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The Two-State Solution: Reality Check and Alternative

Sacaria Joseph Sacaria Joseph
29 Apr 2024

Global leaders, including Joe Biden, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, Emmanuel Macron, Rishi Sunak, Olaf Scholz, and Mohammed bin Salman, endorse the two-state solution as the most viable solution to the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. This proposed solution advocates the coexistence of separate Israeli and Palestinian states within the same geographic area. While integral to conflict discussions, it encounters challenges such as land disputes, settlements, historical grievances, geopolitical complexities, and Palestinian leadership divisions.

The roots of the two-state theory can be traced back to the 1917 Balfour Declaration. During World War I, Palestine was under Ottoman rule, which had sided with Germany. At this time, the Allied Powers, including Britain, were engaged in military operations across the Middle East, including Palestine. Anticipating an Ottoman defeat and potential control over Palestine, Britain issued the Balfour Declaration. This document, named after Arthur Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, pledged British support for establishing a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.

Driven by wartime strategy, ideological sympathy for Zionism, and imperial ambitions, the Declaration encouraged Jewish immigration into Palestine, which already had a small established Jewish population alongside the Palestinian Arabs. This ignited tensions between the two communities. While Palestinians saw the Declaration as a manifestation of colonial favouritism, Israelis saw it as a validation of their homeland, shaping the dynamics of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Declaration undoubtedly played a significant role in the eventual establishment of Israel. However, its ambiguous wording and failure to address Palestinian rights contributed to the escalation of the ongoing conflict.

Britain's League of Nations Mandate to govern Palestine after World War I placed them amidst conflicting aspirations. The Arab majority desired self-determination, while Jewish immigration grew under the Balfour Declaration's promise of a 'national home.' Britain attempted to navigate these tensions through a series of policy statements known as the White Papers, which often restricted Jewish immigration and land purchases in response to Arab unrest. These policies, seen as favouring Arabs, fueled Jewish resentment and resistance against British rule. As tension and violence escalated, Britain found it increasingly difficult to maintain order and ultimately decided to withdraw from Palestine in 1948, leaving the unresolved conflict as a legacy.

In 1947, the United Nations General Assembly attempted to resolve the looming conflict by adopting a resolution for the partition of Palestine. This plan proposed the creation of separate Jewish and Arab states, with 55% of the land allocated to the Jewish state, 45% to the Arab state, and Jerusalem and its surrounding areas placed under international administration. While the Jewish leaders embraced the plan, Arab leaders and neighbouring Arab states vehemently opposed it, viewing it as inequitable and untenable. This was a historic but missed opportunity to resolve the conflict between these two ethnic communities.

Undeterred by Arab opposition, the Jewish community in Palestine moved forward. On 14 May 1948, the day the British Mandate for Palestine expired, Israel declared its independence following the UN partition plan. However, the Arab community in Palestine and neighbouring Arab states – Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon – refused to acknowledge Israel's sovereignty. Mobilising local Arab militia, these countries launched a military offensive against Israel, igniting the 1948 Israeli-Arab War to thwart the establishment of a Jewish state in the region. Due to the outbreak of war, the UN partition plan was never fully implemented.

Over ten months of conflict, Israel gained control over a more significant portion of the territory allocated to the Jewish state by the UN partition plan, along with additional areas beyond that. While Palestinians view these territories as essential to their future state, Israelis regard them as disputed rather than occupied, citing historical and strategic significance. This variance in perspective lays the groundwork for ongoing disputes over land ownership and sovereignty.

Furthermore, the war precipitated the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, who fled or were expelled from their homes during the conflict, leading to the Palestinian refugee issue that persists to this day. The armistice agreements were signed between Israel and its Arab neighbours in 1949, effectively ending the conflict but leaving many issues unresolved and setting the stage for future conflicts.

A chain of escalating tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as between Israelis and their Arab neighbours, culminated in the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and a coalition comprising Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Israel, in a preemptive strike against Egypt, successfully defeated the combined Arab forces, securing control over the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza, West Bank (including East Jerusalem), and the Golan Heights. Though Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt as part of the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, also known as the Camp David Accords, this conflict significantly altered the region's geopolitical dynamics.

After the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel prioritised the establishment of settlements on the West Bank. These settlements, erected by Israeli citizens, have only expanded over time, ranging from small outposts to substantial urban centres, fundamentally reshaping the demographic and geographic landscape of the regions. The proliferation of settlements has fueled tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, complicating the efforts toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Israeli settlement expansion in Gaza gained momentum following the signing of the Oslo Accords in the 1990s. The Oslo Accords, a series of agreements negotiated between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), aimed to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The initial Oslo Accord, signed on 13 September 1993, outlined a framework for gradually transferring governing authority to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It established the Palestinian Authority (PA) as an interim self-governing body to administer Palestinian affairs in these territories during a transitional period.

The Oslo Accords created a sense of uncertainty among Israelis regarding the future status of Gaza. Therefore, the advocates of Israeli settlement expansion intensified their justification of their stance on various grounds, including historical and biblical ties to the land, emphasising a longstanding Jewish connection to the territory. They also argued that establishing settlements both in Gaza and the West Bank would enhance Israel's security by creating buffer zones and maintaining control over strategic areas. Some Israeli policymakers viewed the settlement expansion as a means to maintain leverage over the territory in potential future negotiations with the Palestinians.

The peak of Israeli settlement expansion in Gaza took place before the 2005 disengagement — an event that saw the unilateral withdrawal of Israeli settlers and military forces from Gaza, resulting in the evacuation of all Israeli settlers in the region. The disengagement marked the definitive end of the Israeli presence in Gaza and the dismantling of all settlements within its borders.

The United Nations classifies Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegal under international law, particularly referencing the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the transfer of civilian populations into occupied territories. This legal standpoint underscores the consensus within the global community regarding the illegitimacy of settlement expansion. Despite international condemnation and calls for compliance with international law, the construction of settlements persists.

According to Palestinians and much of the international community, Israeli settlements in the West Bank are built on land intended for a future Palestinian state. This ongoing settlement activity not only results in the confiscation of Palestinian land and resources, displacement of people, and heightened tensions in the region but also the fragmentation of Palestinian territory, making a contiguous Palestinian state increasingly difficult to achieve. It also complicates border delineation between Israel and a potential Palestinian state, undermining the territorial integrity of a future Palestinian state. All these go against the two-state solution.

Unless there is a disengagement in the West Bank, similar to what occurred in Gaza in 2005, the proposition of the two states can never materialise. A disengagement is theoretically possible in the West Bank, but given the size of the Israeli settler population, it is not practical. It is impossible to resettle those who would be evacuated from the West Bank during such a possible disengagement programme.

Regrettably, Fatah and Hamas, both representing Palestinian interests, are entangled in a struggle for power over Palestinian territories. Fatah, a secular nationalist movement, advocates for diplomatic resolutions and negotiations with Israel. In contrast, Hamas, an Islamist militant organisation often labelled as a terrorist group by many nations, denies Israel's right to exist and promotes armed resistance.

This ideological chasm, compounded by disagreements over governance structures, security measures, and approaches towards Israel, severely obstructs cooperation between the two factions. Moreover, the division of governance between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza weakens the Palestinian Authority's capacity to negotiate with Israel as a unified entity. The conflict intensified in 2007 when Hamas seized control of Gaza, resulting in a fractured Palestinian governance.

This lack of unity not only impedes the Palestinian people's ability to pursue their national aspirations effectively but also diminishes the possibility of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A fragmented Palestinian leadership makes negotiating and implementing lasting peace agreements exceedingly challenging. The concept of the two-state theory presupposes a cohesive Palestinian identity and leadership capable of coexisting and negotiating with Israel and vice versa. However, the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians on one side and Hamas and Fatah on the other renders the two-state theory a utopian ideal and a diminishing dream.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rejection of the two-state solution in January 2024, against the backdrop of an Israeli offensive against Hamas following an unprecedented attack launched by Hamas on Israel on 7 October 2023, has only eroded this diminishing dream further. Many tend to see the Israeli offensive against Hamas after 7 October 2024 as a war against the Palestinians, casting serious doubts on the feasibility of the two-state scenario.

While the tried and tired two-state concept may appear to be an elusive dream, achieving peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians as one nation is still within reach. This requires setting politics aside and adopting a transformative attitude towards each other, recognising rights and narratives, promoting genuine dialogue and reconciliation, tackling root causes of conflict, and embracing unity despite diverse identities. Through this collective journey, both communities can forge a future where they coexist as one nation, embracing their distinct backgrounds and living harmoniously together. That is a one-state solution against the two-state solution, challenging but possible.

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