Gaza/Palestine: Hannah Arendt, statelessness and the “right to have rights”

Helena Cobban Anti-imperialism, Blog, Gaza, Human rights, Israel, Palestine

i. The Great Return March and the Right of Return

The unarmed civilian mass protests that have rocked Gaza since March 30– and have been met with horrific levels of Israeli state violence– have had as their main slogan/name the “Great Return March”. This theme put the focus squarely on the desire of most Palestinians to be able to implement the “Right of Return” that the United Nations has confirmed for them ever since its passage of Resolution 194 on December 11, 1948. One day earlier, the UN had adopted the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” which similarly enshrined (in Article 13) the right of all persons to return to the land of their birth.

Neither of those foundational affirmations of the Palestinians’ Right of Return predicated that right on any other political development such as conclusion of any final peace treaty between Israelis and Palestinians. The only caveat in Resolution 194’s language was that those returning should be prepared to live at peace with their neighbors.

However, here we are 70 years after the “Nakba” (Catastrophe) associated with the Zionist/Israeli fighters’ forced expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and lands in late 1947 and early 1948, and nearly 70 years after the adoption of the two key resolutions of 1948…  And the State of Israel has allowed almost no Palestinian refugees to implement and enjoy their Right of Return. Thus, the community and political organizations in Gaza that have been involved in organizing the Great Return March decided to use this well-organized, civilian mass action to try to implement the right directly.

More than two-thirds of the population of Gaza is made up of Palestinian refugees who were forcibly expelled from their homes in 1948; and Gaza has always, since that year been a crucible of cutting-edge Palestinian activism (as I explained in this recent blog post.)

It is notable that until now, no Palestinian organizations or factions– in Gaza or elsewhere– have criticized this resort to civilian mass action, despite the truly terrible toll Israel’s retaliation has taken. The Great Return March project seems to have very wide support from Palestinians.

Several leaders and spokespeople associated with the March have also identified their goals as including reversing Israel’s policies annexation of Jerusalem and more broadly as the Palestinians’ very long-delayed realization of their right to national self-determination. The situation in which Israel has been celebrating the 70th anniversary of its establishment as a Jewish State in a large portion of what was formerly Palestine, and the United States has now implemented its move of its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, has thrown these other issues into high relief.

The focus by the organizers of the Great Return March on the Palestinians’ attainment of their rights, as opposed to attainment of any particular political outcome in Palestine/Israel– whether a two-state solution or a one-state solution– is in line with many broader trends in Palestinian political life. In particular, the coalition of organizations in the Palestinian BDS National Committee has identified as its goal the attainment of Palestinian rights, rather than of any particular political shape for an outcome.

As I had also noted in my recent blog post, this (re-)assertion of rights as such into the global discourse on Palestine counters a long trend in which the Western mainstream media (and also, some Palestinian political leaders) had downplayed any talk of rights in favor of winning some supposedly easier-to-attain political solution that would have involved the Palestinians making deep concessions on some of the key rights issues on their agenda– notably, their rights to Return, to a meaningful presence in Jerusalem, and to national self-determination.

All of which now raises the very serious question as to whether, as a stateless people, Palestinians are actually recognized by the major actors in world politics as having the right to have rights, at all.

ii. Hannah Arendt, statelessness, and the “right to have rights”

Hannah Arendt as a young woman

The relationship between statelessness and the denial of a “right to have rights” was the central theme of Chapter Nine of Hannah Arendt’s 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism. 1951 was a key year for Arendt: It was the year she became a naturalized U.S. citizen, after having herself been stateless for 18 years. (In 1933, as the Nazis rose to power in Germany, she fled the country and was stripped of her nationality by the country’s infamous anti-Jewish race laws.)

Chapter Nine of the book starts off with a broad and brilliant survey of the adoption of the concept of “the Rights of Man” into Western discourse. This was happening in the period when many European nation-states were either coming into existence or becoming consolidated, and Arendt notes that the right to national emancipation always underlay all the other rights listed as being the “Rights of Man”. Without having a stable citizenship, she noted, none of the other rights could be enjoyed.

The whole chapter is well worth reading. It gives a searing description of the plight of people who are stateless, noting inter alia that in the nation-states, criminals usually enjoy more rights than non-criminal stateless people; and also that because stateless people are often denied so many basic rights that their socioeconomic position becomes deeply degraded, it then becomes very easy for rulers or demogogues in the nation-states to deride and exclude them since they can be viewed as just being “the scum of the earth.”

She wrote:

The Rights of Man, supposedly inalienable, proved to be unenforceable–even in countries whose constitutions were based upon them–whenever people appeared who were no longer citizens of any sovereign state.

… The first loss which the rightless suffered was the loss of their homes, and this meant the loss of the entire social texture into which they were born and in which they established for themselves a distinct place in the world. This calamity is far from unprecedented; in the long memory of history, forced migrations of individuals or whole groups of people for political or economic reasons look like everyday occurrences. What is unprecedented is not the loss of a home but the impossibility of finding a new one…

The second loss which the rightless suffered was the loss of government protection, and this did not imply just the loss of legal status in their own, but in all countries…

She notes that,

The calamity of the rightless is not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion– formulas which were devised to solve problems within given communities–but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever. Their plight is not that they are not equal before the law, but that no law exists for them; not that they are oppressed but that nobody wants even to oppress them. Only in the last stage of a rather lengthy process is their right to life threatened… Even the Nazis started their extermination of Jews by first depriving them of all legal status (the status of second-class citizenship) and cutting them off from the world of the living by herding them into ghettos and concentration camps; and before they set the gas chambers into motion they had carefully tested the ground and found out to their satisfaction that no country would claim these people. The point is a condition of complete rightlessness was created before the right to live was challenged.

Her argument proceeds by referring to circumstances of great relevance to the Palestinian situation:

[N]either physical safety–being fed by some state or private welfare agency–nor freedom of opinion changes in the least their fundamental situation of rightlessness. The prolongation of their lives is due to charity and not right, for no law exists which could force the nations to feed them; their freedom of movement, if they have it at all, gives them no right to residence which even the jailed criminal enjoys as a matter of course; and their freedom of opinion is a fool’s freedom, for nothing they think matters anyhow.

These last points are crucial. The fundamental deprivation of human rights is manifested first and above all in the deprivation of a place in he world which makes opinions significant and actions effective.

She notes the capriciousness of the ways that governments treat the stateless people under their control: “Privileges in some cases, injustices in most, blessings and doom are meted out to them according to accident and without any relation whatsoever to what they do, or may do.”

She concludes that being able to enjoy the commonly listed rights of humans is only possible for people who have stable citizenship in an organized community:

We became aware of the existence of a right to have rights (and that means to live in a framework where one is judged by one’s actions and opinions) and a right to belong to some kind of organized community, only when millions of people emerged [in Europe] who had lost and could not regain these rights because of the new global situation.

(I inserted into her text that caveat in square brackets because her analysis seemed to me extremely Euro-centric; and it lacked, in my view, any robust appreciation of the plight of the millions of people living in the global south under the yoke of Europe-based imperialisms, the vast majority of whom had little recognized “right to have rights” under those systems. But still, with that caveat in mind, her analysis of the situation of all peoples living in circumstances of non- or very fragile citizenship remains potent.)

iii. Palestinians and statelessness

It is fairly widely known now that more than two-thirds of the current residents of “the Gaza Strip” are refugees from the Arab-Jewish / Arab-Israeli war of 1948. (Actually, many of them had been cleared from their homes in what became Israel some months before the Arab state armies entered Palestine on May 15, 1948: the Jewish/Israeli campaigns of ethnic cleansing had continued since the UN’s adoption of the Partition Plan the previous November.)

What is less widely understood in the West is that most Palestinian refugees are also stateless persons. This sets them apart from, for example, the other waves of refugees from Syria, Iraq, or many African countries who have been washing in tragic waves throughout the geography of Europe; or the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Central America or Haiti who have ended up in the United States or Mexico– since all those latter groups of refugees do still have actual citizenship in the country of their origin. Most of them can hope under certain circumstances to return to it (which is always the outcome preferred under international refugee laws and norms); and they can expect to continue to enjoy certain rights as citizens of their home countries even while they are in exile or diaspora.

The one other group in the news today with which the Palestinians (or the Central European Jews and Roma under Nazism) have most in common is probably the Rohingya in Burma– people whose citizenship status within Burma was challenged by the Burmese authorities, as a precursor/concomitant to the Burmese government’s campaigns to expel them.

Under the (extremely colonial!) “British Mandate” form of rule that existed in Palestine from the end of World War I until 1948, the Arab, Jewish, and other residents of the area were afforded a (truncated, non-democratic, but still real) form of citizenship that was administered by the British authorities. Arab Palestinians and the small minority of Jewish Palestinians all had the same kind of passport and nominally similar rights and responsibilities under this system.

In 1947, the war-shattered British imperial authorities handed the Palestine Question over to the infant United Nations, which in November 1947 adopted the Partition Plan, with the final exit of British forces from (and ending of British authority in) Palestine scheduled for May 15, 1948. The Jewish Palestinians, as we know, accepted the Partition Plan and immediately accelerated their planning for their militias’ control (and expansion) of the land area allotted to them; for the expulsion from those areas of as many Arab Palestinians as possible– and, for the establishment of all the bureaucratic organizations that they would require in order to run their state. That included, very speedily, ministries devoted to defining and implementing citizenship laws and to the administration of the lands and properties seized from the departed Palestinian Arabs.

On the Palestinian Arab side, the leadership had no analogous capabilities, or plans. In the three years from 1936 through 1939, Arab Palestinians had sustained a very lengthy, rural-based uprising against British rule, which the British had ruthlessly repressed; so on the Palestinian Arab side, in 1947 there was still nothing analogous to the tightly organized militias and fighting groups (including terror groups) that the Jewish community had established by then.

Additionally, the Arab Palestinians like all the other Arab countries at the time considered the whole concept of “partitioning” Palestine in order to carve out from it a state just for the small minority of Jewish Palestinians not only illegal but also quite opposed to the principles of decolonization and national self-determination that were supposed to be enshrined in the United Nations Charter and all its activities. So they had rejected the Partition Plan completely, and the preparations they made for running their own affairs after the departure of the British were rudimentary, at best.

On May 15, 1947, when the British left Palestine, the “citizenship” of the country that the Mandate had formerly afforded to all its residents suddenly evaporated and no longer meant anything. The British-issued “Palestinian” passports or currency continued for a short while to have some utility in the chaos of those days. But the British were intent on completely washing their hands of any responsibility for the mess they had left behind.

Map showing the Partition Plan (pink areas to Arabs, blue to Jews) & the Armistice Line of 1949 (dashed).

The authorities of the new Jewish State fairly speedily created their own passports, citizenship laws, currency, etc. The Arab minority that remained inside Israel was given a form of citizenship that was very truncated; and most of them were forced to live under military government rule until 1966. But still, they had a form of citizenship there.

The Arab Palestinians in the rest of historic Palestine, and those who had fled across national borders to Lebanon, Syria, or Jordan, were left with no Palestinian citizenship– and, in most cases, no citizenship at all. The exceptions were the Palestinians in the West Bank, whether those indigenous to it or those who had fled there in 1947-48, and those who had fled to the “East Bank” area of Jordan– all of whom were accorded Jordanian citizenship, in line with the longstanding British plan to let their proxy ruler, King Abdullah of Jordan, take charge of as much of the “Palestinian problem” as he could.

Abdullah’s British-officered army crossed the Jordan river from the East Bank to the West Bank on May 15, 1947 and was able to take control of the whole of the area that became known thereafter as the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. But it was unable to secure all the areas of Central Palestine that the Partition Plan had designated for the Palestinian Arab state. Abdullah then annexed the West Bank to Jordan– an act of Anschluss that was recognized only by Britain and Pakistan. It was not until 1988 that his successor, King Hussein, declared the reversal of the annexation, leaving it up to the PLO to negotiate the fate of the West Bank with Israel. Some Palestinians in the West Bank retained their Jordanian citizenship, but after the creation of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, the Jordanians tried to ensure that as many West Bankers as possible should have PA-issued identity documents instead.

In Gaza, on May 15, 1947, it was the (also British-officered) Egyptian Army that crossed from northern Sinai to try to secure the areas designated in Western Palestine for the Arab state. The Egyptians had some initial military successes but were eventually forced back to the line that in early 1949 became the Armistice Line, which remains the land boundary of the “Gaza Strip” until today.

Passport of the “All-Palestine Government”

To administer Gaza, including its very heavy population of refugees from other parts of Palestine, the Egyptians (and their allies in the Arab League) created an instrument called the All-Palestine Government, which was a successor to the pre-1947 “Arab Higher Committee” in Palestine. The APG did issue some passports (see image) and had some other limited administrative powers. But in 1959, it was dissolved as Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel-Nasser decided to exert direct Egyptian control over Gaza.

In 1967, the Israeli military seized control of Gaza. In 2005, Israel withdrew its settlers and soldiers from within the Gaza Strip but it maintained very tight control of all the territory’s land and sea borders– and crucially, it has also maintained control of Gaza’s “population registry”, meaning that for the past 50 years the Israeli military has had monopoly decision-making power over who can even have a Gaza-Palestinian ID card, as well as who can enter or leave the Strip.

Palestinian refugees in Syria and Lebanon have not been accorded citizenship in those countries. When they travel internationally, they usually do so on a UN-issued laissez-passer which is not recognized everywhere and gives them none of the protection from harassment or victimization in other countries that a passport backed by an actual government would. Over recent decades, the world has seen large populations of stateless Palestinian exiles in many countries of the world including Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon suffering considerable victimization without having any home government capable of intervening to protect their interests.

Finally, circling back to the Israeli-occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, in April 1995 the Palestinian Authority did start issuing passport-like travel documents– but only to Palestinians who were permitted by Israel to reside within those occupied territories, and only on the basis of the population registries in both regions of which Israel retained tight control. Additionally, the United States and other countries does not consider these documents as conferring Palestinian citizenship as such, since the US does not recognize Palestine as a state.

A good quick survey of the passport/citizenship/statelessness situation of various different categories of Palestinians can be found here. What is clear is that the actions of Israel, many Arab states, and the international community have cut and diced the Arab Palestinian nation into numerous tiny fragments all living under different administrative regimes, and that a large proportion of Palestinians are actually or effectively stateless.

iv. Palestinians and the “right to have rights”

The key insight from Hannah Arendt is that before any particular rights can be secured for a person, the “right to have rights” needs to be secured… and that this can happen only at the political level, in terms of the person or people involved having a stable and recognized citizenship. Thus, at one level, all activism or advocacy in favor of some particular right can be seen as, in itself, very temporary or perhaps even meaningless so long as the underlying “right to have rights”, that is, to be a citizen of a recognized state, is not secured.

In terms of Palestinians, in Gaza or elsewhere, we should certainly insert into the discourse at all possible levels this matter of the “right to have rights.” Do our political leaders, or the powerful people in the mainstream media, think that Palestinians are fully human and therefore have the “right to have rights”?

We should press them on this; and if they tell us in whatever way that Palestinians are not fully human in this way, then that fact should be exposed.

One of the rights that Palestinians collectively, like all the world’s other peoples, have the right to, is the right to national emancipation or national self-determination. In light of the Palestinians’ history of dispossession, dispersal, and fragmentation, this is a key right and it has been recognized internationally in various different ways at different points throughout the past century. Certainly, their right to form a Palestinian state has been endorsed by the United Nations at various time, including 1947, 1993, and today.

It has been a longstanding campaign of most Zionist leaders to deny the Palestinians even the right to any coherent form of peoplehood. Going back to Golda Meir and her 1969 avowal that “there is no such people as Palestinians” or the continued refusal of Israeli government leaders today to utter the word “Palestinian”, or to the insistence of so many Zionist spokespeople worldwide that if the Palestinians want citizenship they should seek it in the other Arab countries.

These eliminationist propaganda efforts need to be challenged in every way. One effective way of doing this is to insist that the Palestinians indeed have the right to have rights; and one of the key rights they have and need to see implemented is their right to self-determination and formation of a stable, secure, and recognized state.

v. A note on Hannah Arendt and Israel/Palestine

Hannah Arendt had an apparently complex relationship with Zionism and Israel. In 1933, upon leaving Germany, she worked for a while with an organization taking threatened young Jews from France to join the “Youth Aliyah” in Palestine. In 1951, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, she recognized forthrightly that the Zionists’ “solution” of the problem of Jewish statelessness in Europe had caused another problem of statelessness and dispossession for the Arabs in Palestine. In 1963, her thoughtfully reported book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil was strongly criticized by many American Zionists because it contained lengthy criticisms of the showboating the Israeli authorities (governmental and judicial) engaged in around the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem; because she reported fairly fully on many of the connections that the trial exposed between Zionist organizations in Europe and the Nazis; and because her treatment of Eichmann’s actions deeply challenged the dominant Israel/Zionist narrative that he (and therefore all the Nazis) embodied only some very pure form of evil.

But then, during the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, she apparently became an extreme pro-Israel partisan. (In 2013, Marc Ellis wrote an informative short reflection on that turn in her views, noting among other things the strong Euro-centrism of her worldview.)

Regardless of these complexities of character that Arendt revealed over the years, her writings on statelessness in The Origins of Totalitarianism, and her identification there of the centrality of the “right to have rights” as forming the essential counter to the extreme perils of statelessness have, I think, lasting value and merit a lot of further discussion.