IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2017



Country Profiles

Geographical Overview

Strategic Sectors


Mediterranean Electoral Observatory

Migrations in the Mediterranean

The Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreements

Signature of Multilateral Treaties and Conventions

The Mediterranean in Brief


List of the Organisms Consulted for Drawing Up Tables, Charts and Maps

Country Abbreviations in Charts and Maps

Acronyms and Abbreviations

Index of Tables

Index of Charts

Index of Maps



Are Palestinians on the Road to Independence?

Nadim N. Rouhana

Professor of International Affairs and Conflict Studies
Director, Program on International Negotiation and Conflict Resolution
The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Medford

The fact that a question like the one raised in the title of this article can be seriously posed by so many, including some Palestinians, reveals the extent to which doubts about the future of Palestinian independence permeate current thinking about Palestine. These doubts emerge in an unprecedentedly difficult alignment of local, regional, and international circumstances for the Palestinians: Israel’s military, economic, and international standing is at a peak; in contrast, the Palestinians are at a low point in terms of their political power, due to internal divisions, a leadership crisis, and the absence of a well-defined national project; the Arab world is occupied with internal struggles between receding revolutionary, counter-revolutionary, and organized terrorist forces; and many international powers, or more accurately, significant political forces within some of these powers – the US, some European states, and India, for example – are invoking religion and nationalism to guide their domestic and international politics and hence find themselves closer to Israel – a political embodiment of nationalism nurtured by religious underpinnings. These circumstances provide Israel with unprecedented conditions not only to act upon its political plans regarding the future of the occupied Palestinian territories in 1967 and the Palestinians, but also to consider strategies and even ventures that would be less likely under more constraining international conditions.

These circumstances emerge at a time when many among the Palestinian political class – that is mainly the class outside the circles of the Palestinian Authority – believe that it has become impractical and unrealistic to define the goals of a Palestinian national project in terms of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. This is mainly because of Israel’s active undermining of such an option, best represented by settlement activities and the incorporation of more than 700,000[1] settlers and close to 250[2] settlements and outposts into Israel’s society, politics, military, and all other institutions. It is also because the Israeli political map has been transformed in ways that give right-wing political forces, including those of the settler movement and religious nationalists, increasing control over Israel’s strategic agenda (see Shindler 2015). Thus, it is no wonder that under these conditions, Palestinian statehood in the West Bank or the West Bank and Gaza, even when promoted by arguably one of the least biased (in favour of Israel) American administrations (such as during the most recent negotiation phase under Secretary of State John Kerry from 2013 to 2014), would have, in its best-case scenario, provided Palestinians a state that would have redefined both the Palestinian people (as being only Palestinians residing in the West Bank and Gaza) and Palestine (as being limited to the territory on which this new state would have been established). The Palestinian citizens of Israel would have been doomed to constitutional inequality in Israel as a Jewish state and those of them who are internal refugees would have never had their claims addressed; the Palestinian refugees in exile would have been prevented from returning; and the State itself would have been demilitarized and placed under strict Israeli control.[3]

Now however, with the end of the Obama Administration, the current hegemonic Israeli political class – the right wing and the religious nationalists represented in the Israeli government – oppose the idea of any independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and champion ongoing settler-colonial policies that have made even such a limited state unlikely to emerge. It has also become clear that for the increasingly insignificant “Zionist left” and for the Zionist centre too, the question of Palestinian statehood is not on the Israeli agenda, even with the impossible conditions that Israel usually imposes (such as requiring Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state).[4]

What we are witnessing in both Palestinian and Israeli politics is a period of transition, at the centre of which is the demise of the idea of an independent Palestinian state in the territories Israel occupied in 1967, and complete disintegration of trust in the “peace process.” On the Palestinian side, this transition is taking the form of an end to an era that started in the mid-1970s – the struggle towards an independent Palestinian state – to a new era, the characteristics of which are still undefined. On the Israeli side, the transition is different – from an era in which some efforts were made – sometimes genuine as under Prime Minister Olmert from 2006 to 2009, and sometimes disingenuous as under Netanyahu since then[5] – to a time when peace efforts are perceived as either futile (see, for example, Alpher 2016) or as a threat that has to be dealt with.

The sense on both sides of being in a transitional period moving towards an as yet undefined phase is similar in two respects: (i) it is not clear what new phase will follow the demise of the two-state solution; and (ii) the belief is widely shared that this conflict will not be settled any time soon. Other than that, the transitional period is fundamentally different on both sides. The Israeli leadership is looking for ways to guarantee the continued incorporation of the largest possible portions of the West Bank into Israel and to guarantee full and permanent domination of the Palestinians in order to thwart their ability to challenge these policies. As for the Palestinians, under the complex international and regional circumstances and given the stagnation of the leadership represented in the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian political and intellectual elites have not been able to define a new vision for a Palestinian national project to replace the disappearing goal based on a two-state solution. Indeed, this is a most challenging task as the alternatives that stand before the Palestinians under the current circumstances are hard even to envision. The transitional phase will be a period of looking for new strategies – anchored in new thinking – to achieve liberation and decolonization in their homeland. As I argue below, there are signs of some stirrings in that direction.

Israel beyond the Two-State Solution

The Israeli discourse on the future of the Palestinians has moved beyond two states. As mentioned above, there is no significant political party in Israel within the Zionist spectrum that accepts full Palestinian independence in a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinian political and intellectual elites have not been able to define a new vision for a Palestinian national project to replace the disappearing goal based on a two-state solution

The questions within the ruling coalition – the hegemonic political class in Israel – are not on the future relations between two states or the shape of a Palestinian state. The new debate in the Israeli ruling circles is whether to annex the whole West Bank or just parts – and if so, which parts -, and what future should Palestinians have in it (residents, citizens, autonomy in Bantustans, or even expulsion). The views range from full annexation with civil rights, through annexation of area C (about 60% of the West Bank), to annexation of large tracts of land usually called the “settlement blocs.”[6] As for the future of the Palestinians, views range from giving them the choice between leaving or accepting second-class citizenship, as articulated by Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich (with an implication of killing them all off as a third choice; see Blatman 2017), to pushing them into Bantustans, or giving them civil rights in a state of the Jewish people, as Israeli President Rivlin would support (Lis 2017).

The status quo of continued occupation is perhaps the preferred Israeli option for the time being, because beneath it an aggressive colonization project can continue until the regional, international, and local circumstances ripen for one of the options mentioned above.

The Israeli leadership is looking for ways to guarantee the continued incorporation of the largest possible portions of the West Bank into Israel and to guarantee full and permanent domination of the Palestinians in order to thwart their ability to challenge these policies

Notice that none of the Israeli options offers a genuine partition of the land of Palestine into two independent states. If partition is to be at all considered, the Bennett plan of annexing area C, controlling the borders with Jordan, and concentrating Palestinians in two or three self-rule areas akin to Bantustans with full Israeli security control is more like what an imposed settler-colonial partition will look like. In this regard, Israel will not be any different to other settler-colonial regimes, none of which ended with an agreed-upon partition of the homeland between the settlers and the indigenous population.

Palestinians beyond the Two-State Solution: Re-Conceptualizing the Conflict

On the Palestinian side, a new paradigm for understanding the conflict between themselves and Israel is emerging (or more accurately re-emerging) with far-reaching implications that are yet to be fully examined. Palestinians are increasingly articulating their conflict with Israel as a conflict between the indigenous population of Palestine and a settler-colonial movement represented by Zionism. Such an articulation is becoming possible as a result of parallel developments in Palestinian politics and society in the territories under occupation since 1967 and in Israel, as well as among Palestinian communities in exile. A paradigm shift to redefine the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel as a struggle against a settler colonial project is gaining momentum.

This paradigm is not completely new to Palestinian political thought; Palestinians originally perceived their conflict with Zionism as a conflict between a settler-colonial project and an indigenous Palestinian national movement (see, for example, Sayegh 1965; Abu-Lughod and Abu-Laban 1974). This conceptualization, which started with the start of the conflict itself, characterized the popular, intellectual, and cultural understanding of the conflict as well as Palestinian political thought. Within this understanding the Palestinian national movement defined its strategic goals as “Return and Liberation” – that is, the return of Palestinian refugees to their land and the liberation of Palestine – the meaning of which was not clear. It was in the 1970s that the hegemonic Palestinian political leadership within the PLO shifted the political thinking by defining the goal of the Palestinian Movement in terms of establishing a Palestinian state on every part of liberated Palestinian territory[7]. This goal developed gradually into the two-state solution programme articulated in 1988 in the Palestinian National Council held in Algiers. The underlying paradigm of this political programme was national conflict – that is, a conflict between the Palestinian national movement and Zionism as a national movement (Rouhana 2017). The national conflict paradigm peaked in the mid-1990s with the Oslo Accords. The international support, including that of American administrations, for the two-state solution provided face validity to the paradigm. Indeed, during this period – the mid-1970s until very recently -, the intellectual and academic discourse on settler colonialism among Palestinians has faded and almost disappeared from the political statist discourse, although it has never faded from the popular understanding.

There is no significant political party in Israel within the Zionist spectrum that accepts full Palestinian independence in a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza

Many Palestinians now share the revived realization that Zionism is a settler-colonial project that is not only making it impossible for them to have a state, but which, in its dominant ideological manifestations, denies the Palestinians having any authentic relationship to Palestine as a homeland. This realization is common to the various Palestinian communities, including the Palestinian citizens in Israel, who are becoming increasingly aware of the aggressive Zionist claim that the homeland itself—as their motherland and place of national origin—is being denied them, beyond a mere political denial of equal citizenship in a state defined as “the State of the Jews” (see Rouhana 2015).

This growing awareness among Palestinians of homeland denial is spreading among many civil society activists, youth organizations, cultural and intellectual elites, and political leaders. This is obviously true of the millions of Palestinians in exile, who are told that they cannot return to their homeland, which is now constituted as the homeland solely of the Jews, but is also true of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who experience the physical overtaking of their homeland on a daily basis. Thus, the new Palestinian struggle is being increasingly defined not around statehood, but around reclaiming the homeland and living in it with the human dignity that only equal citizenship can deliver – a claim that is fundamentally incompatible with Zionism itself. Politically, this entails a struggle for liberation from Israel’s settler-colonial regime across Palestine and an attempt to establish instead a new, de-Zionized order in which both colonized and colonizer are liberated from their relations as occupier and occupied, oppressor and oppressed, privileged and underprivileged, and superior and inferior.

Redefining Palestinian Independence

While the settler-colonial paradigm has been increasingly endorsed in academic and intellectual circles (see Busbridge, 2017) and among younger generations of Palestinians, it has not yet found its way to the political sphere. Nor has this paradigm, so far, offered a clear vision of the political future, within its framework, of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples and the relationship between them.

Palestinians are increasingly articulating their conflict with Israel as a conflict between the indigenous population of Palestine and a settlercolonial movement represented by Zionism

To become politically relevant, this paradigm has to address the following question: If partition to two states is no longer applicable, and if settler-colonial partition into Bantustans is naturally unacceptable to Palestinians, what should their positive vision be for decolonization and liberation? What would the future of Palestinian independence be? I argue in this paper that Palestinian independence itself has to be redefined in the context of any alternative to the disappearing two-state option. Such redefinition will have to take into consideration the political geographic and demographic realities of both Israelis and Palestinians. My arguments are anchored in thinking within the settler-colonial paradigm.

Even though many Palestinians have come to the conclusion that a two-state solution is no longer feasible, many believe that abandoning the political demand for a two-state solution, even if they know it is unrealistic, will give Israel freer reign in implementing its policies in the West Bank, since they will be giving up on an ideal that is supported, at least on the declaratory level, by the international community. Thus, many Palestinians are trapped within the declared support for a two-state solution.

Palestinian independence itself has to be redefined in the context of any alternative to the disappearing twostate option. Such redefinition will have to take into consideration the political geographic and demographic realities of both Israelis and Palestinians

The lack of an alternative to a two-state solution is not only an intellectual trap but also a political trap, enabling Israel to continue its current policies, which, paradoxically, will not only make a two-state solution even less likely, but also facilitate the possible realization of a settler-colonial partition in the form of the annexation of major parts of the West Bank and enclosing the population in isolated territories. In the absence of an alternative Palestinian vision, for example a rights-based vision, around which Palestinians can define their national project, and in light of evolving ideas on the Israeli side for the Palestinians’ place in a future Israel that incorporates the West Bank or major parts of it, it will be easier for Israel to design the future geopolitical configuration of its preference.

The future of Palestinians’ realization of their self-determination has to be redefined in profound ways. However, the current internal Palestinian dynamics make this difficult to achieve. While Palestinians can agree on the settler-colonial conceptualization to understand their conflict with Zionism, they are unable to use this paradigm to advance a political project that envisions national liberation and that can galvanize the public support of all Palestinian communities.

In effect, all Palestinian communities suffer from the consequences of the Zionist settler-colonial project, albeit it in different ways. The Palestinian refugees in exile have been prevented from returning to their homeland since their exile close to 70 years ago; the West Bank Palestinians have been under direct occupation and continued colonization for 50 years; the Gaza Strip is under indirect occupation; and the Palestinians in Israel are citizens in a settler-colonial system in which their citizenship is constitutionally unequal (Rouhana and Sabbagh-Khoury 2014).

For Palestinians to envision their liberation, they need to offer a political project that addresses the liberation of all Palestinians from Israeli occupation and domination. But beyond this, they must also advance a vision for how Israelis and Palestinians will live together in a new shared political order – a new political system. In whatever form Palestinians envision their future with the Israelis, their independence has to be redefined in a way that will include the other. There does not seem to be a political option in which Palestinians can envision independence or liberation without having that defined to include Israelis. Liberation and decolonization for Palestinians as the colonized must include liberation and decolonization of the Israelis – the colonizing. This vision is a major step that most Palestinians are not ready to undertake. The community that is most ready to define such a future are the Palestinians in Israel, who live with the Israelis in a mixed system of settler colonialism but also citizenship. It is therefore no wonder that their leading intellectual-political project of a “state for its citizens” within Israeli borders (Bishara, 2017) emphasized equal citizenship in a decolonized state. If decolonization is applied to all of Palestine and to all Palestinians and all Israeli Jews, this project must be developed. In this case, Palestinian independence will not be defined in terms of a state for Palestinians but a state for Palestinians and Israeli Jews – a de-Zionized political system that guarantees equality and group equality. While such a vision is still elementary, the intellectual and political challenge for Palestinians is to develop it and advance it to Palestinians, Israelis, and the world.


[1] Israel’s Housing Minister estimated the number of settlers in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) at between 700,000 and 750,000 as early as 2014 (Reuters 2014).

[2] Peace Now estimated the number of settlements and outposts (including in East Jerusalem) at 240 in 2016. See Peace Now 2017a; Peace Now 2017b.

[3] For some of the security arrangements considered under the Kerry negotiations, see Tibon and Harel 2017.

[4] For views of the Zionist Camp (the successor of Labor), see Wootliff 2016; for views of the Zionist center, represented by Yesh Atid, see Edelman 2017.

[5] See Ravid and Levinson (2017) for how Netanyahu explains the need to deal with Trump’s efforts to reach a settlement.

[6] For examples of these different options, see Lis 2017; Wootliff and Ahren 2016; and Sharon 2017.

[7] “The Ten Points Document” that defined this goal was approved in the 12th meeting of the Palestinian National Council in Cairo on 8 June 1974. (See Gresh 1988.)


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