Representational image. Photo: iStock
As global observers increasingly see a 'two-state solution' as unviable, it's time to examine the issue more objectively. Image: iStock

Despite the fact that the Palestine question has waned in importance in the hotspot-ridden Middle East, it still manages to attract some attention. Not only do Palestinians, Israelis, and other closely involved parties have differing perspectives on the issue, but Chinese public opinion is also becoming increasingly divided.

The Palestine question must be divided into stages, taking into account the differences in the characteristics of the issue at various timeframes, in the sense that the present cannot be viewed through the lens of the past.

The question of Palestine, which has hampered peace in the Middle East for more than a century, has its roots in the rise of Zionism in the late 19th century. It can be divided into three stages of development, from its inception to the present: territorial competition between Jews and Palestinians; successive wars between Israel and the Arab states; and Palestine’s current claim to Israeli-held territories for the establishment of an independent state.

The United Nations Resolution 181 on the partition of the Palestine Mandate, which was issued on November 29, 1947, marked the end of the first stage of the question of Palestine. With the rise of the Zionist movement and increased Jewish immigration to Palestine, competition for land between Jews and Palestinians became more intense.

At the urging of the major powers, the UN voted on the partition and the establishment of a Jewish state and a Palestinian Arab state.

All Arab countries voted against the partition, and when Israel declared statehood on May 14, 1948, many of them waged war on the new state in the name of defending Palestinian interests. The Arab states were adamant about standing up for Palestinians because they saw Palestine as part of the Arab world and Palestinians as part of the Arab people.

As a result, the history of the Palestinians, as seen through their eyes, can be traced back to the Arab conquest of Palestine following the rise of Islam in the 7th century AD.

Until the adoption of the UN resolution on the partition of Palestine in 1947, Palestinians were a people ruled by others, never having established their own independent state and severely lacking the capacity and ability to do so. The Arab states’ collective boycott and rejection of Resolution 181 pushed the Palestinians even further away from establishing an independent and sovereign state on that basis.

The First Middle East War began on May 15, 1948, the day after Israel was established in accordance with UN Resolution 181, when several Arab countries launched a military attack on Israel under the banner of defending Palestinian interests. This led to the second stage of the question of Palestine, the Arab-Israeli War, which ended with the Third Middle East War in 1967.

When the First Middle East War ended in 1949, the land given to the Palestinians for statehood by UN Resolution 181 was divided among Israel, Transjordan (later renamed Jordan), and Egypt. When the Third Middle East War ended in 1967, Israel also took control of Palestinian land that had been occupied by Jordan and Egypt, worsening the Palestinian situation even further. With the defeat of the Arab states, the second stage of the question of Palestine also came to a close.

Where war had failed to bring a solution, Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), made the decision to pursue a path of peace with Israel, bringing the question of Palestine to its third stage. Arafat declared the establishment of the State of Palestinian in 1988, despite the fact that he had no physical control over the territory, signaling to Israel that a peaceful solution to the question of Palestine was on the table.

After the Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid in 1991, the Palestinian-Israeli peace process became the primary means of resolving the question of Palestine. Since then, the core of the question of Palestine has shifted to Palestinian demands for the return of occupied Palestinian lands from Israeli hands and for the establishment of an independent state.

Since 1967, when Israel seized more than 6,000 square kilometers of Palestinian lands in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip from Jordan and Egypt during the Third Middle East War, these lands have been the focus of Palestinian statehood claims.

After the Madrid Middle East Peace Conference and ongoing Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, the Palestinian National Authority gained control of a portion of the land from Israel, and the de jure sovereign State of Palestine now administers 2,500 square kilometers of territory.

Third parties need to look at the issue more objectively

Despite the current perceptions of a few countries, such as Israel and the US, the international community continues to support a two-state solution to the question of Palestine (that is, an independent Israel and a Palestinian state).

The Palestinian territory controlled by Egypt and Jordan prior to the outbreak of the Third Middle East War in 1967 is the basis for the current Palestinian claim to statehood. However, objectively, this is an unattainable dream.

Israel will never give up East Jerusalem, and no Israeli decision-maker will ever order a withdrawal from the West Bank’s Jewish settlements against the will of 400,000 Jewish settlers. It is a matter of national stability for Israel, and the careers of its politicians are on the line, whereas no international force is strong enough to force Israel to withdraw from these lands; the Palestinians are all the more powerless in this regard.

The Palestinians must be more realistic about the boundaries of their future state, and the international community must fully take this into account. The hitherto fragmented Palestinian political forces need to unite as soon as possible and define a realistic path and objectives for the sake of their own statehood.

Some nations and individuals blame Israel for the current plight of the Palestinians, with some even criticizing 19th-century Zionists for returning to Palestine and establishing a nation-state. The fact remains that one of the world’s most widely influential books – the Bible – makes their case; not even atheists can deny the enormous impact this tome has had and continues to have on the world.

How can a Zionist ignore the Bible’s account of the Jews and their forefathers and deny the connection between the Jewish people and Palestine?

Furthermore, Israel is a state that was established under international law and in accordance with UN resolutions, and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land is the result of wars that the Arab states waged against it; most of the territories were won from previous occupiers of Palestinian lands, namely Jordan and Egypt.  The plight of the Palestinians today is clearly not the fault of Israel alone.

Third parties must have a more up-to-date and objective understanding of the question of Palestine. Because the two parties directly involved – Israel and the Palestinians – are the most important to a future resolution of the question of Palestine, third parties should be more mindful of their respective viewpoints.

For instance, what is the Palestinian position on establishing a truly independent state? How much land is Israel likely to give up and what land will it give up? 

In addition, what is the Arab states’ actual stance on the question of Palestine? Extra-regional third parties should also factor this into their disposition toward the question of Palestine, which is, after all, closely linked to Arab states. What’s more, despite its waning international clout, the US continues to wield influence over the question of Palestine that simply cannot be matched by outside players.

Without these fundamental understandings, simply supporting Palestine or Israel will not be beneficial to the resolution of the question of Palestine, and may even be detrimental to the process. When a third party’s approach to the conflict becomes overtly biased toward one side, it will undoubtedly undermine the other party’s desire to cooperate, causing more harm than good to the resolution of the question of Palestine.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Shanghai International Studies University’s Middle East Studies Institute. The article was first published in Chinese in the Singaporean newspaper Lianhe Zaobao.

Fan Hongda is a professor at the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University.