The Palestinian Declaration of Independence (1988): An Analysis
“It is shocking that the 1988 declaration, one of the most fundamental documents of Palestinian nationalism, is largely unknown, not just to the Israeli public, but to most Israeli leaders as well.” (Jerome Segal, 2009)
On May 14, 1948, the Israeli Declaration of Independence proclaimed the new state of Israel. Shortly after, it was recognized by both the United States and the USSR. It was followed by both immanent and long-lasting repercussions, first among which was the war declared against Israel by its Arab neighbor states. Forty years later, the Palestinians, namely the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), followed suit in declaring their own national independence in a document which displays blatant similarities to the Israeli one. The Israeli declaration of statehood was preceded by decades-long preparations on part of the Zionist movement. But also the Palestinians looked back on four decades of war, expulsion and dispossession, as well as military and political resistance. This paper aims to analyze past, present and future of the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, that is the historical background to it (past), its specific content (present), and the political consequences it brought along (future).
The “past” of the Palestinian Declaration of Independence is certainly and primarily concerned with the historic development of the Palestinian striving for nationhood and the emergence of the PLO. In the context of the Declaration the 1st Palestinian Intifada starting in 1987 is of special interest. The Palestine Liberation Organization had been founded in 1964 at the instigation of then-Egyptian President Gamal ʿAbd al-Nasser. However, even back then the Arab world was not exactly united as to what the proposed “Palestinian entity” should look like. The different interests of the Arab states played their role and in the end Ahmad al-Shukairy, the representative of the Palestinians at the Arab League was entrusted with the Palestinian cause. On June 1, 1964, a Palestine Council of 422 Palestinians “proclaimed the existence of the Palestine Liberation Organization”.
Before the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed 24 years later, the PLO underwent many changes and the Arab-Israeli conflict saw some major rounds of warfare such as the Six-Day War in 1967. Also, the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty between Egypt and Israel came into effect in 1979. The PLO, on its part, received full Arab recognition in 1973 when the Arab countries at their summit conference stressed that “the Palestine Liberation Organization is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” Not only within the Arab world was the PLO increasingly recognized, but also the United Nations embraced the PLO and gave it at least the status of an observer.
At the time of the proclamation of the Palestinian Declaration of Independence the PLO was a government in exile. In 1970 the Jordanians ejected the PLO after its attempt to overthrow the government. For more than ten years the PLO with its leader Yasir Arafat established itself in Lebanon until the Israeli invasion in 1982. From Beirut in Lebanon, Arafat and the PLO made their way to Tunis where the new headquarters was set up. It was from Tunis that the PLO operated until 1994, not having any control over the Palestinian territories that were considered the core of the future Palestinian state. The immediate context of the Declaration of Independence, proclaimed in Algiers in 1988, saw the first massive Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation. It was called the 1st Intifada, an Arabic term for “shaking off” or “rising up”.
The 1st Intifada was definitely a major event in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and one the PLO, albeit watching from afar, could not simply let pass by without putting itself back on the stage. In fact, it might have been the PLO’s last chance to draw attention to its very existence at a time when support by the Arab world was dwindling. Even Jordan’s King Hussein cut his ties with the PLO and left it on its own. Besides that, the population in the West Bank and Gaza became increasingly frustrated with Arafat and the PLO’s corruption. Fahd Qawasmah, a PLO member living in the West Bank at the time, voiced his criticism of the PLO leadership in the following terms:
“We must think about the needs of our towns and villages. They need power, water, schools, hospitals, roads. […] The first duty of any elected official should be to develop his country, not to develop his arsenal.”
Not only were the local people unsatisfied with the PLO’s role, but also Islamist movements began challenging Arafat’s position by rigorously rejecting any compromise with Israel and advocating even more violence.
It was in this climate that the intifada broke out. Four Palestinian workers were accidentally killed by an Israeli military truck in Gaza. This happened on December 8, 1987, two days after an Israeli had been stabbed to death. The tensions boiled over and resulted in massive violent eruptions, riots and demonstrations, spreading from Gaza to the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The intifada definitely succeeded in raising world awareness of the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. It was a great media victory for the Palestinians showing the realities of everyday life in the territories. For the PLO, the intifada came as a surprise. It was not involved at the beginning when it was the Islamist Hamas which was most engaged in the uprising. However, the PLO was soon to jump in on the diplomatic level while at the same time promoting military action against Israel.
Arafat himself wasn’t too interested in negotiations with Israel; however, local leaders in the West Bank and Gaza tried to push him into reaching a peace deal with Israel and the United States. But Arafat didn’t give in that easily and stepped up his anti-Israel and anti-American rhetoric. At the same time, Arafat was dependent on the support by Arab countries. But more often than not, their verbal support was not followed by actions (that is, money). When Jordan decided to give up on its claims to the West Bank, Arafat knew it was his opportunity to demonstrate to the Palestinian people and the world that he was still capable and politically relevant. So the PLO came up with a plan to declare its own state: make a peace offensive and at the same time remain active in the struggle against Israel. In November 1988, the 19th Palestine National Council (PNC) met in Algiers. It was at this meeting that the PLO’s strategy was to be confirmed and the Palestinian State to be declared. Finally, on November 15, 1988, Yasir Arafat read out the new declaration: “The Palestine National Council, in the name of God, and in the name of the Palestinian Arab people, hereby proclaims the establishment of the State of Palestine on our Palestinian territory with its capital Jerusalem.” The Palestinian anthem, “Biladi, Biladi” (My country, my country), was played and a Palestinian flag was raised.
Now the “present” of the 1988 declaration is obviously concerned with its content. What is its tone? What are its objectives? What is its stance vis-à-vis the Israelis? The declaration was drafted by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who was a member of the PLO Executive Committee. It was translated into English by Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said. The declaration presents itself as a central document of Palestinian nationalism and in parts as an almost exact echo to the 1948 Israeli declaration. However, this is not an attempt to compare the two documents although some parallels have to be pointed out at times. The declaration starts with the Islamic Basmala (“In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful”) and it ends with a Qur’anic verse: “Say: O God, Master of the Kingdom, Thou givest the Kingdom to whom Thou wilt, and seizest the Kingdom from whom Thou wilt, Thou exaltest whom Thou wilt, and Thou abasest whom Thou wilt; in Thy hand is the good; Thou art powerful over everything." It would be too fast to draw to the conclusion that this religious overtone must lead to a religious state although this has been feared. The Palestinian-Israeli writer Anton Shammas has voiced his concern of this Palestinian state becoming a political-religious entity and thus losing its initial definition as secular and democratic.
Nonetheless, the historic connection of Palestine and the “three monotheistic faiths” is acknowledged right at the beginning of the declaration, thereby also confirming the Jewish heritage in Palestine. This is further amplified by this somewhat poetic statement:
“The call went out from Temple, Church and Mosque that to praise the Creator, to celebrate compassion and peace was indeed the message of Palestine.”
However, the most obvious and important connection to Palestine is that of the “Palestinian Arab people”. The “everlasting union” between the people and the land of Palestine leads to the “national identity” which has been forged. It is in these lines that one is reminded of the Israeli Declaration of Independence which elaborates at its very beginning on the “historic and traditional attachment” of the Jewish people to Palestine. In fact, this Palestinian approach to the land of Palestine constitutes in many ways a counter draft to Zionist aspirations.
In the following, the declaration refers to three international documents which ought to provide the Palestinians with the legitimacy to national independence. This happens under sharp criticism of “yet another type of occupation” – Zionism, obviously – and Israel Zangwill’s infamous statement that “Palestine was a land without people”. First, Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations (1919) and the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) are quoted as backing the Palestinian Arab people’s right to (provisional) independence. The most important document, however, is UN General Assembly Resolution 181 on Partition (1947). The Resolution 181, which called for the partition of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state, “ensure[s] the right of the Palestinian Arab people to sovereignty.” Interestingly, the Palestinians here speak of both an Arab and a Jewish state, thereby at least formally recognizing Israel. In all the previous years, the PLO had neither recognized UN Resolution 181 nor Israel as a Jewish State, for that matter. In the Israeli Declaration of Independence of 1948 the very same Resolution 181 is cited, however only with reference to the “establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel”. Both the Israeli and the Palestinian declaration use UN Resolution 181 as an international guarantee of their respective right to statehood.
The declaration then makes the case for the Palestinian national identity. It lamented the “occupation, massacres and dispersion” that the Palestinians had experienced, but it also emphasized the “unbowed” will of the Palestinian people. At this point the connection between these national aspirations and the PLO is made:
“And the collective Palestinian national will forged for itself a political embodiment, the Palestine Liberation Organization, its sole, legitimate representative recognized by the world community as a whole, as well as by related regional and international institutions.”
Surely, the reiteration of the recognition of the PLO as the Palestinians’ “sole, legitimate representative” served a clear purpose at the time: No longer was the PLO alone on the field of Palestinian politics, the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) began to challenge its position. Unlike the PLO in exile, Hamas was present in the Palestinian territories during the 1st Intifada (Hamas was founded that very same year, 1988). The PLO wanted to take credit for keeping the Palestine question alive and raising it to “the forefront of Arab and world awareness”.
Even though the PLO was in exile in Tunisia, it wouldn’t let the opportunity of the 1st Intifada simply pass by. The PLO’s leaders decided to ride on the waves of the “massive national uprising” which had brought Palestine to “a decisive juncture”. Using UN resolutions as the legitimate basis and citing its “natural, historical and legal rights” – and thereby closely resembling the Israeli Declaration of Independence – the central proclamation reads as follows:
“The Palestine National Council, in the name of God, and in the name of the Palestinian Arab people, hereby proclaims the establishment of the State of Palestine on our Palestinian territory with its capital Jerusalem (Al-Quds Ash-Sharif).”
Interestingly, neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli declaration mentions any specific borders of their new states-to-be, but the Palestinians here referred explicitly to Jerusalem as their capital (which the Israelis did in 1949). Also of importance is the following statement as to who the new Palestinian state is created for:
“The State of Palestine is the state of Palestinians wherever they may be. The state is for them to enjoy in it their collective national and cultural identity, theirs to pursue in it a complete equality of rights.”
Once again, the reader is reminded of the Israeli Declaration of Independence in which the “ingathering of the exiles” and immigration of Jews is explicitly wished for. Similarly, the Palestinians in their declaration open the new Palestinian state for all Palestinians around the world, naturally including the refugees in the Arab neighbor states. When it comes to the nature of the new state, the declaration does its best in stressing the democratic and pluralistic traits:
“In it will be safeguarded their (sic. the Palestinians’) political and religious convictions and their human dignity by means of a parliamentary democratic system of governance, itself based on freedom of expression and the freedom to form parties. The rights of minorities will duly be respected by the majority, as minorities must abide by decisions of the majority. Governance will be based on principles of social justice, equality and non-discrimination in public rights of men or women, on grounds of race, religion, color or sex, under the aegis of a constitution which ensures the rule of law and an independent judiciary.”
Apart from that, the Palestinian leaders also placed their proclaimed state into the family of the Arab states, as “an integral and indivisible part of the Arab nation” pursuing “liberation, progress, democracy and unity”. Consequently, it was also bound by the charter of the League of Arab States which was supposed to support the Palestinians in their goal: “to end Israeli occupation.” In the following paragraphs the declaration commits itself to the principles and the Human Rights Declaration of the United Nations.
Did the Palestinian Declaration of Independence have a “future”? What were its ramifications? How did Israel react, what was the response of the United States? First of all, it has to be mentioned that the Declaration of Independence was accompanied by other diplomatic moves the PLO made. A political communiqué was issued along with the declaration. In it, Israel is described as “a fascist, racist, colonialist state built on the usurpation of the Palestinian land”. At the same time, the PLO in this political communiqué called for international negotiations “on the basis of United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338”. Again, in affirming UN Resolution 242 the Palestinians at least formally recognized Israel without explicitly stating so. One PLO spokesperson said it was “the first time we did not reject 242.”
This was later called the “Historic Compromise”. The communiqué did refer to the PLO’s preconditions and demands, including:
“The withdrawal of Israel from all the Palestinian and Arab territories it occupied in 1967, including Arab Jerusalem. […] The annulment of all measures of annexation and appropriation and the removal of settlements established by Israel in the Palestinian and Arab territories since 1967. […] The settlement of the question of the Palestinian refugees in accordance with the relevant United Nations resolutions.”
In only demanding Israeli withdrawal from “Arab Jerusalem” and “Arab territories” that were occupied in 1967, the PLO accepted Israel’s existence while at the same time demanding heavy concessions. Apart from the territorial compromises Israel would have had to make, the demand that all Palestinian refugees return to Israel was probably the most difficult part.
A month later, on December 13, 1988, Yasir Arafat gave an address to the United Nations General Assembly in Geneva. In it, he reiterated what the Declaration of Independence and the communiqué had already stated:
“Over 40 years ago, the United Nations issued Resolution 181 setting up two states in Palestine, as I have mentioned – one to be an Arab Palestinian state and the other a Jewish state. […] we still see that this resolution continues to provide international legitimacy to the right of the Arab Palestinian people to sovereignty and national independence.”
“The PLO will work to reach a comprehensive peaceful settlement between the sides involved in the Arab-Israeli struggle, including the State of Palestine and Israel […] in accordance with Resolutions 242 and 338.”
This was a clear acceptance of the so-called “two-state-solution”, recognizing Israel’s legitimacy to exist. As a result of the Declaration of Independence, the political communiqué accompanying it, and Arafat’s statements at the United Nations General Assembly, the United States entered negotiations with the PLO on December 14, 1988. Arafat in his speech also met the second US precondition for dialogue with the PLO, namely the renunciation of terrorism, by a somewhat ambiguous statement:
“I condemn terrorism in all its forms, but, I, at the same time, salute all those before me in this hall who have been accused by their executioners and colonialists of being terrorists during the battles for the liberation of their land from the yoke of colonialism.”
Whatever the statement comprised, it was sufficient for the United States. The PLO in this respect had managed to use the winds of the intifada to return to the political stage. The Israelis, however, didn’t appreciate the compromise the Palestinians had made. The Israeli Foreign Ministry issued a statement on the decisions of the 19th Palestine National Council. In it, it was denied that the Palestinian Declaration of Independence contained recognition of Israel’s right to exist. Furthermore, Israel accused the PNC of emptying UN Resolutions 242 and 338 “of content” and promoting further acts of terrorism. To sum it up,
“An independent Palestinian state would pose a threat to Israel’s security and to Middle East stability. Moreover, in view of its background and activities, including ongoing acts of terrorism, the PLO has disqualified itself from participation in the peace process.”
Such was the Israeli answer to the Palestinian Declaration of Independence. Nonetheless, the diplomatic efforts of the PLO and Yasir Arafat’s address in Geneva had paved the way for later negotiations with the United States and with Israel. The Oslo Accords of the early 1990s were a result of this. But even more so, the 1st Intifada had brought the Palestine issue back on the table and forced Israel to enter peace talks.
Bunzl, John (Ed.): Islam, Judaism, and the Political Role of Religions in the Middle East. Gainesville 2004.
Gelvin, James: The Israel-Palestine Conflict. One Hundred Years of War. Cambridge 2014, pp. 198–230.
Khalidi, Rashid: The Resolutions of the 19th Palestine National Council. In: Journal of Palestine Studies, 19/2 (1990), pp. 29–42.
Lukacs, Yehuda (Ed.): The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. A Documentary Record 1967-1990. Cambridge 1992.
Nassar, Jamal R.: The Palestine Liberation Organization. From Armed Struggle To The Declaration Of Independence. New York 1991.
Rabie, Mohamed: The U.S.–PLO Dialogue: The Swedish Connection. In: Journal of Palestine Studies, 21/4 (1992), pp. 54–66.
Rubin, Barry; Rubin, Judith Colp: Yasir Arafat. A Political Biography. Oxford 2003, pp. 101–124.
Jerome Segal, “The 1988 Declaration of Independence”, November 27, 2009, www.haaretz.com/the-1988-declaration-of-independence-1.3292 (accessed January 13, 2016).
 Jerome Segal, “The 1988 Declaration of Independence”, November 27, 2009. www.haaretz.com/the-1988-declaration-of-independence-1.3292 (accessed January 13, 2016).
 See Nassar, Jamal R.: The Palestine Liberation Organization. From Armed Struggle To The Declaration Of Independence. New York 1991, pp. 19–21.
 Ibid., p. 40.
 Ibid., p. 42.
 Rubin, Barry; Rubin, Judith Colp: Yasir Arafat. A Political Biography. Oxford 2003, p. 102.
 See Gelvin, James: The Israel-Palestine Conflict. One Hundred Years of War. Cambridge 2014, p. 211.
 See Gelvin 2014, p. 215.
 Ibid., p. 216.
 Rubin and Rubin 2003, p. 109.
 See Gelvin 2014, pp. 214–217 as well as Rubin and Rubin 2003, p. 110.
 See Rubin und Rubin 2003, p. 111.
 Ibid., p. 112.
 Ibid., p. 113 and Nassar 1991, p. 67.
 Rubin und Rubin 2003, p. 114.
 See Lukacs, Yehuda (Ed.): The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. A Documentary Record 1967-1990. Cambridge 1992, pp. 411–415.
 See Bunzl, John (Ed.): Islam, Judaism, and the Political Role of Religions in the Middle East. Gainesville 2004, pp. 90–92.
 “The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel”, http://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/foreignpolicy/peace/guide/pages/declaration%20of%20establishment%20of%20state%20of%20israel.aspx (accessed January 16, 2016).
 Khalidi, Rashid: The Resolutions of the 19th Palestine National Council. In: Journal of Palestine Studies, 19/2 (1990), S. 29–42 (p. 34).
 Lukacs 1992, p. 412.
 See Gelvin 2014, pp. 223–230.
 Lukacs 1992, p. 413.
 For excerpts see Lukacs 1992, pp. 415–420.
 Rubin und Rubin 2003, p. 114.
 Lukacs 1992, pp. 419–420.
 See Lukacs 1992, pp. 420–433.
 Ibid., p. 432.
 Rabie, Mohamed: The U.S.–PLO Dialogue: The Swedish Connection. In: Journal of Palestine Studies, 21/4 (1992), pp. 54–66 (p. 54).
 Lukacs 1992, p. 431.
 See Lukacs 1992, pp. 216–218.
 Ibid., p. 218.