The Israeli assault on Gaza was an affront to humanity. 1338 Palestinians and13 Israelis were killed, thousands were wounded, and tens of thousands made homeless. The poor and crowded enclave, whose people were already suffering from restrictions on their movement and the entry of food, medicines and other goods, was pulverised by Israel’s modern military machine. Although the total number of deaths is not in dispute, political battle is now being waged over the composition of the Palestinian death toll – mostly civilians according to Palestinian sources, mostly Hamas fighters according to Israel’s statistical counter-offensive. But even Israel does not dispute that its forces killed hundreds of civilians, many of them children. And whatever the breakdown, it is clear that this assault deliberately threatened and terrorised civilians on a huge scale. Certainly, Hamas’ rockets also threaten and terrorise civilians, and they are called terrorists. By this measure, the Israeli government and armed forces are only bigger and better terrorists. Israel boasts rules of engagement that are supposed to avoid civilian harm, but extensive civilian harm was hardly unintended. Israel claims to have attacked Hamas, but it also attacked the Gazan population as a whole, in a clear continuation of the policy of collective punishment for its temerity in supporting the party. Israel’s professed regret for civilian deaths is not really more hypocritical than that of the United States as it bombs yet another wedding party in Afghanistan; but the policy of collective punishment, which we also saw two years ago in Lebanon, is something else.
It is tempting to say that this cannot, must not, go on. But it probably will. Israel has hardly been shamed – its electorate has just returned an even more right-wing Knesset, which seems likely to make Binyamin Netanyahu prime minister. Hamas has hardly been crushed. If Barack Obama was horrified, he did a good job of hiding it. Many European leaders and citizens have shown their indignation, but it is unlikely to be directed effectively towards a solution. The Israel-Palestine crisis is six decades old, and leaderships on all sides have interests in things going on as they are, however awful and unjust. This is much easier than changing, and there are no obvious de Klerks, let alone Mandelas, to hand. In the short term, the best hope clearly lies in the determination of the Obama administration to achieve a peace in conjunction with a regional settlement between Israel and the Arab states (and between the USA and the Muslim world). The US will have to use sticks – threaten to withdraw political and financial support – as well as carrots, to achieve changes.
I have no special insight into the goals and likely methods of team Obama, or the precise compromises that could bring the sides to agreement. However I think it’s important to emphasise that the Palestinians – in their position of undoubted military, political and economic weakness and division, which the Gaza war has reinforced – should not be pressured to accept too little. A viable two-state solution will have to address the fundamental inequities of the situation, revisiting 1948 as well as 1967 and more recent developments. Israel needs to recognise the injustices that it has perpetrated from its inception, which continue to dog its legitimacy and security. Hamas’s provocative Gaza stronghold, after all, is partly populated by the descendents of those Israel forced from their homes in 1948. A two-state solution cannot just be a reversion to the borders before the1967 war, radical as that will be: it must also address the consequences of the original expulsions from within internationally recognised Israeli territory. Anything less will leave the fundamental Palestinian grievances untouched, and will undermine any settlement.
We need therefore to stop thinking of a two-state solution as ‘realistic’, and a single-state solution as ‘utopian’. A viable two-state solution needs the idealism and apparent utopianism of the single-state option. Just as a single state would need to be a secular, non-ethnic democracy, so should two separate Israeli and Palestinian states have non-sectarian, democratic constitutions. Israel cannot remain the state of the Jewish nation, in which Arabs are second-class citizens. It is not acceptable that there should be a right of ‘return’ for Jews who (and whose families) have never lived there, but no right of return for the expelled Palestinians and their immediate descendents. The latter right will have to be acknowledged in principle, even if in practice – in many or most cases – it is commuted to financial compensation. Jews whose family property was expropriated by Nazi Germany in the 1930s and early 1940s have rightly reclaimed ownership or been granted compensation; no less can be accorded to Palestinians whose families lost, in the late 1940s, residence and property in what is now Israel.
Particular attention needs to be paid to the positions of the minorities: of Arabs within Israel, because their second-class citizenship in their own land is intolerable; but also of Jews within Palestine, because a viable Palestinian state needs to include the territory occupied by so manyillegal settlements housing hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews. While many Jews will undoubtedly flee any return of the occupied territories, and Israel will probably encourage their consolidation in Israel proper, the prospect should be entertained, on both sides, of Jewish settlers continuing to live within the Palestinian state. Palestine needs to incorporate the settlements as functioning townships, not torched ruins: it can only do that with cooperation from the settlers as well as the Israeli state. The right of continued residence in Palestine should be offered to Jews, just as that of return to Israel should be offered to Arabs, even if the numbers who actually take up these offers are small. Creating the arrangements that would make these rights meaningful would constitute a small token of human rights and equality in both states – and of the possibility of cooperation between them.
For a functioning two-state solution cannot be based on two entirely separate states, coexisting only in a state of cold war, with a wall between them. Halting the construction of the security fence is a sine qua non of meaningful discussions, and tearing down what has been built will be an early task of any solution. Managing change in ways which respect individuals’ and families’ rights will require a sound infrastructure of bilateral institutions. Recognising the human rights of all, and especially of Palestinian familiesexpelled from Israel decades ago, will require Israel to open up the sealed vault of the 1948 events, acknowledging the obliterated Arab names of long-renamed villages and erecting monuments to civilian victims, maybe even creating a Palestinian Museum in Tel Aviv, so that Arabs, whether as Israeli citizens or Palestinian workers and visitors, can be comfortable in Israel. Would it be a step too far to envisage a joint Israeli-Palestinian truth commission, to achieve closure on the crimes and suffering (on both sides) of the last 60 years?
Moreover it is not only in from a political point of view that the two states will require joint institutions. A Palestinian state will only function if reopened to the Israeli labour market; from this point of view, too, bilateral arrangements too are necessary to the functioning of separate states.The two-state solution should be seen, then, as close to a confederal arrangement, nested within regional security arrangements and guaranteed by the UN and the USA as broker of the agreement, which resolves two-thirds of a century of conflict.
It may be objected that much of what I have proposed is so idealistic as to be utopian. What is truly fantastic, however, is the belief that a Palestian state should be established, let alone can thrive, in the truncated space left by illegal Israeli settlement-, wall- and road-building. Over the last two decades, Israel has annexed an ever-larger area of Palestine, and forced the Palestinians into ever smaller, more fragmented pockets. By the same token, it has steadily undermined the viability of the two-state solution, even as its nominal adherence to this idea has grown. The two-state model is an emperor without clothes, and only a radical policy upheaval, leading to large-scale Israeli withdrawals and the recognition of sixty years of deep injustice, can restore its credibility. It is possible to imagine how it could be done, but there are few signs of imagination in the Israeli – or Palestinian – political universes. The writing is on the wall,but is anyone that matters, in team Obama or elsewhere, reading it? If not, this year’s Gaza war will certainly not be Israel’s last.
Martin Shaw is Research Professor in the Department of International Relations, University of Sussex, and the author of What is Genocide? (Polity 2007) and many other books. His website is http://www.martinshaw.org