Freedom for Palestine: Not Any Time Soon Says Middle East Expert

7 Feb 2014

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More than 60 years after the formation of the state of Israel, successive rounds of “peace talks” have yielded no settlement that is viable for the occupied people of Palestine. But, are we entering a new era? US Secretary of State John Kerry has embraced his role with a great deal of enthusiasm striking up talks between both sides again. Nevertheless, Middle East expert, Na’eem Jeenah, says we shouldn’t place much hope on Kerry’s efforts. The Israelis are making a one-state solution the only possible solution -- and it will take a long time to achieve this. Meanwhile they’re stealing as much Palestinian land as they possibly can.

Na'eem Jeenah is the executive director of the Afro-Middle East Centre, a Johannesburg based research institute that specialises in Middle East-African relations. He is interviewed by Fazila Farouk, executive director of The South African Civil Society Information Service (SACSIS).

Trancript of Interview

FAZILA FAROUK: Welcome to the South African Civil Society Information Service, I’m Fazila Farouk in Johannesburg.

Ever since 1948, since Palestinian people were expelled from their homes and dispossessed of their land by colonial powers who had done that to establish the state of Israel. Their struggle for freedom and for democracy has made international headlines.

Now it’s been more than 60 years since the formation of the state of Israel and in this time successive rounds of negotiations and so called “peace talks have yielded no settlements that is viable for the people of Palestine. In fact, there is widespread acknowledgement that the international community seems to have failed the people of Palestine.

But as we enter 2014, are we also entering a new era? US Secretary of State, John Kerry seems to have embraced his role with a great deal of enthusiasm. He’s jumped in and is putting together a new framework for an agreement.

Are we likely to see some change in the Palestinian situation?

Helping us to make sense of this question is Na’eem Jeenah. Na’eem is the executive director of the Afro Middle East Centre (

Welcome to SACSIS Na’eem.

NA’EEM JEENAH: Thank you.

FAZILA FAROUK: Now, Na’eem I’d like you to talk to us about latest developments in relation to Palestine. As I said, it’s been a long drawn out process of negotiations that hasn’t resulted in anything tangible for the Palestinians in particular. Are the efforts of the new US Secretary of State possibly going to yield some results?

NA’EEM JEENAH: I really don’t think that we should put much store on these efforts. I think that Kerry is very enthusiastic. He wants to see some kind of breakthrough taking place and I think in the past six months he’s visited the area, you know, about a dozen times or more than a dozen times. So he’s, you know…he’s putting a lot of energy into it. If he does get it right, of course, if he does get a breakthrough it will really help his presidential campaign when Obama’s term comes to an end.

So, that’s part of it but I don’t think that it’s going to yield much success. I don’t think that there is any kind of seriousness from the Israeli side to make this happen and they’re going to place conditions along the way that will make it impossible for any kind of solution that can be acceptable to the Palestinians.

FAZILA FAROUK: What are the sticking points for the Palestinians at this point?

NA’EEM JEENAH: Well, you know, in terms of the way that the Palestinian authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and others from Fatah are negotiating this, they’ve essentially agreed that they would settle for a two-state solution -- so a Palestinian state alongside an Israeli state.

In terms of that kind of framework, then, the sticking points -- because you know there are other frameworks and so the sticking points will be more -- but in terms of that framework, the sticking points would be, for example, the issue of settlements. That the demand from Palestinians is, of course, that all these settlements, which are built on Palestinian land, on land that would form part of a Palestinian state, that these settlements must be dismantled. All the settlers must be removed. All of these settlements are, of course, illegal under international law.

Very interestingly there was an editorial in the Financial Times around the whole debate on Scarlett Johansson’s endorsement of Soda Stream and for the Financial Times to come out as strongly as it did saying that the settlements are all illegal etc., I think that there is a realisation dawning on the world in general that this is not a sustainable way to move forward. The Israeli’s don’t agree. So, the Israel’s are refusing to dismantle settlements. They want to keep the settlements blocks within a state of Israel. So, “the settlements” is one issue.

The other issue is of course the borders of what a future Palestinian state would be. The Israeli’s again want borders that will include parts of the West Bank, for example. The Palestinians obviously don’t.

A third and big sticking point is the issue of the Jordan Valley, which is on the east of the West Bank if you like, along the Jordan River. So, the West Bank is the west bank of the Jordan River. So along the Jordan River and Israel is insisting that it should be able for an indefinite period of time to have its troops stationed along that river in the Jordan Valley. The Palestinians are insisting that it must be for a limited period of about three years.

Now what that means, of course, if Israel gets its demand - what it means is that Palestinians will have no border, except for one border with Egypt from Gaza, they’ll have no border, except with Israel, which is the current situation on the West Bank.

Then two other big sticking points that the Israeli’s are demanding - that for the process to move forward - Palestinians must recognised Israel as a Jewish state. This has serious repercussions.

I mean firstly of course you, know South Africa can’t demand that Zimbabwe must recognised us as a neo-liberal state or whatever Communist state or whatever you like. You recognise us as a state. We will define who we are.

But, the importance in this context is that if Palestinians or if the so-called leadership of the Palestinians…if the PLO, for example, which is you know suppose to represent all Palestinians around the world, wherever they might be. If the PLO were to recognise Israel as a Jewish state that would have two very serious implications.

One implication is for the 20% of Israel’s citizens who are Palestinians - so just over a million Palestinians who are citizens of Israel - what would their status be then in terms of Israel now being recognized by Palestinians as a Jewish state? Would they then be second-class citizens as they, you know, currently are or fourth class, as they might refer to themselves. Would they be then forced to relinquish their citizenship of the state of Israel because your representatives have agreed that it’s a Jewish state and so you have no place here, etc.? So, that’s the one big implication.

The other big implication, of course, is for the refugees. So, you have now about six million Palestinian refugees living mostly in refugee camps in Syria, in Lebanon, in Jordan, etc. And recognising if the leadership of the Palestinian people or representatives of the Palestinian people recognise Israel as a Jewish state, the implication of that on all of those Palestinian refugees who are demanding, as is their right under international law, that they be allowed to return to what used to be their homes in what is currently Israel -- that would be compromised because Israel would say, well sorry, you know, but we are a Jewish state and so, we can’t allow this kind of thing to happen.

So, these are some of the sticking points that really you can’t get over.

Finally, let me just say that the framework in which all if this is taking place is very much from the Israeli perspective - very much a situation where they want to legitimise a kind of Bantustan Palestine, as they would call it and legitimise it to the international community as a state, while it actually is a Bantustan.

FAZILA FAROUK: I want to pick up on two issues that you mentioned. One is settlement encroachment and given that, you know, with the current reality on the ground, there’s so little land for Palestinians. Do you think that…you know…going forward, the struggle could be come one for a one-state solution?

And the second point I wanted to highlight in terms of what you spoke about was this issue of - which Scarlett Johansson brought to light with her endorsement of SodaStream and that’s the BDS campaign - the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign. Can you talk to us about, you know, the state of that campaign? Is it getting more support internationally?

NA’EEM JEENAH: Firstly, in terms of the one-state/two-state debate…you know in some ways that debate has now become something of a red herring because the reality is that there is a single state.

Israel controls all of what used to be British-mandate Palestine. It has an authority is place in the West Bank, which it has endorsed. It has Gaza, which is completely under siege and, which it controls access to, access from, controls its airspace, controls its coastline, controls its borders, etc., okay.

So, in reality, you have a one-state on British mandate Palestine, but a one-state, which is divided and different parts of that state are controlled in different ways. Part of it is under siege, part of it is a military occupation, part of it is controlled by a Palestinian authority that is endorsed by the state of Israel, part of it is controlled by a civilian Israeli government. But all of it is really one state.

Now where the Israeli’s want to go is really to maintain this one-state situation, right. The Palestinian authority is arguing that there should be two states and each state should be sovereign and viable, etc. This is really the difference.

The Palestinian authority position, however, is a position that is getting weaker and weaker. Even amongst Palestinians…Palestinians have always dreamt of having a single-state solution and increasingly Palestinians - even (those) that were willing, after Oslo, to say, okay maybe if we accept this two-state thing, there’s a possibility we could have peace, etc., - many of those Palestinians are now saying this is just not workable. There’s no such thing as a two-state solution and it’s not going to happen. And so the only way forward is a one state solution.

I think that really the Palestinian authority is negotiating on very weak ground. They’re not going to get what they want in terms of their two-state solution and ultimately, that’s where this is going to go.

FAZILA FAROUK: If I might just interject on that. What about international support for a one-state solution?

NA’EEM JEENAH: There isn’t international state support for a one-state solution. And I don’t think that there...I don’t think that there will be unless Palestinians, initially Palestinians, and then Palestinians and Israeli’s call for it or support it. Then, of course, the internationally community will have to go along with what the inhabitants of the area want.

But at the moment in terms of international law, of course, what we should be having is a two-states…is two states. A Palestinian state with no settlements where Palestinian refugees have the full right of return, where the borders of a Palestinian state are defined as per 1967 borders. So, under international law that is the position that should be move towards and so all states in the world support that, at least officially, support that okay.

So, states are not going to change that position unless there is a call from Palestinians and Israelis to change that position.

I think that what is required is then an acceptance from Palestinians and the leadership of Palestinian groups, the Palestinian authority, the PLO, but other groups as well, whether you’re talking about Hamas and others that are not part of the PLO that this is the way forward. That the only way forward is a one-state solution because a two-state solution is a no starter, and then begin negotiating on that basis.

That’s going to be a long process. Palestinians at the moment are the weaker party in these negotiations. It’s going to be a long process. Palestinians are going to have to dig their heels in and prepare for a longer struggle than it has been.

That brings us of course to the issue of BDS…and BDS is very much part of that Palestinian struggle.

The BDS campaign that was launched in 2005 - actually in terms of these objectives, in terms of the question of the nature of a Palestinian state is quite vague. So, the BDS call doesn’t support a one-state solution. It supports international law. That’s what the call is. You can interpret it as being other things, but it quite clearly is on the basis of international law. So it talks about a Palestinian state, it talks about the rights of return of refugees and it talks about the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel. The three kinds of components, the three main components of the Palestinian population.

Over the past eight years that BDS call has had the kind of success in eight years, that it took us in South Africa for our sanctions campaign, took a few decades to get. So you’ve reached the stage where not only is the campaign…You know when they speak about BDS, the expectation is that it’s really in that order -- boycott’s first where you get consumers and ordinary people to kind of boycott products, put pressure, etc. Moving on to divestment where you get companies to divest and, finally where governments actually implement sanctions.

That order doesn’t make sense anymore.

So you have, for example, government pension funds in some Scandinavian countries that are withdrawing their funds from companies that support Israel, or that have large-scale investments in Israel, or with the European campaign about settlement products saying that settlements are illegal under international law and therefore any products coming out of there are illegal, etc.

So, you’re having these kinds of successes that are taking place across the three levels: boycotts, divestment, and sanctions.

So divestment - you’ve seen universities, for example, taking resolutions in the U.S. You’ve seen big church organisations in the US with considerable investment funds that have decided that they’re divesting, for example, from Caterpillar because of Caterpillar’s role in the destruction of houses, etc. in the West Bank and previously in Gaza. So, the campaign is actually, has been phenomenally successful in the past eight years. It’s not successful enough that Israel is at the point where it will be forced to give into the demands made by the campaign but the fact that Israel is genuinely concerned about the campaign means that it is making some stride.

So there’s a whole kind of counter…an Israeli counter campaign to BDS talking about this attempt at delegitimising, as they call it, the Israeli state, making it seem as if this is anti-Semitic, anti Jewish, etc, etc.

And the reason for this Israeli counter campaign is because they’ve seen clearly that the BDS call is making success, is having successes, and that it is able to unite solidarity activists and Palestinians across the world on a kind of minimal platform, which even the PLO is not able to do at the moment, right.

So, the BDS campaign has actually - without being an organisation - is actually able to provide a uniting platform for solidarity activists and Palestinians around the world.

FAZILA FAROUK: So what does the future hold then for the people of Palestine in the immediate future in your view?

NA’EEM JEENAH: In the immediate future nothing much frankly. I think that Israeli’s are, and irrespective of whether it’s the current government or labour government, which is supposedly an Israel left, I don’t think that that really matters.

Whichever government is in place, Israelis are pushing and making a one-state solution the only possible solution. But they’re pushing to steal as much Palestinian land, in the course of that, as they possibly can and to get rid of as many Palestinians as they possibly can. I think for Palestinians that the challenge is just to live with integrity and to live on their land, and not to leave.

FAZILA FAROUK: Na’eem Jeenah, thank you very much for joining us at SACSIS.

NA’EEM JEENAH: Thank you.

FAZILA FAROUK: And thank you to our viewers and listeners for joining us at SACSIS. And remember if want more social justice news and analysis, you can get that at our website at

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