Paris disconnect: Why many Palestinians don't want that two-state solution

Two in three Palestinians say the model is no longer viable, and many are deeply frustrated with Palestinian Authority leadership.

Thomas Samson/Reuters
French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Marc Ayrault addresses delegates at the opening of the Mideast peace conference in Paris, Jan. 15, 2017. Around 70 countries and international organizations are making a new push for a two-state solution in the Middle East at the conference.

On Sunday, 70 countries and international organizations met in Paris in a last-ditch effort to save something Palestinian leaders have been seeking for decades: a two-state solution to the conflict with Israel.

“Today two states is possible; tomorrow … [it] might be too late, because Israel is slipping into a situation in which it will be an apartheid state by de jure and by de facto,” said Mohammad Shtayyeh, a senior adviser to Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas on negotiations, at a briefing ahead of the Paris conference.

But even as the conference's closing statement urged Israelis and Palestinians "to officially restate their commitment to the two-state solution," 2 in 3 Palestinians say that model is no longer viable, according to a recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) in Ramallah.

“We want a one-state solution where we return to our lands,” says Nashat Salhieh, a refugee who lives in Al-Amari refugee camp, a few miles from Mr. Abbas’s headquarters in Ramallah. “I want to go back to my country. I don’t care who will rule me. There will be elections, I will have a vote.”

After years of fruitless negotiations, 36 percent of Palestinians now support a single state. Among those, some even say they would be willing to live under Jewish rule, saying they lived better before the PA came, and that Israeli bosses treated them better and paid them on time.

They know it's highly unlikely that Israel will ever agree to a binational state, for security reasons. But the fact that such sentiments are expressed openly here underscores how frustrated Palestinians have become with the PA, which after more than 22 years of governing is beset by internal divisions, a moribund economy, and widespread allegations of corruption.

To be sure, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, including control of all travel and shipments in and out of the area, significantly hampers the PA’s ability to administer the territory and is widely despised by Palestinians.

But even if Israel were to agree to a sovereign Palestinian state, more than a few in Al-Amari camp are skeptical that the PA would be capable of running it – at least, not without being overhauled. Across the West Bank and Gaza, 64 percent of Palestinians would like to see Abbas step down, and nearly 8 in 10 believe the PA is corrupt.

“Had the academics, the qualified people, professors, and skilled people in Palestine been given the opportunity to be part of the PA, then we would have a capable institution that could rule the people,” says Jihad Tummaileh, a former member of the Palestinian legislature who was sacked this fall for organizing a meeting in support of President Abbas’s exiled rival, Mohammed Dahlan. “Unfortunately, for the past 20 years this has not happened.”

Pining for an army like China's

Refugee camps across the West Bank were at the front lines of the first intifada, or uprising, that pushed Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the negotiating table – paving the way for the 1993 Oslo peace agreement and the creation of the PA the following year.

But now Al-Amari, home to more than 10,000, has turned into a hotbed of resentment against the PA and Abbas. Mr. Dahlan, whom Abbas ousted in 2011, has been gaining support in refugee camps across the West Bank, sponsoring food shipments, school backpacks, group weddings, and even infertility treatments. In November, Adnan Abu Amer, a professor and contributor to al-Monitor, reported that Dahlan also furnishes weapons to the camps, which have repeatedly engaged in violent clashes with PA security forces.

On one of the camp’s main streets, a young man named Mohammed al-Qatari is watching a video on his phone of the Chinese Army marching in perfect synchronization. He says he wishes Palestine had such a force.

“But we don’t have any of this,” he says.

“Fourteen hundred years ago we did, when the prophet Muhammad was here,” says Majdi al-Qatari, a car mechanic and relative standing with him. Behind them stands a shuttered shop with posters of their late cousin – hailed as a martyr, like many young men who lost their lives fighting Israel.

In addition to the martyrs from Amari, others have been imprisoned in Israeli jails or banned from working in Israel for security reasons.

One young man, who did not want to be named for fear of losing his job in a Jerusalem school, says he has four brothers who were arrested in 2002 and have been serving lifetime sentences. He never believed in the two-state solution, but some of his friends did. “I always told them, you are wrong,” he says. “And now they are all like me.”

"I want one state – a Palestinian state from the river to the sea,” he adds, using a phrase that rhymes in Arabic and refers to land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

But, he says, he wants it to be run by “completely different leaders” than those now in power.

Ruwan, a young woman with a college degree in math who can’t find a job, agrees that a total overhaul of the leadership is needed. But she adds a twist. 

“We want a Christian man – we think a Christian will rule us better than all these Muslims,” she says, even though she is Muslim. She points to how quickly Arab Christians in Israel expressed solidarity with Arab Muslims when the government proposed banning the call to prayer, and expresses skepticism that Muslims would have done the same if the tables were turned. “I respect [Christians] for their support, and their morality.”

Confrontation in a falafel shop

But a scene in the falafel shop illustrates just how difficult it is to discuss such sensitive topics openly.

A mechanic with a mischievous grin, who gives his name as Motassem, comes in and offers his assessment.

“We [Palestinians and Israelis] have lived with each other so long that we cannot separate from each other,” he says. “I believe in one state with Israel because in my view a Palestinian state would need to be based on religion, on Islam, and this will not happen.”

Then a beefy man in line, Mustafa Kafri, turns around and aggressively accuses this reporter and her translator of being intelligence agents. Motassem, who slips away during the heated confrontation, comes back – but with what appears to be a contradictory position. Palestinians want “all of [the land,] without Israel.” “We cannot live with the Israelis because they are uncomfortable with us and we are uncomfortable with them,” he says.

Mr. Kafri, a construction worker, also comes back – to explain his strong views. He says his grandfather was killed while fleeing his home in what is today Israel proper, and his brother was killed in 1999.

“If you say you want one state with the Israelis," he says firmly. "it’s like selling your honor.”

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