The Right of the Palestinian People to Self-Determination under "Israel’s" Colonial Occupation

From Palestine and South Africa to the Americas and Australia, settler-colonists [have] violently fought to prevent the indigenous people, that were colonised, from fighting for liberation.

  • The Right of the Palestinian People to Self-Determination under

This article explores Palestine’s right to self-determination under "Israel’s" illegal occupation. This paper seeks to demonstrate that since the Balfour Declaration that was issued by the British Government in 1917, there have been politically driven strategies deployed to gradually liquidate the Palestinian people. The indigenous people of Palestine have been faced with systematic persecution, apartheid policies and brutal occupation; as such, it is submitted that the Palestinian people must be able to exercise their right to self-determination. I will begin with a discussion on self-determination as a right before outlining the historical background of the "Israel"-Palestine issue, and the political allyship of each entity apart. 

Self-Determination in International Law

The principle of self-determination, as it is understood today, evolved from a principle to a right, triggering much debate over the years. It denotes the legal right to peoples to decide their own destiny in the context of international order.[1]There are two aspects to self-determination: internal and external. Internal self-determination is the right of the people to govern themselves without any other interference, this includes the independence to freely choose their own political, economic and social system.[2] External self-determination on the other hand is the right for peoples to determine their own status politically – this allows the establishment of an independent state. After the First World War, and specifically after his famous “Fourteen Points” speech, US President Woodrow Wilson declared that, “Peoples may not be dominated and governed only by their own consent. ‘Self-determination’ is not a mere phrase. It is an imperative principle of action, which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril.”[3] The right of self-determination was introduced to the UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples in 1960, and subsequently adopted by the UN General Assembly Resolution 1514 in the same year. Additionally, the UN Charter stated that one of the purposes of the United Nations was “respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.”[4] Upon adopting the Declaration of Decolonisation, the UN underlined the necessity of ending colonialism and through this declared, inter alia, that the right to self-determination was not limited. 

It is important to note that the right of self-determination has been cited extensively by the UN assembly, Security Council, and is enshrined in various treaties as well as in decisions made by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The following excerpt from the aforementioned declaration was subsequently introduced in Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 1 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) providing a detailed legal definition of self-determination, and this definition is used in various international and national treaties and documents.[5]

“All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development.” 

It is widely accepted that the right of self-determination is applicable to “peoples” in colonial territories, as well as others who do not fall in the category of being colonised or oppressed, the only difference is they have to exercise their rights internally. The right of self-determination is no longer limited to the conventional colonial independence scenarios, such that various ethnic and cultural groups of people within different states effectively rely on the right of self-determination in order to declare their independence.[6] A common argument often presented against the right of self-determination is that the principle of territorial integrity in relation to states is challenged by the principle of self-determination - as it is the will of the people that fundamentally leads to the legitimacy of a state. This indicates that people are not only free to choose their state but also their territorial boundaries. However, in accordance with the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, the United Nations and International Court of Justice demonstrated that there is no contradiction between territorial integrity and the right of self-determination.[7] In that context, it is necessary to add that Koskenneimi argued that “It is doubtful whether the statement of principle was intended to be taken literally… its revolutionary potential was tempered by the Final Acts strong emphasis on territorial integrity.”[8]

In the context of Palestinian self-determination, I submit that “Israel” is a colonial entity that has occupied Palestinian territory; thus, the Palestinian people must be able to exercise this right. It is imperative to note that under international law, only groups categorized as “peoples” have the right to self-determination. The interpretation of “peoples”, however, continues to cause confusion. For example, one may question do all “peoples” need to share one ethnicity or location? If so, where would be the place that gathers people who are a part of multi-ethnic states? With regard to Palestinians, “Israel” has already officially accepted the existence of the “Palestinian peoples” in the Camp David Accords signed with Egypt in the year 1978.[9]

Moreover, it is argued that the right of self-determination can heavily disrupt the essence of peace, such that political communities may resort to force if their demands are not met.[10] Violence was also exhibited in the case of Nigeria after the British authorities recognized three main groups, Igbos, Hausa-Fulani and Yoruba. These groups were legally recognized after seeking independence. These minority groups were effectively excluded from the political sphere and the impact of this devolution caused further ethnic divide and political strife[11]. It is claimed that the violence that erupted between 1965-1967 with Nigerians and Biafrans signified that exercising the right of self-determination leads to political and ethnic turmoil.[12] 

In response to this argument, it is contended that despite self-determination struggles usually portrayed as violent and brutal measures, people should still have the freedom to exercise this fundamental right. It is important to understand that colonial settlers aggressively battled to preserve their right of conquest as their own right to self-determination. Till present day, “Israel” has committed war crimes, most notably in Gaza. From Palestine and South Africa to the Americas and Australia, settler-colonists [have] violently fought to prevent the indigenous people, that were colonised, from fighting for liberation, thus the argument that self-determination leads to violence and brutality does not hold much weight in this context considering it is no different to the measures taken by colonising entities.[13] Further to this, in the past, the UN has failed to sustain peace even with states that exercised their right to self-determination, as noticed with the case of Cyprus.[14] Conflicts among states exist irrespective of self-determination, therefore the premise of this argument is incorrect. It may be more suitable to look beyond the UN paradigm if we ought to find lasting solutions to such conflicts.

The Palestine-Israel Conflict

In order to better understand the Israel-Palestine conflict, it is necessary to present the issue within the historical framework of decolonisation struggles. Historically, the world has witnessed decolonisation struggles beginning with violence as a result of a people being denied independence and liberation by the colonising entity. The Palestinian struggle against the Zionist ethnonationalist entity has lasted since the 20th century; the story of Palestine is on political independence, liberation, and putting an end to the apartheid Israeli regime. Whilst Zionists argue that "Israel" has a historic right to Palestinian land, it is imperative to note that had it not been for the involvement of European imperial powers, most notably Britain, there would have not been any creation of “Israel”. In November 1917, Britain the de facto ruler of Palestine, issued the Balfour Declaration. The eighty-word statement by Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour announced support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. 

In 1922, five years after the Balfour Declaration, the “League of Nations” approved the British Mandate for Palestine and the establishment of a “Jewish homeland.” The decision of the mandate did not consider the will of the Palestinian people or their fundamental rights. Between 1939 and 1949, there were a series of mass protests that took place against Jewish immigration to Palestine as well as armed Zionist groups launching attacks against the indigenous people of Palestine[15]. It is necessary to note that in 1947, the UN adopted Resolution 181, a partition plan for Palestine which was subsequently rejected by the Palestinians. The UN General Assemblies plan was to partition Palestine between the native Palestinians and the Jewish colonial settlers. Throughout 1948-1949, the Palestinians were attacked by Zionist forces. Villages and hotels were bombed near Haifa demonstrating early signs of ethnic cleansing. In April 1948, one month before the State of “Israel” was created, Zionist forces massacred over 100 250 Palestinians in the city of Deir Yassin[16] which is in close proximity to Jerusalem. In December of 1948[17], the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 194 which allowed the right of return of Palestinian refugees. This is a brief explanation of how the state of “Israel” came into existence. In 1974, Yasser Arafat, a Palestinian Political leader stated:

"The [UN] General Assembly partitioned what it had no right to divide – an indivisible homeland."

“Israel” consistently and tactically made use of Occupation Law to further acquire Palestinian land whilst simultaneously arbitrarily arresting and targeting Palestinian people through the use of apartheid policies. It is argued that “Israel” has used UNSC Resolution 242 to justify and legitimate these actions through “political framework shaped by U.S intervention”[18] as mentioned by Noura Erakat, a human rights attorney and Palestinian activist. Erakat claims that the Occupation Law failing to regulate Palestinian territories effectively, is a result of a political, not a legal contest. It is asserted that "Israel’s" argument that the Palestinian territories are simply under their administration, would hold no weight were it not for the political powers involved in the region. 

Furthermore, it is also argued that the United States has favoured “Israel” to such an extent that the US dismisses “Israel’s” violation of international law and allows the state to carry out war crimes without facing any repercussions besides blanket statements. As a result of the Occupation Law that “Israel” takes advantage of, Palestinian territories remain occupied, Palestinian people are systematically being ethnically cleansed[19], and their fundamental rights such as the freedom of movement are infringed.

The Human Rights Watch published a report in April 2021, in which it was made very clear that for the past 54 years, Israeli authorities have transferred Jewish Israeli’s to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OTP) and “granted them a superior status under the law as compared to Palestinians living in the same territory when it comes to civil rights, access to land, and freedom to move, build, and confer residency rights to close relatives.”[20] In 1970, the General Assembly Resolution 2625 added that “Every state has the duty to respect this right in accordance with the provision of the charter.” Therefore, “Israel” and the international community as a whole should not be denying the Palestinians their right to self-determination. Palestine should be able to manage its own affairs without the interference of external and colonial entities. It is important to understand that the Palestinian people have witnessed the occupation of their lands, forced expulsions to neighbouring lands, military bombardment, and erasure of their identity. As such, the struggle for independence and self-determination should be welcomed by all. 

Ali Abunimah, a policy adviser, argues that self-determination “must return to the center of the Palestinian struggle”[21]. To add, Abunimah asserts that the Palestinian right to self-determination can indeed be compatible with the coexistence of Jews. It is claimed that the United States has a long history of deciding the fate of the Palestinian people. For instance, as per the Clinton Parameters, "Israel" would get “Jewish neighbourhoods” and the Palestinians would get “Arab neighbourhoods”. In hindsight, this meant that “Israel” would be allowed to keep the land it has colonised and annexed since 1967, and the people of Palestine would be able to have what is left – which Israeli occupation forces and settlers continue to annex and occupy till today. America’s “peace process” has allowed “Israel” to aggressively maintain their illegal occupation of the Palestinian people.[22] 

Professor Noam Chomsky in his book ‘On Palestine’[23] highlights that “Israel’s” policies are directly connected to the Zionist ideology that “both aim to establish a Jewish state by taking over as much of historical Palestine as possible and leaving in it as few Palestinians as possible.” Chomsky, a Jewish historian and activist, further claims that the international community has “never condemned” the Israeli entity which led to the enormous expulsion of 750,000 people and the destruction of hundreds of villages and towns. In addition to this, Chomsky states that “ethnic cleansing has become the DNA of Israeli Jewish society.” Erasing the Palestinian land and people should be enough of a reason for the remaining people of Palestine to exercise their right to self-determination. There are distinct similarities between Palestine and the apartheid in South Africa. The Israeli Knesset authorises legislation that separates, segregates, and discriminates against the Palestinians. A recent report by Human Rights Watch also backs up this claim:

“Israeli authorities methodically privilege Jewish Israelis and discriminate against Palestinians. Laws, policies, and statements by leading Israeli officials make plain that the objective of maintaining Jewish Israeli control over demographics, political power, and land has long guided government policy.”[24]

The United States of America remains a close ally of “Israel”. The U.S provides financial and military support to “Israel” which has been used criticised by several human rights agencies as this funding is used to perpetrate human rights abuses against the Palestinians, particularly in the Gaza Strip. In the Ten-Year Memorandum of Understanding between the United States and “Israel”, $38 billion has been promised to “Israel” from the U.S beginning in 2016.[25] This includes $3.3 billion in Foreign Military financing and $500 million for missile defence programs. Several U.S politicians declare their support for “Israel” and do not shy away from mentioning “Israel has every right to defend itself” despite the fact that it is “Israel” that is committing heinous crimes against the Palestinian people. As mentioned by Chomsky, as a result of political power and close relationship with the U.S, “Israel” has been able to act with impunity since 1948. The U.S also has a history of blocking UN resolutions[26] against “Israel”. According to UN data, since 1972, the US has vetoed at least 53 United Nations Security Council resolutions that are critical of “Israel”[27]. 

Contrastingly, Palestine does not have such strong allies. Palestinian resistance leaders have announced receiving military and financial support from the Islamic Republic of Iran; however, I submit that as Iran is a sanctioned country, the support offered to Palestine may not be as much as the support offered by the U.S and the UK to “Israel”. The UK has consistently and repeatedly sold arms to “Israel” despite its illegal occupation of Palestine.[28]

In conclusion, the people of Palestine have every right to self-determination, and this can be understood just by investigating the crimes perpetrated by “Israel” against the Palestinians, and the systematic oppression they have faced as a people. Since 1969, the General Assembly has recognised the “inalienable rights of the people of Palestine”[29] In 1974, member states of the UN worked to restore the “Question of Palestine” on the General Assembly agenda, and as such Arab heads of states upheld the “right of the Arab Palestinian people to the return to its homeland and its right to self-determination.”[30] Some weeks later the General Assembly passed resolution 3236 which mentioned “Recognizing that the Palestinian people are entitled to self-determination in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations,” and (a) The right to self-determination without external interference”. It should be noted that the General Assembly condemned governments which failed to recognise the right to self-determination and independence of peoples under “colonial and foreign domination”. For the Palestinians to exercise this right, the Israeli entity must vacate from the occupied areas in order to establish an independent Palestinian state. The United Nations has again affirmed its commitment to the Palestinian right to self-determination. In November 2020, the UN General Assembly endorsed a draft resolution once again recognising “the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, including their right to an independent State of Palestine.”[31] 163 states voted in favour of this resolution, whilst 5 states voted against this, namely: “Israel”, The United States of America, Micronesia, Nauru, and the Marshal Islands. Tomis Kapitan eloquently argues that legitimate residents of Palestine include all Palestinians irrespective of where they are located in Palestine, including Palestinian refugees outside of the country. He states that “expulsion does not remove ones right of residency… Palestinians also retain residency rights in those territories from which they were expelled.”[32] Kapitan asserts that the Palestinian people, as a collective, have the “entitlement to being self-determining in that region [historic Palestine]… not qua Palestinians, but qua legitimate residents. The force used against them has not erased the fact that they are, and are recognized as being; a legitimate unit entitled to participate in their own self-determination.”[33]

Whilst some may argue that the Palestinian right to self-determination is an anti-Semitic stance, it should be duly noted that a Palestinian state would include Jews, Muslims and Christians. It is in fact the Zionist entity that remains anti-Semitic by expulsing and rejecting Jewish natives from enjoying their rights in Occupied Palestine. It should be remembered that the Palestinian right to self-determination is legal and in accordance with international law. For the state of Palestine to be completely independent, colonial settlers will have to return to the European countries they entered from and respect international law. To end, a group of academics including Palestinians and Israelis issued a One State Declaration in 2007, inspired by the South African Freedom Charter and declared: “The historic land of Palestine belongs to all who live in it and to those who were expelled or exiled from it since 1948, regardless of religion, ethnicity, national origin or current citizenship status; Any system of government must be founded on the principle of equality in civil, political, social and cultural rights for all citizens. Power must be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all people in the diversity of their identities.[34]

 

sources

[1]https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/self_determination_(international_law)#:~:text=Self%2Ddetermination%20denotes%20the%20legal,destiny%20in%20the%20international%20order.&text=For%20instance%2C%20self%2Ddetermination%20is,right%20of%20%E2%80%9Call%20peoples.%E2%80%9D

[2] Salvatore Senese, 'External and Internal Self-Determination' [1989] 16(1) Social Justice <https://www.jstor.org/stable/29766439?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents> accessed 9 May 2021.
[3] Wilson, War Aims of Germany and Austria (1918).
[4] UN Charter, Art 1 (2).
[5] https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/wp-content/uploads/sites/19/2018/11/UNDRIP_E_web.pdf

[6] Quane, Helen. 1998. “The United Nations and the Evolving Right to Self-Determination.” The International and Comparative Law Quarterly 47(3): 537–572.

[7] Johan D. Van der Vyer, 'Self-Determination of the Peoples of Quebec under International Law' [2012] 10(1) Journal of Transnational Law & Policy 38
[8] Martti Koskenniemi, 'National Self-Determination Today: Problems of Legal Theory and Practice' [1994] 43(2) The International and Comparative Law Quarterly <https://www.jstor.org/stable/761238> accessed 10 May 2021.
[9] J Massad, 'Against Self-Determination' [2018] 9(2) Humanity 161-191
[10] M Evangelista, 'Paradoxes of Violence and Self-determination' [2015] 14(5) Formerly Global Review of Ethnopolitics <https://doi.org/10.1080/17449057.2015.1051811> accessed 3 May 2021.
[11] B Ibhawoh, 'Testing the Atlantic Charter: linking anticolonialism, self-determination and Universal Human Rights' [2014] 18(7) International Journal of Human Rights 1-19

[12] Beardsley, Kevin, David E. Cunningham, and Peter B. White. 2015. “Resolving Civil Wars before They Start: The UN Security Council and Conflict Prevention in Self-Determination Disputes.” British Journal of Political Science 47(3): 675–697.
[13] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/israel-gaza-latest-palestinian-happening-b1852170.html
[14] Tobias Nowak and Charis Van den berg, 'Alternative Approaches to Self-Determination Applied to the Cyprus Conflict' [2020] 15(5) Transboundary Legal Studies <https://research.rug.nl/nl/publications/alternative-approaches-to-self-determination-applied-to-the-cypru> accessed 7 May 2021.
[15] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-role-of-jewish-defense-organizations-in-palestine-1903-1948
[16] M Hogan, 'The 1948 Massacre at Deir Yassin Revisited' [2001] 63(2) The Historian <https://www.jstor.org/stable/24450239> accessed 10 May 2021.

[17] https://interactive.aljazeera.com/aje/palestineremix/timeline_main.html
[18] Noura Erakat, 'Taking the Land without the People: The 1967 Story as Told by the Law' [2017] 47(1) Journal of Palestine Studies 18-38 
[19] Lucy Garbett, 'I live in Sheikh Jarrah for Palestinians, this is not a ‘real estate dispute’' (The Guardian, 17 May 2021) <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/may/17/palestinians-sheikh-jarrah-jerusalem-city-identity> accessed 17 May 2021.
[20] https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/04/27/threshold-crossed/israeli-authorities-and-crimes-apartheid-and-persecution
[21]Ali Abunimah, 'Reclaiming Self-Determination' ( Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, 21 May) <https://al-shabaka.org/briefs/reclaiming-self-determination/> accessed 10 May 2021.[22]https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/us-role-peace-process-perspective
[23]Noam Chomsky, On Palestine (Penguin Books 2015)

[24] https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/04/27/threshold-crossed/israeli-authorities-and-crimes-apartheid-and-persecution
[25] https://il.usembassy.gov/ten-year-memorandum-of-understanding-between-the-united-states-and-israel/
[26] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/5/19/a-history-of-the-us-blocking-un-resolutions-against-israel
[27] https://www.un.org/depts/dhl/resguide/scact_veto_table_en.htm
[28] https://caat.org.uk/resources/countries/israel/
[29] https://www.un.org/unispal/document/auto-insert-196558/
[30] United Nations
[31] https://prc.org.uk/en/news/3213/un-votes-overwhelmingly-in-support-of-palestinian-self-determination
[32] Tomis Kapitan, "Self-Determination," in Tomis Kapitan and Raja Halwani, The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Philosophical Essays on Self-Determination, Terrorism and the One-State Solution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 13-71.
[33] Ibid.
[34] "The One State Declaration," The Electronic Intifada, 29 November 2007

The opinions mentioned in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Al mayadeen, but rather express the opinion of its writer exclusively.
Afreen Rizvi

Researcher and political activist.