The 1967 war was a fundamental, damning failure for the Arab world. In the course of six short days, Israel expanded its jurisdiction across the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula and the Syrian Golan Heights, as well as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. For nineteen years, Arab states had regarded Israel as a foreign colony established by the collusion of imperial powers. Amid the anti-colonial fervor that animated much of the global south at the time, these states refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish homeland. They demanded that Palestinian refugees be allowed to return and given the right to govern themselves as promised by Britain, the League of Nations Mandate system and the UN Charter. Israel’s expansion of its territorial holdings blunted the force of those demands.
Among the less frequently cited deleterious effects of the 1967 war is the way in which it reified the juridical elision of Palestinian peoplehood and the attendant right of Palestinians to self-determination. This erasure was first accomplished with the drafting of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and then upon the incorporation of that text into the Palestine Mandate in 1922. Upon declaring its independence in 1948, Israel legally justified its right to statehood with reference to UN General Assembly Resolution 181, stipulating that Mandatory Palestine should be partitioned into an Arab and a Jewish state without discrimination as to the civil and religious rights of the minority populations. Israel denied that Palestinians had a similar right to statehood because Arabs had rejected Resolution 181.
Rather than correct this juridical erasure, UN Security Council Resolution 242, passed in an attempt to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, consecrated it. Resolution 242 predicated the return of Arab lands upon a permanent peace between Arab states and Israel. It failed to recognize the national rights of Palestinians, referring to them as a non-descript “refugee problem.” Egypt and Jordan, seeking to regain territories lost in the 1967 fighting and believing that Israel within its pre-1967 borders was there to stay, voted for Resolution 242. This failure catalyzed the Palestinian national movement, which took the helm of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1968 and insisted upon leading its own cause, rather than leaving it as a derivative concern of pan-Arabism.
The elision of Palestinian peoplehood remains central to the ongoing conflict as well as to Israel’s settler-colonial mechanisms of dispossession, removal and concentration of the native population. It was upon the fiction of Palestinian non-existence that Israel could construct a legal argument denying the de jure occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It is in accordance with this same fiction that Israel denies Palestinians the right to use armed force, as a matter of law, and deems all such incidents as criminal and terroristic. And of course, it is the fiction of non-peoplehood that permits Israel to deny Palestinian self-determination as a matter of positive right. The ambition to resist these conditions, and instead to inscribe the juridical peoplehood of Palestinians among other states in the form of recognition as well as within UN resolutions and procedures, drove the PLO’s legal and diplomatic agenda for nearly two decades.
Over the course of the early 1970s, the PLO achieved recognition as the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people at the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organization of African States, as well as at the Arab League, over the protest of Jordan, which continued to lay claim to the West Bank. Having established the requisite groundwork among these regional bodies, the PLO turned its attention to the United Nations.
In 1974, it drafted General Assembly Resolution 3236, which aimed to supplant Resolution 242 as the guiding framework for establishing Middle East peace. Whereas 242 stipulated a permanent Arab peace with Israel without mutual recognition of Palestinians, 3236 reaffirmed “the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people in Palestine, including: a) the right to self-determination without external interference; [and] b) the right to national independence and sovereignty.” UNGA Resolution 3236 was a coup as it enabled Palestinians to pursue a diplomatic strategy without having to recognize, negotiate with and reconcile with Israel. That same year, the PLO introduced and passed General Assembly Resolution 3237 recognizing the PLO as the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and earning it non-member observer status at the UN. Together, Resolutions 3236 and 3237 created an alternative framework to UNSC Resolution 242 and re-inscribed the juridical status of the Palestinian people as a matter of international law, thus demonstrating the PLO’s efficacy.
Between 1974 and 1977, the PLO participated in the preparatory conferences culminating in the adoption of the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions with the purpose of regulating irregular combat. The Protocols effectively legitimized armed force employed by non-state actors in civil wars and, more pointedly, in wars of national liberation. For the PLO, however, the primary aim underpinning participation in the Protocols talks was a further inscription of its embryonic sovereignty. These ambitions may have yielded positive outcomes for the Palestinian liberation struggle at the height of the power of the Non-Aligned Movement and the prevalence of national liberation movements worldwide, but as the relative clout of these forces began to wane, the PLO’s strategy fell out of place. The PLO’s diminishing influence, marked by its exile to Tunisia, the decline in external funding, and the rise of internal political threats from Hamas and organic leaders in from the Territories, exacerbated this condition. In the late 1980s, the narrow pursuit of juridical recognition ultimately led the PLO to embark on a strategy of capitulation and accommodation best captured by the unfavorable terms of the 1993 Oslo agreement.
By entering into the Oslo accords, the PLO’s moderate flank achieved what it had wanted the most since the early 1970s: Israel’s recognition of the juridical status of Palestinians as a people. It achieved this goal in exchange for freedom. Oslo was a reformulated draft of the autonomy framework first captured by the 1979 Camp David accords establishing peace between Egypt and Israel. Autonomy, unlike statehood, did not link sovereignty and jurisdiction to all peoples and lands. Moreover, autonomy is equally available to oppressed minorities, indicating the irrelevance of peoplehood in its governing apparatuses. Statehood, which is available only to a people, was explicitly off—and never on—the negotiating table. Unlike the Palestinian negotiators in Washington who rebuffed Israel’s efforts in that direction, the PLO in the Oslo back channel accepted Israel’s terms. It also agreed to amend its charter, relinquishing its commitment to armed struggle.
Over the following twenty-four years of the Oslo era, Israel, with the close cooperation of the Palestinian Authority (PA), has operationalized autonomy and transformed it into a viable arrangement. Not only has autonomy facilitated the dramatic increase of the settler population from approximately 200,000 to 600,000, but it has also retooled Palestinian police forces into a security apparatus for the settlements and their attendant infrastructure. Israel has entrenched its settler-colonial enterprise in Area C, or 60 percent of the West Bank, and is on the cusp of annexing this land as a matter of law. Notably, Israel’s settler-dominated government has revived a discourse of the non-existence of a Palestinian people evidenced by renewed calls to transfer Palestinians to Jordan as well as the 2012 Levy Committee finding that there is no occupation. Denying the juridical status of Palestinian peoplehood today would provide Israel with a (dubious) legal argument that it is annexing land that belongs to no other sovereign. On the horizon looms a reversal of the PLO’s ultimate achievement to date.
Worse, perhaps, is the fact that indefinite military occupation has severely altered the territorial, juridical, geographic and social status quo in place before the start of hostilities in early June 1967. Rather than revolt against these conditions, the Fatah-dominated PA, which has effectively subordinated the PLO, continues to pursue a statehood strategy without regard to the evolving conditions or new realities of de jure discrimination tantamount to apartheid. The PA/PLO strategy does not even remain committed to the PLO’s vision articulated in its Declaration of Independence (1988) and has, at nearly every juncture, attempted to accommodate rather than resist Israel’s domination. Not everyone has suffered equally, which helps to explain this conundrum. The unending process of negotiations has significantly enriched a Palestinian economic and political elite, which has acquired a vested interest in the new status quo.
What has become clear is that the framework of Palestinian nationalism established in the aftermath of the 1967 war is no longer sufficient to drive a liberation movement. That framework has been assaulted, and today is mutilated to the point of non-recognition. While Israel’s settler-colonial regime remains the most significant obstacle to Palestinian freedom, the first step in combating it must be the removal of a Palestinian national and economic elite that makes it viable. At the very least, Palestinians must also articulate and establish an alternative national liberation framework.
The bad news is that a robust nationalist movement does not yet exist. The most significant national body to emerge since 1993 is the Boycott National Committee (BNC), which guides the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The BNC, however, has been resolutely clear that it is not an alternative to the PLO and that, in practice, the BDS movement is an international solidarity movement based on human rights norms and devoid of a political vision. The good news is that Palestinians are in a very familiar position.
As in the aftermath of the 1948 and 1967 wars, when Palestinians took tremendous losses and were plagued by inept leaders, they face devastating odds today. What is coming next is a more serious deterioration of conditions on the ground, signaled by bolder Israeli moves to consolidate colonial takings and a securitization of the West Bank, much like it has already achieved in Gaza, that deepens the vulnerability of Palestinian civilians. But there is an end to this downward spiral. At that point, or in its approximation, Palestinians will likely initiate a new chapter of resistance shaped by articulations of freedom responsive to the present-day status quo. Perhaps this assessment is overly optimistic but, at the bottom of the well, there is no way to go but up. Either Palestinians meet this challenge or accept their erasure. Such surrender is even more unlikely than the scenarios conjured by unbridled optimism. The inscription of Palestinian peoplehood in the juridical corpus is insufficient to ward off erasure. A people only exist to the extent that they resist their elimination; it is the act of resistance, and not the language of law, that ensures existence. A once vibrant PLO made that clear in the aftermath of the 1967 war, and the dismal conditions today demand a similar resuscitation of intrepid vision and leadership.
[This article was originally published MERIP as part of a roundtable entitled “Fifty Years of Occupation."]