07 December, 2012

Is Palestine Really a Country?

(Keep up with changes to Palestine's situation: view all Palestine updates.)

Palestine is now recognized as a country by both the U.N. and a majority of its members, but many  have questioned whether this new-found status reflects the truth on the ground. Is Palestine really an independent country, or is this a political fantasy concocted by supporters in the U.N.?

The Olso Accords divided the Palestinian territories into three areas of control (see article for explanation). Map by Evan Centanni. Sources: Natural Earth, B'Tselem, U.N. OCHA oPt.
What is a "sovereign state"?
By the most common definition, a "state" has to have:
  1. A government
  2. A defined territory
  3. A permanent population
  4. The ability to conduct foreign relations with other states
This definition is called the "declarative theory of statehood", and was formalized in the Montevideo Convention of 1933. To be a "sovereign" state (i.e. an independent country), it's also important that the government answers to no other country, and that the territory and population are actually under the government's control.

A prospective country that fits these criteria is described by geographers as a de facto sovereign state, even if it's not recognized by the international community (de facto is Latin for "in actual fact").

Palestine: Sovereign State or Not?
Can Palestine be considered a real, de facto sovereign state based on the declarative theory of statehood? Let's look at the criteria one by one:

A government that answers to no one
Palestine is represented abroad by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and governed within its administrative area by the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), an elected government established by the PLO under the Oslo Accords. Though it faces frequent pressure and demands from Israel, the Palestinian government does not take orders from any country.

Defined territory under its control
The State of Palestine claims two territories: the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The U.N. considers both of these regions to be occupied by Israel, but the Palestinians do control some parts of them since 1995. The Oslo II Accord temporarily designated three types of control within the West Bank (see map above):
  • Area A - Fully governed by the Palestinians, with no Israeli administration or Israeli military presence (currently 18%)
  • Area B - Shared control; Palestinian civil administration with joint Israeli-Palestinian military control (currently 21%)
  • Area C - Full Israeli control, with some exceptions for Palestinian residents (currently 61%)
Flag of Palestine Country Name:  
• Palestine (English)
Filasṭīn (Arabic)
Official Name:  
• State of Palestine (English)
• Dawlat Filasṭin (Arabic)
Capital: 
• Jerusalem (claimed)
Ramallah (administrative)
The Gaza Strip is a special case: Israel withdrew from the territory in 2005, leaving it effectively part of Area A. However, a brief Palestinian civil war in 2007 left Gaza in the hands of extremist group Hamas, which currently doesn't answer to the PLO (though it did support the campaign for U.N. observer state status).

Besides area C, Israel also controls all of the airspace and territorial waters associated with the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Additionally, it has completely annexed (integrated as part of the country) two sections of Area C itself: East Jerusalem, which both sides claim for their capital, and a strip of "no man's land" which was located between Israel and the West Bank when the latter was still controlled by Jordan.

In other words, Israel controls most of Palestine's claimed territory, but not all of it. Since many countries don't control all of their claimed land and waters, that alone doesn't disqualify Palestine as a state.

A permanent population
There are almost four million Palestinians living within the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, so this requirement is no problem. Even if we only count the West Bank's Area A, the Palestinian Authority has full control  over close to one million people. By comparison, there about 40 U.N. member states with populations of less than one million.

Ability to conduct foreign relations
This requirement is also clearly fulfilled. Not only is Palestine seated as an observer state in the U.N. General Assembly, but its representatives also maintain direct diplomatic relations with 142 countries (even more than the number who recognize its independence), plus the European Union. It's also a member or observer in various international organizations.

So what's the answer?
Palestine has its own government (the PLO/PNA), a defined and controlled territory (Area A in the West Bank), a permanent population (one to four million Palestinians), and the ability to maintain relations with other states. It would seem that this qualifies it as a de facto sovereign state based on the declarative theory of statehood. What do you think?