Explainer: Palestinian Statehood and Why It Matters Amid Gaza Conflict Features
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Explainer: Palestinian Statehood and Why It Matters Amid Gaza Conflict

“Today, Ireland, Norway and Spain are announcing that we are recognising the State of Palestine,” Irish Prime Minister Simon Harris announced Wednesday. Though Palestinian statehood has been a contentious issue for decades, the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict has pumped renewed urgency into the debate surrounding international recognition. In this explainer, we outline the fraught history of Palestinian statehood and explore the reasons for and implications of the latest spate of recognitions.

Why is statehood such a contentious issue in this context? 

Palestine’s declaration of independent statehood only dates back to 1988 — four decades after Israel declared its statehood. Not only are both nations relatively young, they were both established under the auspices of the World War II international order. Statehood, in this era, is crucial to asserting sovereignty, self-determination, and rights for a people within the modern nation-state system.

How did Israeli statehood come about in 1948?

Though the Palestinian people have long populated the territories of modern-day Israel and Palestine, this land was part of the Ottoman Empire when early Jewish settlers started to purchase increasingly vast swaths of land in the 19th century. Early Zionist settlers were driven to seek refuge from pogroms and other antisemitic abuses in Europe and were drawn to the idea of establishing a modern Jewish homeland in the heart of the biblical Promised Land.

While ruling over Palestine, British authorities issued the Balfour Declaration of 1917, committing London to facilitating the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. This, combined with the drivers noted above, caused Jewish immigration to surge. In 1882, Jewish residents comprised about 8% of the population of Israel and Palestine (24,000 of 300,000). By 1922, that figure stood at 11% (83,794 of 757,182), and by 1947 — 32% (630,000 of 1,970,000).

In 1947, the newly established UN voted to partition the territory into a Jewish state and an Arab state; the former accepted the offer while the latter rejected it. It was in this context that Israel formally declared its statehood the following year. This plunged the two sides into regional warfare, which ended with Israel capturing more territory than the UN partition plan had initially provided. The violence spurred a mass exodus of Palestine’s non-Jewish population. By 1948, Jews comprised 82.1% of the regional population — a substantial uptick from the previous year’s 32%. Notably, the Jewish population only grew from 630,000 to 716,700 during that time. The demographic shift has far more to do with the region’s non-Jewish population having dwindled from 1,324,000 in 1947 to 156,000 the following year.

Why didn’t Palestinian statehood come about until 1988?

It would be another 40 years before Palestine declared statehood. This was due largely to the consequences of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, which resulted in Jordan’s annexation of the West Bank and Egypt’s occupation of Gaza, and in the mass exodus of the region’s non-Jewish population. For several decades thereafter, Palestinians lacked a defined territory for statehood. Those who remained in the territory continued to advocate for their rights. In 1964, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) formed, driven by the goal of reclaiming all of historic Palestine. Three years later, during the Six Year War, Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, placing them under occupation. In 1988, following years of Palestinian uprisings, the PLO issued a declaration of independent statehood. Within the next few weeks, nearly 100 countries recognized Palestinian statehood.

How many countries currently recognize Palestinian statehood?

Palestine was granted observer status at the UN in 1974. Though its 2011 bid for full membership failed, the UN General Assembly voted in 2012 to designate it a non-member observer state.

This month, of the UN’s 193 member states, 166 voted earlier this month on whether to upgrade Palestine’s role in the organization from observer state to full member state. An overwhelming majority — 143 — voted in favor of the draft resolution, which prominently reaffirmed the “right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, including the right to their independent State of Palestine.” Though the vote took place on May 10, and Ireland, Norway, and Spain only announced recognition of Palestinian statehood some two weeks later, all three voted in support of the resolution, and thus are included among the 143 supporters of the State of Palestine in this context.

Of the remaining states who participated in the vote, nine voted against Palestine’s ascent to full UN member, and 25 abstained. The nine who voted against included Argentina, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Israel, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, and the United States. Abstentions included many European nations and other core US allies. 

In comments during the vote, the US said its no vote was “an acknowledgment that Statehood will come only through a process that involves direct negotiations between the parties,” according to a UN summary.

How has this all played out in Norway? 

The Norwegian Government has announced its decision to recognise Palestine as an independent state. Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre stated, “Amidst a war with tens of thousands killed and injured, we must sustain the only viable solution for both Israelis and Palestinians: Two states living side by side in peace and security.”

Prime Minister Støre and Foreign Minister Eide announced this recognition stated that for decades, Norway has supported and promoted the two-state solution, such as its vote in the UN General Assembly last week; recognising Palestine underscores Norway’s commitment to a lasting Middle East peace through this approach.

Prime Minister Støre emphasised the Palestinian people’s fundamental right to self-determination. “Both Israelis and Palestinians deserve to live in peace within their own nations. Peace in the Middle East hinges on a two-state solution, which necessitates the existence of a Palestinian state,” he said.

The Recognition of the state of Palestine is part of the follow-up to the 2023 decision in the Storting (Norwegian Parliament) that the Government may choose to recognise Palestine as a state at a time when the decision could be of value to the peace process and without any conditions relating to a final peace agreement.

The decision to recognise Palestine as a state is considered a matter of importance which, in accordance with Article 28 of the Constitution, requires approval by the King in Council of State.  Following the adoption by Royal Decree on Friday 24 May; with Norway’s formal recognition of Palestine as a state entering into force on Tuesday 28 May 2024.

In Ireland? 

Simon Harris TD said in a statement that “I have today spoken to the President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas, following Ireland’s recognition of the state of Palestine. I told the President that I, on behalf of the people of Ireland, was recognising Palestine to keep the hopes of a two-state peace solution alive”. 

And in Spain?

Sanchez of Spain said in his speech to the Spanish Parliament that “We have to use all the political resources at our disposal to say, loud and clear, that we’re not going to allow the possibility of the two-state solution to be destroyed by force because it’s the only just and sustainable solution to this terrible conflict”. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who said the move was “not against Israel, is not against the Jews”.

“It is not in favour of Hamas, which is something that has been said. This recognition is not against anyone, it is in favour of peace and coexistence.”

Can recognition serve as a catalyst for peace?

Since the Arab-Israeli peace process of September 13, 1993, and the signing of the The Oslo Accords, Norway and others delayed recognition until a peace agreement was reached, a process which remains ineffective to this day.

Prime Minister Støre noted “Without a peace process, developments have worsened, leaving both Palestinians and Israelis insecure. We must rethink our approach and recognise Palestine now.”

Foreign Minister Eide highlighted that Palestine’s economic instability, dependency on aid, and rights violations, combined with terrorism and Israel’s settlement expansions, have exacerbated the sense of hopelessness.

This initiative follows the Norwegian parliament’s decision on 16 November 2023.

“We will support the Palestinian state-building efforts and the Palestinian Authority under Prime Minister Muhammad Mustafa, striving for governance unity in Gaza and a cohesive Palestinian state,” said Eide.

There is widespread agreement among nations such as the US, EU, China, and various Arab, African, Asian, and Latin American countries that a two-state solution is essential for lasting peace. However the use of the  veto came as the UN Security Council considered a resolution put forward by Algeria that would have granted Palestine full UN membership last month.

Minister Eide concluded, “Peace requires addressing final status issues through renewed dialogue. A Palestinian state enhances security for both Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

The Recognition of Statehood and the Case of Palestine

The recognition of statehood is a multifaceted process involving principles of international law, political strategy, and diplomatic relations. While the theoretical framework provides clear criteria for statehood, the practical application often reveals a complex web of historical, legal, and political factors. This complexity is particularly evident in the case of Palestinian statehood—a topic that has generated significant international debate. This essay explores the general principles of state recognition and delves into the contentious issue of Palestinian statehood, examining the legal criteria, political manoeuvres, and the implications of its contested recognition.

Principles of State Recognition

The recognition of statehood by other states is fundamentally rooted in international law, political theory, and diplomatic considerations. One of the most widely accepted legal frameworks for statehood is the Montevideo Convention of 1933. According to this convention, a state must possess four key attributes: a defined territory, a permanent population, a functioning government, and the capacity to engage in relations with other states.

1. Defined Territory: The state must have clear geographical boundaries.
2. Permanent Population: There should be an established and stable community residing within the defined territory.
3. Government: An effective government must exercise control over the territory and population.
4. Capacity to Enter into Relations with Other States: The state must be able to conduct diplomatic and legal relations with other sovereign entities.

In practice, the recognition of a state is not merely a legal determination but also a political decision influenced by strategic interests, alliances, and geopolitical considerations.

 Types of Recognition

Recognition of statehood can be categorised into two types: Firstly, by De Jure Recognition, this is a formal acknowledgment that the entity fulfils all the criteria for statehood under international law. It signifies full diplomatic recognition and acceptability as a sovereign state. Secondly, De Facto Recognition – this acknowledges that the entity operates as a state in practice, even if formal recognition is withheld. It often serves as a pragmatic approach in complex political scenarios.

Recognition is a unilateral political act, meaning states individually decide whether to recognise another state, often based on a combination of legal criteria and political interests.

The Case of Palestinian Statehood

The issue of Palestinian statehood is particularly contentious, reflecting deep historical, geopolitical, and legal complexities. The region historically known as Palestine has experienced various forms of governance over the centuries, including the Ottoman Empire, British Mandate, and evolving territorial disputes involving Israel and neighboring Arab states.

In 1988, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) declared the establishment of the State of Palestine. This declaration has been recognised by numerous countries and international organisations, yet the recognition remains far from universal.

International Recognition

The recognition of the State of Palestine varies significantly across the international community:

In 2012, the United Nations General Assembly granted Palestine non-member observer state status. This designation reflects a level of recognition without full UN membership and has symbolic and practical implications for Palestine’s international engagemAs of May 2024 143 of the 193 UN member states recognise Palestine as a sovereign state. These recognitions come predominantly from countries in the Non-Aligned Movement, the Arab League, and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation who welcomes the  move by the three nations to recognise Palestine. Supporters argue that Palestine meets the legal criteria for statehood and advocate for Palestinian self-determination.

The recognition or non-recognition of Palestinian statehood affects diplomatic relations and the broader dynamics of Middle Eastern politics. States that recognise Palestine often advocate for its inclusion in international forums and support its claims under international law. Conversely, non-recognition can limit Palestine’s engagement in international diplomacy and affect peace negotiations with Israel.

Challenges to Recognition

The path to Palestinian statehood faces several significant obstacles:

The borders of a Palestinian state remain a major point of contention. The presence of Israeli settlements, the status of East Jerusalem, and security arrangements are critical issues needing resolution.

The Palestinian territories are administratively divided, with Hamas governing Gaza and the Palestinian Authority controlling parts of the West Bank. This split complicates the realization of a unified Palestinian state.

The recognition of statehood is a process that intertwines legal principles with political realities. The case of Palestinian statehood illustrates the complexities involved in achieving international recognition amidst longstanding conflicts and divergent interests. While many states and international bodies recognise Palestine, significant opposition persists, particularly from Israel and its allies. The future of Palestinian statehood remains uncertain, contingent on diplomatic efforts, peace negotiations, and changing geopolitical landscapes. Understanding these dynamics is crucial for navigating the intricate landscape of international relations and the quest for Palestinian sovereignty.

Diplomatic Response of Israel

Israel’s Foreign Minister, Israel Katz as a result has announced the withdrawal of the Israeli Ambassador to Ireland, Dana Erlich with Israel’s mission in Ireland expressing “disappointment”, and said “Israel sees this step as undermining its sovereignty and security and as damaging to our bilateral relations. Foreign Minister Katz has recalled the Ambassador temporarily for consultations”. Katz further announced that they would “sever the connection between Spain’s representation in Israel and the Palestinians”. 

 In response to Spain’s recognition of a Palestinian state said:

“I have decided to sever the connection between Spain’s representation in Israel and the Palestinians, and to prohibit the Spanish consulate in Jerusalem from providing services to Palestinians from the West Bank.”

He continued:  If this ignorant, hate-filled individual wants to understand what radical Islam truly seeks, she should study the 700 years of Islamic rule in Al-Andalus—today’s Spain.”

On Norway, Katz said Norway, if your goal was to reward terrorism by declaring support for a Palestinian state, you’ve achieved it”. and directed his remarks to Norway’s Prime Minister when he said “Hamas thanks you for your service”. Norway’s formal recognition begins on 28 May 2024, alongside statements from other European countries, contributing to the Arab peace plan’s vision of an irreversible move towards a Palestinian state and regional stability.

This comes as today The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Israel to immediately halt its military offensive in the Palestinian city of Rafah — the last major population centre in the Gaza Strip following months of violent conflict.