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Why hasn't there been a Palestinian state?

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

For months, protests have swept the U.S., with many protesters calling for an end to the war in Gaza and equal rights for Palestinians. That includes calls for the creation of a Palestinian state. NPR's Jackie Northam examines why Palestinians do not have their own state and what, if anything, it would take to create one in the future.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: In mid-May, three European leaders took to the podium in a stand for Palestinians.

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PRIME MINISTER SIMON HARRIS: Today Ireland, Norway, and Spain are announcing that we recognize the state of Palestine.

NORTHAM: The three joined about 140 other nations that have backed the creation of a Palestinian state. It outraged Israel. Still, the move by the European countries was largely symbolic, says Daniel Levy, president of the U.S. / Middle East project. He says creating a Palestinian state would have to be passed by the U.N. Security Council and unlikely to happen.

DANIEL LEVY: We are in a situation today where, increasingly, two states seems to be the stuff of fantasy given the realities on the ground.

NORTHAM: Palestinians' fight with Israel over statehood has been going on for more than 75 years. In 1947, when the British mandate for ruling over the region back then known as Palestine was coming to an end, it handed control to the U.N. Jewish immigrants had been flooding into the area, which they saw as historically their homeland. And there was tension between them and the Palestinians, which were in the majority. The U.N. decided to partition the region.

JON ALTERMAN: There's a sense that, because it was contested, it should be divided and the U.N. blessed the creation of dividing Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state.

NORTHAM: Jon Alterman is a senior vice president and director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says under the U.N. plan, 56% of the land would become a Jewish state called Israel. Forty-two percent would go to the Palestinians. But...

ALTERMAN: The Arab side didn't recognize the legitimacy of partition. The Israelis said, we will take half a loaf, and we'll create a state. And the Arab side didn't.

NORTHAM: In 1948, Israel declared statehood. The U.S. was the first nation to recognize it as a country. President Harry Truman acknowledged the decision to recognize Israel wasn't an easy one.

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HARRY TRUMAN: What I was trying to do is to find a homeland for the Jews and still be just for the Arabs.

NORTHAM: Fighting began in 1947 and again the following year. Arab states came to the Palestinians' aid. Levy says Israel won both times and was able to capture more land.

LEVY: Israel ends up controlling not around half of the land, as provided for by the U.N., but 78% of the land and forcibly expels the majority of Palestinian inhabitants.

NORTHAM: More than 700,000 Palestinians were pushed into areas under Israeli military occupation - the Gaza strip and parts of the West Bank. After the 1967 war, settlers snatched more land, and for decades, the effort to create a Palestinian homeland faded. The U.S. continued to work towards a negotiated settlement. There was a glimmer of hope in the 1990s.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Arafat, chairman of the Executive Council of the Palestine Liberation Organization, his Excellency Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel, the president of the United States.

(APPLAUSE)

NORTHAM: In 1993, a historic handshake between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Yasser Arafat sealed the Oslo Accords. Yousef Munayyer, head of the Palestine/Israel Program at the Arab Center in Washington, D.C., says although the peace accords represented a small step forward, not full statehood for the Palestinians.

YOUSEF MUNAYYER: But even that Rabin government was unwilling to accept a sovereign Palestinian state. In other words, there would be some form of glorified autonomy for the Palestinians, but the state of Israel would still control a lot of that territory.

NORTHAM: Two years later, Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish extremist. The Oslo Accords, for all intents and purposes were dead. Successive American administrations continued to push for negotiations towards a two-state solution. But Munayyer says Israel, particularly under the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wasn't interested.

MUNAYYER: And if the Israelis are telling you, really, as clear as can be that this is not something that they want, they oppose it, that presents a huge obstacle.

NORTHAM: Munayyer says without that push by the U.S., such as withholding weapons or not using its U.N. veto power, Israel is unlikely to budge. But Alterman with the Center for Strategic and International Studies says it's not all on Israel's shoulders.

ALTERMAN: Palestine doesn't have a lot of the characteristics that a state needs to have. It doesn't have sovereignty. It doesn't really control its own borders. It's not able to behave as a state. You could argue that that's because Israel doesn't let it because there's a conflict.

NORTHAM: Alterman says now is not the time to be talking about statehood.

ALTERMAN: Recognizing states is what happens after the conflict's over, not as a way to help resolve it, because that's taking sides in a conflict.

NORTHAM: And with the war raging in Gaza, that impasse is unlikely to be overcome anytime soon. Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
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