Building a new political reality on the ruins of colonialism: an update on the One Democratic State campaign

Palestine Update 270

Building a new political reality on the ruins of colonialism: an update on the One Democratic State campaign
Yoav Haifawi July 25, 2019

The first half of 2018 was busy for the One Democratic State campaign, or ODS, a new initiative coming from inside Palestine that tries to revive a positive solution to the century long suffering and struggle of the Palestinian people under Zionism and colonialism by advocating for a single democratic state from the river to the sea with equal rights for all its citizens. Open and closed consultations were held among more than a hundred activists and academics to formulate and adopt the campaign’s political program published in August 2018.Then came the local elections in October 2018 (in 1948-Palestine) followed by the elections to the Israeli Knesset in April 2019. The base of the initiative until now is mostly from the Palestinian population in 1948-Palestine, where local elections are taken very seriously as people strive to influence the daily management of their municipalities. Many of our activists and supporters were deeply involved in the elections and some were even elected as city council members.The Knesset elections in April was not only a distraction to the campaign, but they also posed a profound political dilemma. The Palestinian Arabs with Israeli citizenship can be divided into almost equal parts between those who vote and those who do not participate or actively boycott. The perspective for a single democratic state is based on an understanding that Israel is not a democratic state and that the Zionist-Jewish majority in the Knesset is in power as a result of ethnic cleansing and subjugating millions of Palestinians under Israeli military rule in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem where they aredeprived of their most basic human and political rights. With that in mind, I consider the most natural position for the ODS campaign is to join the Palestinian boycott of the elections in consort with posing a real democratic alternative.But the politics of the campaign led it in a different direction. It doesn’t regard itself as a new political force that aspires to sideline the current parties and movement, but an initiative to promote a political perspective that is aimed to reach not only the general public but also sections of the current Palestinian political leadership. As the campaign includes supporters of the Palestinian parties in the Knesset, it didn’t want to force them to choose between their support to the campaign and their loyalty to their parties. In a more general way, it chose not to alienate any part of the divided Palestinian public and decided to avoid publishing any position regarding participating or boycott. Not taking a clear position about the Knesset elections came with the cost of agreeing to be sidelined at a time of heated political debate.


After the Knesset elections ODS activists met to resume the campaign. The result of the elections demonstrated, once again, how Israeli politics are trapped in a spiral of racist hatred and militarist war mongering with not even a ray of hope for peace, or a turn toward more democracy and equality. The main Zionist opposition parties, Blue and White and  Labor, attacked the ultra-right government for not being harsh enough against the Palestinians. The Arab parties that tried to build a perspective for influence through participation in the elections faced the frustration of being rejected again as legitimate partners in Israeli politics. And the growing camp of boycotters faced constant questions from supporters and critics alike: what is your alternative to those elections?

The ODS campaign is intended to unite Palestinians from all locations, overcoming walls, borders and political traditions to form a movement that will bring together people from all over historic Palestine as well as those in the diaspora. It also aims to encourage active participation in the struggle against Zionism from within the Jewish society in Palestine. But, as the bulk of the campaigns’ established base comes from 1948 Palestinians, we decided to regain lost momentum by holding a study day in Haifa at the end of June.In the past, in 2008 and 2010, two big conferences for the Right of Return and One Democratic State in Palestine were held in Haifa in the al-Midan Theatre (it was an initiative of the Abnaa alBalad movement). Since then the Midan, which used to be the most prominent Palestinian theater in the area, has become a target for government and municipal attacks. Its artistic program caught ire from Israeli officials and was sanctioned. It is now prohibited from renting its halls to any gathering with political coloring. Palestinian cultural activist in Haifa created an alternative, opening the Khashabi Theatre with the overt intention of not seeking any support from the establishment and keeping full independence for its artistic repertoire in encouragement of free speech. Therefore the Khashabi Theatre was the natural choice to host the ODS study day.

Solid program can influence reality

The day of the summit the small hall was full with about 70 people. Activist Aya Mana opened the first session, noting that we started at only 10 minutes after the declared time, a significant testimony to the serious attitude of the participants. The attendance was diverse, including veterans of the struggle as well as youth activists, academics, members of different movements, parties and NGOS. Mana welcomed all of them and invited everyone to take part not only by supporting the campaign and its program but also by critical discussion of the program and looking together for the most effective ways to build an influential movement toward the most essential goals of achieving justice, freedom and democracy.Historian Ilan Pappé, one of the initiators of the campaign, was the first speaker. If I’m not wrong, it was his first full public lecture in Arabic, and he passed the test very well, conveying a very clear message about the historical background of the old-renewed perspective for ODS.Pappé analyzed the origins of the Zionist movement as part of the world-wide phenomenon of European colonialism, and, more specifically, as an example of settler colonialism. He emphasized that settler colonialism is the most dangerous type of colonialism, as it aspires not only to occupy and exploit the local population but to replace them with settlers. To reach this goal settler colonialism easily leads to the logic of genocide, which was successfully accomplished against the native population in the United States and other colonies.He explained how settler colonialism is building a distorted national myth according to which the settler population is described as “natives” and the original native population is vilified as “threatening aliens.” Another complementing myth says that the homeland was “empty” until the settlers came – ignoring and denying the existence of the native population.In this context it is clear why in Israeli politics there is no real discussion on how to reach a real solution that will restore the rights of Arab Palestinians and let them live in freedom and equality. The proposition of a two-state solution in its Israeli context is just another variant of the same search for ways to get rid of the native population.Pappé dedicated an important part of his presentation to the current international context of the struggle. He emphasized the importance of a growing recognition of Palestinian rights in international civil society, and the readiness of many sectors of the solidarity movement to hear and adopt the only solution based on human rights and democracy – ODS. On the other hand, he explained that strong support for Israel and its racist policies from reactionary forces like Trump and European nationalists is not an accident. They build their support base on the wish to restore colonial era white supremacy and on incitement against the people of the third world. The support for Israel by reactionary forces is celebrated by the Israeli leadership, but it also means that it is not any more a subject of Western consensus. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is one of the issues at the center of the political struggle about the future of the world between progressive and reactionary forces.This new global alignment regarding the Palestinian struggle opens many opportunities, yet demands a more active and well-targeted approach. To be able to build new alliances and maximize the potential for international solidarity, it is important that Palestinian themselves will return to the basic nature of their liberation movement as a struggle for freedom and human rights for all. Pappé elaborated about the importance of having a clear political vision and using the correct terminology to describe the current reality. For example, speaking about Israel’s Apartheid regime is different than just complaining about “discrimination.” Speaking about decolonization is different from speaking about “solving the conflict.”In response to a question, Pappé corrected a common misreading of history. A popular misconception assumes a dichotomy between the “Algerian way” where the settler population was expelled, and the “South African approach” where society transformed so that whites and blacks became full and equal citizens after the dismantling of the apartheid system. The historical fact is that the Algerian liberation movement proposed on the French settlers the option to stay as citizens of the newly liberated Algeria (an option that was part of the 1962 Evian decolonization accord between the FLN and the French government), but the vast majority preferred to return to France. And many of the whites in South Africa emigrated after the dismantling of Apartheidthere. The program of one democratic state is the natural alternative to colonialism. It will return Palestine to its local and regional identities; it will abolish the privilege of the settler population and give them the option to integrate on the basis of civil equality.

Growing interest

Awad Abdelfattah, a main coordinator of the campaign who previously served as the general secretary of the National Democratic Alliance party (NDA, or Balad) started with an optimistic report about the widening influence and connections of the campaign, especially among Palestinians in other regions. Even though the campaign itself is only at its initial stage, activists from the popular resistance movements in the West Bank and Gaza have shown interest in the campaign’s message and agenda. Abdelfattah said some of them are explaining that they never gave up this dream – as only in this framework the right of return can be achived and full Palestinian rights restored – and want to revive it as a perspective for a revival of the Palestinian movement.There was special interest when Abdelfattah’s spoke about an evolving discussion with Palestinian activists in the occupation’s prisons, including the general secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Ahmad Sa’adat. The news about the interest of the prisoners’ movement in studying the ODS program made its way to the headlines of Arab-48 site the next day.Abdelfattah went on to describe a crisis of the Palestinian national liberation movement, who are becoming acutely aware that the two-state solution and the Oslo accord led only to perpetuation of the occupation. Among the most catastrophic results of the Oslo accord, he said, is the fragmentation of the Palestinian people. The West Bank is separated from Gaza, millions of refugees are stuck out of their homeland with no prospect of return, and Palestinians inside the 48 territory suffer from systematic discrimination, even so, they are regularly excluded from the Palestinian national cause.Another consequence of Oslo is the devastation of the PLO, which has served until Oslo as a revolutionary vehicle, but was usurped by the Palestinian Authority without achieving its goal of liberating the occupied land. In an ironic way you can say, he added, that the Oslo Accords united all Palestinians in a sense of helplessness.Against this background Abdelfattah stressed the importance of further coalescing Palestinians around a new vision that can give new hope to the younger generations by retaining the basic tenets of the auspicious liberation struggle, while adjusting the perspective and the means of struggle to the current reality and to fast-paced technology, society and global politics. This new initiative is basically a path to a different life, and new and modern political reality, where all Palestinians as well Israeli Jews can struggle together to build a new democratic political entity on the ruins of colonialism, apartheid and racist separation. The future state is based on the principles of justice, and full and equal citizenship.“While we are conscious to the fact that there is a long struggle ahead of us, we can start today by rebuilding our understanding of reality and reorganizing along new lines,” Abdelfattah said. He added that he hopes “the campaign will gradually develop into a mass movement of popular resistance against the occupation.”Abdelfattah went on to confront some of the claims of those hesitating to support ODS: That ODS is an unrealistic utopia, given the current political reality, as the balance of force is in favor of the colonizer who is supported by the most powerful state in the world, the U.S; that no major Palestinian faction is embracing the one state solution, and that no major or small Israeli party is willing to give up the principle of “a Jewish state”.He summed up the response to these claims by saying: “First we should emphasize that we base our approach on the principle of restoring justice to all Palestinians, to those who were expelled and dispossessed and to those who survived the ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the the Zionist movement. Second, the two-state solution has been dead for a long time and the two populations have become inextricably linked. This is entrenched by the continued systematic policy of land theft and settler colonization. As a result all of Palestine has become one geographic and demographic unit under an overt apartheid and colonial regime.”Continuing, “We should dispel the illusion that Israel would accept an independent Palestinian state. At the same time we should unite Palestinian, sympathetic international civil society and anti-Zionist Jews around this struggle to defeat this regime. By the way, utopia is not always a pipe dream. Many ideas that looked as such became a reality through clear vision, wise planning and strong resolve. South Africa is a stark example, which is our inspiration.”

Legal and cultural point of view

The second session, facilitated by activist Majd Nasralla, was designed to answer some of the practical questions that confront us when coming to build a movement based on the ODS perspective.One basic issue that we were asked about many times is the position of the ODS perspective in view of the international law. Somehave hesitated to openly support ODS because of a belief that there is some legal guarantee of Palestinian rights in the framework of the right of self-determination in a Palestinian state, as part of a two-state solution. They are afraid that adopting ODS, as a solution that has no international recognition, may weaken the legal basis of the Palestinian claims.Another panelist Dr. Munir Nusseibeh

gave a learned view of the support of ODS from the point of view of the international law. He explained that there is no principle that demands that there will be division to states that is parallel to the division to national identities. He explained that the right of self-determination is basically the right not to be subject to external oppression. He described the gradual development of international law toward the adoption of human rights as a basic universal principle and the need to guarantee them to all people.

Much of Nusseibeh’s lecture concentrated around the concept of “transitional justice”, of which he made thorough research. He criticized Zionist legal experts and some of their western apologists that try to use this concept to dilute the Israeli responsibility to war crimes, ethnic cleansing and other crimes against the Palestinian people. He emphasized that at the heart of the concept of “transitional justice” stands the assumption of a real “transition”.Dr Nusseibeh explained that the concept of transitional justice holds only after a regime that is based on the denial of basic human rights is dismantled and substituted by another regime that guarantees and end to the injustice.  In these circumstances the new regime takes full responsibility to the consequences of past injustices and the restitution of the rights of the victims.  Only then comes the part of transitional justice that handles the perpetrators of crimes, including indictment and punishment, that can take into account the conditions and the necessity to rebuild society after a trauma. But, first of all, we should guarantee the full transformation of the legal base of the regime – which is possible only in the framework of ODS. The last speaker was Majd Kayal, a writer and one of the central activists of the youth movements that played a major role in the Palestinian protests in the 48-territories over the last years. He spoke about the role of culture and painted an image of cultural activities that may help the Palestinian society liberate itself from Zionist hegemony. He said that while raising political slogans is a natural part of life and of culture, it is not the essence of what is required. In some context raising political slogans about Palestinian nationality or even waiving Palestinian flags can contribute to consolidation of the current distorted relationship of power – if it is done within a framework designated by the Zionist establishment. What is required is creating and developing an independent framework for cultural creativity that is outside the influence of the establishment and which handles all aspects of life – from fearless criticism of the political situation, to confronting deep social problems, to handling purely aesthetic and artistic subjects.

Preparing the next steps

After two full sessions we all divided for workshops. The first workshop discussed the political program of the campaign, for people that are new to the idea and for those who wanted to suggest improvements to the program. The second handled next steps toward building the campaign: political and media strategy. At the conclusion of workshop discussions the organizers announced the establishment of two permanent working groups. One will expand the campaign among the general public and reach out to movement and political parties. The other will work on publishing new materials  and raise the media profile of the campaign. Both working groups are open for new activists to join.