All parties to the peace talks know a Palestinian state is inevitable, that independence should have been celebrated last year at the end of the five-year Interim Agreement. Instead of statehood being the culmination of a comprehensive settlement, however, the timing of its declaration has been turned into a bargaining chip.
On Feb. 11, 2000, the Palestinian Central Committee voted to declare Palestine an independent state on Sept. 13, 2000 in the hope that this threat would inject a new urgency into the foundering peace process.
Following the failure of the Camp David negotiations over the question of Jerusalem, and recognizing that a unilateral declaration of independence might be a lose-lose proposition, the Palestinian Central Council met again Sept. 9, 2000 in Gaza with just one item on the agenda: whether to declare independence in four days’ time or instead resort to a tactical delay.
Chairman Yasser Arafat, traveling with an impressive entourage in a long convoy of black Mercedes, was among the first to arrive. After quickly reviewing the honor guard he told the waiting press, “I came directly from the U.N. [Millennium Summit] in New York to participate in the council meeting [and] make the relevant decision in accordance with our democratic traditions.”
Given the democratic traditions of the Palestinian Authority, it’s hard to imagine the Central Council reaching any decision contrary to Arafat’s wishes. When asked by a CNN reporter whether he thought the Council would vote for statehood, Arafat managed to play down the significance of the meeting, replying, “I would like to inform you that, in fact, we already have a state.”
Other council members who spoke to the press prior to the meeting were in a more combative mood. Finance chief Mohammed Nashashibi was adamant that the time for talking was over. A state had to be declared without delay, he said, and any outstanding issues of borders, occupied territories and water could be negotiated after independence.
Once the meeting was under way a member of the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) emerged and distributed a press release outlining its own version of “independence now, negotiations later.” The PFLP plan for immediate statehood envisages “the people imposing their sovereignty on the land which has already been liberated, with the rest of the land to be declared ‘occupied territory.'”
At the same time, a noisy demonstration by a few dozen members of the opposition Democratic Front erupted at a police barricade, within shouting distance of Arafat’s office, where the council was ensconced. The demonstrators also demanded statehood on Sept. 13, 2000 with no more time wasted. Some mainstream Fatah members, they claimed, were also in the mood for independence.
Despite the rhetoric and the demonstrators, one had to get away from the site of the council meeting in order to hear real opposition to Chairman Arafat, or alternative views on the question of statehood.
Hamas spokesman Dr. Mahmoud Al-Zahar sees his patients at a sparse clinic in Gaza City’s Zeitoun neighborhood. The waiting room looks like it once was a yard. Now it has a tile floor and a roof of corrugated metal, with a dozen plastic chairs and a few prayer mats the only furnishings, and framed verses from the Qur’an the sole decorations.
Dr. Al-Zahar does not believe in an independent Palestinian state-on Sept. 13th 2000 or on any other date. “What is the meaning of a state?” he asks. “A state rests on three things: land, people and government. Only 18 percent of the land is under Palestinian control, more than half of our people live abroad, and this Palestinian Authority is not a government.”
A Palestinian state declared now, Dr. Al-Zahar contends, will exist only in Israel’s shadow, a vassal state with Israel controlling foreign policy, borders and trade. Palestinians will work for low wages in an economy dominated by Israel and be forced to buy costly foods and other necessities at high Israeli prices. The Hamas spokesman foresees travel restrictions turning Gaza and the West Bank into huge prison camps. As an alternative, Hamas proposes a state that would sever all ties with Israel and establish “strategic communications with the Arab states of Egypt and Jordan, open borders to real social and economic support from our brothers and not the enemy,” he says.
Dr. Al-Zahar does make one concession to the idea of immediate statehood. Hamas sees the acceptance of autonomy as laid down in the Oslo accords as a grave historical mistake by the PLO, the continuation of occupation by other means. If the declaration of an independent Palestine will hasten the demise of autonomy, then Al-Zahar encourages Arafat to get on with it. “Hamas will then fight to make this state democratic, immune from corruption, and part of the Arab community,” he says, “and bring it to Islam.”
Just a half-mile from the council meeting is the Shati refugee camp. There Yusri Al-Ghoul looks around at the sewage and filth on the sidewalks near a small street market. “With or without independence, I don’t think anything will change here,” he says. “Shati will still look and smell the same. We will still be refugees.”
Yusri, a 20-year-old English student at Gaza Islamic University, sees no advantage to declaring independence. “We might have a state, but it won’t be independent,” he says. “Israel will still manage everything, still be in control. Look, we have Palestinian postage stamps, but they’re not really Palestinian, there’s no picture of Al-Aqsa on the stamp and you have to buy them with shekels.”
Yusri is a third-generation refugee who says his father taught him that an independent Palestine would mean giving up any hope of going home-a lesson probably familiar to most members of the Palestinian Central Council. Opting for statehood at a time when negotiations seem to have broken down might close the door on the refugee issue forever.
As expected, the council meeting concluded on Sunday night with a statement that it would reconvene for further talks on Nov. 15. Democratic traditions aside, this had to have been Arafat’s wish all along. Despite his bluff and bluster about already having a state, Arafat is nothing if not a pragmatist and a realist, and declaring independence on Sept. 13 would have been an unrealistic act of desperation on his part.
As things stand today, opting for statehood instead of a negotiated settlement means accepting terms no better, and perhaps even worse, than those Arafat walked away from at Camp David in July.
The world’s newest independent state with Jerusalem as its capital would lack international recognition from those places where Arafat needs it most-and not only Washington. During a quick tour of European capitals at the end of July he found no enthusiasm for Palestinian independence. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin told Arafat he should not issue a unilateral declaration of statehood.
An independent Palestine would likely incur Israel’s anger in the shape of sanctions and travel restrictions, bringing even more economic hardship. The West Bank patchwork quilt of Areas A, B, C, H1 and H2 would become, at best, the de facto map of Palestine. Or, worse still, Israel might be tempted to grab land around existing Jewish settlements and consolidate its hold on areas it sees as having strategic importance. There would be little hope for the third redeployment agreed to by both Israeli Prime Ministers Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. The safe passage routes between Gaza and the West Bank would remain on the drawing board. More importantly, independence without an agreement would effectively surrender control over East Jerusalem and the holy Islamic sites to Israel.
Outside the council meeting Finance Minister Nashashibi, after demanding independence without delay, declared, “The Palestinians will not be traitors to Islam.” Yet it is difficult to imagine what interest the Israelis would have in renewed negotiations over Jerusalem with an independent Palestine.
According to a recent statement by Dr. Nabil Sha’ath, the Palestinian minister of planning and international cooperation, a partial agreement with the issue of Jerusalem left unresolved would curse the region with a fate similar to that of Kashmir.
Sources close to Yasser Arafat say he does not feel the need to declare independence in order to secure his place in history. They say he enjoys his role as the man who kept the flame of Palestinian nationalism alive against all odds. Neither does he want to be remembered as the one who compromised the sovereignty over Jerusalem’s holy sites. He does, however, need progress toward a comprehensive and just agreement. Going back is not an option, and standing still for too long could result in the interim agreement becoming the permanent settlement. And, regardless of their position on statehood, the last thing Palestinians want is a bleak future of autonomy without end.
Christopher Slaney is a free-lance journalist based in the Middle East.