Alternative Palestinian Agenda

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Self-determination in the absence of self?
April 2005
Mohammed Abed

In recent times, the Bi-National or Unitary Democratic State has become widely discussed as a political framework for resolving the conflict in historical Palestine. The arguments in support of this alternative often cite political and practical facts and invoke concepts such as ‘equality,’ ‘democracy,’ and ‘justice’ as their normative basis. The scale of Israel’s expansion into the West Bank and Gaza make the ‘separation’ on which the two-state solution is based impracticable; the minimum Palestinians would be willing to accept in negotiating their statehood far exceeds what even the Israeli ‘peace camp’ considers the maximum that can be offered; Israel’s expansionism and the political dynamic that supports it can only be neutralized by calling for equal rights in one state; even the West Bank and Gaza in their entirety do not have the economic or demographic capacity necessary for viable statehood. There are many other arguments – all of them by now familiar. The conclusion drawn is that for the sake of justice and for reasons of political expediency, the Palestinians and their supporters must shift from a national-separatist mode of activism to the more inspiring ‘South African’ model that makes equality under the law of one state the imperative.

Conspicuous by its near total absence from this discourse is the argument that the Palestinian refugees are due reparations for the atrocities and ethnic cleansing they suffered at the hands of Israeli forces in 1948. An ethical program of reparations must provide more than protection under the law and the material means of life; it must also include a territorial dimension that allows for the return of the refugees to their homeland. But this is not the only condition that must be satisfied; the exile of the refugees must be terminated in a way that does not deprive Israeli Jews of basic rights and the serious interests that justify the possession of those rights. In normative terms, this is the most powerful argument for transcending nationalist politics. Whereas the practical and political arguments derive their justification from contingent and morally irrelevant facts, a program of reparations that includes the return of the refugees is justified in so far as it is the sole means to terminating intolerable harms. The ethnically unique nature of these harms can be explained in terms of relational facts about Palestinian culture, land, and the meaning of self-determination. I’ll come to explain what I mean by this shortly.

As a prelude, consider two senses of ‘self-determination.’ The first is national self-determination, a right justified by the unique contribution that group membership makes to the welfare of individuals. The second is liberal-democratic self-determination, the right to be an equal participant in democratic processes and governance. The latter right can be realized by a nation-state in the West Bank and Gaza. But what the argument from reparation shows is that even if there were no practical or political impediments to separation, the Palestinian nation-state would not materialize Palestinian national self- determination. This seems a strange argument to make. After all, the nation-state is routinely considered the paradigm of national self- determination. Whether or not the nation-state creates the conditions for national self-determination depends on whether the national culture at issue is ‘territorially bounded;’ if the Palestinian culture has this feature, then a nation-state in the West Bank and Gaza will not realize national self-determination. This point needs further explanation.

In general terms, a national group can become socially and culturally dead if its cultural inheritance cannot be passed on to subsequent generations in any meaningful way. Some groups have a ‘territorially bounded’ culture in the sense that the trans-generational projects and activities associated with the collective life of the group depend on the continued possession of a particular territory. Insufferable harm is done to both existing members and their successors if a national group that satisfies this description is forcefully removed from its territory. Subsequent generations are robbed of the cultural, social, and economic inheritance to which they are entitled and the ability of the nation to carry on its common life is severely hindered. Citizenship in host states and economic incentives do not satisfy serious interests of this nature. They are serious interests because there is only one alternative for satisfying them, and the more alternatives there are to satisfy the interest, the less serious it becomes.

This explains some basic and ethically relevant facts about Palestinian culture, land, and the nature of the harms imposed by exile. But what of national self-determination and the nation-state? Palestinian culture and collective life is territorially bounded by Palestine as a whole and not merely the West Bank and Gaza. Self and identity are articulated relative to the former because the practices, rituals, and traditions of the group are. If the Palestinians are denied access to the whole of their historic homeland, their culture will not flourish in any meaningful way; they will not be self-determined as a nation. Under the conditions I have described, it does not make sense to claim that someone from Jenin is able to fully engage the Palestinian culture and identity, to be a person with a past as well as a future without having access to Jaffa, Haifa, and other centers of Palestinian life. It’s a serious interest of individuals that the group to which they belong thrive in this way; their well-being depends on it. In so far as equality in a democratic framework can be satisfied through a number of alternatives, it is less ethically significant. Although Palestinians can be self-determined in the liberal-democratic sense anywhere, access to Palestine in its entirety is the sole means to national self- determination.

This suggests that the right of return is less about the right of [individual] ownership over property and more about the right of possession where this is defined as the right of a nation to exercise sovereignty or autonomy over a territory, that is, the right to make and enforce the laws of its land, including laws about property, education, and cultural affairs. Conceiving of the right of return in this way does two important things. It gives us a framework for reconciling Palestinian national self-determination – including the return of the refugees – with the basic rights of Israelis, both as a nation and as individuals. Thinking about the conflict in these terms reflects the fact that individuals suffer far greater harms when they are denied a homeland, a space for the expression of culture and identity, than when they are denied property. Since Israel is a predominantly urban society, individual property can in most cases be restored to its rightful owners. However, in some cases it can’t, and thinking about the right of return as a right of ownership doesn’t give you the mechanisms to adjudicate cases where individual rights conflict. Conceiving of the right of return as a right of possession does, and it makes sense of the moral intuition that a house in Amman will not compensate you for the house you lost in Jaffa.

This argument also counts against the idea that realizing ‘equality’ and ‘justice’ is dealing with the issues at the heart of conflict in Palestine. The appropriate logic is the logic of restitution not the logic of equality. Calling for equal citizenship in a unitary democratic state makes the right of return a problem of individual ownership over property. As we have seen, this does not deal with what is most ethically significant about the exile of the refugees. Looking at the conflict from this perspective obscures that what we have to envision solutions to is not an absence of civil rights but an absence of conditions that foster the liberation and growth of the self. This is an individual interest, but it can only be realized in concert with others. Any solution to the conflict must therefore suggest political structures that realize and support the right to national self- determination. This is something that neither the two-state solution nor the one-state solution achieve.

It’s very important to notice that national self-determination can be achieved without the establishment of a nation-state for either party to the conflict. A homeland is an autonomous territory within the boundaries of a state where sovereignty and political power is fairly distributed amongst different national groups. Within this framework, a nation can engage in the development and expression of a national culture and social ethos without transforming self-determination into an exclusionary form of political association.

The Palestinian claim to a homeland has its basis in serious interests, and those interests cannot be satisfied unless the Palestinians have a space for the expression of their culture, and this in turn cannot be satisfied unless all Palestinians have access to the entire territory on which their culture was articulated. The interests at the heart of both the Palestinian and the Israeli claim to a nation-state can be realized in this way, so the claim to a nation-state is difficult to justify. A Bi-National state deals with the most important issues surrounding the conflict and does so in a way that is sensitive to the issues that liberal-individualists are concerned with. Rather than thinking of Bi-Nationalism as a polished political solution to the conflict, we can conceive of it as a set of values and a framework for further engagement. It is only on this basis that we can envision political solutions that put the self back into self-determination.


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