Fighting Apartheid with Equality

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Originally published in the Harvard Crimson. Co-authored by Lena K. Awwad and Eliza M. Nguyen.

This weekend, Harvard will host the One State Conference, a gathering of academics and activists from around the world that will address the possibility of a one-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The speakers, including noted Harvard faculty as well as many others, will explore what it would mean for the Holy Land if its citizens could shelve ethnic and religious nationalism in favor of coexistence under a secular, bi-national government where all would have equal rights.

Never heard of the idea? You’re not alone. Despite gaining steam among Israeli and Arab intellectuals alike, the one-state solution is rarely discussed in the halls of power or in the U.S. media. Zionists have long insisted that a “Jewish democracy”—in a land where Jews number 5.4 million, compared to 11 million indigenous Palestinians—is a possibility. But the democratic notion that all people in the land of Israel might have equal rights and equal voices does not sit well with a state that values human beings according to their “Jewishness.” [SEE CORRECTION BELOW]

This Conference will move beyond the nationalist paradigm that each nation or ethnic group needs its own national or ethnic homeland, and will explore the possibilities of the creation of one democratic and secular state that would allow both peoples—Israelis and Palestinians—to live together in peace.

In the 1990s, White South Africans realized that they could not continue to control the indigenous people and dispossess them of their land against their will. Instead, they dismantled the system of apartheid and agreed to live as a minority with equal rights in a land that both they and South Africa’s other minorities considered their homeland. Numerous veterans of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, including Bishop Desmond M. Tutu, and have visited Palestine and made it clear that Israel’s system is in fact “worse than apartheid” as it existed in South Africa.

Palestinians, Israelis, and many others around the world are waking up to this fact, and support is increasing for the one-state solution. A 2010 poll found that around a quarter of both Israelis and Palestinians support the establishment of a single, bi-national state, while another quarter support a unified confederation. With support for this option increasing on all sides, it is vital that policymakers, scholars, activists, and the general public explore this option and debate what a bi-national state could look like, even as we keep other options open.

For 62 years, Palestinians have been subject to ethnic cleansing, occupation, and dispossession across their homeland. In 1948, Israel declared its independence and promptly expelled 800,000 Palestinians from their homes, occupying 78 percent of the land of Palestine in the process. In 1967, they occupied the rest. Today, out of a total of nine million Palestinians in the Middle East, just over half live under Israeli occupation in the West Bank, under Israeli siege in Gaza, or with second-class Israeli citizenship. The other half live mostly in squalid conditions in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan—all within a few hours driving distance of their former homes. Since their original dispossession, Palestinians have fought—both violently and nonviolently—to regain the right to live in freedom and dignity in the land they continue to call home.

Over the years, Palestinians have compromised with Israel’s regime, asking only that they be allowed an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza (or 22 percent of historic Palestine). Despite this compromise—originally accepted by Israel in the 1992 Oslo Accords—the Israeli government has continued authorizing the building of settlements in these areas, which have been held under military occupation since 1967. Israel has built a wall around its settlements that cuts through Palestinian villages, making 43 percent of the West Bank off-limits to Palestinian inhabitants in the process. It has even created a system of Jewish-only roads that bypass Palestinian villages to ensure that life for the over 500,000 settlers feels normal and uninterrupted while Palestinians struggle to live under a military occupation and have their movement restricted by hundreds of military checkpoints.

Increasingly, it seems that Israel has made the dream of a Palestinian state encompassing even the West Bank and Gaza an impossibility. Though the Israelis and the Palestinians (and most of the world) negotiate peace with the idea of two states for two peoples as a basis, the reality is that this would be extremely difficult to achieve because Israel has continued to colonize much of the land that would have comprised a future Palestinian state.

Because of this, the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee is excited to co-sponsor the One State Conference at Harvard from March 3-4, 2012. It is our sincere hope that the One State Conference will be an innovative, unprecedented academic forum for discussing the potential of the one-state solution. We hope it will inspire Harvard students and visitors alike to consider the many different possibilities for peaceful coexistence that lie before us in the Holy Land.