolent movement in the face of continued occupation and violent oppression?

Perhaps the most applicable source of inspiration for today's youth is the First Intifada of 1987, a hallmark of Palestinian nonviolent resistance. The First Intifada arguably represents the most effective means of pressuring Israel both internally and externally, proof of the ability of young Palestinians to mobilize without central leadership, and a successful way of drastically shifting the conflict discourse. As anger boiled over, Palestinians took to the streets in huge numbers, without central leadership or iconic figureheads. They engaged in nonviolent demonstrations, blocked roads, staged sit-ins and strikes, and publicly expressed their Palestinian identity. In fact, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) itself actually classified 97 percent of Intifada activities as nonviolent, according to reports. As the uprisings continued, they were met with devastating violence from Israeli forces, including beatings, live ammunition, house demolitions, curfews, imprisonment, and torture. Over 1,370 Palestinian civilians died, with tens of thousands more severely injured or imprisoned, according to B’Tselem, a Jerusalem based non-profit that monitors human rights violations.

The nonviolent protests and the violent Israeli response thrust the realities of Palestinian suffering and anger into focus for Israelis, causing many to begin to question their own government and its occupation and even began to gain the attention of the international community, swayed by images of children confronting tanks and heavily armed soldiers. As Victoria Mason and Richard Falk wrote in 2016 in State Crime Journal, these acts successfully displayed the "vast discrepancy in power between the Palestinian people and Israel's war machine" and led to a reversal of the narrative that Israel represented the "David" in the fight against the Arab and Palestinian "Goliath." At home, Israeli criticism of their own government's disproportionate use of force contributed to the rise of the Labour movement's pro-peace platform and sparked an increase in Palestinian-Israeli solidarity groups.

The Intifada proved the ability of Palestinians to mobilize without central leadership and shift the conflict discourse. The swell of largely unorganized popular action emerged as a grassroots movement and displayed the potential mobilization power of Palestinians despite their territorial fragmentation. By taking the First Intifada as an example of the potential of a mass civil rights-based movement, Palestinian youth can build on the already vast array of nonviolent modes of resistance that they already employ, ranging from peaceful sit-ins to heightened support of the international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns.

Palestinian youth protests continue in a wide variety of forms today. Over recent months, Palestinian youth have positioned themselves at the forefront of the ongoing Great March of Return, staging regular nonviolent protests along the Gaza border and bearing the brunt of a violent Israeli response that has led to the death of over 200 unarmed demonstrators, including journalists and children as young as 14. Although Hamas continues their attempts to hijack the movement, tainting the demonstrations with their efforts to stage unsuccessful breaches of the border, young Palestinians continue to confront live sniper fire in an effort that, despite their persistence, will likely change little on the ground.

Despite these setbacks, if young Palestinians continue to mobilize, channeling their political energy and getting training in proven methods of nonviolent protest, they could find themselves in a unique position of influence. Instead of fighting for leaders and a political process that has repeatedly failed them, a strategic shift could present an opportunity for grassroots organization and an effective, nonviolent channel for their pent-up energy. Palestinian youth have come to realize that their struggle is not for illusive borders and imbalanced political agreements, but rather for liberation from Zionism's ultimate vision of Israel. They will fight for their own civil rights, dignity, and the chance to develop their lives past the limits in which they are contained under occupation and political stagnation. Young Palestinians represent a budding amalgam of frustration and hope, effectively representing the only viable weapon against Israel's crushing political machine.

Conclusion

In reality, it has become abundantly clear that separation does not represent the "only way to achieve a just and lasting peace" and the "only way to ensure a future of freedom and dignity for the Palestinian people." In fact, it has come to represent a fallacy that will not only fail in achieving a lasting solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but undermine the rights of Palestinians, propelling them down a path that will undoubtedly lead to a future of suffering, all too reminiscent of the fates of countless other indigenous peoples around the world.

However, Israel's most comprehensive success and the factor that continues to serve as a shield against struggles for justice has been their ability to deeply fragment not only the physical existence of Palestinians, but more importantly, their very identity. The fate of the next stage of the Palestinian struggle for rights and dignity will be dependent on their ability to unite, transcend their physical and political divisions, and rebuild their shared sense of identity. But after undergoing such a thorough, systematic process of fragmentation through occupation and expulsion, the question is if a unified Palestinian platform can be maintained in the face of an inevitably severe Israeli repression. Will Palestinians prove capable of overcoming the countless physical and political boundaries that face them at every turn? Or will they be forced to fade into silent suffering in the shadow of history, as the world accepts another casualty of settler colonialism?  

(Credit for West Bank and Gaza Map: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

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