March 2, 2012

Ahmed Moor, a contributor to al-Jazeera English, helped organize OneStateConference.org, taking place at Harvard University March 3-4.

For decades the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has eluded well-intentioned peacemakers. Diplomats have talked, shaken hands, snapped photos — and returned home from summits with strikingly little to show for their efforts. Meanwhile, the occupation of Palestinian territories grew more restrictive. Israel’s settlements developed into towns and small cities as Palestinians were penned into smaller and smaller spaces. While diplomats shuffled from Madrid to Oslo to Wye River, from Camp David to Taba to Annapolis and resort towns in between, the illegal settlements expanded. And the window for two states closed.

Palestine and Israel are two parts of the same country — something those who have not been to the region may find hard to imagine. The area of Mandate Palestine — that’s Israel, the West Bank and Gaza — is about the size of New Jersey. The country is so small that Palestinians on the hilly West Bank can view the Israeli coastline from their homes (never mind that restrictions on Palestinian movement have prevented the vast majority from ever visiting the sea). Moreover, one out of five Israelis is a Palestinian, and about one of every six residents of the occupied territories is a Jewish settler.

The degree to which the country is a single, indivisible unit is sometimes underscored by the most mundane experiences. A Palestinian friend recently told me about being pulled over for speeding in the West Bank. The person who ticketed him was an Israeli army official.

Yes, Palestine has been colonized out of existence, and the Israeli army is busy policing traffic.

The army’s nearness to the average Palestinian extends beyond settlements. The region has few freshwater resources. In Israel, maintaining access to water is a matter of national security. The mountain aquifer underneath the West Bank’s rocky topography is one major source, and the army regularly destroys “unauthorized” wells and cisterns to secure Israeli hegemony over the scarce resource.

It was awareness that there will never be a viable Palestinian state that prompted me to work with other Harvard students to organize a one-state conference this weekend. Our work has been informed by the uncontroversial view that all people are created equal. Assessing an environment in which Israel controls the lives of 4 million people and deprives them of basic human rights, we ask whether there is an alternative: Can the one-state solution deliver equal rights to everyone?

Critics say that raising the question of equal rights in Israel/Palestine reveals our motives; we seek to destroy Israel, they say. They contend civil rights for everyone in the country will mean “the elimination of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people.”

For some, everything that happens in the Middle East is viewed through the prism of what is best for the Jewish people. But the Palestinians are people, too. Preserving “Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people” is a costly endeavor. And I regret that the cost is borne almost exclusively by Palestinians living under apartheid.

It is also worth asking whether permanent occupation is good for the Jewish people. Palestinians learn about thousands of years of Jewish suffering, persecution and genocide, and we wonder whether Israel can really be the height of Jewish achievement. Did the Jewish people survive for so long only to become another people’s occupiers and permanent oppressors?

Many of my Jewish friends and peers in Israel and in America answer that question resoundingly: No. Peter Beinart has done an admirable job chronicling the movement of young American Jews away from Israel. But in Israel, something different is happening.

About a year ago, I marched down a winding lane in the windswept village of Bilin to protest the Israeli seizure of village lands. The nonviolent action was organized by the village’s Popular Committee, and, as is typical, a group of Israelis joined in solidarity. Many of these young people had publicly rejected their Jewish privilege. They were there because we were equals, united in our rejection of military occupation and apartheid.

In Israel/Palestine, the struggle for human dignity and freedom is edifying. The call for equal rights is energizing and uplifting. And in a region where hope founders and falters so frequently, that’s saying a lot.