Minimal “sovereignty”

Image: Alfo Medeiros

By Ahmad Samih Khalidi*

As a former Palestinian negotiator, I know that Joe Biden's two-state solution is pure illusion

It is not yet possible to foresee a clear political outcome from the Israeli government or its Western allies, apparently still willing to support Israel's freedom to punish the people of Gaza under the “right to defend themselves”. However, leaving aside the most extreme voices that seek to permanently depopulate the Strip or annihilate it with nuclear weapons, two largely consensual objectives can be deduced from the Israeli stance thus far.

The first is that Hamas must be unequivocally defeated and its military and political-civilian presence eradicated from Gaza once and for all; and second, that there must be no return to the status quo ante – that is, any post-Hamas regime must be consistent with Israel's security needs and the trauma suffered by the Israeli people on October 7. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed this by stating that Israel will maintain “indefinite” security control over the Strip, reversing the withdrawal that theoretically ended in 2005.

Hamas' armed strength is no match for Israel's military might, and the immediate outcome on the ground will certainly reflect this disparity. But Hamas is not only deeply rooted in the soil of Gaza as a social and political movement; its presence extends across the region with an extensive network of cadres, supporters and sponsors, including the wider Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated movements globally.

Regardless of what happens in the military confrontation, Hamas' residual presence and its claim to represent the spirit of Palestinian resistance will likely enhance its reputation and ability to renew itself among the masses of Palestinians enraged, frustrated and traumatized by the images of death showered upon civilians. of Gaza. Even those who do not support Hamas may be attracted to the notion of resistance.

It is worth remembering that the Gaza Strip was the birthplace of the Palestinian national movement and its armed factions – from Fatah in the 1950s to Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas in the 1980s. All were born out of Gaza's painful 75-year experience with Israeli brute force, from the slaughter of refugees trying to return to their homes and fields in the “Gaza envelope” after 1948, through the massacres of unarmed protesters during the first Israeli occupation of 1956, to Ariel’s brutal “pacification” campaign Sharon in 1970-71, the era of settler occupation until 2005, the dozens of Israeli operations against Gaza before the 2005 withdrawal, until the siege and the repeated bloody assaults since then. Those who think that the ongoing bloodbath will reverse this history should rethink this perspective.

But instead of learning from history, the trend appears to be heading in an entirely different direction. In struggling to define a clear political outcome, President Joe Biden, among others, has called for a “horizon” for a two-state solution as his centerpiece. Operationally, this could involve the formation of an Arab-Palestinian-international peacekeeping force to take the place of Israeli forces after the defeat of Hamas, unifying the West Bank and Gaza Strip under Palestinian Authority control, and reviving Israeli-Israeli negotiations. Palestinians on a status end and promoting regional security and stability by seeking normalization with Riyadh, along with a huge amount of Saudi or Gulf money for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip.

It is difficult to separate the strands of illusion in a scenario like this. A future regime in Gaza based on a permanent or semi-permanent police effort against Hamas or other resistant elements will be perceived by Palestinians as a new and hostile occupation, acting in the service of Israel. Very few Arab or international forces are likely to be tempted by this prospect. Whether Riyadh can pursue normalization and commit to rebuilding Gaza without a clear sense of how stability and freedom from Israeli occupation will be guaranteed is another question.

And it is very difficult to see Israel relinquishing its security role in Gaza to any outside party, immediately placing itself in sharp contention with any local governmental alternative to Hamas, whether Palestinian or otherwise. For its part, the Palestinian Authority will need more than sweet words about a political horizon to justify any return to Gaza under direct Israeli military control, or with a peacekeeping force committed to de-hamization.

However, perhaps the biggest obstacle to any revived two-state solution comes from Israel itself. Any serious move toward a two-state solution will necessarily require a significant shift in the reality of a predominant state in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The October 7 earthquake will likely push the Israeli public even further to the right. The 750.000 settlers spread across East Jerusalem and the West Bank – now seeking weapons to create “sterile zones” around Palestinian cities and towns in a quest to assert Israeli sovereignty and deny any Palestinian national rights – will form an even more insurmountable political and psychological barrier to change the status quo in favor of the Palestinians. The Palestinian position after the war may make it more difficult for any official or leader to adopt a more conciliatory stance toward a political settlement, or any Israeli presence in Gaza.

With its unconditional embrace and persistent weaponization of Israel's attack, Joe Biden's administration may find it difficult to preach peacemaking. But most of all, it is the enormous weight required to draw sustainable lines of separation that meet both Israeli security demands and Palestinian requirements for minimal “sovereignty.” And those – most notably the US – who will have to deploy unprecedented political and diplomatic efforts to undo statehood in an unprecedentedly charged local and regional climate will have to face the consequences of failure or, perhaps worse, end up possessing what They're trying to fix it.

A US election year with a viscerally pro-Israel incumbent at an apparent growing electoral disadvantage does not appear to offer the most propitious conditions for such an effort to succeed.

The war in Gaza threatens more than regional stability, with rising demonstrations of anti-Semitism and horrific images of civilian deaths generating deep political and personal fractures across the world. But all those who think this could be the time to finally resolve the 100-year conflict over Palestine must remember that it is not enough to draw a line through the winding roads and wadis of the West Bank.

Hope tells us that there is always a way forward, but history tells us that this may be a cruel illusion.

*Ahmad Samih Khalidi is professor at St. Antony's College, Oxford, and co-editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies. Author, among other books, of A Palestinian National Security Framework (Chatham House).

Translation: Lucius Proves.

Originally published in the newspaper The Guardian.

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