What would a "Free Palestine" look like?

In recent weeks there has naturally been what I’ll diplomatically call a lot of talk about “Free Palestine”.

Most of this rhetoric is quite clear in one thing: Palestine must be free from Israel. But, aside from that, there is no clear narrative around what a Free Palestine would look like, what it would mean in practical terms for Palestinians, Israelis and geopolitics, or what kind of Palestinian state is being advocated.

The complete absence of any clear vision for Palestine means it’s very difficult to know what is being called for, other than an end to the status quo (which can be a useful start with any protest). But it matters because there are competing visions out there, with very different ideas of what a future Palestinian state should be.

Let’s start with Hamas. There’s no equivocation there: Hamas exists to eliminate the State of Israel and replace it with an Islamic state. What Hamas intends to do with the 6.8million Jews who live in Israel is left to our imagination. Uprooting almost 7 million Jews to give land “back” to Palestinians while creating a new Islamic state in the image of Hamas’s fundamentalism is a recipe for disaster that any progressive “pro-Palestinians” should wish to avoid – and that’s if we accept the more optimistic interpretation of Hamas’s intentions.

The Palestine Hamas desires would make Saudi Arabia look like a haven of Liberalism by comparison.  “Pro-Palestinians” who criticise Israel’s human rights record and accuse it of apartheid would presumably have no wish to replace Israel with an Islamic apartheid state with even less enlightened attitudes towards human rights.

So, if we’re not so keen on Hamas’s worldview, what about the Free Palestine Movement? Much newer than Hamas, the FPM emerged around 2003 and, similarly, opposes the existence of Israel. It also supports Bashar al-Assad and the Ba’ath Party is Syria. Its leader, Yasser Qashlaq, is happy to express his views on Jews, who he describes as "dregs of European garbage", a "gang of criminal murderers", and "human pieces of filth". He does have a clear idea about what should happen to Jews when Israel is finally eradicated – deport them all to Europe. I very much doubt he’s given much thought to how that will work in practice. 

Previously active in Gaza, as it has turned its attentions towards military involvement in Syria the FPM now has very little presence in Palestine and is based in Damascus. It therefore has limited scope for influence in the current situation, although its essential belief that the elimination of Israel is necessary before any Palestinian state can be created sadly appears to be gaining traction. 

Next, there is the other Free Palestine Movement. Yes, there is more than one – this one is based in the US and is an accredited NGO on the United Nations. Unsurprisingly, this FPM is a very different entity and exists to “defend and advocate for the human rights of all Palestinians, and in particular the right of access to all of Palestine”. That sounds altogether more reasonable, as does its mission to “challenge Israeli policies and actions that deny Palestinians their human rights”. So, a positive start – but what vision does this organisation have for a future “Free Palestine”?

Apparently, none. Its Points of Unity, published on its website, recognises various rights including “the right of all refugees and exiles and their heirs to return to their homes in Israel and all territories occupied by Israel; to recover their properties, and to receive compensation for damage, dispossession and unlawful use of such property.” But on the question of what a Free Palestine might actually look like, the organisation refuses to be drawn – a bit odd considering its name. All it will say is that it “adhere[s] to the principle of Palestinian oversight, that whatever we do must respect Palestinian will, and in particular the Palestinians directly affected by our work”.

Positively, it agrees to “the principles of nonviolence and nonviolent resistance in word and deed at all times” but it’s hard not to feel that its lack of any kind of firm vision for a “Free Palestine” helps create a vacuum that the likes of Hamas are willing to fill.

A British organisation, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, was established 40 years ago and similarly exists to champion human rights. It patrons include - ahem! - former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. A look at its website will tell you that the PSC believes in the rights of return and self-determination, but again lacks any kinds of insight into what its version of a "free Palestine"might be other than general references to "democratic rights and social justice". (As an aside, the PSC states that it does not support a particular political party in Palestine - given the fact that there are only two parties of any real significance, Hamas and Fatah, that statement is somewhat concerning.) 

You'd think somebody somewhere would have a clear and definite idea about not only what freedom should look like but the processes needed to get there. I have searched the websites of other UK-based pro-Palestine organisations without success - it's as if "Free Palestine" is a mere mantra.

So, what about Fatah? Fatah is an interesting organisation, which is much stronger in the West Bank than in Gaza. Fatah has been around since the 1950s and its founder members included a young Yasser Arafat. It has a colourful history that is worth looking into for wider context, but which I won’t consider here. 

Since renouncing terrorism in 1988, Fatah has become a social democratic Islamic party that successfully nominated Mahmood Abbas to the presidency of the Palestinian Authority in 2005. The party also did reasonably well in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, securing over 41% of the vote and finishing in second place (behind Hamas). However, since then internal splits, accusations of corruption and an archaic structure have combined to weaken its appeal and arguably the absence of further elections since 2006 is the only reason why Hamas has not been able to capitalise on that weakness. Animosity between Fatah and Hamas (Hamas effectively pushed Fatah out of Gaza and have consistently sought to undermine them in the West Bank) has kept Palestinian opposition to Israel divided, with Fatah preferring the option of diplomacy rather than armed struggle. It is currently a member of Socialist International and has observer status within the Party of European Socialists, demonstrating a degree of respect on the international scene.

So, what are Fatah’s hopes for a future Palestine? I'm not going to suggest Fatah is a group of moderates but – unlike Hamas – it does recognise Israel’s right to exist, although it wants to revert to the 1967 borders. It does not believe in the legitimacy of Hamas’s approach. To all intents and purposes, Fatah advocates a two-state solution and sees any future Palestinian state as existing alongside an Israeli state.  As members of the PLO, Fatah supports the settlement as outlined in the 1993 Oslo Accords. That much is positive.

Those of us who depend on the UK news media would be forgiven for not knowing that Fatah exists, with most reporting framing the narrative in Hamas's terms. And yet, Fatah remains a significant player in Palestine – and could potentially see its stock rise if Hamas is either militarily defeated or loses support among its base. Fatah is likely to have a role to play in determining future outcomes and perhaps it is time for the outside world to listen. An obvious advantage in engaging positively with Fatah would be to marginalise Hamas, especially if the Arab world recognises Fatah as the Palestinian organisation best placed to achieve a lasting peaceful outcome.

And what of Israeli perspectives? Netanyahu’s Likud party has historically opposed Palestinian statehood and has no interest in revisiting the peace process, preferring to keep Palestine divided. Yesh Atid – Israel’s main opposition party – is an observer member of Liberal International and, by comparison with Likud, has more moderate positions of economic and security matters. More importantly, it wishes to re-enter peace talks: its leader, former Prime Minister Yair Lapid, has talked of “the need to work with the Arab world and the international community to create a new leadership in Gaza, which will likely include the Palestinian Authority.” But once again there is a frustrating lack of detail as to what exactly he and his party are working towards and Lapid has previously summarised his position in very general terms as "not looking for a happy marriage with the Palestinians but for a divorce agreement we can live with". On the plus side, he is at least determined to "reach out and try to find a working compromise" and sees possibilities in a two-state solution, albeit with somewhat different views to Fatah on how it would work in practice.

With the policy of dividing the Palestinian parties having yielded terrifying results, both Likud and YA are committed to displacing Hamas – potentially opening the doors to talks with Fatah (by default the only sizeable Palestinian party remaining). Such common ground as exists between Fatah and YA could at least provide the starting point for meaningful and productive dialogue. 

Are there any other expressed visions of what a Palestinian state could look like? Well, yes – various academics, politicos and think tanks have their own views. But, frankly, no-one is listening to them. It seems to me that anyone who desires a “Free Palestine” must support either the Hamas model or the Fatah/PLO model – there are no other relevant players. For “Free Palestine” to become more than a slogan or a fantasy it needs to develop into a coherent policy, supported by a plan through which to achieve it.

Sadly, many of those advocating for “free Palestine” are not making the distinction between the competing visions. What does “freeing Palestine” actually mean? My guess it is means very different things to different people. To some, it means the total eradication of Israel. For others, it implies the mass murder of Jews on a scale far worse than what occurred on Simchat Torah. Lest anyone thinks I am exaggerating, I personally have seen “pro-Palestinian” protesters carrying banners unequivocally calling for the genocide of Jews. That they are a minority voice within such demonstrations is true, but the inescapable fact is they are not afraid to express their hate and intolerance.

Others will support a two-state solution while there may be many who, like the US-based FPM, have no clear idea and simply wish to delegate any such decisions to the Palestinian people. The difficulty with the latter approach is that it fails to take account of the fact that no decisions can be made with, by, or about Palestine without having an effect on Israel; it also fails to ask what happens if Palestinians use democracy to smash democracy by supporting Hamas’s vision of the future. 

Still others will perhaps not have engaged at all with the question of what a “Free Palestine” means in practical terms, focusing instead on immediate questions of rights and social justice. For many, “free Palestine" is an emotional cause or a general aspiration rather than a clear, rational policy. They cannot see beyond current concerns, as if the detail is somehow irrelevant and can be left for a future time.

But it matters. And it matters because if Palestine is to be “free” we have to have a clear idea of what that freedom should look like.  I desire a Palestine in which Palestinians are free from the terror of Hamas, an organisation content not only to undermine the PLO and Fatah – and with them any hopes of a peace settlement – but also carry out mass murders. A free Palestine must be free from the kind of tyranny with which Hamas has governed Gaza in recent years. I desire a Palestine in which Palestinians are free from the destructive effect of Netanyahu/Likud policy. I hope for a Palestine in which Palestinians can take their future into their own hands - they deserve better than either Israeli occupation or Hamas rule. I want to see a settlement in which Palestinians and Israelis live in peace, respecting each others’ cultures and recognising each others’ states. 

That simply won’t happen if Hamas gets its way. Palestine under Hamas would be anything but free. Whatever we may think about the rights and wrongs of the establishment of the State of Israel, simply dissolving it and replacing it with a fundamentalist Islamic state would represent a strange kind of “freedom”. 

A “Free Palestine” has to become more than either the delusional dream of European leftists or the aspiration of Islamic fanaticism. Palestine will be free when the cycle of suspicion, intolerance and distrust in finally broken. Palestine will be free when both nations work together to construct a more humane world. I look forward to the creation of a Palestine that not only exists alongside Israel, but has positive, normalised, relations with it. I look forward to a Palestine based on human rights and respect for all. 

If we're talking seriously about a "Free Palestine" then our conversations have to move beyond criticisms of Israel, Instead, they must address questions of democracy, human rights and freedom of religion - and perhaps even the kinds of relationships it will have with neighbouring states.

For an authentically "Free Palestine" to materialise, Hamas must be defeated. Whatever the eventual success or otherwise of Israel's military operations, Hamas's influence will not be ended by military means alone. A political problem requires political solutions. Those who care about the freedom of the Palestinian people must support a plan for a peaceful settlement and a route to achieving it, supporting the players most committed to making it happen.. 

A “Free Palestine” is indeed something worth aspiring to. It will take significant changes in both Israel and the Palestinian territories (not least in terms of the personnel in charge) but another world is possible – a world in which Palestinians and Israelis can be partners in peace. 


Leon Duveen said…
Thank you Andrew for this. I think you raise some very important questions & I look forward to seeing what Palestinians make of it.
Anonymous said…
Interesting thoughts, but isn't this also a bit of a 'delusional dream'?
Peter Martin said…
The same question was asked about South Africa in the apartheid era. The white population was concerned with the prospect of retribution from the African population and favoured a policy of quasi independent "Bantustans". Thankfully this didn't go anywhere and we have ended up with the South Africa we know today.

There are some difference. The Bantustans weren't ring fences and bombed. The level of hatred is higher on both sides so progress won't be rapid. I think we can all agree that we should take the peace process one step at a time. A return to the 1967 borders has to be a first one. Without that no further progress will be possible.
Andrew said…
Thanks Peter.

The 1967 borders has to be a starting point for talks. What is clear is Netanyahu isn't going to find that acceptable, and it won't be enough top satisfy Hamas.

But it will be just that - a starting point. YA and Fatah have significant differences in approach (and especially over the future of Jerusalem) but at least they would be resolved to engage in discussions for peace. Bringing people to the table would be real progress at the moment, but it won't happen with Netanyahu in charge dancing to Hamas's tune. I see reason for hope if Hamas can somehow be marginalised and with a different Israeli government.

Perhaps even that is being too optimistic, but there is no other obvious route for peace. As in SA, peace can't be imposed from outside.

Now, if only there was an Israeli/Palestinian equivalent of Desmond Tutu...
Andrew said…
Anonymous - maybe it is!

I am trying to find some hope for peace. What is clear is that it's not going to come from the Israeli Prime Minister.

But neither is it coming from those who are shouting loudly for a "Free Palestine" without ever explaining (or engaging with) what that might be. It seems to be something many aspire to, but few can explain. A cynic may go so far as to suppose much "pro-Palestine" sentiment is essentially "anti-Israel" feeling wrapped up in a convenient slogan.