On September 23, 2011, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, took the podium at the UN General Assembly in New York City after submitting Palestine’s application for full membership in the UN. During the impassioned speech he affirmed that “The goal of the Palestinian people is the realization of their inalienable national rights in their independent State of Palestine … to resolve the core [of] the Arab-Israeli conflict and to achieve a just and comprehensive peace.” He finished his speech by appealing to the member nations in the chamber: “Your support for the establishment of the State of Palestine and for its admission to the United Nations as a full member is the greatest contribution to peacemaking in the Holy Land.”
Immediately after Abbas left the podium, Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, stepped up to deliver his address to the General Assembly. Netanyahu, in between warning about the threat posed to the West by militant Islam and nuclear Iran, insisted that the Israelis have always been ready for peace but will not allow the establishment of a Palestinian state without a commitment by the Palestinians to peace. “All these potential cracks in Israel’s security have to be sealed in a peace agreement before a Palestinian state is declared, not afterwards, because if you leave it afterwards, they won’t be sealed. The Palestinians should first make peace with Israel and then get their state.”
If we accept that both leaders are genuine in their desire for peace, then we must try to understand what “peace” means to each. The best way to do this is to look at the way that Abbas and Netanyahu use the word “peace.” By doing so, we learn a lot about the current status of the negotiations for Palestinian statehood and the status of the conflict in general.
From the speeches we can tell that each sees peace as part of a process. Each says this process involves the creation of a Palestinian state. But the crucial difference that becomes apparent is the order of this process.
According to Abbas, once a Palestinian state is created on the 1967 borders with a capital in East Jerusalem, then this Palestinian state will make peace on equal terms with the state of Israel. The P.L.O’s recent actions at the UN are indicative of this understanding of peace. So is Abbas’s appeal to the member states of the UN to support the acceptance of the Palestinian state in order to contribute to peacemaking in the Holy Land.
Netanyahu’s understanding is the opposite: “The Palestinians should first make peace with Israel and then get their state.” According to Netanyahu, if there is a Palestinian state created before an official peace treaty, Israel would be in danger of attack.
Ends and Means
This brings us to a question of ends and means.
While both leaders claim the same end, peace, each proposes an opposite means by which to achieve this. It is because the term “peace” has a drastically different meaning to each leader that the Peace Process has stagnated.
Palestinians view violence against Israel as the result of a clear cause-and-effect situation. The cause is the occupation; the effect is resistance by the Palestinians against the occupation in both violent and non-violent forms. Both Abbas and Khaled Meshal, leader of the Political Bureau of Hamas, state that they would accept a two state solution (as long as that is the democratic will of the Palestinians) only once the occupation is taken away and the cause for violence is gone. A party under occupation is in no position to negotiate peace “on equal terms.”
It is very different for Netanyahu. Israel openly acknowledges its occupation policies of settlement expansion, construction of the separation wall and land appropriation. These policies make it clear that the state of Israel has no intention of pulling back the occupation. Rather, Israel would like to expand control over as much of the land of Jerusalem and the West Bank as possible. How can Netanyahu talk about peace while maintaining this status quo?
Because peace to Netanyahu means the pacification of the Palestinian people, not a Palestinian state as an equal partner in peace.
Infrastructure of Occupation
He is demanding that the Palestinians accept the permanence of the infrastructure of occupation and renounce any form of resistance to it. The importance of sealing this pacification in a peace treaty is that it would legalize this Palestinian renunciation of their homeland and make the status quo of construction and land grabbing as permanent as the settlements they create.
Once the Palestinians accept this “peace,” Israel will grant them what is left of their homeland, fractured and divided by walls, settlements, and military bases, split into reservations, and cut off from Gaza and Jerusalem. The Palestinians would be legally caged, once and for all, in pacified resignation.
This “peace” would indicate an ultimate manifestation of the occupation.
Expulsion or Reservations
There are other possible scenarios for “peace.” One is that Israel will completely expel the Palestinian population. With no Palestinians left, there will be no one to challenge Israel’s claim to the land or its status as a Jewish State. Another scenario parallels the pacification of the Native Americans in the U.S. There are currently about 1.6 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, which is about 20% of the overall population of Israel.
They, like Native Americans, live as second-class citizens and are confined to a disproportionately small percentage of land.
If the Israelis can successfully concentrate and confine West Bank and Gaza Palestinians and perhaps grant them autonomy similar to what is found in reservations in the U.S., Israel can maintain and maximize control of land while minimizing the number of non-Jewish people on that land. In this way, Israel can maintain its status as a Jewish state for Jewish Israelis as if no minority population existed at all.
Results of a Dominant Narrative
While these are the darkest possible scenarios, the unfortunate reality is that since Israel is the dominant party in the Peace Process, its definition of “peace” prevails. This is evidenced by international powers’ tacit acceptance of the construction of settlements, the construction of the annexation wall and the policy of collective punishment against Palestinians in retaliation to resistance.
Most importantly, Israeli security takes precedent over all other considerations in the peace process, including international law, human rights and self-determination of the Palestinians.
By not acting against these Israel policies, the international community has demonstrated that they believe the Palestinians must give up all resistance before receive what is left of their homeland.
Peace Means Pacification
If we acknowledge that “peace” means pacification and that this definition is dominant in the peace process discourse, then it is time for the Palestinians to stop using the word “peace” altogether. It is poisoned to mean something that they don’t want it to mean. 64 years ago, the Zionist forces began the ethnic cleansing of the territory of Palestine to pave the way for the establishment of the Jewish State. That ethnic cleansing starting with al-Nakba has not stopped since then. It changed in size and tactics but the underlying goal has always remained the same: to take as much of the land with as few of the native people as possible.
In some ways, this form of pacification has come to occupy the very definition of Palestinian. For the last 64 years, Palestinian identity has been inexorably tied to al-Nabka and this ensuing ethnic cleansing.
Time for a New Word
It is time for a new word to describe the goals of the Palestinian struggle. It is time to call for the restoration of the Palestinian people. Restoration means freeing the Palestinians from the semi-permanent limbo they have been subjected to over the course of this history. Restoration means extricating al-Nakba and refugee-ness from the definition of “Palestinian.” Most importantly, it means the restoration of the expelled to the land that is rightfully theirs so that Palestinian identity can shift from Diaspora to a people reinstated. Why should there be peace until this occurs?
Matthew DeMaio, from West Hartford, Connecticut, is a junior and an Islamic Civilizations and Societies major at Boston College, currently studying and living in Amman, Jordan after having spent ten weeks in Palestine. He hopes to work in the field of education in vulnerable communities upon graduating from university.