The quest for Palestinian statehood has long been central to the Palestinian national struggle. In 1971 the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) declared the creation of a single democratic state in historic Palestine inclusive of Christians, Jews, and Muslims to be its goal and the only just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1988 it issued the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, which implied that the PLO accepted the two-state solution, just as its chairman, Yasser Arafat, officially recognized Israel. These developments paved the way to the Oslo peace process in 1993. By 2023, the State of Palestine was officially recognized by 139 of 193 member states of the United Nations, which admitted it as a nonmember state in 2012.

Of course, Palestine remains far from independent or sovereign, having suffered under Israeli occupation throughout this whole period. In the thirty years following the signing of the first Oslo Accords, Israel allowed the transfer of over 500,000 Israeli Jewish settlers to the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem), built more than half of a planned 712-kilometer separation wall around it, developed hundreds of checkpoints and roadblocks that fragment Palestinian areas into separate population reserves, and launched five wars against the Gaza Strip, which it has kept under siege for over seventeen years. Already in 1999, Edward Said concluded, “the problem is that Palestinian self-determination in a separate state is unworkable.” The internationally endorsed two-state solution—indeed the prospects for any viable Palestinian state—were thus undermined even before the brutal attacks of October 7 on Israeli civilians and military personnel.

Palestinians need to move beyond the mirage of the two-state solution.

The ever-growing toll of Israel’s ensuing genocidal war on Gaza has only reinforced judgments that the quest for Palestinian statehood has become futile. The failed April 2024 UN Security Council vote on admitting the State of Palestine into the UN as a full member shows the intransigence of Israeli and U.S. objections. As the number of Palestinians killed continues to rise—as of this writing, more than 34,000 have died, while more than 1.7 million have been displaced and much of the population faces the risk of famine—it has become clear that Palestinians need to move beyond the mirage of the two-state solution.

Even before this war, Palestinians have been grappling with the failure of the two-state solution, forcing them to reassess the relationship between statehood and self-determination and imagine a political resolution that goes beyond partition. The war has compelled them to rethink what political liberation might look like and how to articulate an alternative to the present impasse—one that is democratic, viable, and capable of protecting the equal political rights of Palestinians and Jewish Israelis.

Ever since Palestinians were expelled from their land during the 1948 war, they have sought to fulfill their UN-enshrined right of return. The establishment of the PLO by the Arab League in 1964 reaffirmed this right, but its charter did not specify statehood as part of its mission of liberating Palestine from Zionist colonialism. Only with the ascendance of guerrilla groups into the executive committee of the PLO in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War did the Palestinian national movement tie return with self-determination and political liberation with statehood. The Palestinian struggle for self-determination, however, always carried a certain ambiguity about the relationship between national liberation and statehood.

In this regard, the Palestinian national movement was not much different from most anticolonial liberation movements of the twentieth century. The concept of self-determination, internationalized with Vladimir Lenin’s defense of people’s right to national independence and reframed by Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points in 1918, laid the foundation of a world order composed of nation-states; by 1960 it had become the juridical basis for all national quests for political independence from colonial domination. UN Resolution 1514, adopted that year by the UN General Assembly (UNGA), affirmed self-determination as a fundamental human right. It also declared colonialism a “denial of fundamental human rights” and specified that “all people have an inalienable right to complete freedom, the exercise of their sovereignty and the integrity of their national territory.” It thus made self-determination synonymous with national territorial sovereignty—that is, with statehood. An international consensus had thereby been formed around the necessity of independent statehood as a first, if not sufficient, step toward political liberation.

But not all anticolonialists agreed. Many considered the right to self-determination as a people’s right to define their political future and choose their own political system of government. They maintained that sovereignty is enshrined above all in the people, or nation, rather than in a territorially bound state per se. These antcolonialists understood the pursuit of self-determination as part of a larger project of remaking the world beyond the Westphalian order of sovereign nation-states. They were aware of what revolutionaries from Toussaint Louverture to Frantz Fanon have warned against: that national independence does not guarantee liberation, for it can create new forms of domination.

In the case of Palestinian statehood, the defining moment of 1971 came when the eighth Palestinian National Council (PNC) convention adopted a unanimous resolution calling for “a democratic Palestinian state” that would be set up “in a Palestine liberated from Zionist imperialism,” where “all who wish to do so can live in peace with the same rights and obligations.” The convention made clear that “Palestinian armed struggle is not a racist or sectarian struggle against the Jews.”

Nationalists were clear about opposing Zionism as a project of domination rather than rejecting Jews for their identity.

This vision emerged in the face of international denial of the Palestinian question—best exemplified in UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967, which acknowledged the right of each state in the region to “live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries” but did not refer to the Palestinians by name. It simply referred to them as refugees in need of a humanitarian solution, thereby denying their national political character as a people with a right to self-determination.

The PLO’s state project was thus as much a matter of national self-affirmation as of political actualization. It aimed to assert Palestinian peoplehood, which Zionism sought to eradicate, as much as to articulate a decolonial political future inclusive of all those who live on the land. While many doubted the sincerity of this inclusive vision—and Israel outright rejected it—Palestinian nationalists were clear about opposing Zionism as a racial colonial project of domination rather than rejecting Jews for their identity.

The PLO’s diplomatic and legal efforts in this regard came to fruition in 1974 with UNGA Resolution 3236, which affirmed the legitimacy of Palestinian anticolonial struggle and right to “national independence and sovereignty.” The UN national assembly then also recognized the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and invited it to participate in the work of the General Assembly like any non–member state, such as the Vatican. Meanwhile, the PLO continued to act as a state in exile, with its various political institutions, electoral structures, and economic services, representing and providing for Palestinians in the diaspora as well as for those under Israeli occupation. In 1974 the PNC’s twelfth session adopted the Ten Point Program, which specified that the PLO would employ all means “for the liberation of Palestinian land and setting up a patriotic, independent national authority on every part of the Palestine territory that will be liberated” as part of its strategy for the establishment of a democratic Palestinian state.

The adoption of this program meant that the PLO effectively gave up on the idea of remaking the regional and international order of nation-states. It implicitly admitted the international consensus on the partition of Palestine and the framework for peace outlined in UN Resolution 242. Although many Palestinians contested the possibility of a Palestinian state without dismantling Zionism first, the majority accepted that national independence was a first step toward national liberation, even if the content and shape of this state—as well as the extent to which its creation would be the means to, or the end of, decolonization—remained contested.

Linking self-determination with statehood thus gave the Palestinian liberation struggle a concrete political meaning in an international system that bestowed on states the primary responsibility of representing and protecting the human and political rights of citizens. This view gained strength after Israel’s war against the PLO in Lebanon in 1982 and the failure of Arab states to come to the rescue of the Palestinians. The PLO’s Declaration of Independence in 1988, announced after the outbreak of the First Intifada, represented the official Palestinian acceptance that national self-determination could only be fulfilled on part of historic Palestine—and that it would be attainable by negotiating with, rather than defeating, Israel.

This Palestinian vision of statehood, and its acceptance of the two-state solution, thus became the price of the Palestinian historical compromise with Israel: it was the only way for Palestinians to advocate for themselves at peace negotiations where UNSC Resolution 242 set the terms of any possible resolution to the conflict. A Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, i.e. on only 22 percent of Palestine, was considered better than no state because it promised political independence and would allow a means for the return of refugees, even if it could not restore justice to the Palestinians for the Nakba. Above all, it promised citizenship rights. In other words, the Palestinian state project affirmed the Palestinian “right to have rights,” which, as Hannah Arendt explained, is the rationale for, and responsibility of, any claim for statehood.

For the PLO leadership, the Oslo peace process in 1993 provided an opportunity to territorialize these dreams of Palestinian statehood. With the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993 and Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1995, the PLO acquiesced to a conflict resolution approach intrinsically tied to territorial partition as a paradigm for achieving a minimum of Palestinian rights. It also accepted Israel’s insistence that the starting point of the conflict was the 1967 war, not the 1948 war. Although fully aware that the Oslo process did not end the occupation or specify as its end goal the creation of a Palestinian state, the Palestinian leadership remained committed to proving that Palestinian statehood was both necessary and achievable.

Starting with Arafat’s return from Tunis to Gaza in 1994 and his role as the head of a democratically elected Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in January 1996, the Palestinian official narrative thus shifted from decolonization to state-building. The PNA focused on behaving as a state in order to be recognized as one, embarking on a wide variety of activities that ranged from setting up a new police force and various ministries to devising national development strategies and ritualizing presidential salutes while receiving foreign ambassadors. Such performances of statehood sought to abstract the reality of occupation, not so much in order to deny it but to refuse to be constrained by it. They were attempts, however limited, to affirm Palestinian agency and legitimate national existence despite Israel’s continuous obstructions.

The acceptance of the two-state solution became the price of the Palestinian compromise with Israel.

The PNA’s belief that national independence was attainable through state-building rather than revolutionary armed resistance was best exemplified by the Fayyad technocratic government in 2007. Set up in the aftermath of the international boycott of Hamas’s electoral victory in 2006 and the Fatah-Hamas debacle in June 2007, this government defined its mission as providing “the final push to statehood.” It worked on proving Palestinian institutional readiness for independent statehood, as advised by PNA’s new international sponsors, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

State-building thus became about law and order, not about national unity or democratic representation. It confined the meaning of self-determination to the establishment of a neoliberal state, as defined by Washington’s conception of good governance. Its mission was to foster “institution-building” and fiscal transparency in order to ensure the development of a vibrant private sector. It established a kind of statehood that was not sovereign but responsible for the management of Palestinian populations under its control and entitled to political independence in a distant and uncertain future.

Even more assiduously, since 2008 this state-building effort proved to be a site of governance and control—an effort by which the PNA shaped power relations over space and people, rather than a strategy that could effectively halt Israeli settlement construction or end the siege on Gaza. This control was visible at the macro level in the creation of a repressive police force and prison system in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and in the failure to create independent and transparent judiciary. It also was clear at the micro level in the way state-building efforts reshaped access to resources and power, whether in developing the infrastructure for a modern electricity grid and road system or defining the terms of public-private partnerships. Meanwhile, the PNA was unable to challenge the settler colonial reality its state project was embedded in, given that it remained responsible for safeguarding Israeli security. The failure of regional and international powers to exert pressure on Israel to retreat fully from the West Bank and Gaza—or even to adhere to the terms of the Oslo agreements—meant that the Palestinian state was going to be neither independent nor democratic.

State-building became about law and order, not about national unity or democratic representation.

Indeed, it is impossible to explain the persistence (and failure) of the Palestinian state project without considering the international investment in it. The Quartet on the Middle East—comprising the UN, European Union, United States, and Russia—has been the major advisor and funder of the Palestinian state project, delivering over $44 billion to the Palestinian territories since 1994. Apart from disbursing some of this money into humanitarian aid, the international community focused on improving the PNA’s institutional capability to prove Palestinian readiness for political independence, giving special attention to enhancing the PNA’s monopoly over the use of violence in the West Bank and Gaza.

The meaning of statehood has thus been restricted to the power of an internationally recognized authority to impose law and order—crowding out goals such as fostering democratic accountability or ensuring Palestinian unity, let alone adhering to international law or forcing Israel to withdraw from Palestinian land. And by prioritizing Israel’s security concerns in delineating the extent of Palestinian territorial and demographic jurisdiction, the international community has largely ignored the importance of territorial contiguity for the viability of any Palestinian state.

The cumulative effect of these developments of the past thirty years has been to transform the Palestinian state project from a vehicle for national liberation into an effort to dissolve the Palestine question altogether. Juridically, Oslo confined the Palestinian nation to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, compromising the unity of the Palestinian people and the political rights of Palestinian refugees abroad. It also undermined the national Palestinian political system with the creation of new territorially truncated political bodies: the PNA and the Palestinian Legislative Council effectively superseded the PLO and its Palestinian National Council, which had historically represented Palestinians both inside and outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Palestinian project of national self-determination has thus been emptied of emancipatory potential. It was not in vain, however, for it fulfilled an important historical role, serving as the vehicle for affirming Palestinian political existence as a national group with a right to political independence. It helped win legitimacy for the Palestinian struggle of self-determination in the eyes of the international community, which has admitted the State of Palestine into multiple international institutions since 2011. But it proved to be insufficient for political and territorial liberation because it remained confined within a partition paradigm that did not stop, let alone undo, Israeli settler colonialism.

Israel’s latest war on Gaza has not only confirmed the reality of Israel’s effective sovereignty over Palestine—a reality that has been increasingly described as apartheid. It has also revealed the brutal dimensions of this condition. Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are subjected to carpet bombing and to the annihilation of their educational, health, and housing infrastructure while enduring displacement and famine. Those in the West Bank, meanwhile, continue to live in fragmented population reserves pervaded by Israeli checkpoints while facing mounting settler violence and military incursions; as of this writing, more than 500 have been killed, and thousands have been taken into Israeli custody, since October 8.

Decolonizing Israel is going to be central to any discussion of the one-state solution.

Israel’s latest war on the Palestinians clearly indicates that the conflict has entered a new phase, even if its settler colonial character has not changed. The premise upon which the conflict has been managed for the past thirty years has been shaken, as Israel can no longer rely on the claim that the conflict is confined to the land occupied in the 1967 war and that a resolution can be achieved through a peace process, or a partition paradigm, that does not end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. The more foundational question posed in 1948, if not before, has resurfaced and demands still an answer: Who has political rights in the land between the river and the sea, and how are these rights going to be exercised and protected? Can this land accommodate two national groups, and if so, under what political configuration?

Many Palestinian activists and academics have sought to address these questions long before the events of October 7. Over the past two decades, in particular, many have sought to redefine the meaning of political liberation in the wake of the maimed project of a Palestinian nation-state. This alternative discourse identifies settler colonialism, rather than occupation, as the impediment to political independence—and thus views decolonization, rather than partition, as the required path to peace.

One aspect of this work has entailed appeals to Palestinians’ inalienable rights. This rights-based approach gained prominence with the rise of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and the 2004 opinion by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) declaring Israel’s separation wall to be illegal. This approach sees in international law a potent tool for holding Israel accountable to its international obligations—as most recently manifested in South Africa’s genocide case against Israel at the ICJ. It emphasizes the unity of Palestinian rights, including the right of return, freedom from occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, and the right to equal citizenship for the Palestinians living inside Israel. The BDS movement, meanwhile, has been particularly effective in mobilizing support for new strategies of nonviolent resistance and generating growing international solidarity with Palestinians at the grassroots level and in different policy circles (including academia, local governments, unions, and churches).

The rights-based approach, however, stops short of offering a comprehensive political strategy—one capable of uniting the Palestinian body politic with a viable political alternative to the stalled two-state solution. Proposals to that effect have taken two broad forms.

The first rejects the very idea of a Palestinian state as a political aspiration. It considers the state a site of inherent violence and thus bound to be oppressive, especially in the absence of a free and active civil society. It emphasizes that sovereignty lies with the people, not with the state, and highlights that globalization has undermined the importance of territorial sovereignty. Politically, this approach affirms the political agency of the Palestinians everywhere, not just in the Occupied Territories. It embraces the fragmented and exilic Palestinian experience while providing a resounding rejection of the PNA’s attempt to monopolize the Palestinian “we.”

The second approach is more skeptical about the possibility of transcending the state as a political project, given that it remains the sovereign guarantor of rights and security. Advocates of this approach seek rather to redefine the content of the state project by rejecting ethnonationalism and deterritorializing the fulfillment of the right to self-determination. They argue that a democratic one-state solution is the only means to decolonize the ongoing apartheid reality. There is no consensus, however, on whether such a state should be a liberal democratic state or a binational one, largely because there is no agreement on how to accommodate the political rights of Jewish Israelis in a decolonized political entity. Binationalists maintain that the collective rights of Jewish citizens would be recognized as equal, not superior, to Palestinian collective rights in a future democratic state. Others argue that a decolonized polity can only protect Jewish individual rights as citizens but not their Zionist national identity, since Zionism is a settler colonial project premised on the destruction of the Palestinians.

Israel’s present genocidal onslaught on Gaza has given further credence to this line of argument. Decolonizing Israel, and thus Zionism, is going to be central to any discussion of the one-state solution. Voices calling for it are growing within the Jewish community in the United States and elsewhere and within a new generation of students and activists leading international protests in support of Palestinian rights worldwide. According to Said, it falls on the Palestinians, as unfair as this might sound, to show the way toward liberation, since “no people, for bad or for good, is so freighted with multiple, and yet unreachable or indigestible, significance as the Palestinians. . . . Their relationship to Zionism, and ultimately to political and spiritual Judaism, gives them a formidable burden as interlocutors of the Jews.” This war has made it clear that they cannot, and should not, carry this burden alone.

This essay is adapted from Rethinking Statehood in Palestine: Self-Determination and Decolonization Beyond Partition, edited by Leila Farsakh and published in an open access edition by University of California Press in 2021.

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