'Land of the Three Faiths:' The Little-known History of the Palestinian Declaration of Independence

It is shocking that the 1988 declaration, one of the most fundamental documents of Palestinian nationalism, is largely unknown

Jerome Segal
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Yasser Arafat with Palestinian security forces in Gaza in 1995.
Yasser Arafat with Palestinian security forces in Gaza in 1995. Credit: AP
Jerome Segal

This article was originally published on November 27, 2009 and republished for the anniversary of the Palestinian Declaration of Independence.

Salam Fayyad's plan for Palestinian statehood calls for creating the institutions of a de facto Palestinian state within two years. A common misreading of Palestinian intentions is that they will then issue a Declaration of Independence.

The Palestinians already issued a Declaration of Independence under the leadership of Yasser Arafat. And lest anyone believe that the November 15, 1988 declaration is ancient history, they should read the new Fayyad plan with more care. It cites the 1988 declaration four times, identifying it as having articulated "the foundations of the Palestinian state."

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.

Nothing illustrates this as clearly as the claim that current Palestine Liberation Organization resistance to recognizing Israel as a Jewish state demonstrates that it has not yet accepted Israel's legitimacy.

The 1988 declaration opens with the words, "Palestine, the land of the three monotheistic faiths ... " It goes on to speak of Palestine as having been enriched by a succession of civilizations and of "the message of peace," having come forth from "temple, church and mosque."

This is about Judaism, not Jewish statehood, but it is a powerful and striking opening to a Palestinian declaration, one that situates Judaism as part of the proud heritage of the ancient land.

The issue of Jewish statehood is taken up later in the declaration as it nears its operative paragraph in which it proclaims the State of Palestine. As it moves toward the actual declaration, it turns its attention to the Partition Resolution of 1947. Here it reverses the stance previously taken in the PLO Covenant.

The covenant stated, "The partition of Palestine in 1947 and the establishment of the State of Israel are entirely illegal, regardless of the passage of time."

The declaration, by contrast says, the partition resolution "still provides those conditions of international legitimacy that ensures the right of the Palestinian people to sovereignty and national independence."

There can be no doubt that the Palestinians, in citing the partition resolution as a basis in international law for the State of Palestine, deliberately choose to link their international legitimacy to that of Israel.

This can be seen in the startling fact that when it discusses the UN resolution the declaration says it "partitioned Palestine into two states, one Arab, one Jewish."

No one should think that the Palestinians became Zionists in 1988. Rather, they distinguished morality from legality, and addressed both.

With respect to morality the declaration said partition was a historical injustice inflicted upon the Palestinians. But with respect to legality, they accepted the creation of Israel, under international law, as a Jewish state.

If this is so, then why does the PLO now resist demands that it recognize Israel as a Jewish state? Firstly, there is a fear this will harm the status of Palestinian refugees in negotiations. Secondly, Israel has changed. Today there are calls to place conditions on Israeli-Arab citizenship. There is a fear that any recognition of Israel as a Jewish state will play into that dynamic.

Lastly, the Palestinians have taken as a lesson from the Oslo process that freely given concessions are a mistake. After all, they said what they said in 1988 and it was ignored by Israel. And further, they affirmed Israel's right to exist prior to negotiations and got little in both 1988 and 1993.

In the judgment of many, and they may be correct in this, it would have been wiser to withhold recognition of Israel until a final peace treaty was achieved, as was the case with Jordan and Egypt.

That said, under Arafat's leadership they still recognized that Israel was created under international law as a Jewish state. If a comprehensive end-of-conflict agreement is reached, they will find a way to again make that affirmation.

The fact that the Fayyad plan says that the future Palestinian state will be based on the 1988 declaration is of great importance to Israel, and is one of many reasons for Israelis to look favorably upon this effort.

The writer is a Senior Research Scholar at the University of Maryland. His book, "Creating the Palestinian State," was a catalyst for the Palestinian Declaration of Independence.



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