This is based on patchy notes taken at the conference – notes that do not allow me to do justice to several of the speakers. There may be errors of content, emphasis or attribution (which I will happily correct if notified). Nevertheless, for those who could not attend, it may convey some flavour of the event.

Organization and background

Around 350 people filled the University of London's Brunei Gallery lecture theatre on 17/18 November 2007 to hear a distinguished group of speakers talk on the topic of the one state solution for Israel / Palestine – that is, a single state in which all citizens would have equal rights.

The one-state conference was organized by the London One State Group and the Palestine Society of the School of Oriental and African Studies: student volunteers who did a fantastic job. There was no sponsorship and the conference was organized at very short notice with the approaching threat of Annapolis. More than one speaker commented that they had not believed such a conference could be organized so quickly and so successfully, something that also provided evidence for the growing momentum behind the one-state idea.

Why one state?

The one-state, equal-rights solution is of course far from being a recent idea; Nur Masalha gave as an example the support of Zionists like Martin Buber for it when the smaller number of Jews in Palestine made it sensible for them to adopt this position. Ilan Pappe reminded us that Palestine had always been seen as a natural unit by its past rulers – it was in fact a more coherent and distinct unit than many other countries: were it not for the massive influx of Jews in the twentieth century, there is no doubt that Palestine would now be a single independent state. Further, there is at present a de facto single state: what Pappe calls RASI, the Racist Apartheid State of Israel. Given that Palestine was actually divided only for 19 years (1948-1967), those arguing for one state are going with history, Pappe said, not against it.

Joseph Massad attacked the two-state “solution” as something designed to do away with the rights of the Palestinian majority in the territory. He also attacked the “corrupt coterie” of the PLO for subscribing to it contrary to the interests of the people they should be representing. According to Massad, one democratic state is what Israel fears most: that is the only solution which will end discrimination, racism and colonialism. Nur Masalha had earlier defined Zionism as “maximum land, minimum Arabs” and he noted that all the failed attempts to settle the conflict up to now had been based on getting Arabs and Jews out of each other's sight: “Enough of that!” he said. Similarly, in questions afterwards, Ilan Pappe remarked how revealing some attitudes were: to general applause, he asserted that the problem is not how to prevent democracy interfering with the national project; it is how to prevent national projects interfering with democracy.

Ali Abunimah talked about the state of the one-state idea, recalling public statements from Condoleeza Rice, David Miliband and others to show the faltering credibility of the alternative two-state idea, even among its supporters. “The Peace Process industry understands the game is up”: that is why they are now looking for strategies to stifle debate, among them the notion that the two-state solution is “moderate” and that only extremists support the one-state solution.

While there is increasing recognition that the two-state solution is an illusion that will never be realized in any meaningful or fair way, Ghada Karmi also emphasized that the one-state soluton should not be seen as a some kind of Plan B. Rather, it is the only moral and just solution – and the only one from which the millions of Palestinian refugees can expect some measure of justice.

Concern for the refugees of 1948, and the disturbing prospect that Mahmoud Abbas might soon using their right to return as a mere bargaining chip at Annapolis, formed part of the background to this conference and the reason for its urgency. Joseph Massad said that the PA has no authority to concede the rights of the diaspora and lamented the divisions among the Palestinians which the PLO has collaborated with Israel in fostering.

Israel doesn't even pay to run the prison it has created in Palestine: Ghada Karmi especially denounced the donor conference and the “pernicious system” of other countries taking over humanitarian funding, so making the occupation more financially comfortable for Israel.

The speakers found grounds for optimism. All settlers have always been God's chosen people, said Ali Abunimah – but no-one in South Africa now admits to having supported Apartheid and, in Northern Ireland, Ian Paisley was no longer to be heard referring to the Pope as the Antichrist. Yet no one could expect the Israelis as a whole to come around to the one-state position by themselves. The boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign therefore goes hand-in-hand with the one-state campaign.

Mapping the geopolitical landscape: past, present and future

Using maps and aerial photographs, Ghazi Falah showed Israel's ethnic cleansing of border areas in Gaza, the Negev and Syria, a process that is continuing. Falah was still visibly affected by what he had witnessed in his work as a political geographer (and, though he did not mention it, perhaps also by the ill-treatment he has endured at the hands of the Israeli authorities).

As'ad Ghanem talked about the divisions among the Palestinians, who have come to behave like different national groups. Those living within Israel feel excluded from the national agenda and tend to be treated as Israelis by Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas want to replace not only Fatah but the PLO. Dealing with Palestinians internally, he concluded, was more complex than dealing with Israel externally.

Ghada Karmi spoke about commonly-raised objections to the one-state solution. People readily dismiss it on grounds of feasibility – without ever pausing to consider its desirability. This, she said, was wrongheaded: if people only agreed on its morality and justice, that alone would take us a long way along the road to achieving it.

Karmi did not underestimate the psychological importance to Jews of, for the first time, being in the majority in a country and the difficulty they would have in retreating to being mere citizens. Many Palestinians under occupation are also extremely hostile to the idea, feeling they need space to recover from the experience: having struggled so long against the occupation, they don't now want to have to struggle for equality within their oppressor's state or give up their own national rights. As for the West, it had lavished support on Israel and invested political capital that it won't easily give up. However, the idea of Israel evacuating the settlements in the West Bank was unreal and contrary to all the evidence and any conceivable two-state solution was unacceptable. She concluded that we must argue for one state from conviction, not expediency.

Leila Farsakh described the economic underpinnings of Palestine's apartheid economy: Israel takes most Palestinian exports and supplies 90% of imports to the occupied territories – but this represents only 5% of Israel's exports. Neither is Israel dependent on Palestinian labour (in contrast to Apartheid South Africa). Israel's success, however, depends on its integration into the world economy, something that has happened to a degree not possible prior to Oslo. The international community is effectively financing the occupation, with the EU supplying 25% of Palestinian GDP. This has not improved the situation and Europe could be playing a much more productive role rather than use its taxpayers' money in this way. Farsakh concluded with the observation that the partition of Palestine had never been a popular idea prior to its implementation; it was now time, she said, to revive and rehabilitate the minority report proposing a unitary state which at the time received very substantial support at the United Nations as an alternative to UN Resolution 181.

As chair, Haim Bresheeth had said at the beginning of the session that he wanted an end to the Jewish state: no more than many Muslims who did not want to live in an Islamic state, he did not want to live in a racist one. In questions afterwards, there was some discussion of whether Jews should be classified as a “national” group. As'ad Ghanem accepted them as such, Ghada Karmi was more circumspect, not believing that Jews were a “nation” but acknowledging that a feeling that they were would have to be accommodated. However, Karmi, like the majority of those expressing a view, advocated a secular democratic state rather than a binational one, seeing the latter only as an possible intermediate stage on the way to the former ideal.

Land, citizenship, and identity: rethinking the nation-state

(This is one of the sessions where my handwritten notes become especially incoherent – apologies in particular to Amnon Raz-Krokotzkin and Tikva Honig-Parnass.)

Amnon Raz-Krokotzkin spoke about the need for the decolonization not only of the colonized but the colonizer and mentioned among other things the importance of re-establishing a single Palestinian campaign.

Nadim Rouhana spoke about the pliability of national feeling, how national identities have continually been constructed and reconstructed within short time periods. Fear and the identity of the Other are powerful forces in this process and the one-state project is a long term one but we should deal with the complexities without beng unduly pessimistic. Palestinians would need to be able to say that while Israelis gained their position by illegitimate means, they are a legitimate group.

Tikva Honig-Parnass mentioned among other things nationalism's dual character as a liberating and repressing force.

Omar Barghouti spoke about various definitions of self-determination in relation to national rights: recognition of the inherent dignity of all humans and equal rights come before self-determination, he said; just as Apartheid South Africa could not be defended as self-determination for white people neither could it be used as a tool to defend Israel. A single democratic secular state is the only chance to reconcile the inalienable rights of all Palestinians with the acquired rights of settlers, with the latter group shedding its privileged status. However, these privileges would not be given up without pressure. He opposed a binational state: this, he said, would serve to perpetuate Zionist hegemony.

Barghouti's assertive statements raised some hackles. In questions after the session, he clarified that he would deny no group collective rights – for example, cultural and language rights – provided these rights did not prejudice those of other citizens. One member of the audience advised strongly that the one-state proposal should be used only as a threat to secure the two state solution. Barghouti, reflecting the general feeling, answered simply: he rejected all insincerity.

Looking at the past, rethinking the future

In this session, speakers looked at other conflicts where competing ethnic identities inhabited the same land: South Africa (Louise Bethlehem), Northern Ireland (Kathleen O'Connell) and India (Sumantra Bose). Lebanon is of course geographically the closest and potentially the most relevant such example in the context of the conference – however, Gilbert Achcar, who was scheduled to speak on the topic, was unable to attend.

While interesting for its own sake, this session tended to drift in its relevance. Louise Bethlehem's talk generated some enthusiasm among the more academic members of the audience. The example of South Africa led to debate on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its potential applicability to the Palestine conflict – a discussion that seemed premature. A point that might have been picked up from Kathleen O'Connell's presentation – particularly in the context of the debate between a binational state and a secular democracy – was how the denial of civil rights in Northern Ireland had been a spur to nationalism. Instead, her interpretation of historical events provoked objections from a member of the audience with a different perspective, and her observation on the importance of the US role in the Irish peace process was misinterpreted as a suggestion that the US did or could or would show similar good faith as a Middle East peace broker.

Sumantra Bose asked and answered four questions on the partition of Pakistan and India, all of which were apposite. Would a united country have been better? Yes, considering the horrific massacres and the enduring scar. Was partition inevitable? No: until a short time before it, no one thought it would happen. Where did the blame lie? There was plenty to go around, with the all-too-familiar British policy of divide and rule playing a major role. Why were alternative, progressive ideas not enacted? The violence on the ground made people doubt the possibility of co-existence; they thought partition would solve the problem – when in fact it made it worse.

The difficulty – or impossibility – of undoing an unsatisfactory two-state solution probably did not need to be spelled out: partition quickly changes mindsets and sovereign states immediately produce their own elites and discourses.

One state from within civil society social movements, and grassroots activism

This was another session marred by absence: two speakers, Yousef Faker el Deen, co-founder of Ajras Al-Awda, and Haider Eid, co-founder of the One-State Group in Gaza, were unable to attend (or prevented by Israel from attending).

Eitan Bronstein delivered one of the most well-received presentations at the conference. Bronstein is the founder of Zochrot (“Remembering”), an organization that aims to remind Israelis of the Arab villages which have been erased from the landscape. To this end, Zochrot produce maps and erect signs pointing to destroyed Palestinian villages. Perhaps most effectively and imaginatively, they interviewed a Palestinian man in Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon, made a life size poster placard from his photograph, and placed this at the house from which he had been driven in 1948. In a more poignant example, a poster of another refugee was shown in the graveyard where he would have been buried; he had died a few months previously. Though Bronstein has predictably encountered a great deal of hostility from his fellow Israelis, some of them have been surprised and intrigued; Bronstein spoke of sensing an increased openness, the “beginning of possibilities”. His work is long and patient, involving discussions lasting many hours in an effort to get Israeli Jews thinking about the refugees' right of return. He didn't miss the opportunity to mention another group: Anarchists Against the Wall, he said, were doing some of the most important work. (Bronstein and Zochrot are also mentioned in Susan Nathan's The Other Side of Israel.)

Filmmaker Eyal Sivan spoke energetically, making his points with perceptive and often humorous images (as of car thieves and drug dealers already working on a bi-national basis). On the divisions of Israeli society we saw the Mizrahim whose aspiration was to become tour guides for Ashkenazim on their visits to the Nazi extermination camps. With the influx of Jews of diverse origin, many of whose Jewishness was tenuous, Israel's identity was best characterized in a negative way, as a non-Arab state. Israeli society was actually less Zionist than American society because Israelis could increasingly see what Zionism entails – though they still saw no alternative. All wanted security: for many Ashkenazim, a feeling of security came from Ben-Gurion airport and the holding of a foreign passport; the impoverished Jews, without such passports, were their demographic ballast. He made some interesting points about memory (a theme of Route 181, his 2003 film on Palestine's partition and the Nakba), remarking to general amusement that the use of “memory” to describe the electronic storage in a computer was a perversion of the word. He concluded with the point that we cannot advance on a victim's narrative: a culture of victimhood allows a screen to the perpetrator (“the Nakba happened”; as Sivan has argued elsewhere, the duty of memory lies with the perpetrator, not the victim).

Rajaa Omari provided a depressing insight into the psychological state of Palestinian citizens of Israel, particularly the internal refugees whose voice is unheard. The feeling of powerlessness has become so ingrained that she has to work hard to convince them that they even have the right of self-expression, the right to an opinion, to reject the situation in which they find themselves. (This point was later amplified from the audience when Elizabeth, from Jerusalem, described her shock at discovering the extent to which her young cousins in the Galilee had had their thoughts and feelings as Palestinians suppressed.) There was also a fear of speaking Arabic in public because of the violent reaction it might provoke. Omari regretted having wasted 20 years in the search for a never-to-be-attained equality within Israel: the one-state solution was what everyone should have been campaigning for from the beginning.

The way forward

Ilan Pappe reinforced the optimism among the participants by reminding us of the enormous support that partition had received internationally; and yet, he said, even though one would expect such a formidable array of forces to overwhelm any opposition, partition is still a failure.

Ghada Karmi stressed the urgency of getting the one-state solution into public discourse and raising the profile of the campaign by every means possible. To this end, she read out the wording of a proto-UN resolution which attracted a good deal of approval and interest.

Haim Bresheeth spoke strongly in favour of the boycott movement. He said Israel must become recognized for the pariah state it is: when we see Israeli products in a shop, we need to protest to the owner and explain why we're not coming back; every area of Israeli life should be boycotted.

The degree to which Zionists had succeeded in dividing the Palestinians into separate groups was disappointing; we need to establish a shared leadership, Ilan Pappe said, and build a worldwide liberation movement with institutions outside Palestine.

Among the refugees, Omar Barghouti said, there was in his experience latent “wall-to-wall support” for the one-state solution, something which could immediately shift this campaign to a majority Palestinian movement. Earlier, a member of the audience [name, please?] had made a suggestion worthy of serious consideration, if not immediately then as the campaign evolves: the cost, he said, of funding a plebiscite of all Palestinians living in refugee camps would be about a dollar per person. Even if this had to be privately funded, the outcome would be invaluable in raising the profile of the refugees and giving publicity to their views.

Apart from the longer term goal of the conference, one immediate concern of everyone present was the suffering of the people in Gaza – who were being “bombed, starved to death, destroyed” (Ilan Pappe) and where malnourished infants were subsisting on tea and bread (Rajaa Omari). Greta Berlin announced the Free Gaza initiative, a plan to take a fleet of boats from Cyprus to Gaza in 2008 in order to directly challenge Israel's blockade. She distributed flyers and called for participation, publicity and financial support.

On behalf of Ajras, Rajaa Omari had collected hundreds of signatures for a petition on the refugees right to return to their homes and calling for one democratic state. The petition, which had been left on a table for everyone to sign, went missing; though it was later recovered, several pages of signatures were lost. However, you can now sign the petition online.


A random sample of the lighter moments:

Nur Masalha, modestly holding up his latest book: “I highly recommend it.”
Amnon Raz-Krokotzkin describes the attitude of modern Zionists: “God does not exist. But he promised the land to us.”
An Israeli youth, quoted by Eyal Sivan: “I love the weather in this state!”
Omar Barghouti on the difficulty of persuading his own mother to support the one state solution: “She was absolutely against it. Until she read Ilan Pappe's book.”
Ilan Pappe admits to congenital optimism: “Because I am not so tall, I see the full half of the glass.”
Sumantra Bose quotes a Pakistani friend agreeing that India and Pakistan should not have been partitioned: “What an absolutely unbeatable cricket team we would have!”

The One State Declaration

Shortly after the conference, on 29 November 2008 – the 60th anniversary of UN Resolution 181 – the following declaration was issued through various outlets, including the conference website, Electronic Intifada, and Counterpunch.

For decades, efforts to bring about a two-state solution in historic Palestine have failed to provide justice and peace for the Palestinian and Israeli Jewish peoples, or to offer a genuine process leading towards them.

The two-state solution ignores the physical and political realities on the ground, and presumes a false parity in power and moral claims between a colonized and occupied people on the one hand and a colonizing state and military occupier on the other. It is predicated on the unjust premise that peace can be achieved by granting limited national rights to Palestinians living in the areas occupied in 1967, while denying the rights of Palestinians inside the 1948 borders and in the Diaspora. Thus, the two-state solution condemns Palestinian citizens of Israel to permanent second-class status within their homeland, in a racist state that denies their rights by enacting laws that privilege Jews constitutionally, legally, politically, socially and culturally. Moreover, the two-state solution denies Palestinian refugees their internationally recognized right of return.

The two-state solution entrenches and formalizes a policy of unequal separation on a land that has become ever more integrated territorially and economically. All the international efforts to implement a two-state solution cannot conceal the fact that a Palestinian state is not viable, and that Palestinian and Israeli Jewish independence in separate states cannot resolve fundamental injustices, the acknowledgment and redress of which are at the core of any just solution.

In light of these stark realities, we affirm our commitment to a democratic solution that will offer a just, and thus enduring, peace in a single state based on the following principles:

The struggle for justice and liberation must be accompanied by a clear, compelling and moral vision of the destination – a solution in which all people who share a belief in equality can see a future for themselves and others. We call for the widest possible discussion, research and action to advance a unitary, democratic solution and bring it to fruition.

Madrid and London, 2007


Ali Abunimah
Naseer Aruri
Omar Barghouti
Oren Ben-Dor
George Bisharat
Haim Bresheeth
Jonathan Cook
Ghazi Falah
Leila Farsakh
Islah Jad
Joseph Massad
Ilan Pappe
Carlos Prieto del Campo
Nadim Rouhana
The London One State Group