A Return to First Principles: The ‘Day After’ and Palestinian Self-Determination

On numerous occasions since October 2023, Israel, the United States, and other countries have outlined their visions for how Gaza, and Palestine as a whole, should be governed after the current Israeli military offensive ends. Palestinian voices, however, have been largely excluded from these discussions. It must be recalled that self-determination is an inalienable, fundamental right of the Palestinian people, like all peoples—a right that all other countries have the obligation to respect. The rights and democratic decisions of the Palestinian people must be the center of any discussion about Palestinian governance.

‘The Day After’: Governance of Gaza

The United States’ and others’ plans for the “day after” in Gaza generally have been predicated on the assumption that Israel will succeed in its stated goal of ‘eradicating’ Hamas, or at least in reducing the efficacy of the organization so it is no longer a viable military or institutional player. Yet some actors, including US intelligence agencies, have recently been pointing out the dubious nature of that assumption, but in any case the debates continue.

US President Joe Biden has repeatedly stated his vision that a “revitalized Palestinian Authority (PA) should return to govern Gaza. (Fateh, the main governing party of the PA, abandoned Gaza in 2007 after armed clashes with Hamas, which had won the 2006 PA legislative elections. Hamas has ruled Gaza ever since, under Israeli siege and without the recognition of most Western governments or the United Nations). Given the Western backing of the PA, that is perhaps unsurprising, but the PA has largely lost legitimacy in the eyes of many Palestinians, especially because of its continuing security cooperation with the Israeli military. Mindful of its image among the Palestinian populace, the PA has refused to return to Gaza “on the back of Israeli tanks”–though recent political developments within the PA, such as the appointment of a new prime minister, suggest it may be preparing for exactly that scenario.

Mindful of its image among the Palestinian populace, the PA has refused to return to Gaza “on the back of Israeli tanks”

The Israelis, for their part, have stated flatly that they will not allow the PA to return to Gaza. What exactly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vision is for post-war Gaza remains vague, except that there will be no independent Palestinian state and Israel will retain unlimited freedom to act militarily within Gaza for an indefinite period. At the same time, Gaza will be administered by “local officials” with “managerial  experience” and who are not connected to countries or entities that “support terrorism.” How Netanyahu purports to find officials who are willing to collaborate with Israel remains unclear. Meanwhile, government ministers continue to make genocidal statements advocating for the displacement of all Palestinians from Gaza and the colonization of the territory, calling into question true Israeli aims.

Other ideas have been bandied about, including administration by an international peacekeeping force, either a UN one or one composed mainly of Arab countries that are acceptable to Israel. Those ideas seem unrealistic at first glance, especially given Israel’s refusal to contemplate any pathway toward Palestinian independence (which most Arab countries, publicly at least, stress would be a precondition for participation in any initiative).

What is near unanimous in all proposals is the exclusion of Hamas. Practically all governments, international actors, and commentators who have made statements on this issue act as if it were self-evident that, given the group’s continuing armed resistance to Israel and its actions on 7 October, Hamas will, or should, have no place in Gaza.

The Palestinian Exception to Self-Determination

Aside from passive statements from the PA, the voices of Palestinians remain glaringly absent from these discussions. That situation is a depressingly familiar one; after all, powerful countries have been making decisions regarding Palestinian governance for over 100 years, with little to no regard for the needs or the rights of the Palestinian people.

With the 1917 Balfour Declaration, Britain (which at the time had not yet even conquered the Eastern Mediterranean) promised Palestine to the Zionist movement as a “national home for the Jewish people,” disregarding entirely the rights of the indigenous Palestinians to the territory. Though the Declaration also provided that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights” of the indigenous Palestinians, they appear to be envisioned as individual rights within a Zionist state, not as a collective right to national self-determination. Indeed, the word “Palestinian” does not even appear in the Declaration, which mentions only “existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Even before the 1917 Declaration, in 1916 Britain had already agreed with France and Russia to a division of the Middle Eastern territories of the Ottoman Empire, again with no consultation with the people living there. However, that this has been happening for many years does not make it any less problematic, nor any less untenable.

It is time for a return to first principles, foremost being the Palestinian right to self-determination.

It is time for a return to first principles, foremost being the Palestinian right to self-determination. This right has been reaffirmed countless times in resolutions of United Nations (UN) bodies and opinions of the International Court of Justice. Importantly, self-determination is a human right, not a political principle that can be considered only when the powerful find it expedient.

Self-determination for colonized peoples as a guiding force for international relations was first proposed by US President Woodrow Wilson after World War I. Though Wilson’s advocacy was groundbreaking in principle, in reality self-determination was never meant to be a right of colonized peoples, but a semi-desirable goal. It also became clear very quickly that self-determination incorporated the colonial logic of the time, applying only to the ‘civilized’ peoples of Eastern Europe. There was no question of freedom or true independence for other colonized races of the world.

The League of Nations created a system of Mandates, essentially giving imperial powers permission to continue colonial rule over peoples “not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world.” One could at least argue that the Mandates were an improvement over outright colonization, in that they were ostensibly aimed at ensuring that those countries achieved independence (albeit within a very vague timeframe). However, even within that limited framework, there was an exception for Palestine. Britain incorporated the Balfour Declaration into its Mandate, meaning that its administration of Palestine would not aim toward the eventual independence of the Palestinian people, but the establishment of a Jewish “national home.”

Shortly after World War II, the British handed the Palestine file to the UN, leading to the adoption in 1947 of UN Resolution 181, widely known as the Partition Resolution. Though 94 percent of the territory of Palestine was owned by Palestinians at the time, and the population was at least two-thirds Palestinian the Resolution decided that Palestine should be divided into two states, a Jewish state and a Palestinian one, with an exact map as to the borders. Once again, the notion that Palestinians had national rights to their entire territory simply did not figure.

It must be stressed that the General Assembly then was not the General Assembly of today; with most colonial territories yet to have achieved independence, the UN in 1947 comprised only 57 member countries, at least 14 of which would be in the current Western European and Other Group (WEOG) of the UN. And yet, the Partition Resolution remains the main foundation for the “two-state solution” mantra that national heads of state and international policymakers repeat incessantly, to this day, as the only acceptable way forward.

Palestinian Self-Determination as a Right

As noted above, self-determination was not initially intended to be a right, but merely a political principle. Self-determination is mentioned as one of the purposes of the UN in the UN Charter, but it does not feature in the founding document of international human rights law, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

However, as more and more territories won their independence from colonial powers, self-determination rapidly evolved from a political principle to being recognized as a universal human right. Work progressed in the UN to codify the UDHR in legally binding form (the UDHR is an international declaration, not a treaty, and as such is not binding for countries), and the newly independent countries advocated forcefully for self-determination to be included. Though most Western governments were not pleased with this development, self-determination was eventually included as common Article 1 of both of the two 1966 international treaties on human rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, both of which state that all peoples have the right to “freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” It is significant that self-determination is the first Article, as it shows recognition of its fundamental nature to the protection of all rights; UN human rights experts have described self-determination as a “platform right” essential for the realization of other rights. Simply put, without self-determination, discussion of any other right is pointless.

The right to self-determination, and its specific applicability to the Palestinian people, has been recognized explicitly in numerous UN resolutions, as well as the pronouncements of the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Significantly, many UN resolutions make specific mention of the right of all people (Resolution 3070 [XXVII]

1974) to advance their right of self-determination “by all available means, including armed struggle.” Self-determination is a right erga omnes, i.e., a right that all members of the international community have the duty to ensure. In other words, it is not just Israel (as the primary violator) that must respect Palestinian self-determination, but all states. That has been reiterated by the ICJ, which found in 2004 that all states have the obligation not to recognize the illegal situation Israel created through the Wall in the occupied West Bank.

Oslo and the Continuing Exception

Legal obligations notwithstanding, it is noticeable that the international community as a whole has continued to operate on the premise that there is a Palestinian exception to the right of self-determination through its insistence on the “two-state solution” paradigm and, in particular, on the Oslo framework.

In 1993, it was announced that the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO, the umbrella organization bringing together most, though not all, Palestinian armed groups) and the government of Israel had, through secret negotiations, negotiated a framework agreement for peace negotiations. Under the Oslo framework, the PLO recognized the state of Israel and abandoned armed resistance (a major concession that Hamas and some other groups refused to accept). Furthermore, the PLO abandoned its claim to all of the land of Palestine, limiting its goal to the independence of the territories conquered by Israel in 1967, i.e., the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza (totaling a mere 22 percent of Mandate Palestine). In exchange, limited autonomy was granted to a newly created Palestinian Authority (PA) in small areas of the West Bank. The PA and Israel would enter into a process of negotiations on all contentious issues (including the status of Jerusalem, the right of return of refugees, and others), with a view toward the eventual establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

the PLO abandoned its claim to all of the land of Palestine, limiting its goal to the independence of the territories conquered by Israel in 1967

Many Palestinian commentators were skeptical about the Oslo framework from the outset, arguing that it amounted to a contracting out of the Israeli occupation to the PA. Certainly Palestinians are justified in taking a dim view of the “security coordination” between the PA and Israel, under which PA security forces, trained by the United States and European countries, oppress Palestinians (often at the behest of the Israelis) advocating for independence outside of the Oslo framework.

A comprehensive evaluation of Oslo and the legitimacy of the PA is beyond the scope of this paper, but it is clear that the framework as a whole has been a failure: Israeli colonization of the West Bank has accelerated under Oslo, practically ruling out any prospect of a viable Palestinian state. In any case, the Israeli government now openly rejects Oslo, or at least its main goal of establishing an independent Palestinian state, and there have been no negotiations for years.

Most important, though, is that the entire Oslo framework has served to sweep under the carpet the right of Palestinian self-determination, under the guise of an inherently unjust “two-state solution” and a “peace process” that, by design or by accident, has gone nowhere. Israeli and US officials have often argued that negotiations between Israel and the PA should take place “without preconditions,” as if everything should be on the table. However, self-determination is an inalienable right of the Palestinian people, not a chip to be bargained away. Self-determination should be a precondition.


The first and main thing that the international community must do is pressure the Israeli government to halt its military offensive in Gaza today, end its ongoing occupation and colonization of Palestinian land, and cease all suppression of Palestinian self-determination. Having done that, the international community should simply get out of the way—foreign countries should no longer dictate to Palestinians how their land should be governed. A Palestinian constitutional conference and a national referendum should be sponsored, but without the outside interference that has for so long been the scourge of the Palestinian people. In particular, outside actors have no right to tell Palestinians that Hamas, or any other actor, should be excluded.

Armed struggle against occupation is a legitimate pursuit under international law. The notion that the use of armed force should somehow disqualify an independence movement has no justification, legal or otherwise, and is self-defeating in decolonialization processes. More than anything, it is the rights of the Palestinian people—in particular, the right of national self-determination—that should be front and center of any discussion. Insofar as that right continues to be suppressed, true peace in Palestine will remain a dim prospect.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Anas-Mohammed