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On apartheid, a future Palestinian state and Egypt’s ‘dear Sinai’

Ahead of a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump on February 15, an Israeli minister announced on social media that both leaders plan to adopt President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s proposal of “a Palestinian state in Gaza and Sinai,” instead of “Judea and Samaria.” Although the meeting itself didn’t mention such a plan, it was significant because of Trump’s departure from Washington’s long-held commitment to the two-state solution as the only viable end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

What does the recent speculative idea about annexing Sinai for a future Palestinian state reveal about the use of territorial logic in resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? If you would like to write a follow-up piece on this issue, please send submissions to opinions@madamasr.com

Sisi and Netanyahu were quick to deny the Gaza-Sinai plan after the meeting, with a spokesperson for the Egyptian presidency saying the possibility of allocating part of the Sinai Peninsula for Palestinians is “unrealistic and unacceptable,” as Sinai is a “dear part” of Egypt. When asked to comment about the one-state solution as an option, Netanyahu evaded the question, as usual, stating that he considers the terms one-state and two-state to be “superficial labels” and prefers to deal with “substance.”

Trump’s remarks, though significant for a US president, did not come out of thin air. Several politicians have returned to considering the idea of a one-state solution in recent years, partly due to an acknowledgement that Israel has already entrenched domination over the West Bank through decades of political manipulation and aggression, rendering the “peaceful” possibility of including the territory in a future Palestinian state practically impossible.

A quick glance at the current map of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is enough to realize Israel does not have the slightest inclination of giving any of them up, a position that is currently supported by the majority of Israeli Jews. A survey conducted in March 2017 reveals that the percentage of Israeli Jews in favor of withdrawal from the West Bank as part of a peace agreement to establish a Palestinian state decreased from 60 percent in 2005 to only 36 percent in 2017. The situation on the ground is that Israel has almost complete control over what is commonly designated, since the Oslo II Accord, as Area C, which covers 60 percent of the West Bank, while Area A and Area B, in which Palestinians have administrative control, are landlocked within Israeli-controlled areas and don’t share borders with other states.

The situation is unstable and has been condemned by the majority of states in the UN, leading to wide-reaching support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Yet, while Israel will struggle to maintain its apartheid in the West Bank, and violence against nearly 2 million people living in the densely populated Gaza strip, it will also never sacrifice the notion of a Jewish nation-state by establishing one state from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean.

Recent data shows the number of Palestinians living in “historical Palestine” in December 2016 was 6.41 million, compared to 6.45 million Jews. Palestinians are divided between three areas in the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel, with nearly 1.53 million living in Israel, 1.91 million living in Gaza and 2.97 million living in the West Bank. With the birth rate of Palestinians currently exceeding that of Jews, it has been predicted that 2017/2018 will bring the two populations to parity, which leads to the logical conclusion that Israel would never agree on one-state that incorporates both Gaza and the West Bank, not to mention allowing the legitimate return of almost 6 million Palestinian refugees currently living outside the lands of “historical Palestine.”

The “critical” situation Israel is in did not occur by chance or negligence but is the result of years of implementing a Zionist settler-colonial project to alter the reality on the ground. Within the above context, it seems Israel’s plan is to annex only the West Bank, and to disregard Gaza. This plan is currently supported by many high-profile right-wing Israeli officials.

Allocating part of the Sinai for Palestinians is “unrealistic and unacceptable,” as Sinai is a “dear part” of Egypt

In February, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin criticized Israel’s newly-passed law to retroactively legalize settlements on Palestinian land because he said it would make Israel look like an “apartheid state.” He also stated that he supports the full annexation of the West Bank and the granting of full and equal citizenship to all its Palestinian inhabitants, adding that “Zion” is “entirely theirs.” Rivlin’s idea is to have an Israeli-Palestinian confederation as an interim step toward a one-state solution, which would seem to indicate Israel would begin the process by giving autonomy to large Palestinian cities in Area A and Area B of the West Bank for a number of years, while maintaining security from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. At the end of this transition period, which could last many years, Israel would gradually and probably selectively grant Israeli citizenship to West Bank Palestinian inhabitants.

Similar sentiments were expressed six years ago by Tzipi Hotovel, described in 2009 as the ideological voice of the Likud Party and who has held the position of deputy minister of foreign affairs since May 2015 (currently the highest position in the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry, as Netanyahu, in his role as Prime Minister, is also carrying out the responsibilities of Foreign Minister). In 2010, when she was the Knesset’s youngest member, she announced her support for granting Israeli citizenship to the Arab population of “Judea and Samaria,” on condition Israel passes a “basic law that [it] remains a Jewish state.”

Returning to the population numbers, if we assume that a large proportion of Palestinians in the West Bank would remain and accept Israeli citizenship at some point, the Israeli-Jewish population would still be an absolute majority, constituting nearly 60 percent of the newly enlarged Israeli state. However, relying on demographics alone is not necessarily as instructive as it may appear, as these population shifts are inconsequential if Israel increases its Jewish population base through a new migration plan to attract Jews from different parts of the world to settle in the newly annexed lands. In addition, recent polls indicate that more than half of the Palestinians in East Jerusalem who already carry Israeli residency, but not citizenship, would prefer Israeli to Palestinian citizenship. As the survey noted, this is based on practical not ideological reasons and is still not the case for most of the inhabitants of the West Bank, but it could change in the future. If this plan were to succeed, the Zionist project would go from holding 7 percent of the land prior the to 1947 UN partition plan, to holding all of the lands of “historical Palestine,” except Gaza, while maintaining a Jewish majority.

But what to do with Gaza? And this is where Egypt’s “dear Sinai” comes in. Although Egypt has officially denied any plans to swap lands with Israel and establish a Palestinian state in part of North Sinai and Gaza, the situation on the ground in many ways might support the opposite. Sinai has been rife with conflict for years, with attacks by armed militants and a crackdown on militant groups waged by Egypt’s security forces claiming many lives. This “fight against terror,” along with numerous reports alleging Israeli military interference in Sinai, has led many Egyptians to consider the peninsula as a war zone. The forced relocation of Egyptian citizens living adjacent to the Gaza strip have been ongoing since 2014, on the pretext of destroying tunnels between Rafah and the Gaza strip, and dozens of Christian families have recently fled the area amid attacks by armed militants.

On a political level, despite the fact that the Arab Summit, which took place in Amman on March 29, ended with the usual commitment to the two-state solution and continued support for the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, there have been recent reports about disagreements between Egypt and Palestine over proposed Egyptian amendments to the Arab Peace Initiative. Sources claimed that Egypt wants to break free from the Saudi Arabian initiative, which basically accepts the legitimacy of Israel within its 1948 borders in return for a withdrawal from the 1967 territories to explore “new ideas.” This and the population displacement that has created a large uninhabited area of land adjacent to the Gaza strip, are leading to some speculation that the Egyptian state might be at least considering the possibility of swapping or giving up land as part of a future regional agreement, despite the continual refuting of this by public officials.

What would it take to convince Egyptians to concede even part of their “dear Sinai,” for which thousands of lives have been sacrificed

But even if the Egyptian government is complicit in this plan, what would it take to convince a large part of the population that even part of their “dear Sinai,” for which, as the Egyptian state often trumpets, thousands of Egyptian lives have been sacrificed, might be conceded. Egypt is a country where nationalist rhetoric has reinforced the return of Sinai as the greatest achievement in decades, insisting that not a grain of sand would ever be forfeited. It was also only recently that protests erupted all over the country in objection to the government’s intention to cede the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. Would Egypt’s dire economic situation and threats of continuing insurgency be enough to convince Egyptians, born and raised with the notion of colonial Israel as the enemy, to give up land?

At the moment, it seems unlikely. The Arab World has come a long way from Amir Faisal’s attempt to establish one unified Arab state from Al-Sham to Al-Hejaz during the First World War. Before leaving the region, colonial powers ensured the division of Arab territories, sometimes without any basis, into several states to ensure their new leaders would place their own interests above the common good, and would sacrifice anything to remain in power. Opposition to the ceding of land therefore is not just rooted in nationalistic responses, but concerns the nature and logic of the state-building project.

However, even without Sinai, Israel could still go ahead with half of its plan, and annex all of the West Bank, gradually offering citizenship to its Palestinian inhabitants, leaving the issue of Gaza and the future Palestinian state as a “regional” responsibility. This would prove more problematic without the establishing of a Palestinian state, as it would mostly benefit Israel, legitimizing further land grabs, but could be supported by US President Donald Trump, who already announced that he would back a one-state solution “if both sides agree.” Either way, it seems likely Israel will exploit the current weaknesses of Arab states to liquidate the Palestinian cause and push the Zionist colonial project forward.

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Mohamed Seif El Nasr