Solon Solomon is Assistant Professor at Brunel University London and former member of the Knesset Legal Department on international and constitutional issues. He has held visiting positions in a number of academic institutions including King’s College London, Humboldt zu Berlin, and Tel Aviv University. He argues here that after the Israel-Hamas war there should be a push by Israel, the moderate Arab states and the international community towards the creation of a Palestinian state in Gaza and Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank.
When Alexander the Great was about to die not having appointed any successor, the story goes that his generals gathered around his bed and asked ‘Who should govern after you?’ The Greek leader managed to whisper, ‘The most capable. Let the most capable govern after me!’ His ambiguous answer left everyone puzzled and eventually led to a series of wars and the split of Alexander’s empire among his generals.
U.S. President Joe Biden has proposed that following the war, a two-state solution must emerge. This is correct and praiseworthy, yet deals only with the political aspects of the conflict. Biden did not address the security parameters that have to be addressed both in Gaza and in the West Bank. In that sense, he offered half a solution. Biden in his op ed spoke about a ‘new’ Palestinian Authority, but left vague what this ‘newness’ will involve. Nor has Israel presented a clear plan for meeting the security challenges stemming from the establishment of a Palestinian state. It has stressed who is not going to govern Gaza following the war, but not who is going to do so.
The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated in his ABC interview that a power who will not continue in the ways of Hamas will govern in Gaza once the war is over. However, Netanyahu did not name any country or entity. When Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Galant was asked about this, he said that he could only name who would not govern: neither Israel nor Hamas. The White House’s spokesman John Kirby reiterated that after the war, ‘Hamas will not be part of the equation.’ In short, echoing Alexander’s dying words, suggestions of a post-war future for Gaza seem so far to echo the motto ‘let the best take the lead’, without any further clarifications. The uncertain climate that is created has immense repercussions given the security challenges and the unaddressed question of the future of the West Bank.
Along these lines, in this essay, I survey and critique the solutions that have been floated so far before setting out an alternative: Palestinian statehood in Gaza and autonomy for the West Bank.
Part 1: Three Temporary Occupation Regimes Considered for Gaza
A Western-led Multinational Protectorate
In the past it has been suggested that the U.S., France and the U.K. undertake the Strip’s administration as the core of a multinational force. This solution could be a double-edged sword, if the Western powers were viewed as ‘hostiles’ by the local Palestinian population, With the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations still fresh in the memory, and the decolonisation debate shaping opinion among Western publics, chances are that the presence of Western powers in post-war Gaza would be seen as another form of colonisation, there and here, and could provide a target for anti-Western fighters, as happened with the Taliban after Soviet Union’s Afghanistan invasion.
A Protectorate led by moderate Arab states
The second scenario resembles the first but the place of the Western powers is being taken by (as yet unnamed) moderate Arab states. Even assuming such States could be found, how long would they undertake such a role once they are portrayed on ‘the Arab street’ as betraying the Palestinian cause? In fact, Israel’s Arab neighbours have already taken pains to ensure that nothing will change in the status quo regarding the Palestinian entitlement to Gaza and the West Bank. They would likely be averse to any measures that would signal they want to ‘Egyptify’ the Strip, returning it to its 1967 status.
This reluctance does not stem only from political considerations, but also from security concerns. The Egyptian president Al Sisi has expressed his fear that if Palestinian Gazans are relocated in Sinai, they will continue waging attacks against Israel from Egyptian territory, endangering the Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt. Egypt reaps considerable financial benefits from those accords in the form of $1.3 billion U.S. annual aid. Losing this aid at the very moment Al Sisi is trying to revive the Egyptian economy is the last thing he wants. And security threats from a new wave of Palestinians is also what concerns Jordan. Memories linger of Black September in 1970 when the current Jordanian King’s father killed or expelled Palestinians residing in the Kingdom in response to attempts to overthrow the Hashemite regime.
A United Nations Protectorate
The third scenario sees the UN temporarily take over Gaza. This scenario also involves considerable problems. First, the UN soldiers are by definition lightly armed. As the current events in Mali demonstrate, UN peacekeeping forces can be driven away. It is unlikely UN forces would be able to resist any sustained pressure from Gaza armed groups. Moreover, judging from the 1967 precedent, set shortly before the Six-Day war, when the UN forces in Sinai left following Naser’s request, Israel would fear any UN force deserting the field when asked to do so by the PA or regional states.
Each of these three solutions advocate a temporary solution. Gaza needs a permanent solution. This is where the Palestinians themselves must come fully into the picture.
Part 2: A Palestinian Alternative
The return of the Palestinian Authority to rule over Gaza is the most plausible alternative to these temporary protectorates, but it must be a new Palestinian Authority and a new Gaza.
PA officials have said they would not be willing to undertake any post-war Gaza role if this is not accompanied by the establishment of statehood. Under international and Israeli security guarantees that State could be established in Gaza, but a new security architecture must be created to make such a state possible.
Gaza would have to cooperate with Israel and the international community to ensure that only goods which have undergone inspection enter the Strip. This would necessitate the creation of a terminal off the coast of Gaza. In the past, the Israeli minister Israel Katz floated the idea of creating an artificial island off the Gaza shore for this purpose. This idea could make a return.
Gaza cannot be a state that has an army or be able to forge military pacts with greater Middle East stakeholders hostile to the existence of the Jewish state, for example with Iran. This would not be without international precedent. Small states in Europe such as Monaco, San Marino or Andora have entrusted their defence to bigger neighbouring states like Italy or France. One option is for the U.S. to guarantee the Palestinian state’s security. A relevant case study could be Iceland, which has no standing army but has forged security cooperation agreements with a number of countries including Norway, Denmark and the United States. Alternatively, NATO could be the security guarantor.
These international players – the U.S. or NATO – could equally be responsible for security inside the Palestinian state. As repeated rounds of violence have shown so far, the attacks from Gaza are not being conducted only by Hamas, but also by smaller groups like the Islamic Jihad. A U.S. or NATO security presence in the Strip, with the agreement and support of the Palestinian government, would make sure no arsenal falls again into the hands of terrorist entities.
This scenario presents two major setbacks that need to be addressed. First, a U.S. or NATO security presence in the Strip may bring Israel to war with its Western allies if Israel decides to attack the Strip in response to an attack taking place from there. That is why Israel must be included among the security stakeholders. When the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that Israel will retain security control over the Strip without occupying it, this may be what he is hinting at. Second, the Palestinians may once again elect a leadership that will denounce the security agreements and the newly created status-quo and demand the diplomatic expulsion of the Western powers and of Israel from the Strip, creating a crisis for the security stakeholders. Once a sovereign government expresses its will that foreign forces leave its territory, these foreign powers must respect the requesting state’s sovereignty and leave. In the case of Gaza, this would leave the Strip again with no security supervision and risk the conflict with Israel starting up again.
This danger can be addressed in two ways. First, the exterior security point would remain under international control and include an Israeli presence. This would mean that this exterior checking point will not be part of the Palestinian state but will be rather under international administration. Again, there is precedent: in 1947, the UN Partition plan held that Jerusalem would be placed under an international special regime. An international community resolved to eliminate the security risks emanating from Gaza, should also be ready to address the existence of the tunnels through which ammunition can enter the Strip particularly through Sinai and Rafiah.
Furthermore, security supervision inside the Strip could be legally ensured by having the UN Security Council adopt a binding Resolution under Chapter VII, which would stipulate that all states must take any measures to preserve peace and security in Gaza and tackle the threats presented by any Palestinian government which would want to pursue a policy based on acts of force or threats of acts of force against Israel.
According to Article 43 of the UN Charter and international law, such a Resolution would automatically make all the members of the international community legally compelled to not oppose the efforts of the U.S., NATO or Israel to address these security concerns by stationing their forces there. It would even legally cover any other countries which – in light of a threat to regional stability that a Palestinian government would present – would want to also send forces to the Strip to enforce the existing security arrangements. In that sense, any future Palestinian government would know that acts of force or threats of acts of force against Israel would not weaken, but further solidify the international military presence in the Strip.
Part 3: Palestinian Autonomy in the West Bank
It was back in 1993 when the ice started to melt between Israelis and Palestinians. The Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, decided to agree to give some autonomy to the Palestinians over the Gaza Strip. It was Arafat who insisted that Jericho in the West Bank be included in the Israeli concessions, in order to ensure that a future Palestinian state would encompass both Gaza and the West Bank. Rabin conceded. In these years of euphoria, little thought was invested in what would happen if something went wrong with the whole peace plan. Israel and the Palestinian side even talked about a land bridge linking Gaza and the West Bank through Israeli sovereign territory. The current war has proven that these dreams can no longer be entertained.
Moreover, since Oslo the Middle East and the global security landscape have radically changed with the emergence of terrorist groups like Al-Qaida, ISIS and Hamas, with the wars in Iraq, Yemen and Syria and the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Traditionally, Israeli politicians have insisted on an Israeli security presence in the Jordan valley in order to avert any threats from the East. As any Israeli retreat from the West Bank may lead to Hamas filling in the power vacuum, as happened in Gaza after Sharon’s disengagement, Israel will be required to sustain full military presence in the West Bank.
The establishment of a Palestinian state in Gaza should mean that both Israel and the Palestinians should be ready to relinquish the stance they have taken so far regarding the conflict. Israel should ultimately come to terms with Palestinian statehood as a notion and the Palestinians should come to terms with the Israeli security concerns and the fact that their national right to self-determination will be exercised through independence in Gaza and through autonomy in the West Bank.
West Bank Palestinian autonomy is in line with the Oslo accords legacy and international law
The Palestinian West Bank autonomy is in line with the Oslo accords. Rabin never spoke about Palestinian independence when he agreed to endorse the Oslo channel. It is also consistent with international law. So far, the international law document that has been considered the roadmap for any future permanent solution to the conflict is the UN Security Council Resolution 242 adopted in 1967 in the aftermath of the Six Day War. The Resolution calls for Israel to withdraw from territories it captured in the war in exchange for peace with its neighbours, including the Palestinians. Moreover, the Resolution speaks of Israel’s right to exist in secure borders. Whereas the ‘land for peace’ component of UN Security Council Resolution 242 has been emphasised in the various peace talks so far, in the future it is more likely that we will see Israel and the international community underlining the ‘secure borders’ component.
Moreover, whereas it is true that nowadays the exercise of the right to self-determination is mostly seen through the attainment of independence, this does not mean that autonomy cannot be a way for a people to achieve their self-determination, provided of course they agree to it. For example, the people of Gibraltar, Greenland, New Caledonia or of the Falklands exercise their right to self-determination by opting to not be independent states but dependent or autonomous territories of major European countries territorially detached from them and situated thousands of miles away. In that sense, the West Bank could be the autonomous territory of the Palestinian state situated in Gaza.
Questions of democratic legitimacy
The status quo in the West Bank has been deemed ‘apartheid’ by some scholars and human rights NGOs. This ignores the fact that the West Bank is an area under military occupation and as a result, the international law of occupation – which is much more restrictive than ordinary law in democratic societies – applies there. Nonetheless any final agreement must address these concerns. The Palestinians living under autonomy in the West Bank should have full civil, political and socio-economic rights.
It is on this point that the autonomy solution must be unique, due to geography. Classically, the socio-economic needs of people living in autonomous areas are addressed in cooperation with the central government. Palestinians living in the West Bank would have to cooperate with the Palestinian state authorities in Gaza. Given the fact that the West Bank and Gaza do not form a territorially contingent zone and due to the security concerns Israel cannot concede the creation of a land bridge across its territory to link the West Bank and Gaza, geography could present a hurdle to communication between the two parts of the Palestinian state. However , the Palestinian state would not be the first to consist of parts not geographically contiguous. Angola, Russia and the U.S. are all examples of states with part of their territory detached from their main body.
Moreover, the lack of physical contiguity between Gaza and the West Bank could be addressed with the Palestinian state in Gaza giving more powers to its autonomous part in the West Bank. This would be in accordance with modern models of governance which favour more intense autonomy or devolution to the local parliaments to the expense of the central government, as the cases of the United Kingdom and Scotland, or of Spain and Catalonia have shown us. Such a wide autonomy for the West Bank from the Palestinian government’s side in Gaza, would also address the socio-economic differences between the Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank.
West Bank autonomy as part of the Palestinian Gaza state would render the apartheid debate redundant. Smaller Israeli settlements would be dismantled and the big Israeli settlement blocs would be annexed to Israel on the basis of a land swap as had been agreed in previous negotiations. Democratic legitimacy would be also entrenched to the extent that the West Bank Palestinians would enjoy full political, civil and socio-economic rights.
At the same time, West Bank autonomy as part of a Palestinian state, raises some issues that need to be addressed. For example, the existence of the Israeli army in the West Bank, necessary to preserve security, will be subject to Palestinian approval. Israel cannot permit a situation where its security presence in the West Bank will be under an asterisk. Moreover, if the West Bank remains an autonomous territory of a Palestinian state, the presence of the Israeli army there will always be seen as an abnormality, as would the presence of a foreign army in any State’s territory. This presence will keep fostering the hostility many Palestinians in the West Bank already feel for Israel.
Part 4: An autonomous West Bank should be part of Israel
In order to mitigate both the Israeli security concerns and the psychological impact of any Israeli army stationing in the West Bank, there is a further suggestion that has not been properly examined so far, and that is for autonomous West Bank to be part of Israel. In the past, Israeli analysts have discussed the scenario, but have appeared sceptical for a number of reasons.
First, Israel would be responsible for the socio-economic rights of the West Bank Palestinians. That would mean the Israeli taxpayers pumping huge amounts of resources to the Palestinian autonomous area. Second, such an arrangement would give free movement of the West Bank Palestinians also beyond the Green Line, in Israel’s pre-1967 armistice lines. That could pose security issues. Third, the West Bank Palestinians would have to exercise their political rights by voting also for the central government in national elections. Yet, this would tilt the balance when it comes to the status of Israel as a Jewish homeland, the nation state of the Jewish people.
These concerns can all be mitigated. The first concern of Israel having to satisfy the socio-economic rights and needs of additionally millions of people can be mitigated by greater devolution and giving of powers to the parliament and authority of the autonomous West Bank. It is these organs which would decide – without any intervention from the central Israeli government and the Knesset – on how to allocate resources for the building of schools or hospitals. The central administration should help towards this direction but on an auxiliary basis. On this account, the autonomous West Bank municipalities should be able to levy their own tax from the citizens residing there in order to fund the local projects. For sure, it is plausible to assume that at least in the beginning – as things currently stand – there would be huge economic discrepancies between the West Bank as Israel’s autonomous area and the rest of the country, but these could be lessened over the years, both by Israel itself as well as by the autonomous territory’s governing bodies, through for example the signing of development or economic agreements with countries in the West or the Arab world for projects in the West Bank.
The second concern stemming from the free move of the autonomous area’s population all over Israel can be mitigated by good security arrangements. The fact that the Israeli army will be stationed also in the autonomous area as the army of the country in which the autonomous area is located, will make easier this security coordination. Moreover, such army stationing will not be seen by the residents of the autonomous area as something hostile and foreign that has to be confronted.
The third concern presupposes that the West Bank autonomous area residents will vote for the Israeli Parliament. Yet, whereas this is usually the case with autonomous areas or devolved areas in the examples mentioned above such as the United Kingdom and Scotland or Spain and Catalonia, the nature of the Middle East conflict calls us to be more creative. The West Bank Palestinians must have full socio-economic and political rights. Yet, whereas their socio-economic rights will be exercised towards Israel, their political rights will be exercised towards the sovereign Palestinian state in Gaza.
In first reading, this solution appears to create a democratic deficit by having a state – Israel – exercising powers over people – the West Bank Palestinians – who will not have access to parliamentary scrutiny in order to debate in the Knesset the taking of decisions that will largely affect their lives. This danger will be largely mitigated simply by having the Knesset taking very few decisions for matters pertaining to the West Bank. In that sense, the latter will enjoy the biggest degree of autonomy, with Israel in essence exercising control only over the area’s foreign and defence policy, the same way New Zealand is responsible for the defence and foreign policy of the Cook Islands.
Furthermore, this solution for the West Bank is not so unique to the extent that such an arrangement is already in place regarding the Arab residents of East Jerusalem. The latter have full socio-economic rights in Israel, including the right to work and vote in the municipal elections, but they hold a Jordanian passport and cannot vote for the Israeli national parliamentary elections, although they can always apply for Israeli citizenship.
Such a platform could be put in place also for the West Bank Palestinians who will hold the passport of the Palestinian state and will vote for the national elections for the Parliament in Gaza, being able to send also their delegates there. The role of these West Bank Palestinian delegates in the national Palestinian parliament in Gaza, would be similar to the role expats have as MPs in the national parliaments of their mother countries. People who belong to a certain nation and live for years abroad, still want to voice a stance on what is happening in their mother land and their mother land wants to listen to the opinion of its Diaspora, especially on national policy matters. At the same time, West Bank Palestinians will be eligible to apply for Israeli citizenship if they renounce the citizenship of the Palestinian state, learn Hebrew and take a naturalisation oath to Israel’s Jewish and democratic components. In that sense, the adoption of the East Jerusalem model also to the autonomous West Bank under a future arrangement can ultimately yield only benefits for the co-existence of Jews and Arabs. Studies have shown how in Jerusalem, the two populations have come closer together since 1967.
30 years ago, Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin started a bold process towards peace and they were ready to make concessions for this. As Rabin’s assassination anniversary date has recently passed, the current war reminds us more than ever how these concessions are still necessary, albeit this time inside the new revised framework that our era and the current war have brought forth. Like then, also now, leaders at once realist and bold and creative are needed, Israeli and Palestinian.