Leila H. Farsakh (ed.), Rethinking Statehood in Palestine: Self-Determination and Decolonization Beyond Partition (University of California Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?

Leila H. Farsakh (LF): The failure of the two-state solution to bring about an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is what motivated me to write this book and invite various young Palestinian scholars to contribute to it. The intensification of the Israeli colonial structure of domination in the West Bank and Gaza has shown that a Palestinian state within the confines of the occupied territories will not materialize, despite being admitted into the United Nations in 2012 and being recognized by 137 states. The continuous siege on Gaza, the fragmentation of the Palestinian people, and the intensification of Israeli settlements despite over nearly three decades of peace process made it clear that Palestinians need to rethink the process of decolonization outside the framework of partition or the two-states option. This book is an attempt to think through the challenges of any one-state solution from a legal, political, and economic perspective. Its various chapters help advance a new epistemology of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one that sees the Palestinian struggle not solely through the prism of the nation-state or as confined only to Palestinians, but rather enables us to construct a new way of thinking about decolonization and political liberation that allows people to live in equality and dignity, irrespective of their ethnicity.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

LF: The book engages with the growing literature on the one-state solution and with works that question the notion of the nation-state as the telos of national liberation. It is concerned with the issue of self-determination, decolonization, and equal citizenship. In its first part, the book analyzes the political economy, and aesthetic, of state formation within the larger regional context Palestine finds itself in. It also sheds new light on the political costs of pursuing a state within the confines of UN resolution 242 to the various constituents of the Palestinian people. The second part of the book unpacks the meaning of decolonization today as the various contributors re-examine the relationship between law, nationhood, and political liberation, as well as explore the various Palestinian agencies pushing for change. The book thus pushes the literature on the one-state solution further by analyzing the difficult issues that need to be addressed in any attempt to articulate a viable political alternative to partition, namely how to reunify the Palestinian body politics, bring about justice, deal with international legal structure we are embedded in, and protect the individual and collective rights of all those living on the land.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

LF: This book connects to my previous works in various ways. It emphasizes the importance of a critical political economy analysis to understanding facts on the ground, as I did in my first book, Labor Migration to Israel: Labor, Land and Occupation. In that first book, I explained the economic impossibility of a viable Palestinian state by analyzing the pattern of Palestinian labor flows to Israel since 1967. I showed that Palestinian workers from Gaza were severed from the Israeli labor market, while West Bank wage earners continued to build Israeli expanding settlements, as part of an Israeli decision to separate the Gaza Strip from the West Bank while intensifying its colonization of Palestinian land, creating thereby a de facto Bantustan reality that emptied the Palestinian state project of any emancipatory potential.

Rethinking Statehood in Palestine also develops themes I tackled in my various articles and in the book I co-edited with Bashir Bashir, The Arab and Jewish Questions: Geographies of Engagement in Palestine and Beyond, which put the Arab and Jewish questions in conversation with one another. My focus in my new book, though, was on the Palestinian debates and their attempts to redefine the relation between the nation and the state to provide a viable political alternative to the failed Palestinian state project. By ensuring that it is an edited volume, I wanted to bring forth Palestinian voices who are articulating the meaning of decolonization and ways to achieve it in the twenty-first century. The analysis presented here delves into the different political, legal, and economic challenges and opportunities presented in thinking beyond partition to create a new political order that protects Palestinian rights and brings about justice.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

LF: This book is intended for a wide public and to scholars interested in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. It will also be of value to researchers working on nationalism, self-determination, citizenship, and statehood in the twenty-first century. It is my hope that the book will encourage further debates on the kind of political strategies needed to fulfill Palestinian rights and ensure equality outside the framework of the nation-state or the paradigm of partition. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

LF: My next project is a memoir centered on the meaning of Palestine. In it, I weave the history of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination with the personal trajectory of becoming a female political scientist committed to the question of justice and living in and outside Palestine. It situates itself within a growing body of literature that attempts to provide a human dimension to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by highlighting the challenges that many migrant women face as they seek to position themselves within their country of origin and exiled from it. By exposing the difficulties of coming of age as a Palestinian woman born during the 1967 Six Day War, I shed new light on what Palestine means and why it matters, after nearly seventy-five years of Israel’s existence, to those born outside its borders. I interlace my training as a political scientist into the art of life narration to illustrate how a home can be created through multiple encounters that call into question nationalist and patriarchal definitions of self-determination and liberation.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 2-4)

Rethinking Statehood engages with an emerging trend in Palestine studies that advocates for breaking out of national frames to understand the Palestine question. Its main contribution lies in examining the opportunities and costs of moving away from the pursuit of territorial sovereignty as a means to achieve political liberation. As this introduction argues, the quest for a Palestinian state was not in vain, but its historical role has come to an end. It is thus necessary to reexamine this role and explore how the failure of national independence enables us to rearticulate the relationship between self-determination and decolonization away from the telos of the nation-state. Such a rearticulation requires transcending the partition paradigm that has dominated all international attempts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It entails defining the elements of a political alternative that is democratic, viable, and economically feasible. It also must address the question of Zionism and explain how the political rights of Jewish Israelis can be reconciled with Palestinian rights in any attempt to decolonize the ongoing settler-colonial reality.

At the heart of the Palestinian struggle is a yearning to return home and for freedom—freedom from settler-colonialism, as much as from oppression and exile. Ever since they were expelled from their land during the 1948 war and the creation of the State of Israel, Palestinians have sought to fulfill their right of return which is enshrined in UN Resolution 194, issued on December 4, 1948. The establishment of the PLO by the Arab League in 1964 reaffirmed this right, as its charter called for the liberation of Palestine from Zionist imperialism. The PLO charter did not specify statehood as part of its mission, though, since it envisaged Palestine as part of a larger Arab collectivity. It was only in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Days War and the international consensus on UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 242 as a framework for peace in the Middle East that the Palestinian national movement made the project of an independent state the vehicle for decolonizing Palestine from Zionism and affirming the Palestinian right to self-determination.

In this regard, the Palestinian national movement was not much different from most anticolonial liberation movements of the twentieth century. Self-determination, a concept internationalized with Lenin’s defense of people’s right to national independence and reframed by Wilson’s Fourteen Points in 1918, laid the foundation of a twentieth-century world order composed of nation-states. By 1960, it became “the juridical component of international non-domination,” as Adom Getachew put it. Yet, as she and others have shown, self-determination was a concept used by imperial powers to reorganize their spheres of control, as much as it was claimed by every national liberation movement demanding freedom from colonialism. Imperial powers viewed it a principle that colonized people could exercise once they prove fit to do so, thus tying it to imperial racial and political considerations. Anticolonialists, on the other hand, defined self-determination as an inalienable right to achieve freedom from external domination.

UN Resolution 1514, adopted in 1960 by the UN General Assembly (UNGA), affirmed the status of self-determination as a human right, one that is necessary in order to fulfill all other rights. It also declared colonialism a crime 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 inadvertently made self-determination synonymous with national territorial sovereignty, that is statehood. While many were aware of the inherent contradiction of the nation-state as a protector as well as violator of human rights, an international consensus had formed around the necessity of independent statehood as a first, if not sufficient, step towards political liberation. This is because the nation-state was conceived as the internationally recognized sovereign entity that ensures citizens their political rights, including their right to security and protection from external domination.

For many anticolonialists, though, the creation of an independent state was not the only, or optimal, means to guarantee people’s freedom and their national sovereignty. They considered the right to self-determination as a people’s right to define their political future and choose their political form, or system, of government and for managing their affairs. It did not need to be territorially bound, since sovereignty is enshrined in the people, or the nation, not in the state per se. Instead, it can be fulfilled through various political configurations, such as transforming empires into representative federations, or confederations, of equal citizens. As Wilder and Getachew have shown, anticolonial proponents of the right to self-determination envisaged its implementation as part of a larger project of remaking the world beyond the Westphalian order of sovereign states, one that required transforming political and economic structures, both domestically and internationally, in ways that would guarantee the freedom and equality of all people. They were cognizant of what revolutionaries from Toussaint Louverture to Fanon have warned against, namely that national independence does not guarantee liberation, for it can create new forms of domination that deny citizens their political and economic rights.

The Palestinian struggle for self-determination carried within it this ambiguity concerning the relationship between national liberation and statehood. As Edward Said put in 1978, the PLO never resolved “the question of whether it is really a national independence or a national liberation movement.” Since the arrival of Fatah at the head of the PLO in 1968, the Palestinian national discourse has tied return with liberation and conscripted the notion of self-determination to the right to establish an independent Palestinian state. In 1971, the eighth Palestinian National Council (PNC) convention adopted a unanimous resolution specifying that “the armed struggle of the Palestinian people is not a racial or religious struggle directed against the Jews. This is why the future state that will be set up in Palestine liberated from Zionist imperialism will be a democratic Palestinian state. All who wish to will be able to live in peace there with the same rights and the same duties.” What came to be known as the Palestinian version of a one-state solution was presented as the means to protect Palestinian political rights by affirming the right to an independent, decolonized nation-state. It asserted Palestinian political existence in the face of international denial, as best exemplified with UNSC Resolution 242. This resolution, adopted on November 22, 1967, acknowledged the right of each state in the region to “live in secure and recognised boundaries.” It did not, though, mention the Palestinians nor any of their UN-protected rights, such as those detailed in UN Resolutions 181 and 194. It simply referred to them as refugees in need of a humanitarian solution, not a national group with a right to self-determination.

From its inception, the Palestinian state project was thus a project of national self-affirmation as well as of political actualization. Its aim was to assert Palestinian “peoplehood”, which Zionism sought to eradicate, as much as to articulate a just political future inclusive of all those who live on the land. While many doubted the sincerity of its inclusive vision, which Israel outrightly rejected, 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.” In UNGA Resolutions 3236 and 3237, the international community—as represented by the UN—also recognized the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and invited it to participate in the works of the General Assembly like any non-member state, such as the Vatican. The PLO, meanwhile, acted 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.

Linking self-determination with statehood, in other words, gave the Palestinian revolution a concrete political meaning in an international system that recognized the legitimacy of decolonization struggles in the post-WWII era and bestowed on states the primary responsibility of representing and protecting the human and political rights of citizens. What remained contested within the Palestinian national movement was the content and shape of this state, as much as the extent to which its creation would be the means to, or the end of, decolonisation.

Rethinking Statehood in Palestine is available as an open source book and is downloadable for free here.