Is Palestine a State? The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict 101

Israel and Palestine in Middle East on contour map. Palestinian territories of Gaza and West Bank. Jerusalem and Jordan River on outline map. Theme of Israel, war, conflict.

In the past two months, following the Israel-Hamas War, everyone has been talking about Hamas, Gaza, Palestine, and Israel. People around the world are protesting and shouting out: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” So, to help you better understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I want to dedicate this post to another aspect of the conflict, the question that many people want to ask – is Palestine a state? The answer is complicated, like everything in the Middle East. But one thing is for sure – there was no Palestinian state back in 1948. 

Recommended read >> The Dual Narrative tour in Jerusalem.

Featured image from iStock.

What is a state?

To understand if Palestine is a state, we first need to define what a state is. In the ancient world, there was no such thing as a state as we know it today. There were empires that ruled over enormous territories and didn’t care too much for the people who lived in those territories. The term “state” as we know it today started emerging in the 16th century when philosophers and diplomats began talking about the need for a stable government or ruler. Later, they started focusing more on the people, saying they could benefit from a state that would protect their “natural rights,” such as their right to live and aim for the common good. 

The definition of a “state” is disputed, but most people agree it is a political organization that rules over a population within a defined territory. Many of today’s states are nation-states, meaning those states rule over a group of people who identify as a nation. One of the earliest examples of a nation-state is France, which was formed in 1792.

Who are the Palestinians? 

Where did the name “Palestine” come from? 

I have read on some sites that the Israelites arrived in Palestine in the 12th century BCE, but that’s impossible because the region was not called “Palestine” at that time. If you read the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, you see that “Palestine” is not mentioned in any of those books because the region was not commonly called by that name until after they were written. Instead, the names that are mentioned regarding this region are “Canaan,” “the Land of the Children of Israel,” and “Eretz Israel,” which means “the Land of Israel.” Yes, even the Quran, the holy Islamic scripture, does not mention “Palestine.” Instead, it refers to the land as “the Land of the Children of Israel.”

It is believed that the name “Palestine” came from the name “Peleshet,” which appears dozens of times in the Hebrew Bible. In Hebrew, the Philistines are called “Phlishtim,” so their region was called “Peleshet.” This region was only a small part of the Land of Israel, situated on the Mediterranean coastline, more or less where the Gaza Strip is today.

Nobody really knows the origins of the Philistines, but scholars believe that they were a group of people who came from the area of Greece in the 12th century BCE. The Philistines were one of the greatest enemies of the Israelites, but they vanished from the map around the 7th century BCE. They have no connection to the modern-day Palestinians.

The first derivative of the name “Palestine” appeared only in the 4th century BCE, when the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, referred to the land as “Palaistine.” When the Romans came in the 1st century CE, they named the region Judea, most likely after the Jews who lived there. But later, in the 2nd century CE, the Romans renamed the region “Syria Palestina” to humiliate the Jews. Later, the region was called “Jund Filastin” by the Muslims and then “Mandatory Palestine” by the British. So, the Arabs who define themselves as Palestinians are called Palestinians because they lived in Mandatory Palestine until 1948.

By the way, the Jews who lived in Mandatory Palestine were also dubbed Palestinians at that time. Here’s a poster that was created by the Jewish graphic designer, Franz Kraus, in 1936 to promote Jewish travel to the Land of Israel (Mandatory Palestine):

When did the Palestinians turn into a nation?

There are two main points of view regarding this question. Most scholars believe that the Palestinians started seeing themselves as a nation only in the 1920s, and some of them think that it was a counteract to the rise in Jewish immigrants to the Land of Israel at that time. Others believe that the nation began forming in the mid-19th century and is due, amongst other things, to the nationalities that started forming all around Europe. 

Until today, there are people – mainly Israelis – who believe that a Palestinian nation does not really exist. Instead, they think that the Arabs who live in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are part of the general Arab nationality. According to this approach, the “Palestinians” are not different from other Arabs in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and other Arab countries. They are Muslims and Christians, Arab-speaking, and have a similar culture. They claim that the “Palestinian nation” was formed for political reasons only, to destroy the Jewish State of Israel.

The Palestinian state and the international law criteria

In our modern world, we have the international law, which determines an entity can be declared a sovereign state if it meets the following criteria:

  • Permanent population.
  • Defined territory.
  • Stable and effective government.
  • Capability to enter into relations with other states.

So, does a Palestinian state meet all the criteria? This, like many other things, is also under dispute. While it does have a permanent population and the capability to enter into relations with other states, it doesn’t necessarily have a defined territory or a stable and effective government. Let’s dive deeper into that:

The Palestinian territories

If you ask Palestinians, many of them will say that they believe they should establish a Palestinian state in the entire region of Palestine. This means, where the State of Israel exists today. You can find evidence of this by checking out this page on “Palestinian Media Watch“. When you hear people chanting in protests around the world, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” it means that they want to replace the entire State of Israel with the State of Palestine. The river is Jordan, and the sea is the Mediterranean. It’s a catchy chant, but it means the destruction of Israel altogether, so… I’d advise not to chant it.

Officially, the Palestinians claim a state only in the areas that are within the “Green Line,” the armistice lines from 1949 that were agreed upon with Egypt and Jordan. From 1948 to 1967, Jordan controlled the area of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip. Since 1967, following the Six-Day War, those areas have been under Israeli control. Still, the Palestinians claim them as territories that should become the future Palestinian state.

The Gaza Strip

Israel has withdrawn from the Gaza Strip in 2005 following a large number of terror attacks against Israelis who lived there. So in theory, it could have definitely turned into a Palestinian state if the Hamas hadn’t prioritized violence over diplomacy.

Because the Gaza Strip is controlled by Hamas and not by the PLO, it’s hard to say that it can really become part of the Palestinian state. There needs to be one stable and effective government, remember? And because Hamas and the PLO are fighting each other all the time, it doesn’t seem like there could be a stable Palestinian government over there.

Read more >> The story of the Gaza Strip: history & today.  

The West Bank

In the West Bank, the story is different. There are dozens of Israeli villages and towns there, alongside Arab-Palestinian ones. Following the Oslo II Accords in 1995, the West Bank was divided into Areas A, B, and C. According to the agreement, Areas A and B are supposed to be Palestinian enclaves. In Area A, which comprises about 18% of the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority has complete civil and security control. In Area B, which comprises about 22% of the West Bank, there is Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control.

Area C, which comprises about 63% of the West Bank, is an Israeli area with complete Israeli civil and security control. This area includes the 100+ Israeli settlements and roads. According to the agreement from 1995, Israel was supposed to gradually withdraw from Area C and transfer it to the hands of the future Palestinian state, but a lot of things have changed since then; the Palestinian state was not established, and today, Israel still holds Area C and states that the West Bank is an area under dispute.

Many Israelis are afraid that if the Palestinians establish a state in the West Bank, it will become a terror state like what happened in the Gaza Strip. And because parts of the West Bank are right next to main Israeli cities such as Jerusalem, Modi’in, Rosh HaAyin, and Be’er Sheva, this could turn into a major security challenge for Israel, which will need to fight for its security every day. As I already mentioned, many Palestinians believe that the Palestinian state should encompass the entire area of the State of Israel, meaning they would be happy to expand their state beyond the West Bank and control fully Israeli towns all around Israel. And that is what many Israelis are afraid of. Read more about what the Quran says about the Jews

In the excellent YouTube project, “The Corey Gil-Shuster’s Ask Project,” you can see some Palestinian views regarding what they plan to do when they establish a state of Palestine and understand why Israelis are worried about this option:

Do the Palestinians have a stable and effective government?

The answer is no. The PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization), established in 1964, is internationally recognized as the official representative of the Palestinian people. They are the ones who signed the Oslo II Accords in 1995, and they are the ones governing Areas A and B in the West Bank. They also managed the Gaza Strip from 1994, but Hamas violently took control of the area in 2007 and kicked them out. Ever since, Hamas has been trying to replace them in the West Bank. So, until the PLO and Hamas come to some understanding and decide who will be the official representative of the Palestinian people, the current Palestinian government is not stable at all.

The PLO government is also not very effective. When it governed the Gaza Strip, it was not able to disarm the many armed Palestinian groups and organizations that existed there and still exist there today. And in the West Bank, it is the same story. The PLO is afraid to enter problematic areas within its authority, such as the Balata and Jenin Refugee Camps, where there are many armed Palestinian groups. Therefore, it is not able to guarantee security. Many times, it uses the help of Israeli intelligence or forces to arrest people.

Furthermore, many Palestinians claim that the PLO is corrupt. We see that although they receive enormous funds, they are unable or unwilling to put those funds into things such as developing infrastructure, paying for electricity, and making the world better for the Palestinians.

So, is Palestine a state? 

It depends on who you ask. If you ask most Israelis, they’ll tell you that there is no such thing as a Palestinian state and that there is no such thing as Palestine. However, out of 193 United Nations member states, 139 states have recognized Palestine as a state. Among those who do not recognize Palestine as a state are Canada, Australia, Germany, France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Mexico. Most of those states explain that they are not willing to recognize it as a state before Israel recognizes it, too. Because, after all, Israel and the Palestinian Authority claim mutual territory, and that’s problematic if we look at the criteria. So, we have to agree on this issue before they can truly establish a state.

The Palestinians have worked on receiving international recognition for a long time. In 1974, the UN recognized the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, national independence, and sovereignty in Palestine. At the same time, it also recognized the PLO as the official representative of the Palestinian people and granted it a “non-state observer” status in the UN.

In 1988, Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the PLO, declared the establishment of the State of Palestine while he was in Algeria. At that time, the PLO had no control over any area. Right after the declaration, 91 states recognized the state. Following this, the UN General Assembly changed the name of the “non-state observer” from “Palestine Liberation Organization” to “Palestine.”

In 2011, the Palestinians requested to become members of the United Nations, and in June 2023, the General Assembly granted “Palestine” a “non-member observer state” status.

Conclusion

So, is Palestine a state? De facto, Palestine is NOT a state. It has no defined territory because the territory it wants to govern belongs to Israel and, therefore, is under dispute,  Also, it has no stable and effective government because it is very dependent on Israel, especially when it comes to security issues. Therefore, it doesn’t meet a state’s criteria according to international law. Nevertheless, 139 states have recognized Palestine as a state. So… it really depends on who you ask.   

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Yours,

Lior

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2 comments

Mario May 24, 2024 - 5:04 am
Excellent review of history should all the world kno. I never knew the West Bank is stable because Israeli forces and authorities contain the palestinian terrorists. Even if there was no jewish , the palestinian never would have created a democratic aand flourishing state. They are envious of the israeli people and are wrongly funded by UN and other countries real enemies of Israel , sitting on the chairs of UN in New York, paid by us, US citizens! Shame! Destroy Hamas. Build your military power so all around fear you!
backpackisrael May 25, 2024 - 9:26 pm
Thank you!
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