The prospects for a Palestinian state have rarely been more grim
The Palestinian national movement, since its inception in the 1920s, has sought to establish a unitary Arab state in all of Palestine as defined by the British Mandate: the territory lying between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, stretching southward to the Gulf of Aqaba. This state was to contain only a small Jewish minority—as defined by the first leader of the movement, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Muhammad Amin al Husseini, restricted to the Jews who lived in Palestine prior to World War I (or, in a variant, prior to November 2, 1917, when the British government issued the Balfour Declaration).
But the Palestinian Arabs proved unable to eject the British (in the failed 1936-1939 Revolt) or to contain or drive out the Zionists (in the 1947 War), or to establish “their” state—and were themselves “expelled” from history for more than a decade. Their return to history was signaled by the emergence of the Fatah resistance movement in the early 1960s (its founders claimed it was established by Palestinian exiles, led by Yasser Arafat, in Kuwait in 1959) and the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The PLO was established in May 1964 in Jerusalem by resolution of Palestinian representatives from “Palestine” and the Palestinian diaspora, convoked as the Palestine National Council. That meeting of the PNC also issued the Palestinian National Charter, the national movement’s “constitution.” It called for the destruction of the Zionist entity and “the liberation of [all of] Palestine,” designating Zionism as “evil,” “racist,” and “fascist,” and resolved that the Palestinians, once victorious, “exercise their right of self-determination and sovereignty.” The gathered dignitaries may have avoided the explicit term “statehood,” in clear deference to their Jordanian hosts (who had annexed the West Bank and East Jerusalem between 1948 and 1950) and to the wishes of some of the PLO’s constituent members, who supported “Arab unity,” which theoretically posited the establishment of a single large pan-Arab state. But the PLO and PNC clearly strove, and strive to this day, to establish a Palestinian state.
The PLO’s main ideological rival in the Palestinian arena, Hamas, preferred to avoid defining which Jews, if any, would be granted citizenship or allowed to reside in the future Palestinian state. In its founding Covenant or Constitution of 1988, Hamas, like Fatah before it, also avoided using the word “state” as the movement’s goal, stressing, instead, the aim of the “liberation,” through “jihad,” of Palestine and the “obliteration” of Israel. Again, the idea of “unity”—this time pan-Islamic rather than merely pan-Arab—and Hamas’s self-image as part of a “universalist” Muslim Brotherhood, precluded explicit endorsement of a separate Palestinian Arab state.
Still, Hamas clearly aimed and aims to establish such a state, albeit governed by sharia law rather than a secular constitution. And the main component of the PLO, the Fatah movement, headed today by Abbas, in its founding constitution from the mid-1960s, clearly affirmed the establishment of “an independent democratic state with complete sovereignty on all Palestinian lands.” Since the early 1990s, the PLO—at least in its overtures toward and contacts with Western governments—has identified its goal as establishing a Palestinian state in those territories captured by Israel in 1967: the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.
Yet the Palestinian national movement failed to prepare their people and movement for statehood. In contrast with their Zionist rivals, the Palestinians, during the years of Ottoman rule (ending in 1917 and 1918) and the subsequent British Mandate (1917 or 1918 to 1948), failed to set up representative or substantive political parties, or to establish a competent, public-service-oriented leadership cadre, institutions of self-government, and a national militia that could carry their people toward statehood when the moment ripened. This reinforced the image of a national movement bent only or mainly on destruction of the “other” rather than seeking self-realization.
The key to understanding Fatah objectives today lies in its leaders’ stance on resolving the refugee problem. Contrary to what many Western commentators and analysts have chosen to believe, the Palestinian stress on the importance of the refugees is not a tactical matter—a way to gain further leverage in negotiations. The Palestinian leadership is unanimous and resolute in insisting that the problem’s solution lies in the “Right of Return”: Israel, and the world, must accept the principle of repatriation and eventually facilitate repatriation. The idea that the refugees must return to their homes has been the ethos, the be-all and end-all of Palestinian politics and policy, since 1948. No Palestinian leader can or will ever abandon this principle, on pain of assassination, and none has. (For Western journalistic consumption, Yasser Arafat once vaguely wrote that the Palestinians would take account of Israeli demographic sensibilities when it came to implementing refugee repatriation; and more recently, Abbas was reportedly willing, in his secret 2008 negotiations with then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, to countenance less than full refugee repatriation in the initial phases of a deal. But in their public utterances during the past two years, Abbas and his colleagues have been rock-solid in their advocacy of an unrestricted “Right of Return”—and why not take them at their word?)
And this represents the second insurmountable obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace. The United Nations has on its rolls 4.7 million Palestinian refugees; the PLO claims that there are 7.5 million, only a small number of whom belong to the 700,000-odd Palestinians originally displaced from their homes in what became the state of Israel. Some two-thirds of the 700,000 moved or were removed to the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip; one-third ended up in Transjordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Abbas himself is a refugee from Safad, the Arab-majority eastern Galilean town that the U.N. General Assembly partition plan of November 1947 (Resolution 181) earmarked for Jewish sovereignty.
The vast majority of the current 4.7 to 7.5 million “refugees”—say nine-tenths of them—are the children, grand-children, and great-grandchildren of the originally displaced 700,000. And more than half of them live in Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinian demand that Israel accept a mass refugee return means that, if implemented, Israel, with its 6 million Jewish and 1.5 million Arab citizens, would instantly or over a short time, become an Arab-majority state.