Abstractions cannot have rights. States are abstractions. States therefore cannot have rights. At first blush, this may seem no more than a quibble, or an excursion into constructing a syllogism simply for the pleasure of it. In terms of the subject I want now to address, it is neither.
Before proceeding, it’s worth stating an opposite but positive proposition: Rights adhere to, and are embodied in, people. People have rights, States do not. These are important distinctions, ones that are foundational when considering, and reaching positions on, for example, the Palestinian/Israel conflict.
There are significant indications that there are increasing numbers of non-Jews and Jews critical of Israel’s policies and actions in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) and towards Palestinians within Israel itself. More and more people are finding the wanton shamelessness with which Israel pursues and promotes its institutionalised racist policies and practices hard to stomach. Israel, we might say, gets away with murder, so it barely registers surprise when the Israeli Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, proclaims there are ‘no innocent people’ in Gaza, a statement presumably designed to justify the killing of (as at 25 April) forty Gazans and the wounding of 5,511 protestors, including children. This is the nature of Israel’s response to essentially peaceful protests on the Gazan side of the border fence. Yes, that’s right, Israel shoots through and over the fence to wound and kill protestors on the Gaza side.
Support but unease
And yet, despite the institutionalsied and calculated brutality of the Israeli State, I get the sense there are many people – whose natural sympathies and political commitments revolve around respect for fundamental human rights – who hesitate to offer more vocal and active support for the Palestinian cause. One aspect of this hesitation, the one I want to tackle here, is concern and even dismay at the reluctance or refusal of some Palestinian political entities to recognise the right of the Israeli State to exist and, in particular, the refusal to recognise Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish State. Though note that the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) recognised Israel, rightly or wrongly, to its benefit or not, in 1988. Yet the issue of recognition remains, and is likely to remain, a salient one for some time to come.
A first and necessary step to unpicking this is to take a conceptual leap and perhaps an emotional one too, and hold fast to the understanding that States, in principle, have no rights. It follows that Israel has no more right to exist than does, say, the United Kingdom, a proposition adequately demonstrated by the political movements – the broadly accepted legitimate movements – promoting Scottish and Welsh independence. This recognition of the legitimacy of the movements says nothing about the rightness or wrongness of the proposed constitutional changes, but, in affirming the legitimacy of the pursuit of independence, one is at the same time granting the legitimacy of the potential dismantling of the UK State. And such projects are, in principle, permissible.
There is a further move to be made: notwithstanding the status of any State, for those committed to universal human rights, these are indivisible, and in principle transcend national boundaries. In the UK example, irrespective of the structure of constitutional arrangements, that is, whether people are citizens of a United Kingdom or of a future English, Scottish or Welsh State, each individual retains their universal rights. From a human rights’ perspective, it is the State that is or should be the protector and promoter of those rights.
And here we come to the first difficulty in ascribing legitimacy to the current Israeli State, for it neither protects still less promotes the human rights of all those within its borders. The Israeli State is formally founded on an opposing principle: the denial of human rights to, in particular, Palestinians, asylum seekers, and foreign workers.
Note that my concern in this particular article is not to delve into the various political moves and strategies, whether historical or current, of the contending parties. Rather, I am attempting to peel back the layers of propaganda, the standardised tropes – e.g. charges of antisemitism deployed as a shield to protect Israel from criticism – that obscure, and are specifically designed to obscure, questions of principle. And that principle is that a State that does not protect the rights of all those within its borders has by its own actions raised questions as to its legitimacy. Note further that raising questions about the legitimacy of a State has no bearing on, nor does it dilute, the indivisible rights of all those who live within its borders, this extending without qualification even to those who promulgate and implement the rights-denying policies and practices.
I turn now briefly to the relatively recent call by Israel that it should be recognised specifically as a Jewish State. I have discussed this in an earlier post. Suffice to say that to recognise Israel’s right to exist as a specifically Jewish State is to recognise and grant legitimacy to a formally constituted Apartheid State. To grant such recognition would be the same as endorsing as legitimate the South African Apartheid State. No State, organisation or person should find this a tolerable proposition. That Israel does, or at least the current political leadership of Israel does, again raises questions as to the current Israeli State’s legitimacy. It is already an Apartheid State. It should be morally and politically impermissible to formally embrace it as such.
The line of argument advanced thus far seems to me to raise questions as to the merits of what has come to be called the ‘Two State Solution’, meaning one Palestinian State, the other, a Jewish State. As I understand it, a Palestinian State would raise no particular ethical issues provided it accorded to all those residing within its borders individual human rights, and all citizens having equal rights and obligations irrespective of, for example, religion or ethnic background.
However, a difficulty arises once one starts thinking about what a specifically Jewish State might entail, not least because 20% of Israel citizens are Palestinians. (Cautionary Note: as detailed in an earlier post, the Israeli State’s version of ‘citizenship’ does not denote a condition of equality between ‘citizens’. Rather, along with the category ‘nationality’ it is the vehicle for the systemic, institutionalised discrimination of those not Jewish, in particular, Palestinians.)
I cannot see how a two state solution could be radically different from the discriminatory State that currently exists. No doubt were such a ‘solution’ – when is a ‘solution’ not a ‘solution’? – to be implemented various strategies would be devised to ensure an embedded demographic imbalance in favour of the Jewish population, this designed to reduce the existential anxieties of those Jews who fear they will be outnumbered at some point by Palestinians. But pity the nation that weaves fear, neurosis, exclusion and discrimination into its fundamental constitutional arrangements – though this may be apt description of the current state of affairs.
I have suggested that there has been a conflation of incompatible ideas and concepts, namely, not drawing proper distinction between support of and commitment to individual human rights no matter the race, religion, sexuality, culture of an individual, and the misplaced notion that a State has rights. This conflation, I have suggested, serves to obscure, and in my view is designed to obscure, the nature of the current Israeli State and to legitimise its discriminatory regime. ‘Rights’ as deployed in this context is a very loaded word, one deployed to direct attention away from the nature and actions of the Israeli State.
Distinction between a Regime and a State
My argument leads me back to the UNESCWA (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia) report ‘Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid’, referred to in an earlier post.
The UNESCWA report drew attention to an important distinction: that between a State and a Regime. Although the distinction of itself provides no easy pathway to resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli State conflict, at the conceptual level at least, noting the distinction helps counter the tendency – propagated by the Israeli State – to automatically equate the ending or evolution away from a discriminatory political Zionist State to a different dispensation as necessarily the ‘destruction of Israel’. In the words of UNESCWA report:
‘…identifying apartheid as a regime clarifies one controversy: that ending such a regime would constitute destruction of the State itself. This interpretation is understandable if the State is understood as being the same as its regime. Thus, some suggest that the aim of eliminating apartheid in Israel is tantamount to aiming to “destroy Israel”. However, a State does not cease to exist as a result of regime change. The elimination of the apartheid regime in South Africa in no way affected the country’s statehood.’
Another type of State is in principle possible.
STOP PRESS: WE FAILED
In my 27 March post ‘Nineteen days and counting to Israel’s destruction of another Palestinian village’ I reported that the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran was under threat of demolition by Israel. Those nineteen days have now elapsed and Israel has not been persuaded to relent.
This from a report by the Israel Campaign Against House Demolitions UK (ICAHD UK):
‘After years of harassment by the authorities and endless demolition orders, after the village’s resident, math teacher Ya’akub Abu Al-Qi’an was killed by the police and falsely accused by a government minister of being “a terrorist” – Bedouin village Umm al-Hiran finally yielded.
Threatened with Israeli demolition and forced displacement, the inhabitants signed an agreement with Israeli authorities to leave their homes “on their own accord” and move to the town of Hura…’
Adalah, the legal centre for Arab minoroty rights In Israel, which represented Umm Al Hirran’s residents in courts for 15 years, compared Israel’s behaviour in Umm Al Hirran to South Africa’s Apartheid regime:
‘Adalah sees the demolition of Umm al-Hiran and forced displacement of its residents as an act of extreme racism, embodying Israel’s colonialist land policies with the backing of the entire Israeli court system. Israel is moving forward with the destruction of Umm al-Hiran in a plan – reminiscent of the darkest of regimes such as apartheid-era South Africa – to build a new Jewish-only town on its ruins.’
The two-state solution is gone buried under Israel’s ‘matrix of control’, the confiscation of Palestinian land, its Kafkaesque laws and Israeli Supreme Court rulings ignoring international law. Israel continues to act with impunity and no Western government or international body is calling it to account.
The time has come to start actively campaigning for one-state.
Palestinians and Israelis have joined together to form the One Democratic State Campaign which seeks to provide leadership, direction and a viable way forward.
However, with obstacles and difficulties that impede engagement and communication between Palestinians and Israelis:
- How can they come together for a one-state solution?
- How can Israelis, living in a militarized society where Arab are demonised change their view of the Palestinians?
- How can the Palestinians living under a brutal military occupation that traumatized their society heal, and be able to share statehood with their oppressor?
Speakers (more to be announced):
- Dr Jeff Halper, Co-Founder & Director of ICAHD (Jerusalem), Professor of Anthropology, activist & analyst, Nobel Peace Prize Nominee; author of An Israeli in Palestine, War Against the People & Obstacles to Peace
- Dr Nadia Nasser Najjab, Research Fellow, Exeter University formerly at Birzeit University
- Daphna Baram, Director, ICAHD UK, analyst, journalist, author of Disenchantment: The Guardian and Israel.