As The Palestinians Prepare to Declare Independence, the parallels between Israel and Palestine appear more striking
After the first Zionist conference in 1897, Theodor Herzl confided to his diary,“In Basel I created the Jewish state”. By the end of this month, Mahmoud Abbas may also declare — in another Swiss location —“In Geneva I created the Palestinian state”. On that day the PLO will present a call for the United Nations General Assembly in New York to approve Palestinian independence. If the Assembly passes it and the Security Council does not wield a veto, then the PLO observer mission at UN Offices in Geneva will upgrade to full member’s status. The very act of declaring independence and the coincidental Swiss connection brings the Palestinians curiously into line with the founders of the State of Israel, whose own declaration of independence was a pragmatic acceptance of the available over the greater ideal. Once aligned, multiple parallels between Israel and Palestine become visible across their social and political structures, some of which date from the Mandate. Through a historical and cultural consideration of the Palestinian’s proposed bid, it is possible to assess these parallels and see better how a future two-state solution might find an optimum modus operandi.
Palestinians, in the guise of the PLO, have already declared independence at the famous meeting of the Palestine National Council in Algiers, 15 November 1988 (the PNC being the legislative body of the PLO, which first met in May 1964). In legal terms, the proposed September action is merely the PLO demanding recognition of the statehood declared in 1988 and the infrastructural progress it has made since then.The Algiers declaration can be seen as the culmination of four events. The first was the Palestinian decision, taken in the mid-1970s, to declare independence on any part of ‘liberated Palestine’. While to sceptical Zionists this signalled a tactic of ‘conquest by stages’, the more optimistic noted a PLO readiness to recognise the reality, if not the legitimacy, of Israel. Officially, Washington and Jerusalem considered Yasser Arafat’s 1974 ‘gun and olive branch’ address to the UN General Assembly as the deceptive protestations of a terrorist; but it was enough to grant the PLO observer status in the assembly the following year. The second factor was the failure of the early 1987 Peres-Hussein plan for Jordan to incubate a nascent Palestinian entity on the West Bank. When this putative ‘Jordanian option’ fell through, an opportunity arose for the PLO to fill the vacuum. The third factor was the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in December 1987. Arguably Algiers was an attempt, by an increasingly estranged PLO in Tunisian exile, to regain control from activists in the West Bank and Gaza. Or, put more positively, it showed the older institution heeding the voices of a younger indigenous generation, who sought an end to occupation yet also a pragmatic accommodation with Israel. The final factor, arising out of the second and third, was King Hussein’s dramatic decision on 28 July 1988 to cease development funding for the West Bank. Within three days the monarch also dissolved parliament, thus ending West Bank representation and severed all administrative and legal ties with the area (barring the Kingdom’s guardianship of holy Muslim sites in Jerusalem).
The 1988 Algiers Declaration had some immediate effects. More than 100 nations recognised the state, even though the PLO did not actually control one inch of Palestine, and within 18 months the USA began its first official negotiations with the PLO. Algiers also led indirectly to the Madrid Conference of 1991, which saw Palestinians and Israelis negotiate in public for the first time. But what Algiers did not deliver was an independent Palestine. Signs of this only appeared later as a result of the 1993 Oslo Accords: Palestinians were granted autonomy in larger towns and cities — Nablus, Ramallah, Jenin, Tulkarm, Bethlehem, Jericho and eventually (in mitigated form) in Hebron. The breakthrough was the mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO and the Declaration of Principles that was signed on the White House Lawn in September 1993. Yet while the PLO acknowledged Israel, the Rabin government did not recognise a Palestinian state. Consideration of that option was delayed until ‘final status talks’, mooted for 1999. But by that stage the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, terror, changes in political personnel and delays in implementation halted all talks of statehood.
Conceivably one might argue that independence was granted but not claimed in November 1947, when the UN General Assembly passed UN 181; the partition resolution already accepted the notion of an independent Palestinian Arab state covering less than all of former Mandate Palestine. All but two or three Palestinian political groups rejected partition at the time, as did the newly established Arab League and all the independent Arab states. As a result independence was not claimed, except by the suspect All-Palestine Government of the discredited Haj Amin al-Husseini, set up under Egyptian aegis in Gaza in late 1948 (and abolished in 1959). The idea largely fell into abeyance after the 1948 war leading to Jordan’s annexation of the West Bank in 1950 and Egypt’s domination over Gaza until 1967. Nonetheless, the principle was established, and UN 181 is now being revisited by current governments in both Ramallah and Jerusalem, who officially share the desire for a two-state solution. As such, asking the same UNGA to approve Palestinian statehood again is like trying to cash a 63-year-old but still valid cheque. From a legal perspective, if pre-independence Zionist authorities accepted a Palestinian state in 1947, which in effect they did, by rights Israel should back a state now. Naturally many argue that 63 years of on-off war with neighbouring states has rendered that pledge obsolete. The presence of up to half a million settlers in the West Bank and greater Jerusalem complicates matters. But there is a case in law that the commitment is still binding.
One crucial difference shaped the development of the Israeli and Palestinian national movements: the Arabs were mostly indigenous and the Jews were mostly immigrants. Palestinian nationalism was galvanised by resistance to perceived newcomers who wanted to displace the indigenous Arabs. Until the middle of the 20th century, the term ‘Palestinian’ meant little to them. Most called themselves Qudsi, if from Jerusalem, or Nabulsi, if from Nablus. More broadly they identified as Ottoman subjects, as Arabs, as south Syrians, or as Muslims. The Israeli sociologist, Baruch Kimmerling argued, controversially, that a Palestinian consciousness actually began with the local revolt against Egyptian rule in 1834. Yet most regard the tentative honing of a modern Palestinian identity as originating with the definition of Mandate borders in 1922. This sense was sharpened by the Arab Revolt of 1936 and a natural desire to emulate other mandates that achieved independence: Iraq in 1932, Syria in 1941 (recognised in 1944) and Lebanon in 1946. Arguably, the defining moment was the defeat of 1948, and even after that a solely Palestinian struggle — as opposed to a general pan-Arab cause — was only formalised with the creation of the PLO in 1964. Jewish national identity was a primarily modern invention, arising in Europe at a moment when Jewish existence was overwhelmingly diasporic. Traditional Jewish attachment to the land of Israel was a religious notion which Orthodox Jews believed would be fulfilled by the advent of the messiah. Political Zionism was a comparatively modern innovation, and its model was the mid-19th century European Risorgimento. The Zionist movement did, however, maintain religious undertones and argued that statehood itself was tantamount to the beginning of redemption, a paradoxical approach that harnessed the emotion of messianism while stripping it of theological content. This is evident in Israel’s Declaration of Independence which has no mention of God, but rather the Rock of Israel. This was a convenient catch-all, suggesting divinity to religious people, Jewish peoplehood to secularists, or Mount Zion itself to literalists (this catch-all formula would go on to create seismic fissures within Israeli society). Yet in the same document there is a nod to the messianic weltanschauung in the extraordinarily tentative yet loaded phrase reshit ha-tzemach ha-ge’ulah — the beginning of the first blossoming of redemption. It is tentative because it does not promise instant redemption; but it is loaded because it hints that independent statehood is but the first step towards something much bigger.
While Zionists of all persuasions debated Statehood and what form it should take until nearly 1948, all the institutions were there in embryonic form during the Mandate period, ready to become state infrastructure. They spoke accurately of ha-medinah she’habah, the “state to come”. The US-based Palestinian historian, Rashid Khalidi, described in his 1997 book, Palestinian Identity, how early 20th century Palestinian factionsoften saw the better established Zionist institutions as templates worth emulating. Before 1948, as Palestinian historians admit, their own state institutions were underdeveloped by contrast with Zionist organisations. While ‘progressive’ leaders sought to imitate the more European-style Zionist Yishuv, politics was largely dominated by old families of Ottoman-approved notables, such as the Husseinis and Nashashibis. Tellingly, it is the Palestine Liberation Organisation through which Abbas seeks to promulgate Palestinian independence, and not the Palestinian Authority. This implies that the initiative is for Palestinians everywhere, not only those who dwell in the West Bank and Gaza; just like the State of Israel purports to be for Jews everywhere, and not just those who live within its borders. The PLO, in organisational terms, can be likened to the World Zionist Organisation; both are essentially umbrella entities for various Diaspora groups united by a common general cause. The WZO originated in 1897 and continues to operate today. Every four years it meets in Jerusalem and passes resolutions on matters ranging from Zionist education to funding for projects in Israel. Like the Palestine National Council, the WZO includes affiliated labour unions, health organisations and vocational training schools. Before 1948 the proto-Israeli Jewish Agency within British Mandate Palestine acted very much like the Palestinian Authority does in the territories.
The shared symbol at the heart of both Palestinian and Israel identity is Jerusalem. Scholars debate whether the positioning of Jerusalem at the centre of the Zionist iconography merely reflects or actually enabled a religious dimension to dominate the post-Independence, and certainly post-1967, Zionist narrative. The same could be said about the symbolism of Al Quds for the Palestinian narrative, and the centrality the Al Aqsa mosque within it. The building dates back to the mid-7th century, a few decades after Mohammed’s death, so attests to a continuous presence over 14 centuries of Muslim Arabs in Palestine. On the other hand, it, too, introduces a sacred — and hence ‘non-negotiable’—element into the mix. And, in some eyes, this shifts the Palestinian focus from a defence of national rights, a crucial yet essentially local or at best regional issue, to one of defending Islam itself against a perceived threat, tipping Palestine into a putative battle between Islam and Judaism, or East and West. It was no accident, for instance, that the 2000 intifada was named Al Aqsa, after the main mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. That structure stands just metres away from both the Western Wall and Mount Zion, twin symbols of ancient Jewish ties to Jerusalem, and also rallying points for more modern political Zionism.
Fuelling these parallel causes is a shared notion of triumph over past tragedies. Motifs of suffering and victimhood proliferate on both sides to disturbing effect. Gaza’s Jewish evacuees put on the Nazi yellow star in 2005, while in the past Palestinians would dress tiny children as suicide bombers. Several symbols employed by both Jews and Palestinians are virtually identical. Most potent is the key to the abandoned home: Nakba demonstrators show the key to homes in Jaffa, Ashkelon, Haifa, Ramallah, Lydda or Deir Yassin that they lost or were driven from in 1948. Meanwhile some Sephardi families still possess and display the keys to homes in Spain from which they were expelled in 1492. Some of these homes may no longer exist but the common message of uncompensated dispossession persists. Yet while Jews may see the Nakba key as a threat, perhaps there is a veiled optimistic note. After all, a key unlocks a door, possibly to a better future. That seems to be the imagery invoked by the Palestinian think-tank and news source, Miftah — the word meaning ‘key’ in Arabic, like mafte’ah in Hebrew.
Despite these parallels, imitation largely went one way; few Zionists imitated Arabs. The chief Zionist goals were building Hebrew culture, a self-sufficient economy and a Jewish proletariat — not becoming ‘Middle Eastern’. There were exceptions, such as the Shomrim (The Guardians) who adopted Bedouin garb in admiration of what they saw as the simple honesty and authenticity of Arab life. In the quasi-political Canaanite movement, Jews rejected monotheism and instead wished to meld themselves into a great regional alliance with their fellow semitic Arab brothers. During the Mandate period some Zionist groups tried to build alliances with Arab communties, such as Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace), Ihud (Unity), the Communists and left-wing socialist Zionists, like Hashomer Ha-Tzair, or the workers unions of Haifa. All of these favoured forms of binationalism and unity between Palestine’s Arabs and Jews. But their private meetings with likeminded progressives on the Arab side, however, could not ultimately prevent war. Nonetheless, they planted the seed of dialogue which revived in such groups as Matzpen after 1967 and Peace Now after 1973, and which went mainstream with the Oslo process 20 years later.
In the current debate, some argue that the Palestinians are ‘not yet ready’ for statehood. Yet an overview of Palestinian institutions suggests that many mechanisms are already in place. Following the Oslo Accords of 1994 and 1995, for instance, there are ministries of education, justice, planning and co-operation, economy and trade, local industry, labour, health, social affairs and more. Palestinians throughout Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, held presidential elections in 1996 and 2005 and voted for representatives to a Palestinian Legislative Council in 1996 and 2006. Indeed, the latter instance saw the Palestinians do what virtually no other Arab country has managed to do: voters actually overturned a government. Despite the profound disappointments of Oslo — the building of Jewish-only bypass roads and the failure to stem the growth of settlements, to name but two — it did establish institutions that would seem to be a prerequisite for independent statehood. The Palestinian Authority now has a president, prime minister, cabinet, attorney general and elected legislative council. Palestine has its own central bank and internet domain name (.ps). Since 1994 an annual official gazette publishes legislation and executive decrees in Arabic. Palestine also has courts of first instance, appellate courts and a High Court with constitutional functions. True, there are allegations of political interference in the running of these courts. Like Israel, Palestine has no fully written constitution (a permanent constitution was drafted in 2003 but has not yet been passed) but has a Basic Law (2002) that substitutes for a written constitution.
In response to this developed infrastructure of the PA era, a number of organisations have formed to hold official institutions to account. Similar to Israel’s human rights monitoring groups such as B’Tselem, Machsom Watch, the New Israel Fund, Adalah, Ta’ayush and Sikui, Palestine has al-Haq (Justice), the Mandela Institute, Hanan Ashrawi’s Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens’ Rights, and, since 1998, Miftah, the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy. Women’s rights groups on both sides of the Green Line unite to challenge the patriarchy; the Jerusalem Link combined Palestinian feminist campaigners for peace with longer established Israeli lobbies, like Women in Black. And one veteran female campaigner, Umm Khalil, was the sole candidate to oppose Yasser Arafat in the first PA presidential election in 1996.
The developments in Palestinian civil infrastructure have been matched by economic changes, most notably the two-year plan announced by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in September 2009, called ‘Palestine — Ending the Occupation, Establishing the State’. The end-point of Fayyad’s two-year plan falls in September 2011, making the UN bid more intimately connected with Palestinian —or at least West Bank — economic revival. Even the IMF admitted as much when it said this year the PA “is now able to conduct the sound economic policies expected of a future well-functioning Palestinian state”. Fayyad, who holds a PhD in economics from the University of Texas and has worked at the IMF (1987-2001), has instigated what The Jerusalem Report called “a virtual revolution in the approach to running an economy at the highest levels”. The late Yasser Arafat opposed institutionalisation, partly out of fear of creating rival power blocs, but Fayyad has emphasised building infrastructure, fiscal transparency and reforming the management of public sector finance. He has also encouraged free enterprise. On paper at least, the results have been startling: last year the GDP leapt by a world-beating 9.3 %, paralleling the remarkable success of the Israeli economy during a period of global recession. The Al-Quds Index, which tracks the Palestine Securities Exchange, has enjoyed a recent boom: when it was formed in 1996 the PSE had 19 listed companies. Today it has 41 and eight more will join this year. Compared to the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, which was set up in 1953 (succeeding the Anglo-Palestine Bank’s Exchange Bureau for Securities of 1935), the PSE is miniscule; as of 1993 the TASE boasted the third largest number of first-time flotations by new companies of any exchange in the world. Samir Hulileh, whose Palestine Development and Investment owns the PSE, plans to launch an exchange-traded fund that will be open to investors anywhere from New York to Beijing. Fayyad apparently told him and his colleagues: “You, the business community, are not responsible for ending the Occupation. You are responsible for employing people and getting ready for the state. And that means you have to be part of the global world, to export and import, so when the state will come you will not have a garbage yard. You will be ready”.
Rawabi, nine kilometres north of Ramallah, could be the centrepiece of this new vision if or when it is completed. Ari Shavit, writing for Ha’aretz in 2009, called the proposed conurbation “the first planned city in Palestinian history”. The brainchild of Palestinian entrepreneur Bashar Masri, it should eventually house 40,000 largely educated, young professional Palestinians in 10,000 tasteful homes, spread over six neighbourhoods and covering 6.3 million square metres. Additionally it will boast galleries, offices, banks, a hospital, a cinema, two mosques, one church and eight schools. And while the Palestinian Authority will provide off-site infrastructure, Rawabi itself is largely privately funded to the tune of $850 million. Comparisons of the envisaged dream-city with Tel Aviv, Israel’s gleaming Bauhaus utopia on the Mediterannean, whose first roads were laid out exactly a century earlier, are irresistible. Shavit enthused that Rawabi, meaning ‘the hills’ in Arabic, will be “secular, open and vibrant, a city of pedestrian malls, cafés, kindergartens and schools, of thriving Palestinian start-ups and Palestinian yuppies. A city that will pave the Palestinians’ way to the 21st century.” Rawabi’s architects have eschewed settlementtype structures in favour of modern interpretations of Arab styles. The city hopes to provide up to 10,000 jobs in fields such as high tech, pharmaceuticals and healthcare and also offers an affordable mortgage scheme for young families unable to get on the property ladder. Rawabi has prompted surprising amounts of mutual co-operation with Israelis; the Jewish National Fund donated 3,000 saplings towards its green spaces, and in January this year Masri signed contracts with 12 Israeli construction firms to work alongside Palestinian firms. Somewhat apologetically he explained that the Israelis had the expertise and access to materials that most Palestinians lack. But Rawabi’s success is dependent on Israeli co-operation; it cannot be built unless Israel gives the PA control over the land corridor that links it to Ramallah.
In readiness for statehood, Palestinians are, alongside the Israelis, the most educated people in the Middle East. This is even true of generations of Palestinian refugees across the Middle East; the first Red Cross camp schools opened in 1949, and currently UNWRA (United Nations Works and Relief Association for Palestinians) runs 700 schools that provide free primary education for close to 482,000 pupils. PA literacy levels stand at 93.3 %, a little behind Israel (97.1%) and more than Lebanon (88.3% est.), Syria (83.1 %) and Egypt (66.4 %). In 1988 the West Bank began to phase out the old Jordanian syllabus, which was not meeting the needs and aspirations of Palestinians. Gaza, too, especially after 1994, jettisoned the Egyptian syllabus. And while UNWRA schools follow the curriculum of whichever country they are located in, PA schools introduced a strictly centralised single syllabus in 2000 that was fully adopted by 2006. In the PA area there are now 11 universities (where none existed before 1967), and the number of students enrolled in tertiary education tripled between 1995 and 2006. Naturally, problems remain, such as a dearth of research institutes and isolation caused by political factors, like travel constraints. Most PhD students have to study in Israel, if possible, or overseas. Even so, many inter-university co-operation programmes are underway, supported by groups such as TOKTEN, founded by expatriate Palestinians, an echo of the Jewish Diaspora funding of academies in Israel. By contrast, Israeli education, after the huge sums spent on schools by previous generations, has suffered in recent years from budget cuts and heightened divisions between secular-religious. Increasing numbers of Israelis choose to study abroad, which enriches Israeli education when (or if ) they return, yet also constitutes something of a brain drain. Much the same is true of Palestinians. Israel’s example has profoundly affected Palestinian education; though it is probably fairer to say that both aspire to broadly Western or international models; and both benefit inordinately from contributions from their Diasporas.
The word ‘independence’ carries a special resonance in the Arab world. Often it is appended to the word tahrir, liberation, as in Tahrir Square. The now-famous Cairo location won its name in the 1950s after the demolition of the British military barracks that once stood there. Many Arab political parties are named Istiqlal (independence), and just this January Ehud Barak named his breakaway faction from the Labour party Atzma’ut, (‘independence’ in Hebrew). The proposed Palestinian bid for UN recognition may be awkwardly timed and full of shortcomings, but it does represent an attempt by Palestinians to take their destiny in their own hands and not wait for hand-outs. As negotiator Saeb Erekat has argued, this could be the last chance to preserve a twostate solution and through legal peaceful means. Latterly Israeli politicians, including Defence Minister Ehud Barak, have sought to accept the bid as a fait accompli and discuss its terms of mandate. Even the new editor of the normally rightist Jerusalem Post, Steve Linde, wrote that the UN approach “might represent a turning point toward a final-status agreement”, adding that “Israel’s present strategy of confrontation isn’t working”.
Palestinians have not been shy of acknowledging the striking parallels between their own story and that of Israel. In 1914, three years before the Balfour Declaration, Abd al-Ra’uf Khayyal of Gaza wrote that Palestinians were to blame for their setbacks; they should “imitate the industriousness of the Zionists” (paraphrased in Rashid Khalidi’s book, Palestinian Identity). Daniel Pipes, a conservative American Jewish academic and Middle East expert, is Khalidi’s dogged foe in the wars that rage over Israel-Palestine on US campuses. Yet he, too, wrote in 1994 and 2008 about the extraordinary parallels between the two national movements. Most recently he noted how pro-Palestinian groups had set up Birthright Palestine in 2008, in apparent direct imitation of Birthright Israel. The latter is a travel and education enterprise founded in 2000 to encourage Diaspora Jews, especially non-affiliated Americans, to connect with Israel and rediscover their Jewish roots. Naturally both groups claim as their ‘birthright’ the same area — Israel and the territories, that is, all of historic Palestine or Eretz Israel. The result is mutual exclusivity of claims. And herein lies the tragedy of the mirror images. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, do these parallels augur well for future co-operation? Should Jews see in Palestinian strivings for independence a reflection of their own earlier quests? Or do these gestures suggest a threat: a secular variant of ‘replacement theology’, where one cause aims to eradicate another by stealing its clothing? Such questions come to mind when one hears the same historic motifs touted, like ‘expulsion, exile and return’, or the same shared symbols and places invoked —Jerusalem, Jaffa, Safed, or the Judean Hills.