Palestine Lost

A new generation of Palestinian activists are less interested in forging a state than in winning their rights.

Promises were made, and it looks like they'll be broken.

U.S. President Barack Obama said he believed a Palestinian state could be created by September 2011. Speaking to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2010, he laid down a challenge to formulate an agreement that would make it a reality.

That same deadline was set by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad for his state-building plan, which was intended to create the institutions for a viable Palestinian state.

But U.S.-brokered negotiations have been a miserable failure, and September is now fast approaching. Palestinian leaders have declared their intention to push for recognition in the U.N. General Assembly, where they can expect overwhelming support. The United States is expected to block the move in the Security Council -- and, of course, Israel will not alter its policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip because of a U.N. resolution.

Now, with the Palestinian dream of statehood stymied at every turn, a new generation of activists are adopting fresh tactics to win their rights.

"September is a moment of truth for us," says Diana Alzeer, a 23-year-old social activist from Ramallah who cites the revolution in Egypt as inspiration. "We see that a dictatorship of over 30 years was gone in two weeks. So why not for Palestinians?"

Alzeer is part of a network of global Palestinian activists that form the "March15" movement -- named for the date when thousands took to the streets of Gaza, the West Bank and Jersualem to call for Fatah and Hamas, the two dominant Palestinian parties, to end their bitter division. But the movement also proves that the Palestinian street is growing disillusioned with its long-dominant political factions. "That's the big difference now," says Alzeer. "We are not led by parties. Most of us don't belong to any."

March15 is a loose network of young, social media-friendly activists organizing globally and injecting new life into the Palestinian popular struggle. Healing political divisions is one step on the path of creating a united, non-violent protest movement, they believe. Another goal on that same path, some activists say, is to resuscitate the PLO's legislative body, the Palestinian National Council -- and allow all Palestinians, regardless of geography, to elect representatives. And for some, the idea of pursuing a Palestinian state through asymmetric negotiation with Israel is simply outdated.

"What's the use of state if you can't have the political rights that go with it?" asks Fadi Quran, a 23-year-old coordinator of Palestinian youth groups in Ramallah. "The demands of the new movement that is slowly but surely beginning to surface are freedom, justice and dignity -- that both Palestinians and Israelis should have the same opportunities and the same rights, as equals."

This year also marks the 20-year mark of the start of the peace process between Palestinians and Israelis in Madrid in 1991 and led to the landmark Oslo Accords -- a process that, in all that time, has yielded few results. Those Palestinians who have grown up in the "Oslo years" have grown deeply cynical as the peace process faltered and failed to deliver. And Obama's spectacular climb-down last year over Israel enforcing a freeze on settlement expansion was, for many, the final nail in the coffin of a negotiated solution.

Young Palestinians now see more hope in the democracy movements sweeping the region, and draw parallels in their opposition to corrupt, unrepresentative politics and a stifling lack of opportunity. "This whole generation in the Arab world is more educated and its main goal has been to break away from the older generation and create something new for themselves," Quran says.

This sentiment is borne out in public opinion surveys. Though Palestinian national sentiment is notoriously difficult to measure, the Norwegian research firm FAFO recently found that Palestinians believed corruption had increased significantly over the past three years. What's more, FAFO discovered that support for both Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh have slumped in 2011.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian push for statehood at the United Nations may not get many cheers on the ground. Quran argued that, even if successful, a U.N. statehood seal would be no more than a moral victory. "There will be no full sovereignty, no contiguous land, no Palestinian control over large swathes of the Palestinian population -- nothing that you need to be state," he says. "If there is a huge fuss and a declaration of statehood, a lot of Palestinians will say it is a big joke and that we are sick of people playing with our destiny."

The shift among some protesters, from statehood to equal rights, has also put women center-stage. They are increasingly leading the Friday afternoon marches against the Israeli separation barrier and Jewish settlements in the West Bank. A small group of active Palestinian women focused on such protests say they take regular inquiries from new female activists, inspired by images of young Palestinian women facing down Israeli soldiers. They also explain that they earned their protest stripes during the March 15 demonstrations in Ramallah, when they formed human shields around male activists, taking the blows from security officials who at first attacked, later defended, and finally joined them

"These are guys who would usually never listen to a woman and her opinions but now they are with us, working together," says Lina, a 27-year-old woman from East Jerusalem.

For her, it's all in line with the new goals of the movement. "It is about complete, dynamic change, rather than the same people running the system," she says. "This is not about territory any more, but about rights -- and the same rights for women."

Already, this movement has altered the format of Palestinian protest movements. On May 15, March15 was involved with coordinating border protests of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Syria, linking those to simultaneous demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza. The striking display of unified protest marked Nakba Day, the Palestinian commemoration of their displacement in the war that created Israel.

At least 14 people were killed and hundreds injured as Israeli forces opened fire on these mass protests - Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas declared a three-day mourning period for those killed. But the March15 movement had made its mark. As Nazareth-based journalist Jonathan Cook pointed out in an article for The National, "the scenes of Palestinian defiance on Israel's borders will fuel the imaginations of Palestinians everywhere."

Quran argues that the unity of the protest movement is an antidote to the current politics of division. "We thought it would take longer to convince Palestinian youth from different locations around the world to get together," he says. "But all we had to do was get in touch with them."

Activists predict more change is coming. "Non-violent protest won't be political activities or just about the [Israeli separation] wall or settlements," says Sami Awad, director of the Holy Land trust, a Bethlehem-based, non-profit organisation that works on Palestinian community building. "We want to expose the inequalities that Palestinians face -- from water distribution to education to movement and freedom of worship."

This is not about giving up on Palestinian statehood entirely, but rather a strategic decision to put it on pause. "Until the equal rights of Palestinians are recognised, we will not be able to find a political solution," says Awad. "For now, that can wait."



Redrawing the Map

South Sudan may be independent, but new countries are becoming increasingly rare.

On July 9, the world welcomed the independence of South Sudan and marked one of the more significant events in international geopolitics -- the creation of a new country. If, as expected, the new state is admitted for U.N. membership this week, it will become the body's 193rd member.

South Sudan's independence has caused some excited announcements that we are witnessing a "wave of self-determination" in the world, as Parag Khanna put it on this website in January. With entities like Palestine, South Ossetia, Somaliland, and Darfur pushing for sovereignty, Khanna writes, "Within a few decades, we could easily have 300 states in the world." Writing at the Atlantic, journalist G. Pascal Zachary sees South Sudanese independence as evidence that "the process of Africans inventing and discovering their own political boundaries has finally begun, after some 50 years of waiting."

But the fact is, rather than an age of "cartographic stress," as Khanna has put it, the current era is a relatively stable one in terms of the movement of borders and the creation of new states. The global excitement that has surrounded South Sudan's arrival is really a reflection of how rare the creation of new states has become. To put it another way: If you purchased a world atlas at any point during the second half of the 20th century, within five years it would have been missing at least half a dozen new countries. In the last decade, it has become a much safer investment.

The past few centuries of human history have almost been defined by the rise and decline of empires and the establishment and dissolution of states. A map of Europe from 1700 shows a patchwork of defunct nation-states like Bavaria, Mecklenburg, Savoy, and Tuscany, as well as bodies like Denmark and the Ottoman Empire that still exist but with radically different boundaries and, in some cases, different names.

Today, Europe may be at odds over monetary policy and immigration, but since the disruptions of the immediate post-Cold War years, the continent's borders have proved remarkably fixed and stable. Barring unforeseen catastrophe, they seem likely to remain so in the near future. Exceptions, such as the secessionist ambitions of Belgium's Walloons, are generally covered in the international media as eccentric curiosities.

Globally, the 21st century has seen the creation of only four new countries with wide international recognition, including South Sudan. (The others are Montenegro, East Timor, and Kosovo -- though the last is still not a U.N. member state owing to Russian opposition.) That seems pretty paltry compared with the 1990s, when the Soviet Union broke up into 15 new countries and Yugoslavia exploded into five (now seven). Or take the monumental changes from 1960 to 1962, when 23 African countries won their independence from European powers.

The handful of countries seeking sovereignty only underscores the point. Palestine will likely push for membership when the U.N. General Assembly meets in September. This could have major implications for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but in geographic terms it won't change much: Over 100 countries already recognize Palestinian independence; a U.S. veto will prevent full U.N. membership (the General Assembly may try to override the veto, but this would not have legally binding force); and Israeli troops and settlements aren't going anywhere.

The other territories pushing for a seat at the table of nations only underscore the point. Places like Northern Cyprus, Somaliland, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria, and Western Sahara exist in what journalist Graeme Wood calls "Limbo World" -- de facto independent, but unlikely to gain general international recognition. (The recent diplomatic back-and-forth over whether the tiny Pacific island nation of Vanuatu would join the august company of Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru in recognizing Abkhazia was illustrative of just how far these countries have yet to go.) So though it's conceivable that the number of widely recognized states could reach 195 or 196 in the next couple of decades, 200 seems far-fetched and 300 nearly inconceivable.

There are a number of factors that could be contributing to this trend. One is the dramatic decline in both interstate conflict and wars of national liberation over the last few decades. Another is that, in contrast with the British Empire, the Soviet Union, or even the United States of the early 20th century, today's great powers seem less interested in acquiring additional territory. (Although it's not about to give up Tibet or compromise on international recognition of Taiwan, China's international ambitions are more geared toward harvesting commercial opportunities and natural resources than planting the flag.)

In most cases, this is a good thing: Countries rarely part with territory peacefully, and wars over territory cost millions of deaths in the 20th century. But in the case of Africa, where most of the country borders were determined more by agreements between European powers than local ethnic or geographic factors, a growing body of scholarship suggests that a bit more divisionism might be a good thing. Pierre Englebert, a professor of African politics at Pomona College, notes that despite Africa's brutal political violence since independence, it has remarkably few secessionist conflicts. The "artificiality" of Africa's borders has obviously driven ethnic conflict in places like Sudan and Congo, and recent research suggests it may have impeded economic progress as well. But as Zachary writes, "In the Congo, Cameroon, and elsewhere, breakaway movements have petered out, exhausted by a lack of international support and, most cruelly, a failure of African imagination."

It's possible that South Sudan could set a new precedent -- the ever-hopeful Somaliland government certainly sees it that way -- but on closer inspection it seems more of an anomaly. Although far less economically and politically developed than many "Limbo World" territories, the Juba government won its sovereignty thanks to a confluence of factors, among them a brutal 22-year civil war; the widespread support and interest of the international community, including Christian groups and George W. Bush's administration; and Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir's desire to make a conciliatory gesture to the international community while facing war crimes charges for his government's conduct in Darfur. And once the honeymoon phase ends and it becomes clear just how hard it is to build institutions from scratch for one of the world's least-developed countries, foreign governments and aid groups may not be so anxious to repeat the experience elsewhere.

So, with a handful of exceptions, the countries on today's map are likely to remain constant, at least for the foreseeable future. We may not know what the future holds for the world's 193 countries, but at least we have a pretty good idea of what they will look like.