The Statehood of Palestine: International Law in the Middle East Conflict
Diana Buttu
John Quigley
international law
Full text: 

The Statehood of Palestine: International Law in the Middle East Conflict, by John Quigley. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. vii + 252 pages. Notes to p. 307. Bibliography to p. 319. Index to p. 326. $27.99 paper.

Reviewed by Diana Buttu

For years, the Palestinian Authority has clung to the idea of a “Palestinian state/dawla filastiniyya,” often repeating the slogan of a “Palestinian state on the 1967 borders,” or the “two-state solution,” as the proposed means of securing freedom for Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. On 16 May 2011, in an op-ed in the New York Times, PLO chairman Mahmud Abbas affirmed his intention to declare statehood in September 2011 and seek full admission to the UN as a member state, following the same plan as laid out by his predecessor, Yasir Arafat, in 2000.

Abbas’s announcement does not come as a surprise: for over two years, acting prime minister Salam Fayyad has been pushing his plan, titled “Ending the Occupation—Establishing the State,” while the PA has undertaken a diplomatic offensive to get states and international bodies to lend their support to the idea. The Fayyad/Abbas plan seems to be working, with over one hundred states now recognizing Palestine as a “state.” It is in this context that John Quigley’s latest book, The Statehood of Palestine: International Law in the Middle East Conflict, emerges.

The book is the most recent in a relatively new line of academic research on Palestine that aims to use the framework of law, and in particular international law, to highlight the injustices perpetrated against Palestinians by Zionist and other imperialist forces. Quigley is not a newcomer to this field, and his past titles include The Case for Palestine: An International Law Perspective (Duke, 2005) and Palestine and Israel: A Challenge to Justice (Duke, 1990).

Divided into four parts and spanning twenty chapters, Quigley begins by tracing the Palestinian Arab quest for independence and the impact of the British Mandate system on Palestine. In the first two parts, the author methodically points out that like other Class A Mandates, “Palestine had relations with other states that required the conclusion of treaties. Palestine’s citizens had connections with other states and required for that purpose a nationality. Palestine’s status came up as an issue in a variety of ways during the time of Britain’s administration. In all of these interactions, the states of the international community dealt with Palestine as a state” (pp. 52–3). But unlike other Class A Mandates, Palestine did not gain its independence; rather, it soon fell subject to endless proposals and plans—including for trusteeship—to accommodate a Jewish minority and its nationalist aspirations at the expense of the rights of Palestinian Arab majority.

Indeed, when Israel declared statehood on 14 May 1948, the UN General Assembly was in session discussing a U.S. proposal for trusteeship for Palestine. While still in session, U.S. president Harry Truman immediately recognized the new “provisional government” as the de facto authority of the State of Israel and, as was later revealed, did so without informing the U.S. State Department. Six months later, Israel sought admission to the UN, and though a few countries challenged the legality of its admission, in May 1949 it was admitted as a member state, despite its violations of international law.

Palestine was now divided into three pieces, with Israel in control of 78 percent of the land of historic Palestine, but according to Quigley, the statehood of Palestine was not extinguished: “Governmental control had been lost, but not statehood. . . . The fact that Palestine had no national administration exercising powers in its territory did not signify its extinction as a state” (p.125).

Part four of the book serves as the most illuminating for those interested in the current politics surrounding the proposed declaration of statehood and admission to the UN. Quigley argues that Palestine today—defined as the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip—meets all of the necessary criteria to be recognized as a state: a defined population, a defined territory, the capacity to enter into international relations, and government control. Quigley provides examples of states that fall short of fulfilling international criteria to a greater extent than Palestine. For example, Ukraine and Belarus were constrained in their control over their foreign relations and domestic policy and yet were recognized as states. Bosnia was similarly restricted when it was accepted as a state in 1995, while other deemed “failed states”—such as Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—are still recognized as states. Quigley concludes by stating: “The view that Palestine is not a state suffers from four errors. It disregards historical facts that show Palestine statehood dating from the Mandate period. It applies criteria for Palestine statehood that are more stringent than those actually followed in the international community. It fails to account for the fact that Palestine’s territory is under belligerent occupation. It fails to account for facts showing the implied recognition of Palestine” (p. 252).

For students of international law and those interested in more closely examining the issue of statehood in general and Palestine’s statehood in particular, this persuasively written book serves as a useful resource filled with thoroughly researched examples.

But while the book is thorough, it is not without its flaws. A main flaw is the cursory manner with which Quigley addresses the implications of statehood and how statehood—if proclaimed—will or will not halt Israel’s ongoing policies of expulsion and dispossession. In other words, the author fails to answer the basic questions of what will be gained and what may be lost by a declaration of statehood, particularly given Israel’s refusal to submit to international jurisdiction and treaties. In that sense, it is a technical legal argument and does not address the reality within which Palestinians live.

While law is an important tool (as the Truman example demonstrates) international law is not devoid of international power and politics, with legal rules created to suit the particular political circumstances. Second, the book fails to provide any analysis of the impact of statehood on Palestinian refugees and on the representation of Palestinian refugees by the PLO before the UN. Finally, the book is narrowly focused on the issue of statehood but fails to recognize that the Palestinian cause is not merely one of territory, but one of challenging Israel’s colonial and imperial policies, including, but not limited to, Israel’s dispossession and denial of freedom to Palestinians. Focusing on statehood misses the forest for the trees.


DIANA BUTTU is a lawyer and a fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.