Where is Palestine?

As a Geographer I spend my life telling people that Geography/geography is more than maps, capital cities and locations of countries that many have never heard of. The first is called cartography, the second is a pub-quiz game and the third shows geographical ignorance matched only by multiplying the first misnomer by the second and adding the joke: “I’m lost”…”But I thought you were a Geographer?”.

But it is time to turn back to the elementary geographical questions and ask: Where is Palestine?

There are many possible answers, but none are definite and certainly none are fixed. Yesterday, Palestine took a small step toward statehood as the U.N. General Assembly moved to upgrade Palestine to a “non-member observer state” (see here). That Palestine is not a state should shock some of us, and it begs the question of what exactly Palestine is, if not a state. Palestine is a land that was split by the forming of the Israeli state in 1948, and it is also a people, a nation and an imagined community.  But the nation has no state; it has no defined territory, no fixed place to call home. Palestine is NFA: no fixed address. To Israel, Palestine is an entity, or more accurately, a hostile entity which has no legitimacy precisely because it is not a state. As a non-state entity, Palestine is outside of the Order of Things, beyond the very idea of the international; symbolically dead. Palestine is nowhere.

So the move toward statehood must surely be a good thing, no? In a way it is, but only (sic) because it reverses the symbolic casting-out just outlined. Yet when read against the vitriolic and shameful reactions of the U.S. and Canada yesterday, this is a massive victory. Clinton voted against the tide, and lamented the decision as “unfortunate and counterproductive“. This was exactly the U.S. response when Palestinians took Israel to court over the illegal construction of the Separation Barrier in 2006, and the question we have to ask of such sentiments is this: for who are these actions ‘unfortunate and counterproductive’? For Israel and the U.S., or for Palestine and everybody else? Even more shameful was Canada’s reaction: not only did it vote ‘no’, but went further in threatening “consequences” if the bid went ahead. This amouns to what PLO spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi pointed out as Canada “trying to outdo Israel” (and I would also add that Canada is trying to outdo the U.S. as Israel’s ‘best friend’). Seen thus, the U.N. vote provides a legitimacy that Palestine has previously been denied and will give Palestine some – at this point tokenistic – power of representation. But other than this, the title conferred on Palestine yesterday says it all: What exactly is a ‘non-member observer state’ anyway? One thing for certain is that ‘observer’ status does not signify meaningful participation; it is, rather, a passive role. Palestine can observe, but it cannot act. These are old Orientalist tropes: the Palestinians will perhaps one day be bequeathed a state but for now they must wait and observe others taking action in their name, on their behalf. Palestine is in awaiting.

But this isn’t the point I set out to make. As important as the symbolic introduction of Palestine into the world of States is, the whole endeavour is deeply problematic. Israel, the U.S. and Canada have less to be worried about than their defeated position would suggest. What has been granted to Palestine is not a state, nor even the beginning of one. In order to establish a state, the question of borders cannot be circumvented. So where are the borders of this new state? Where does Palestine begin and Israel finish? Where, in short, is Palestine? These are the questions that Israel is not willing to answer. Israel wants a two state solution that does not include a Palestinian state. Surely a prerequisite for the much-hailed two state solution is the formation of a second state, and one could be forgiven for thinking that yesterday Israel just missed a grand opportunity. But the two state solution is not a road to peace. In-fact, it is not even a road, because roads lead to somewhere and the two-state solution travels nowhere, and invests only in the status quo. It looks not to the future, but to the preservation of the present with all of its asymmetries and injustices. The road to ‘peace’ is paved with war, and increasingly it is also paved with illegal Israeli settlements. It was no coincidence that Israel announced the construction of 3000 settler homes yesterday, at the same time that Israel and the U.S. also called for Palestine to abandon ‘unilateral action in the U.N.’ and engage in ‘peace talks’ instead. (Quite how any action pursued in the U.N. is unilateral, I will never know; unless, of course it is the veto power so frequently exercised by the U.S.).

The bid for Palestinian statehood is an old dream, and an important one, no doubt. Ambivalent as I am about my own feelings as to what all of this means for the future of Palestinians and the land of Palestine, I cannot help but be drawn back to a passage by the late Edward Said who in 1998 cautioned us against a blind euphoria for the Palestinian statehood model (here):

The disadvantages of declaring a state seem to me far to outweigh the advantages. Most important, a state declared on the autonomous territories would definitively divide the Palestinian population and its cause more or less forever. Residents of Jerusalem, now annexed by Israel, can play no part, nor be, in the state. An equally undeserving fate awaits Palestinian citizens of Israel, who would also be excluded, as would Palestinians in the Diaspora, whose theoretical right of return would practically be annulled. Far from uniting Palestinians, therefore, the declaration of a Palestinian state would in fact divide them more than they have ever been before, rendering the notion of one Palestinian people more or less void. In whose interest is such a result? Certainly not the Palestinians’.

Said has his contemporaries, and among them is the Israeli Historian Illan Pappe who toured Canada earlier this year giving a talk called ‘The False Paradigm of Peace’. If I could recommend only one author on the question of the one-state/two-state solution it would be him. His talk is available to watch here.The following passage, taken from an interview in 2007, establishes the crucial link between the false promise of peace and the two state solution:

In the 1990s, and since the beginning of the present century, the Two States idea has become common currency. The respectable list of its supporters finally came to include, among others, Ariel Sharon, Binyamin Netanyahu and George W. Bush.

When your idea gains such adherents, that is far from a bad historical moment to rethink the entire idea. When the Two States idea became the basis for the Peace Process, it gave an umbrella to the Israeli occupation to continue its operation without any apprehension. That was because official Israel, regardless of who was Prime Minister, was supposed to be involved in a Peace Process – and you can’t make criticism of a country which is involved in a Peace Process.

So where, after all, is Palestine? Try answering this without a map! Luckily, I just found one but Palestine is barely discernible. The question thus remains.

L’archipel de Palestine Orientale. Le Monde Diplomatique 2012


Add yours →

  1. thanks for posting this craig. i like the way you deconstruct the road-map as a spatial idea. if the notion as outlined in this context is supposed to determine a starting point” towards a peaceful two state solution, the accompanying image underscores the impossibility of executing the journey (at least, by the logics presumed therein). not only borders and walls, but roads themselves achieve a new ontological instability within this palestinian context.

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