Among the very few controversial claims in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is this one: the Palestinian rights movement is at a crossroads. The (partial and overstated) withdrawal from Gaza and the consolidation of the wall and settlements in the West Bank are about to change, both literally and metaphorically, the terrain of the struggle for Palestinian rights. Although the last several years have proven difficult for the indigenous Palestinian struggle and the Palestine solidarity movement around the world, without a coherent strategy the next years will be far more difficult. We must confront the possibility, even the likelihood, that Israel will unilaterally declare a Palestinian state in Gaza and what lies outside the wall. At least it is moving in that direction. How should the solidarity movement in the U.S. and elsewhere proceed?
Many causes have been cited for Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. Some ascribe it to the potency of the resistance struggle. Others claim that Israel never wanted Gaza anyway, and this seems like a propitious time to abandon Gaza and consolidate its hold on much of the West Bank. There are those who argue that Israel will undermine any self-rule in Gaza and then point to that as a reason the Palestinians cannot govern themselves. All of these claims, no doubt, capture an aspect of what has happened.
I would like to point to a fourth point cause, one that has been widely noted. However, the political opening it presents has so far been missed. It concerns demographic factors. Now that Palestinians constitute a majority in mandatory Palestine (Modern Day Israel, West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem), Israelis have a motivation to draw a line that excludes from the future boundaries of the Israeli state areas of high Palestinian concentration. This purportedly allows Israel to retain what it mistakenly calls the “Jewish, democratic” character of the state.
Of course a state cannot be both Jewish and democratic at the same time, any more than it can be Muslim or Hindu or Christian and democratic. If Israel declares its borders at the limits of the wall, the Palestinian population living within those borders will rise by about 250,000, 16% of those living under occupation. Already Palestinians constitute 17% of the Israeli population. And here lies a political opening.
So far, the Palestine solidarity movement has focused on the occupied territories, to the neglect of solidarity with those inside Israel. There have been good reasons for this. However, as Israel moves to annex areas in the West Bank, it might be worth turning more of our energies toward a simple civil rights movement inside Israel. Palestinians in Israel are oppressed in all kinds of ways. Their townships receive far less aid than Jewish townships. They are routinely brutalized. They are denied many of the benefits their fellow Jewish citizens receive. Their Knesset representatives are politically isolated. If the occupation is apartheid, the situation for Palestinians inside Israel is largely one of Jim Crow.
Given the desperation of those still under occupation, what would justify shifting energies to those inside the future Israeli borders? There are three reasons, the last being the most important. First, there is the possibility of working alongside established Jewish and Palestinian groups that are already engaged in a civil rights struggle for Israel’s Palestinian population. Second, the idea of equal citizenship is an easy sell; it would be hard for governments to deny that Palestinian citizens deserve equal rights. The Palestinian solidarity movement has had difficulty countering accusations around suicide bombings and security. There would be no obstacle of this kind in a struggle that sought its analogies in the U.S. civil rights movement.
The third reason is demographic. If Palestinian birthrates continue to outnumber Israeli birthrates in the way they do currently, the demographic makeup of an expanded Israel will become less Jewish. This will place the adjectives “Jewish” and “democratic” in the self-description of Israel in sharper conflict. If the strategy of equal civil rights works, it will require the recognition of Palestinians as full citizens, and will, perhaps, finally spell the end of the nineteenth century project of forming a Jewish state to the detriment of its indigenous people. The potential gain of such a strategy for Palestinians outside the borders of the expanded Israel is obvious. Once Israel is no longer Jewish but instead democratic, it can open its borders to Palestinians on the other side of the wall. Israel will become a secular democratic state of all its people, something it should have been all along (as some of the slower-witted among us, like me, have belatedly come to realize).
Where does this leave those in Gaza and east of the wall, at least in the near term? I cannot say. I am not arguing that, should Israel consolidate the land west of the wall, the Palestinians east of the wall should be abandoned by the solidarity movement. The way forward ought to be determined by the situation on the ground. One of the difficulties of the past several years for the Palestine solidarity movement has been the absence of a large, viable resistance movement to connect with. Perhaps that will change. One hopes so. I offer the proposal here not as a solution to the entire conflict, but as a path that has not been discussed much and that may soon become a fruitful one. In 1988, during the first intifada, I went on a human rights delegation to the occupied territories. A man in the Balaata refugee camp told me about the numerous curfews Israel imposed on the camp. He pointed out that there is little to do when one is under curfew. But there is one thing. And he asked me, “Why do the Israelis put us under curfew all the time and then complain about the demographic problem?”
The prescience in his observation is finally becoming evident.