The latest round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas ended on Thursday with a ceasefire agreement between the two sides, and, on the face of it, very little has changed after eleven days of violence and almost 250 lives lost.
Hamas is still in control inside the Gaza Strip, Israel retains its vice grip on Gaza’s borders. Benjamin Netanyahu is still Israel’s prime minister, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is still irrelevant. This, at any rate, is the picture you get if you look at the conflict through the prism of “two states”, where the issue is friction between the Israeli government in Jerusalem on the one side and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and the Hamas government in Gaza on the other.
Yet if even this simplified application of the two-state view reads as jarring and convoluted, that’s because it is. The paradigm favoured by many international stakeholders is now drastically out of sync with the lived reality of most Israelis and Palestinians.
The two states solution hinges on contestation of the so-called Green Line, separating Gaza and the West Bank (or Judea and Samaria) from Israel proper (or from the rest of historic Palestine). The areas either side of this line are supposed to be very different, and are currently managed deeply unequally for different people. Yet on both sides, Palestinians and Jews live in ever closer proximity – whether in the same apartment buildings or in separate communities, segregated, but only a short walk or drive apart. The Palestinian Authority, once set up as a proto-state, is reduced to policing Palestinian cities on Israel’s behalf, and has not advanced Palestinian statehood in any meaningful way in 20 years, except on paper.
The past year has seen growing acknowledgement that the Green Line as a baseline for managing the conflict is a thing of the past. In June 2020, there was a determined, if ultimately deferred, attempt by the Israeli government to annex parts of the West Bank. In January, Israel’s flagship human rights organisation, B’Tselem, acknowledged what Palestinian activists have been saying for years: that the entire area between the river and the sea was already fully controlled by the Israeli government (subordinate or tightly constricted local authorities in Ramallah and Gaza notwithstanding). In April, the B’Tselem report was followed by Human Rights Watch. Each organisation concluded this stratified and unequal system of control met the legal definition of apartheid.
Next, as if to prove that all of Israel-Palestine was one land and one overarching conflict after all, came the Israel-Hamas flare-up in Gaza, the riots in Jerusalem and the inter-communal clashes and lynch mobs in the mixed cities, all feeding off each other. The boundaries between Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and Palestinian citizens of Israel have fractured, as have the boundaries between the self-congratulating, ostensibly moderate Israeli suburbia and the Jewish settlers of the West Bank frontier. All over the country, people woke up to discover that the conflict is not just “over there”, but very much here, wherever and whoever you may be.
Flipping the paradigm
A one-state reality is getting entrenched deeper every day. It is being shaped and managed quite deliberately by the Israeli government. And it has been acknowledged by most Palestinians (with the exception of the Palestinian Authority, loathe to give up its raison d’etre), and by the Israeli right, all along.
But pan over to international stakeholders, and you might think it’s the 1990’s and an independent Palestinian state is only a Rose Garden ceremony away. The Biden administration time and again reaffirms its support for the two-state solution. The UK has never once deviated from the same.
On its own, talking up this mantra would not have been so bad if it didn’t also preclude any discussion on what acceptable alternatives to partition might look like. Western politicians have warned time and time again that Israel needs to either give up the occupation and allow an independent Palestinian state, or give all citizens the vote and lose its Jewish majority, and thus also its character as “a Jewish and democratic state”. But Israel seems to have chosen to retain both the Jewish character of the state and permanent control of the occupied territories, at the expense of democratic rights for most Palestinians. The natural question to ask now is what role external actors can play in ensuring equal rights and security for all Palestinians and Israelis, without two states.
Yet most key actors remain averse to gameplay a single-state scenario, even as it’s already beginning to unfold. And meanwhile, Israel is playing for time, and the world’s two-state fixation serves as an excuse for the international community to do next to nothing – because, the idea goes, the injustices and inequalities of the status quo can be reversed once partition finally arrives. Patients in Gaza dying without access to medical care elsewhere? Wait until partition, please. Settlements eating up Palestinian land? Kindly wait until partition, we’ll get your land back. Generations of children growing up with only the most demonic representations of the other community? Partition will sort that out. Inter-communal violence, Jews getting knifed or run over in Jerusalem streets, Palestinians dragged out of cars and shot or lynched? If you could just bear with us until we get partition right, thank you.
One way for stakeholders – governments, diaspora communities, and sympathisers of either side in the conflict – to pull the status quo out of this morass could be to begin a frank discussion on how safety, equality and self-determination can be achieved for both Jews and for Palestinians without a partition framework. What kind of compromises are required? Should it be a liberal democracy, a binational state, a confederation, a consociational power-sharing mechanism akin to Northern Ireland? All these are radically different, with different pros and cons, and the time to start gaging them is now, not after some as-yet unimaginable catastrophe.
In the meantime, it’s probably a good idea, for anyone who wants to help, to stop deferring the pursuit of all other rights at the expense of the leisurely pursuit of the right for self-determination. Flip it around; demand concrete improvement on rights and safety now, and leave the question of partition for the future, once everyone’s well-being and security have at least somewhat levelled out.
A single, unequal state is already in the making, being built to last for the perceived safety of one community at the expense of another. Until other concerned actors come out of the comfortingly familiar two-states corner, they’re letting one determined political faction in Israel lay down all the rules.