Dialogue Series, Regional Studies

The Impossibility of Palestine: History, Geography and the Road Ahead

The Impossibility of Palestine: History

Mehran Kamrava, Professor and Director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, delivered a CIRS Monthly Dialogue lecture to discuss the findings of his most recent book, The Impossibility of Palestine: History, Geography and the Road Ahead (Yale University Press, 2016), on April 5, 2016. Explaining why he felt the need to write this book, Kamrava said that what he had learnt about Palestine as a student and professor of the Middle East bore little resemblance to the reality of what he experienced when he began conducting fieldwork in Palestine. He recalled this disconnect by noting, “I was immediately struck, while I was on the ground, by the inconsistency between my own assumptions—what I had studied and what I had thought about over the years—and the reality on the ground.” Kamrava argued that the Oslo Accords, an exciting development in the stalemate of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, offered little to alleviate the struggle of Palestinians and lead to further entrenchment of the continued struggle raging on the ground.

Introducing the thesis of his book, Kamrava explained: “If you think about Palestinian history, Palestinian society, and Palestinian politics, a Palestinian state is impossible. The realities on the ground as they have unfolded have made a Palestinian state impossible and improbable.” However, he continued by saying “a Palestinian nation, or, more specifically, a Palestinian national identity will continue to live on and will be extremely vibrant. In fact, the vibrancy of Palestinian identity—of what it is to be Palestinian lies largely because of the impossibility of the Palestinian state.”

In order to examine this thesis more closely, Kamrava adumbrated three complicated reasons that have made a Palestinian state impossible. The first of these is a result of the complex political forces that have shaped Palestinian history and continue to dictate its current predicament and future direction. Within this category, Kamrava examined four subsets of these political dynamics, including Israel’s military and territorial conquest and defeat of an ill-equipped Palestine in 1948; the subsequent decades of Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians through outright violence as well as through “legal” administrative policies resulting in the stealthy “silent transfer” of Palestinian communities from their historical homelands; the systematic defeat of Palestinian armed struggle taken up since the 1970s; and, finally, the international community’s betrayal of the Palestinian leadership in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords.

The second reason for the impossibility of Palestine, Kamrava explained, is due to the debilitating geographic segregations introduced after the Oslo Accords. Palestinian mobility became increasingly restricted with the division of the West Bank into three separate territories: Area A, under Palestinian control; Area B, under Israeli military control and Palestinian civil and administrative control; and Area C, under complete Israeli control. “This,” he said, “is result of the Oslo Accords. This is the Palestine that the Palestinian leadership agreed to.” These political dynamics conspired to divide Palestinian territories into a series of dysfunctional and ungovernable entities, thus disempowering Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation and undermining any notion of a future Palestinian state.

The third, and most consequential, reason for the impossibility of a Palestinian state is the critical changes that have been taking place in Palestinian society, and the multiple factions therein. Kamrava stated that, despite their eagerness to offer assistance, a multitude of civil society and non-governmental organizations have, in many ways, hampered the constitution of a Palestinian state. While these organizations have often been supportive, they are, ultimately, beholden to their foreign funders, who then dictate where support can be given and where it should be withheld. Many of these decisions have been politically motivated, seriously curtailing the areas in which civil society organizations are allowed to operate. Over the years, the proliferation of such organizations has meant that non-governmental support has developed its own type of bureaucratic bankruptcy. Kamrava explained that “with unintended consequences, Palestinian society, today, in the West Bank and to a lesser extent in Gaza, has become paralyzed because of the work of these civil society organizations.”

Kamrava concluded with what the road ahead might look like for Palestine, and offered three possible scenarios for the future of Palestine. The first of these is the model of a national rebirth in the wake of almost total annihilation, similar to Poland in the post-WWII period; the second is a model in which a nation is overtaken almost entirely by another civilization, similar to modern-day Tibet; and, finally, the third is a model in which a community of people are deliberately segregated into islands of deprivation, similar to the dispossession of native populations in America and Australia.

Mehran Kamrava is Professor and Director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. He is the author of a number of journal articles and books, including, most recently, The Impossibility of Palestine: History, Geography, and the Road Ahead (2016); Qatar: Small State, Big Politics (2015); The Modern Middle East: A Political History since the First World War, 3rd ed. (2013); and Iran’s Intellectual Revolution (2008). His edited books include Fragile Politics: Weak States in the Greater Middle East (2016); Beyond the Arab Spring: The Evolving Ruling Bargain in the Middle East (2015); The Political Economy of the Persian Gulf (2012);  The Nuclear Question in the Middle East (2012); and The International Politics of the Persian Gulf (2011).


Article by Suzi Mirgani, Manager and Editor for CIRS Publications