Ala Alazzeh: Palestinian Statehood and the Location of Power


© Ala Alazzeh

Ala Alazzeh is a Faculty member in the Sociology and Anthropology Department of Birzeit University, Palestine and a PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Rice University. He is co-author of a forth- coming monograph on Popular Resis- tance in Palestine to be published by the Institute of Palestine Studies. 

On 29 November 2012 the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) voted (138 states in favor) for elevating the status of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) from the status of ‘permanent observer’ in the UN to become the ‘non-member observer state of Palestine’. On that day each year, the world celebrates the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people. The day also marks the UN’s vote to par- tition Palestine into two states, one for the Jewish settlers and one for the native Arab population of Palestine. Because the right of self-deter- mination for the eleven million Palestinians and the right for over five million Palestinian refugees to return to their homes have been contin- ually denied, the UNGA established the day of solidarity in 1977 to bring attention to the unresolved question of Palestine and Palestinian rights.

In his speech in the UN, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) asked the world to issue a “birth certificate” to the state of Palestine. Although the proposed state will be based on the pre-1967 borders of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem (i.e. 22% of Palestine and territorially much less than the Palestinian state according to the UN partition plan in 1947, also excluding those Palestinians inside the 1948 areas and those in the diaspora), the overwhelming majority of Palestinian political parties have presented the international recognition of the non-member state of Palestine as an ‘achievement’ and a ‘diplomatic victory’. But what kind of a state is this? What is the political logic that governs such a state in relation to the Zionist-Israeli settler-colonial project in Palestine that began in the late 19th century?  

© muftah
© muftah

Since the beginning of the Israeli occupation in 1967, the state of Israel adopted an intertwined policy of colonial integration, pacification, and making invisible the Palestinians. Integration was structurally based on connecting the OPT’s economy to Israel, creating a dependency relationship that ultimately impoverished the possibility of an independent economy for the Palestinians in the OPT. Such dependency was based on the proletarianization of Palestinian society to provide resources and cheap labor to the Israeli economy while making the OPT a market for Israeli products. Israeli policies of pacification were based on imposing an iron fist of military order to control all aspects of Palestinian life, including culture, education, health, documentation, movement, and politics. It aimed to create a collabora- tive elite that accepted colonial structures of power. Israel simultane- ously made Palestinians ‘invisible’ to the world by presenting and treating them as nation-less residents of the OPT with no political or legal rights. They were only visible as a ‘security threat’.

The first intifada, starting in 1987 and called the ‘Grand Popular Intifada’, was a structural break where the native Palestinian population not only challenged but also worked to overthrow these colonial policies. The primary goal of the intifada was not throwing stones and confronting soldiers, but rather achieving independence from colonial rule and exercising peoples’ power on the ground. The notion of peoples’ power was meant to dismantle the colonial governing administration and to replace it with alternative localized institutions, unions, grassroots organizations and popular committees. These institutions involved creating parallel structures to the occupation such as schools, medical clinics, voluntary work, land cultivation, food supplies, awareness-raising, and women committees. Nearly one year following the start of the first intifada on 15 November 1988, the PLO National Council de- clared the state of Palestine. While such a declaration was part of a larger political initiative taken by the PLO, the unified leadership of the intifada in its leaflet no. 29 (‘The Independent State’s Wedding’) described this declaration as an expression of the successes of the intifada, an articulation of the state already created on the ground by the masses of the intifada and the accumulation of the national struggle.

© UN Ocha
© UN Ocha

The failure of the PLO in furthering the achievement on the ground led by the Palestinian people in the first intifada was crowned by the signing of the Oslo Accords between the PLO and Israel in 1993. Oslo reconfigured the colo- nial relations by creating quasi-national Palestinian institutions that were ultimately tied to and crippled by Israel. Economically, the Palestinian bourgeoisie class further deepened the dependency relationship by facilitating economic ties with Israel creating a beneficiary class, while the Palestinian Authority became completely dependent on foreign aid. The peak of this reconfiguration of colonial relations is the security collaboration where Palestinian police themselves in the inter- ests of the colonial state. In sum, Oslo was a normalization of and not a disengagement from the colonial dynamics.

All subsequent agreements have been based on the idea of mutual agreement, in effect, on what concessions Palestinians make for what Israel will ‘give’ the Palestinians. Power is thus firmly located in the hands of the colonizer. In contrast, Abu Mazen’s request for a Palesti- nian ‘birth certificate’ at the UN locates the power of Palestinian self- determination in the ‘international community’ and global institutions. In both ‘achievements’, dependence on the occupation persists, displacing the first intifada’s realization of power in the hands of the people on the ground. (18.12.2012)

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