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OPINION

What do Palestinians want?

It’s to become masters of our own destiny.

The Al-Maqoussi towers area on Feb. 3, in the aftermath of Israeli bombardment on Gaza City.-/AFP via Getty Images

Four months since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of 1,200 people and the abduction of 240 more, there is no end in sight for the Israel-Hamas war. The deaths of more than 27,000 Palestinians, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza, have prompted global outcries for a cease-fire, including an order issued by the International Court of Justice on Jan. 26 urging Israel to avoid genocide by its forces in Gaza.

Yet the fighting rages on. Palestinians ask: What is the purpose of all this pain and suffering when Israel has neither achieved its objectives of uprooting Hamas or its military capability nor reached a deal for the release of the remaining hostages in exchange for Palestinians prisoners?

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Is it really a war on Hamas? Or is it rather, as we Palestinians see it, a war on Palestinians in Gaza and a campaign to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has publicly and repeatedly declared?

When asked what Palestinians want, we answer: An end to the 1967 Israeli occupation and the right to live freely, safely, and securely in our own independent state with clear borders achieved through a negotiated permanent peace.

Palestinians want what all free nations have, including dignity, social welfare, democracy, and prosperity. We do not want war, destruction, or, above all, pain, suffering, or the loss of human life. That was the reason why so many of us were elated when the Oslo I and Oslo II agreements were signed in the early 1990s. In these agreements Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization recognized each other.

The cornerstone of these agreements was the exchange of land for peace and the creation of a pathway to establishing two states. We thought that we had reconciled with Israel and that the end of occupation and this decades-long conflict was in sight. Sadly, the agreements were never implemented, allowing extremism to flourish on both sides, with the Israeli-Palestinian relationship characterized by mistrust and rejectionism ever since.

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When Palestinians seek statehood, many others say the issues are too complicated for a realistic comprise. Israel tells us that we should be content living under its sovereign control. It wants to continue the system where Israel provides temporary work permits that can be canceled at any time to about 160,000 Palestinians to do manual labor in Israel. The system where it processes our imports and charges us because we have no international borders and where Israel rules our land, air, and sea. The system where Israel sells us our water, energy, fuel, food, and other essentials because it controls all our external borders and even internal boundaries through an extensive network of military checkpoints within the West Bank.

The Gaza Strip and the West Bank are isolated from each other. It is Israel that determines how and when we can move from one Palestinian city to another, or even travel abroad.

It seems that Palestinians and Israelis have fundamental differences in values. The norms of international law that were laid after the horrors of World War I and World War II apply to Israelis but not equally to Palestinians. The Western nations that have dominated global politics since World War II allow Israel to reap the benefits of the international value system but the same is denied to Palestinians.

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When Hamas killed 1,200 Israelis on Oct. 7, that was absolutely wrong. But since then, the Israeli war, supported by the United States, some European countries, and some Arab states, has killed more than 27,000 people in Gaza. More than 8,000 have been buried under the rubble, more than 65,000 have been injured, and more than 1.7 million people, more than 75 percent of the total population, have been displaced, forced to live in tents or in cramped quarters in southern Gaza. Israel defends this all as self-defense. But isn’t it equally wrong? The math does not add up.

Surely every nation when attacked should be able to defend itself, especially its civilian population. Every country must safeguard its citizens against abduction. Israel can do so, but Palestinian territories cannot defend themselves nor protect their children and civilian populations. Ever since Israel evacuated its settlements in the Gaza Strip in 2005, Hamas has dominated the strip and its civilian population, though Israel and Egypt continue to control its borders.

After a power struggle with Fatah, the political arm of the PLO that runs for elections of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas has governed Gaza with an iron fist, to some extent with Israel’s tacit support. But Hamas is not accepted by all Palestinians, and its popularity ebbs and flows, often depending on the state of relations with Israel. Since Oct. 7 and Israel’s devastating invasion of Gaza, polls are showing an increase in support for Hamas in the West Bank, though less so in Gaza.

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The West Bank and East Jerusalem, where I live, are another story. We have seen our land shrink in favor of Israeli settlements; more than 700,000 Israeli settlers now live in our midst. Our right to worship in our holy places is restricted because West Bankers and Gazans must receive permits from Israel to enter Jerusalem. Millions of Palestinians are living in refugee camps in the Arab world, as well in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And the vast majority of the Gaza population fled Israel during the war of 1948 or were displaced by subsequent Jewish settlements.

Today, Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the Israeli-controlled portion of the West Bank are unable to expand our urban centers to meet our population growth, improve our transportation networks, or exploit our natural resources because Israel limits our building permits and favors its own settlements. While our population suffers in crowded housing and with poor roads, we see whole Israeli settler cities and urban centers built on Palestinian land.

Historically, Palestinians have never been masters of our own destiny. This started with the British Mandate for Palestine in 1918 and the ensuing large Jewish migration from Europe after World War II. The 1948 Arab-Israeli War led to the rule of Jordan over the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and of Egypt over Gaza. Then, in the 1967 war, Israel occupied these territories. The limited self-autonomy that was established by the Oslo Accords in 1995 paved the way for Palestinians to become the masters of our fate, but it was never fully implemented. When the prospects for peace were reversed, our hopes for self-governance were dashed.

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Security and stability for Israelis, Palestinians, and the entire region require that the two-state vision that started with Oslo I and Oslo II be realized. The political horizon is now opportune, but the United States must leverage its political standing in the region with the support of its Arab friends and take decisive action to call on both sides to agree to a cease-fire and prevent the war from escalating.

It cannot allow Israel to make this a war of attrition destined to continue for many more months. US strategy and policy toward Israel has led to successive wars and the rise of militant groups backed by Iran, including Hamas. These wars have been centered on the question of Palestine; clearly the United States can no longer ignore that fact. The cost to all of us has become too high.

The big question remains: Who do the Palestinian people want to represent them and how should that person or group be selected? It is a hugely difficult question and we Palestinians are grappling for the right answer ourselves.

The best path to resolve the question of leadership is to hold elections in which independent parties, and not just representatives of Hamas or Fatah, can run for president and parliament. In fact, when President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority announced elections in 2021, 36 independent parties joined the lists of candidates. This demonstrates that the Palestinian public wants significant changes and is ready to move on from Hamas or the PA. The most likely outcome might be a coalition government.

Palestinians want a representative government that can deliver services and security. They want freedom from occupation, an end to conflict with Israel, and a liberated Palestine.

This is a very tall order. But it is the only way to give Palestinians the right to self-determination they, like all human beings, deserve.

Hiba Husseini is a Jerusalem resident who practices law in the West Bank. She served as a legal adviser to the PLO during the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations between 1994 and 2008 and continues to be involved in peace initiatives.