Your one-stop shop for everything related to the Peace of Westphalia

Today’s article concerns the problems with creating an independent, demilitarized Palestinian state. I found out about it because it makes a ritual obeisance to Westphalia as the origin of the state system, going so far as to footnote the treaties of Münster and Osnabrück with the explanation, “Together, these two treaties comprise the ‘Treaty of Westphalia.'” I wonder what kind of scholar thinks it necessary to cite these treaties; and, besides, the reference to sovereignty is entirely mistaken. But the article make an interesting point nonetheless.

The article begins with the statement that there has never been a Palestinian state. After doing some research, I am still confused about the political situation in Gaza and the West Bank, but I would have to agree that there has not been a clearly sovereign Palestinian state, although there has been a Palestinian government with many of the characteristics of a state.

Here is an incredibly simplified history of the Gaza strip since Israeli independence. (I am leaving out the West Bank because (a) current news is mostly focussed on Gaza, and (b) the West Bank is far more complicated, amazing as that is.) When Israel became independent, there was mass emigration from Israel to Gaza city and the surrounding coastal strip by Arabs living in Israeli territory. The Arab League declared an “All-Palestine Government” of this territory. I am not clear what constiuted this government; it was accused of being a façade for Egyptian control. Only members of the Arab League recognized the All-Palestine Government.

Israel occupied the Gaza strip during the 1956 Suez crisis; when they withdrew, Egypt moved in and took over administration, without formally annexing it. Israel re-occupied the strip during the Six-Day War in 1967 and continued to administer it until 2005, when it unilaterally withdrew. This left the Palestinian Authority as the sole government in the Gaza strip; however, Israel continued to control the airspace and territorial waters of the region, meaning that it was less than fully sovereign. In their next elections, the Hamas faction defeated Fatah and took a share in control of the government. Hamas, however, refused to honour the agreements of the Oslo Accords, including recognizing Israel’s right to exist and renouncing violence, leading the U.N. and other states to cut off financial aid. A civil war broke out between Hamas and Fatah; Hamas won and took full control of the government. Foreign governments, including Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, refused to recognize Hamas. Although I’m unclear on the details, this seems to be the reason that Gaza is effectively blockaded, not only by Israel, but also by Egypt.

So: a thorough mess. There is local self-government, although it is not officially recognized by almost anyone. Ironically, the “State of Palestine” (which includes the West Bank) is recognized by 139 other countries, which is not far behind Israel’s 165. However, “Palestine” is only recognized as an “observer state” at the U.N., and in any case there is no joint government administering Gaza and the West Bank; for all practical purposes, Gaza is a separate state.

What if the Gaza government agreed to accept Israel’s existence and demilitarize in exchange for full recognition — control of its own airspace and territorial waters and admission to the U.N.? Returning to the article that we opened this post with, the author’s concern is that, as a sovereign state, the new Gazan state could in the future renounced its commitments and re-arm. This is no idle fear, since Hamas did exactly this only a short time after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal in 2005. There is no ironclad guarantee that a state will keep its agreements in the future.

On the other hand, I think the author errs in pinning the problem to sovereignty. Every treaty challenges national sovereignty and is subject to revision or revocation by a government that is bound by it. Some international agreements try to make their changes at a more fundamental level to enhance their security, and here I have occasion to bring the Peace of Westphalia into the discussion. France and Sweden were not content with a mere treaty declaring that the Habsburgs would accept the territorial changes of 1648, but insisted that the Empire’s constitution be altered as well. Moreover, they demanded the right to intervene in the Empire should the Habsburgs or anyone else attempt to change the constitution.

Admittedly, France and Sweden were on firmer ground than an arbitrary constitutional change, because they were relying on the desire of Imperial estates to maintain their independence from the central government. They could expect these estates to fight to keep the new provisions on selfish grounds, not just because some foreign states demanded it. But having this leverage is not a requirement for a constitutional change to demilitarize a state. Consider Japan, whose constitution was largely drafted by Americans. It contains a provision (Article 9) that the Japanese government will never maintain military forces. It is true that Japan has skirted this provision with its “Japan Self-Defense Forces,” but this is a tiny military that clearly cannot be used for aggressive purposes. Even though the U.S. itself has requested an alteration or abolition of Article 9 to get Japan to take a more active role in the defense of East Asia, Japan has so throughly accepted its constitution (now the longest unamended constitution in existence, according to wikipedia) that it has refused to do so.

Presumably a Gaza government would not have the same scruples about scrapping a demilitarization principle. However, Gaza is also far more vulnerable than Japan. As happened to the region following Hamas’s accession and refusal to accept the principles of the Oslo Accords, Gaza can and would be isolated and drastically weakened if it broke such an agreement. It is not inconceivable that a Gazan government could recognize that the territory can only prosper during peace and therefore would accept demilitarization as a condition for international recognition.

Obviously, I don’t expect that to happen any time soon. Attitudes are hardened and apparently most Palestinians don’t even want a separate state; they will not accept anything less than the re-occupation of Israel. Under these conditions, a demilitarization provision is indeed a bandaid that is likely to be ripped off at the first opportunity. But the issue is not sovereignty; it is the will of the people of Gaza. And this applies whether Gaza is sovereign or not, whether it is occupied by Israel or not. If Israel were to occupy the Gaza strip today, the danger of Palestinian militancy would hardly be any less than it was a week ago.

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