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“What democratic state for Palestine?”—A conference on decolonization

The Decolonization Conference at “Maison de la Famille” in Brussels on the 15th of March had four speakers: Naji al-Khatib, ODSI coordinator, Ilan Pappe, prominent historian on the Israeli occupation and policies towards Palestine and Palestinians, Eitan Bronstein, the founder of Zochrot and Suheil Yassin, also an ODSI coordinator.

The four speakers tackled various themes related to decolonization, specifically as it involves Palestine; they all broadly had agreement on the necessity of the dismantlement of the state of Israel, but broadly broached Israel as a settler colonial state (with an emphasis on its strategic defeat following the ongoing genocide in Gaza) that had and will continue until its decline both expanding and persecuting Palestinians, rejecting granting them the ability to possess self-determination.

Suheil was the first to speak; his speech was set on the precedent established by Zionism – namely in how it essentially guaranteed a sort of moral absolutism to people that had once been the victims of genocide to themselves commit it, and how this morally corrupts Western countries as fascist movements across the world become more emboldened by Zionist fascist crimes being supported by Western countries. Israel is not unique in the international community for this – Rwanda’s actions in the eastern DRC are another example of such actions – but it is unique in that its broadcast like never before online creating a doublespeak for established politicians and radicalization of people all across the world. The precedent being set is one where war crimes are acceptable so long as the country in question is allied with Western interests.

Here, Suheil emphasized that rather than Israel be a country that naturally fit into the rest of the region, Israel instead acts as a sort of outpost of Europe in the Middle East – an example being how Israelis never naturally fit into the region nor are interested in doing so, being able to engage in visa-free travel and mostly politically and economically dealing with Western countries rather than the Middle East. Perhaps the most damning thing about Israel as a country is that it impacts the behavior of its neighbors; it sets a precedent that politicizes sectarian identity explicitly. Lebanon, a country partially specifically carved out of what was formerly a larger Syrian political entity, was created as a Maronite nation-state with the explicit purpose of dividing and conquering two minorities (Maronites and Jews) in the region against an Arab/Muslim “horde”. Similar trends can be seen in Syria, a country that barred Kurds from citizenship until recently and explicitly discriminates against various minorities, Jordan, a country where Transjordanians benefit from stronger access to the public sector than Palestinians, and Egypt, where Copts are explicitly barred from employment in various fields.

Eitan’s focus was on memory politics and how the Nakba and its erasure and denial had corrupted Israeli Jewish public consciousness; the Nakba is often downplayed next to the Holocaust, and this puts Israelis in a position where empathy is promoted for themselves above anyone else – he spoke extensively on the necessity on land redistribution and on outlining a path for how to organize a single state from the river to the sea, as to not repeat the mistakes of South Africa, and that it’s necessary to make sure that refugees returning to Palestine should have ample opportunity to economically prosper and excel that had been granted to Israeli Jews for decades.

Naji’s particularly questioned: “What place for words, ideas, debates in the context of genocide and barbarism today in Gaza?” and answered that the proposal for a single democratic state is the only possible outcome to stop the massacres and this new Nakba in Gaza. Naji explained that our organization, the One Democratic State Initiative, sees itself as a continuation of a Palestinian legacy that began in 1943, when the “National Liberation League” opened the prospect of secular and democratic Palestinian statehood for all its citizens, a perspective confirmed by the Palestinian National Council of 1968 for whom this was the final objective of the liberation struggle. He also explained that ODS is not a binational state, or a “democratization of Israel”, or a “merger” between Israel and Palestine, or a Palestinian-Israeli confederation.” Rather, the ODS Initiative integrates a more Palestinian vision concerning the ODS within the framework of these 3 founding principles of Palestinian national consciousness, namely: Liberation, return of Palestinian refugees and a secular democratic state for all inhabitants of Palestine from the river to the sea.

Ilan’s speech ranged on how Zionism and by extension Israel as a state are in the early stages of inevitable complete collapse; he emphasized that Israel as a state, while creating a successful Other in Palestinians (as well as Arabs by large) has failed to create a cohesive national identity, with clear political divides among Israeli Jews on both ethnic and sectarian lines – this has already culminated in the collapse of stability in the current political order in Israel, and with other more noteworthy economic trends (this was a point of disagreement between him and Eitan, who though Israel’s economy has somewhat weathered the storm) and a revival of widespread Arab and Palestinian animosity against Israel, he sees it as unlikely for Israel to weather the storm.

However, he cautioned that unfortunately, the nightmare and brutality will be at its apex specifically before the dawn, and while he’s confident that this dawn is coming, he emphasized the necessity to prepare for the day after – he emphasized the necessity for Palestinians, especially those in the diaspora, to create a new PLO that can act as a new order on the ground, so a vacuum in the day after can be filled up by a government that can lead Palestinians to a better future.

To conclude, the call for ODS isn’t simply a call for solving the colonization of Palestine but also for regional reform and change; it proposes having a country in the region that rather than exacerbate sectarian tension – both Jews and Palestinians have their presence and identities securitized and under constant scrutiny in the region, and there can never be a call for desecuritized borders so long as identity is so explicitly politicized in a repeat of the political state present in Lebanon or Iraq or Bosnia – people can never be happy, including the supposed beneficiaries of the State of Israel, Jews, because their presences are frequently under threat and attack. As such, Israel’s dismantlement – particularly because so much of Western foreign policy and approach to the region, including the war on Iraq, is centered around safeguarding it – is a necessity both for the safety of Palestinians and the safety of Jewish populations that rather than benefit from the exploitation, would simply rather live as a natural part of the region.