Palestinian nationalism’s first enemy is Israel, but if Israel ceased to exist, the question of an independent Palestinian state would not be settled. All of the countries bordering such a state would have serious claims on its lands, not to mention a profound distrust of Palestinian intentions. The end of Israel thus would not guarantee a Palestinian state. One of the remarkable things about Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza was that no Arab state moved quickly to take aggressive steps on the Gazans’ behalf. Apart from ritual condemnation, weeks into the offensive no Arab state had done anything significant. This was not accidental: The Arab states do not view the creation of a Palestinian state as being in their interests. They do view the destruction of Israel as being in their interests, but since they do not expect that to come about anytime soon, it is in their interest to reach some sort of understanding with the Israelis while keeping the Palestinians contained.
The emergence of a Palestinian state in the context of an Israeli state also is not something the Arab regimes see as in their interest — and this is not a new phenomenon. They have never simply acknowledged Palestinian rights beyond the destruction of Israel. In theory, they have backed the Palestinian cause, but in practice they have ranged from indifferent to hostile toward it. Indeed, the major power that is now attempting to act on behalf of the Palestinians is Iran — a non-Arab state whose involvement is regarded by the Arab regimes as one more reason to distrust the Palestinians.
Therefore, when we say that Palestinian nationalism was born in battle, we do not mean simply that it was born in the conflict with Israel: Palestinian nationalism also was formed in conflict with the Arab world, which has both sustained the Palestinians and abandoned them. Even when the Arab states have gone to war with Israel, as in 1973, they have fought for their own national interests — and for the destruction of Israel — but not for the creation of a Palestinian state. And when the Palestinians were in battle against the Israelis, the Arab regimes’ responses ranged from indifferent to hostile.
The Palestinians are trapped in regional geopolitics. They also are trapped in their own particular geography. First, and most obviously, their territory is divided into two widely separated states: the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Second, these two places are very different from each other. Gaza is a nightmare into which Palestinians fleeing Israel were forced by the Egyptians. It is a social and economic trap. The West Bank is less unbearable, but regardless of what happens to Jewish settlements, it is trapped between two enemies, Israel and Jordan. Economically, it can exist only in dependency on its more dynamic neighboring economy, which means Israel.
Gaza has the military advantage of being dense and urbanized. It can be defended. But it is an economic catastrophe, and given its demographics, the only way out of its condition is to export workers to Israel. To a lesser extent, the same is true for the West Bank. And the Palestinians have been exporting workers for generations. They have immigrated to countries in the region and around the world. Any peace agreement with Israel would increase the exportation of labor locally, with Palestinian labor moving into the Israeli market. Therefore, the paradox is that while the current situation allows a degree of autonomy amid social, economic and military catastrophe, a settlement would dramatically undermine Palestinian autonomy by creating Palestinian dependence on Israel.
The only solution for the Palestinians to this conundrum is the destruction of Israel. But they lack the ability to destroy Israel. The destruction of Israel represents a far-fetched scenario, but were it to happen, it would necessitate that other nations hostile to Israel — both bordering the Jewish state and elsewhere in the region — play a major role. And if they did play this role, there is nothing in their history, ideology or position that indicates they would find the creation of a Palestinian state in their interests. Each would have very different ideas of what to do in the event of Israel’s destruction.
Therefore, the Palestinians are trapped four ways. First, they are trapped by the Israelis. Second, they are trapped by the Arab regimes. Third, they are trapped by geography, which makes any settlement a preface to dependency. Finally, they are trapped in the reality in which they exist, which rotates from the minimally bearable to the unbearable. Their choices are to give up autonomy and nationalism in favor of economic dependency, or retain autonomy and nationalism expressed through the only means they have — wars that they can at best survive, but can never win.
The present division between Gaza and the West Bank had its origins in the British mandate. Palestine was partitioned between Jews and Arabs. In the wake of the 1948 War, Arabs lost control of what was Israel; the borders that emerged from this war and lasted until 1967 are still recognized as Israel’s international boundary. The area called the West Bank was part of Jordan. The area called Gaza was effectively under Egyptian control. Numbers of Arabs remained in Israel as Israeli citizens, and played only a marginal role in Palestinian affairs thereafter.
During the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israel occupied both Gaza and the West Bank, taking direct military and administrative control of both regions. The political apparatus of the Palestinians, organized around the PLO — an umbrella organization of diverse Palestinian groups — operated outside these areas, first in Jordan, then in Lebanon after 1970, and then in Tunisia after the 1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israel. The PLO and its constituent parts maintained control of groups resisting Israeli occupation in these two areas.
The idea of an independent Palestinian state, since 1967, has been geographically focused on these two areas. The concept has been that, following mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestinians, Palestine would be established as a nation-state based in Gaza and the West Bank. The question of the status of Jerusalem was always a vital symbolic issue for both sides, but it did not fundamentally affect the geopolitical reality.
Gaza and the West Bank are physically separated. Any axis would require that Israel permit land or air transit between them. This is obviously an inherently unstable situation, although not an impossible one. A negative example would be Pakistan during the 1947-1971 period, with its eastern and western wings separated by India. This situation ultimately led to the 1971 separation of these two territories into two states, Pakistan and Bangladesh. On the other hand, Alaska is separate from the rest of the United States, which has not been a hindrance. The difference is obvious. Pakistan and Bangladesh were separated by India, a powerful and hostile state. Alaska and the rest of the United States were separated by Canada, a much weaker and less hostile state. Following this analogy, the situation between Israel and the hypothetical Palestine resembles the Indo-Pakistani equation far more than it does the U.S.-Canadian equation.
The separation between the two Palestinian regions imposes an inevitable regionalism on the Palestinian state. Gaza and the West Bank are very different places. Gaza is about 25 miles long and no more than 7.5 miles at its greatest width, with a total area of about 146 square miles. According to 2008 figures, more than 1.5 million Palestinians live there, giving it a population density of about 11,060 per square mile, roughly that of a city. Gaza is, in fact, better thought of as a city than a region. And like a city, its primary economic activity should be commerce or manufacturing, but neither is possible given the active hostility of Israel and Egypt. The West Bank, on the other hand, has a population density of a little over 600 people per square mile, many living in discrete urban areas distributed through rural areas.
In other words, the West Bank and Gaza are entirely different universes with completely different dynamics. Gaza is a compact city incapable of supporting itself in its current circumstances and overwhelmingly dependent on outside aid; the West Bank has a much higher degree of self-sufficiency, even in its current situation. Under the best of circumstances, Gaza will be entirely dependent on external economic relations. In the worst of circumstances, it will be entirely dependent on outside aid. The West Bank would be neither. Were Gaza physically part of the West Bank, it would be the latter’s largest city, making Palestine a more complex nation-state. As it is, the dynamic of the two regions is entirely different.
Gaza’s situation is one of pure dependency amid hostility. It has much less to lose than the West Bank and far less room for maneuver. It also must tend toward a more uniform response to events. Where the West Bank did not uniformly participate in the intifada — towns like Hebron were hotbeds of conflict while Jericho remained relatively peaceful — the sheer compactness of Gaza forces everyone into the same cauldron. And just as Gaza has no room for maneuver, neither do individuals. That leaves little nuance in Gaza compared to the West Bank, and compels a more radical approach than is generated in the West Bank.
If a Palestinian state were created, it is not clear that the dynamics of Gaza, the city-state, and the West Bank, more of a nation-state, would be compatible. Under the best of circumstances, Gaza could not survive at its current size without a rapid economic evolution that would generate revenue from trade, banking and other activities common in successful Mediterranean cities. But these cities have either much smaller populations or much larger areas supported by surrounding territory. It is not clear how Gaza could get from where it is to where it would need to be to attain viability.
Therefore, one of the immediate consequences of independence would be a massive outflow of Gazans to the West Bank. The economic conditions of the West Bank are better, but a massive inflow of hundreds of thousands of Gazans, for whom anything is better than what they had in Gaza, would buckle the West Bank economy. Tensions currently visible between the West Bank under Fatah and Gaza under Hamas would intensify. The West Bank could not absorb the population flow from Gaza, but the Gazans could not remain in Gaza except in virtually total dependence on foreign aid.
The only conceivable solution to the economic issue would be for Palestinians to seek work en masse in more dynamic economies. This would mean either emigration or entering the work force in Egypt, Jordan, Syria or Israel. Egypt has its own serious economic troubles, and Syria and Jordan are both too small to solve this problem — and that is completely apart from the political issues that would arise after such immigration. Therefore, the only economy that could employ surplus Palestinian labor is Israel’s.
Security concerns apart, while the Israeli economy might be able to metabolize this labor, it would turn an independent Palestinian state into an Israeli economic dependency. The ability of the Israelis to control labor flows has always been one means for controlling Palestinian behavior. To move even more deeply into this relationship would mean an effective annulment of Palestinian independence. The degree to which Palestine would depend on Israeli labor markets would turn Palestine into an extension of the Israeli economy. And the driver of this will not be the West Bank, which might be able to create a viable economy over time, but Gaza, which cannot.
From this economic analysis flows the logic of Gaza’s Hamas. Accepting a Palestinian state along lines even approximating the 1948 partition, regardless of the status of Jerusalem, would not result in an independent Palestinian state in anything but name. Particularly for Gaza, it would solve nothing. Thus, the Palestinian desire to destroy Israel flows not only from ideology and/or religion, but from a rational analysis of what independence within the current geographical architecture would mean: a divided nation with profoundly different interests, one part utterly incapable of self-sufficiency, the other part potentially capable of it — but only if it jettisons responsibility for Gaza.
It follows that support for a two-state solution will be found most strongly in the West Bank and not at all in Gaza. But in truth, the two-state solution is not a solution to Palestinian desires for a state, since that state would be independent in name only. At the same time, the destruction of Israel is an impossibility so long as Israel is strong and other Arab states are hostile to Palestinians.
Palestine cannot survive in a two-state solution. It therefore must seek a more radical outcome — the elimination of Israel — that it cannot possibly achieve by itself. The Palestinian state is thus an entity that has not fulfilled any of its geopolitical imperatives and which does not have a direct line to achieve them. What an independent Palestinian state would need in order to survive is:
· The recreation of the state of hostilities that existed prior to Camp David between Egypt and Israel. Until Egypt is strong and hostile to Israel, there is no hope for the Palestinians.
· The overthrow of the Hashemite government of Jordan, and the movement of troops hostile to Israel to the Jordan River line.
· A major global power prepared to underwrite the military capabilities of Egypt and those of whatever eastern power moves into Jordan (Iraq, Iran, Turkey or a coalition of the foregoing).
· A shift in the correlation of forces between Israel and its immediate neighbors, which ultimately would result in the collapse of the Israeli state.
Note that what the Palestinians require is in direct opposition to the interests of Egypt and Jordan — and to those of much of the rest of the Arab world, which would not welcome Iran or Turkey deploying forces in their heartland. It would also require a global shift that would create a global power able to challenge the United States and motivated to arm the new regimes. In any scenario, however, the success of Palestinian statehood remains utterly dependent upon outside events somehow working to the Palestinians’ advantage.
The Palestinians have always been a threat to other Arab states because the means for achieving their national aspiration require significant risk-taking by other states. Without that appetite for risk, the Palestinians are stranded. Therefore, Palestinian policy always has been to try to manipulate the policies of other Arab states, or failing that, to undermine and replace those states. This divergence of interest between the Palestinians and existing Arab states always has been the Achilles’ heel of Palestinian nationalism. The Palestinians must defeat Israel to have a state, and to achieve that they must have other Arab states willing to undertake the primary burden of defeating Israel. This has not been in the interests of other Arab states, and therefore the Palestinians have persistently worked against them, as we see again in the case of Egypt.
Paradoxically, while the ultimate enemy of Palestine is Israel, the immediate enemy is always other Arab countries. For there to be a Palestine, there must be a sea change not only in the region, but in the global power configuration and in Israel’s strategic strength. The Palestinians can neither live with a two-state solution, nor achieve the destruction of Israel.
Today Though Palestinian rocket fire continued at a rate of approximately 20 per day on Jan. 12, only seven rockets have been tallied thus far on Jan. 13. Israel Defense Forces advanced farther into the outskirts of Gaza City today, but the Israeli government has not yet authorized the third stage of Operation Cast Lead.