Nadia Hijab on what we’re fighting for, against, and growing our power
On Saturday 27th January, Nadia Hijab, Executive Director of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, joined PSC members at the Annual General Meeting. Below is the transcript of her talk.
It’s an honor to be speaking to the group that’s made it on to Israel’s top 20!
In my talk today I want to focus on three things:
1) How to get our framing right in terms of what we’re fighting against;
2) How to put forward a compelling vision of what we’re fighting for; and
3) How to stay strategic in growing all our sources of power so we can achieve our goals.
This may all sound pretty basic but there’s a lot of confusion both among Palestinians and among Palestine solidarity activists. And the reason for confusion is that we don’t have a fully representative leadership that is providing clear direction – and that’s putting it mildly.
So first, the question of what we’re fighting against. There’s a lot of debate, particularly in academic circles about the framework of analysis we should apply to the Palestinians. Is it settler colonialism? Or ethnic cleansing? Or racial discrimination? Or apartheid? In fact you could make a case for any one of those and more.
But what we need is a common framing to make it crystal clear not only what we are fighting against – but also what we are fighting for. And we need that framing so we can be clear about the strategies we need to succeed. My Al-Shabaka colleague Ingrid Jaradat and I reviewed all these frameworks in a recent policy paper. We identified apartheid as the most strategic framework – in other words, as the one most useful in our struggle.
For example, although the settler colonial framework is strategic in many ways it was not expressly prohibited by international law at the time Israel was established. That means it would only be applicable to Israel’s settler colonial enterprise in the OPT. Thus, it could not be used to address the rights of the refugees or equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel. In addition, although it was prohibited, it was not criminalized.
By contrast, apartheid has been treated as a serious violation under customary law at least since the end of the Second World War. It was prohibited and criminalized in the Anti-Apartheid Convention of 1973 and was incorporated into the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (2002) as one of the most serious crime against humanity after genocide.
In the case of Palestine, apartheid began when the Zionist settler colonial society transformed into the state of Israel. That’s when the ideology of Jewish superiority and policy of ethnic cleansing were incorporated into the laws and institutions of the state. So Israel bears legal responsibility for acts of apartheid against all Palestinians, including the refugees, the citizens of Israel, and those under occupation.
It should be noted that individual criminal responsibility also applies to those who carry out, aid, or abet the crime of apartheid. All states and the UN are responsible for ensuring that those who are guilty are brought to justice. And they have a legal obligation to cooperate and adopt measures, including sanctions, to bring apartheid to an end and ensure reparations. There is much more on this in the UN report by Richard Falk and Virginia Tilley that was withdrawn under pressure. There’s also more discussion in our Al-Shabaka paper.
Based on the above, if we can establish the apartheid framing as our common framing that would be a major source of power for our movement.
Now if that’s what we are fighting against, what are we fighting for? This is where the discussion often slips into an argument of 1-state vs 2-states. But let’s think about that for a moment. In terms of achieving Palestinian rights, what would a 1-state political outcome achieve that 2-states would not?
The vision of a secular democratic state in all of Palestine as set out by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1968, has always been more compelling for Palestinians than that of two states. Through a single state Palestinians would exercise their right to self-determination by returning to and living in the entirety of the land that had been Palestine, alongside the Jews living there, with equal rights for all.
As for the vision of 2 states, it’s important to distinguish between the one set out in 1988, when the Palestinian National Council adopted it, and the disaster that was the Oslo accords. When it was adopted in 1988, the 2-state solution was seen as a pragmatic, doable recognition of reality. Palestinians would exercise the right to self-determination through a sovereign state that would secure the equal rights of its citizens.
Such a state would enable Palestine to join the community of nations. Further, the 1988 PNC resolution upheld the UN resolutions regarding the rights of the Palestinian refugees. And the struggle for two states does not mean foresaking the vital struggle for equality of the Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Oslo doomed a rights-based state project from the start. The Palestinian leadership was willing to sacrifice refugee rights. As for the Israelis, even the so-called great peace-maker Yitzhak Rabin made it clear that Palestinians would have an entity that was “less than a state” with Israel’s security border located in the Jordan Valley.
Yet, had we built up enough power to ensure that the 2-state solution stayed faithful to its original framing, then it could have fulfilled Palestinian rights to self-determination and return, just as the 1-state would have done. In fact an end to apartheid does not necessarily mean a “one-state solution” in the entire territory that is controlled by an apartheid system. It can be a two-state solution. In Namibia, the people achieved self-determination through independence with their struggle against the South African apartheid regime.
I would argue that either state outcome could be made to achieve Palestinian rights – ifwe have the power to do so. Plus – and this is very important – fulfilling Palestinian rights needs some of the sources of power that are associated with the state system.
For example, the fact that Israeli sovereignty is not recognized in either occupied East Jerusalem – or indeed in West Jerusalem – under international law is a source of power we should not give up easily. The fact that the settlements are considered illegal under the law and by the vast majority of states is a source of power we should not give up until we achieve our goals.
Imagine the different situation today if the PLO had – back in 2004 – “activated” the International Court of Justice ruling on Israel’s illegal wall. Although it was an advisory opinion, it made a clear call on all states not to “recognize the illegal situation resulting from the construction of the wall” and not to provide any aid that could maintain that situation. The PLO could have used this to ensure that rules-conscious European countries acted much more decisively to make sure that their relations with Israel did not support the illegal Israeli settlements. The PLO did not do so.
These and others are important sources of power if we use them – if we really push for them through our movement and if we push the Palestinian leadership to push for them.
The reality is that today the Palestinian people have very little power to achieve either 1 state or 2 in the foreseeable future or to impose Palestinians right on Israel or on the international community. No one is going to give us anything so why let go of any of our sources of power? If we are determined to end apartheid we must not let go of any of our sources of power.
One can work for 1-state or 2-state outcomes so long as each fulfills Palestinian rights. This was the smart, strategic approach by the founders of the BDS movement. Given the disarray of the national movement and the lack of consensus around political goals, they focused instead on rights. The BDS call is for the realization of self-determination through freedom from occupation, equality for the Palestinian citizens of Israel, and justice for the Palestinian refugees in fulfilling their right of return. Freedom, justice and equality. This is how they reached the broadest spectrum of Palestinian society & international solidarity activists – and built a considerable source of power. And these rights can be achieved in 1 state or 2.
Now there is one source of power we have not yet tapped: That of the narrative. Israel continues to dominate the narrative in the West despite the inroads we have made. And we must tap this source of power soon – we are facing a time of great danger and of fiercer attacks both within Palestine and against all efforts at real solidarity.
We badly need a positive, forward-looking narrative of what we are for, a narrative that unifies us and communicates the power of our vision. A narrative that provides a direction for the movement until the time comes for a political outcome. A narrative that overcomes the barriers that Israel’s physical fragmentation of the Palestinian people has created. A narrative that challenges Israel and prevents it from being able to paint us as anti-everything.
That unifying Palestinian narrative already exists: It’s Freedom. It’s Justice. It’s Equality. These are the goals identified by the BDS movement. They are also goals all human beings can aspire to and they speak to the reality of each segment of the Palestinian people, under occupation, in Israel and in refugee camps and exile.
We have that narrative, but we don’t use it. We say that we are anti-apartheid and that we support BDS against Israel. What we must make very clear is that we support BDS because we want to achieve freedom, justice, and equality. We are against apartheid because we want to achieve freedom, justice, and equality.
These goals need to be placed front and center of our movement as soon as possible: They are an uplifting and positive vision that can quickly occupy the high ground. And they can be achieved in 1-state or 2.
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