A British Palestinian Perspective: Welcome to the Palestine archipelago

by Ahmad Samih Khalidi

Trump’s so called “deal of the century” is an assault on the Palestinian narrative even before it is an assault on their rights.

Perhaps, the most extraordinary aspect of the Trump plan dubbed the “deal of the century”, is its clear and seamless alignment with a long history of inequity inflicted upon the hapless natives of Palestine, ever since Mr. Balfour decided that their views and aspirations were of no real relevance or import compared to the manifest splendour of the Zionist dream.

No one should expect historic justice of course, even assuming that what this means is entirely clear. But to see hope in the proposed Palestinian statelet comprising disparate chunks of ghettoised Palestinians linked by tunnels and bridges so as not to tread the sacred land claimed by Jewish settlers, takes some leap of the imagination; one that few if any Palestinians are likely to possess.

The truth is that the plan is not really a blueprint for a Trumpian ‘deal’ (even though the U.S. president himself may believe otherwise), but an ideological tract, based on a reading of history that presumes the supremacy of Jewish biblical claims to the land, and the essentially secondary rights of its indigenous Palestinian population. It is, at heart, a vision promoted by one wing of the Zionist movement that has apparently become the dominant voice today.

The U.S.-sponsored peace process that has long been driven by the debate between U.S. and Israeli Jewry, has, to a large extent been settled in favour of the latter’s most extreme version of what is possible, based not on what may be reversible so as to accommodate the Palestinians, but what today’s ‘realities on the ground’ may allow to be imposed upon them.

The Trump plan is an assault on the Palestinian narrative even before it is an assault on their rights: indeed, the former is a necessary precondition for the latter. But the plan does set out to do what its authors’ intended: i.e. to determine the future of the Holy Land in one direction alone, and by one side alone.

The plan stipulates that the Palestinians will get around 70% of the West Bank, (i.e. around 16% of Palestine as it was under the Mandate), but in the form of populated islands surrounded by a sea of sovereign Israeli territory on all sides, and without the bread basket and access point to the outside world represented by the Jordan Valley: in other words a veritable archipelago connected by ‘state of the art’ roads, tunnels and bridges so that they may remain separate and unseen by the Israeli settlers, and with the Israeli army retaining sole security control of the entire area from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean sea—not as a temporary or stop gap measure, but in perpetuity and as long as the land itself exists.

The disfigured and shrunken Palestinian ‘state’ would have a nominal capital on the furthest fringes of East Jerusalem in an area deemed unsuitable for Jewish settlement or appropriation, and outside any of the city’s historic Arab/Muslim neighbourhoods. A thin trickle of refugees will be allowed into the state, but only at Israel’s discretion, all other refugees and denizens of the Palestinian diaspora are to be dissolved into their regional surroundings, and their right of return annulled.

But even that miserable state will only be allowed to emerge contingent on the Palestinians’ meeting a whole series of conditions to be judged by the U.S. and Israel alone, and denied as long as they are deemed to have failed the test.

The plan is now in the process of formalization: the borders of Israel and the putative Palestinian state will be determined by a bilateral U.S./Israeli committee with no Palestinian presence or input (nor even from the Israeli army itself…) and driven by an undisguised religious/ideological impetus best represented by David Friedman, (former settler financier, current U.S. ambassador to Israel, and chief ideological force behind the Trump plan) with a maximum deadline to be met before the U.S. presidential elections.

The Trump plan sets an extraordinary challenge. While seeking to ensure Israeli security, it creates a new security nightmare according to senior Israeli security officials themselves: some 1500 kms of new bordersbetween Israel and the populated islands of the proposed Palestine state. The plan envisages Israeli enclaves in Palestinian territory and vice versa, each requiring elaborate security measures on the ground. The Israelis will control all borders and international traffic into the Palestinian state, and will have overriding security over all of the permanently demilitarized Palestinian statelet. A daunting security proposition will arise if the borders are left open for the free movement of peoples and goods, and an equally daunting one if closed (The plan does not say which). The new borders according to the plan will also bring at least 200,000 East Jerusalem Palestinians under Israeli sovereignty and thus potential citizenship, along with some 70,000 others from the areas of the West Bank to be annexed by Israel.

There is almost zero likelihood of a positive Palestinian engagement with the plan. Not just because of its unqualified and unabashed bias, but because it has been developed and articulated in the absence of any substantive Palestinian input. Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s son-in-law, estate broker and chief envoy, has assured us of his expertise, with the news that he has read 25 books on the conflict—akin to claiming competence to pilot a 747 in stormy weather on the back of subscription to Flight International.

But regardless of Mr Kushner’s technical virtuosity, without a Palestinian engagement, the most likely, if not necessarily desirable, scenario takes us into hitherto uncharted territory. As per the plan, the 650,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank and East Jerusalem will all remain in place as an immovable fixture.

With no clear divide or agreed lines of partition between them, the two peoples will lie side-to-side in enforced proximity. The West Bank Palestinians will slowly be sucked into the belly of the Israeli beast; tens of thousands will find their way into Israel proper, seeking legal and illegal employment, others will be integrated into the new mixed Arab/Jewish economy of the West Bank with its settlers (180,000 already work in Israel and the settlements) and growing numbers of East Jerusalemite Arabs will seek Israeli citizenship and a voice in determining the political face of the city.

The Palestinian citizens of Israel (comprising 20% of Israel’s nine million citizens) will take on a new role in expressing their indigenous rights, and there will be a new cross political and national fertilization between them and the West Bankers across the old defunct and irrelevant 1967 Green Line. Gaza is likely to remain as Hamas redoubt sui generis, but its historic role as an incubator of Palestinian nationalism may be revived—partly as a constant point of friction with Israel, and partly in its capacity as the only truly free island in the Palestinian archipelago.

In Israel itself and as the Arab voice and vote gets stronger, the state and its institutions will bear down harder on its Palestinian citizens, and Israel’s Jewishness will take increasing precedence over its self-professed democracy. ‘Common values’ with the West will be harder to proclaim, and Israel’s divergence from the western democratic norm will be more and more evident, as will the growing and unprecedented criticism of Israel from both the rank and file and leadership of the US Democratic Party. What has often been described as a ‘one state reality’ will become a bi-national cauldron. And under all of this, the flame of national passions will continue to burn.

The Trump plan wilfully puts a bullet in the head of the two-state solution as hitherto conceived, as a means of dividing the land rationally, if not entirely equitably, between the two sides. It pretends to reformulate the two-state solution under a new paradigm, but in doing so it also does away with any residual Palestinian illusions about the attraction of statehood. Instead of seeking statehood, their most likely path will be that of long-term resistance, passive or active, and in modes that have yet to be evident (the Gazan ‘balloon offensive’ and ‘marches of return’ may be the very first iterations of such future innovative acts).

The finality of borders is a psychological must but a historical anomaly—the Trump plan does nothing to challenge that latter assumption, only to affirm its toxic truth. Indeed, a peace agreement along the Trump plan lines, which is expressly intended to induce the Palestinians to forgo the past and ‘look to the future’ (while at the same time looking to the distant past as the basis for distributing rights) is only likely to tighten the grip of the Palestinian national narrative of loss and injustice.

Nothing in the past 120 years suggests that the Palestinians are ready to submit to the diktat of force, or the triumphalism of Israeli/U.S. Zionist right, or the occluded horizon ahead. New modes of struggle will emerge, and they may well even be eventually joined by those Israelis and those amongst the world Jewish community who are appalled by Israel’s headlong plunge towards rampant ethno-religious nationalism and untrammeled annexationism.

The Palestinians will not be immune to the blowing winds of change in the area, and neither will the Israelis. The continuing rise of extremism and fanaticism is a clear harbinger of what lies in store: For those of us on both sides who are still dedicated to peace, we need to ensure that the winds of chaos and change will blow for and not against us.

Published on OpenDempocracy on 4 March 2020

Ahmad Samih Khalidi is a Senior Associate Member of St Antony’s College, Oxford, Associate Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and Senior Fellow at the Institute of Palestine Studies, Beirut. He was adviser to the Palestinian delegation at the Madrid/Washington peace talks in 1991-1993 and senior adviser on security to the Cairo-Taba PLO-Israeli talks in 1993. Active in Palestinian politics for five decades, he has written widely on Middle Eastern political and strategic affairs in both English and Arabic.

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