I have a confession to make: I am one of those few weirdos who never bothered to watch an episode of Love Island. Which is why my knowledge of this TV show is second-hand at best; and why using this metaphor is – I have to admit – a bit of a cheap trick to get you hooked, dear reader.
I understand the attractions of love – but why on an island? Perhaps because islands have that strange allure: they are constrained geographies suggestive of enforced isolation from without and imposed intimacy within.
From Gauguin to Attenborough, from Defoe to Swift, we’re all fascinated by islands. They are world’s quintessential test tubes: riveting experiments in natural and social eccentricity.
With their rich, often over-the-top imagination, ‘pro-Palestinian’ activists could not possibly have missed the metaphoric potential of islands. They harnessed that potential ‘for the cause’ by portraying the Palestinian Authority-governed areas of the West Bank (defined in the Oslo Accords) as an ‘archipelago’ of small islands in a ‘sea’ of Israeli ‘settlements’. Such allegoric maps travel far and reach wide; their message is clear: a patchwork of Palestinian ‘islands’ cannot be turned into a viable state.
Not satisfied with the mere allegory, some activists are shouting that message in full-throated, indignant, moralising voice: it is too late for the two state solution. Often, they blame Netanyahu and ‘his settlements’; but Seumas Milne (a former journalist and currently top courtier to Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn) suggested, even 15 years ago, that the two-state solution was no longer achievable.
Among certain ‘pro-Israel’ activists (and even among some Israelis), such suggestions are a source of dread and despair. In the absence of a Palestinian state, they say, Israel’s choices are grim: either ‘one-state’ in which Jews will be (or will quickly become) a minority; or else an apartheid state – in which the Palestinians won’t possess full political rights.
A recent Jewish Chronicle article quotes Tal Keinan, an American-Israeli businessman and former Israeli fighter pilot, who argues that there are “only three possible endgames” for Israel:
The first is that Israel could annex the West Bank and give its Arab residents citizenship – which would mean Israel ‘opening itself to the prospect of demographic suicide’. […]
The second option would be to annex the Palestinian territories without granting the Palestinians citizenship – imposing sovereignty on a large number of people without representation. […]
The final option […] is for Israel to withdraw from most of the territories, with or without an agreement with the Palestinians. If the Palestinians build a state, there will be a state, but if not, the West Bank ‘will likely become another rocket base’.
So there you are: the options are oblivion, apartheid or being bombed to smithereens. As the current British Prime Minister would put it, doom or gloom!
There’s a debate to be had on whether it is indeed too late for the ‘two state solution’; and whether lack of ‘full political rights’ equals ‘apartheid’. But I do not wish to go there now. My question is: are those ‘3 choices’ really the only possible ‘endgames’? Or are the prophets of doom merely demonstrating their own stale thought processes, their own lack of imagination and creativity?
I am fascinated by islands. They are such interesting places! Let’s let our minds travel to a few islands – and see what we can learn.
A ‘Great’ Britain with some little ‘dependencies’
To start with, I won’t have to travel too far: I live on the island of Britain, which some (both on and outside it) still sometimes call ‘England’. But it isn’t ‘England’ – the island of Britain is part of a sovereign state called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Although it is not formally called a federation, this is in fact a federal state made up of four ‘countries’: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – each of them endowed with a great deal of political, economic and cultural autonomy. Nonetheless, there are nationalist movements in each of these ‘countries’, aspiring to more autonomy and even to outright secession from the federation. I have recently travelled to Scotland, where great efforts are being made to revive and expand the use of Scottish Gaelic. Upon return to London, I discovered that I still had a pocketful of Scottish banknotes. The ‘Scottish pound sterling’ is worth exactly as much as the ‘British (not English!) pound sterling’; but the banknotes are underwritten by the Royal Bank of Scotland and bear different images from their ‘British’ counterparts. Those strange-looking banknotes may be legal tender throughout the UK; but they are, let me tell you, viewed with suspicion by London retailers, many of whom seem to see them for the first time.
Another ‘country’ – Wales – occupies a peninsula in the West of Britain. Wales is very similar in size to Israel, but it is less densely populated. The vast majority of its inhabitants speak English and only one in five has Welsh as their mother tongue. Still, Welsh is an official language in Wales, on a par with English; no expenses are spared – everything (from road signs to court summons) is written in both languages. And children have to study Welsh in school, whether they have any use for it or not.
But ‘Great’ Britain is not as interesting as some of the smaller islands off its coast. Take for instance the Isle of Man, a territory just one-and-a-half times the size of Gaza Strip. The Isle isn’t part of the United Kingdom; nor is it a sovereign, independent state. It is, instead, defined as a ‘British Crown Dependency’. If you think that this means ‘owned by the Queen’ – think again: Queen Elizabeth the Second could not sell off that piece of real estate to – say – Donald Trump; even if he was interested and however much Her Majesty wanted to oblige!
Most Isle of Man inhabitants have the status of ‘Manxmen’ (and Manxwomen?) Manxmen are ‘in principle’ British citizens; in principle only, because they cannot, for instance, vote in UK national elections and are hence not represented in the UK Parliament. Although decisions made in that Parliament can have a huge impact upon their lives. For instance, Manxmen could not vote in the 2016 Brexit referendum. But, although the island is not part of the United Kingdom – and also not part of the European Union – its economy is strongly affected by the trade between the two…
Manxmen do elect the 24 members of the House of Keys – the lower chamber of the local ‘Parliament’, which deals with most internal matters. Issues pertaining to defence, international relations, as well as the final say on matters of ‘good governance’, however, are the competence of the UK government and parliament.
Upon application, Manxmen are issued with specially printed British passports. But instead of ‘United Kingdom’, those passports declare their bearers citizens of a strange entity called ‘British Islands – the Isle of Man’. Such passports allow Manxmen to travel to – for instance – EU countries; but, unlike ‘regular’ British citizens, they are not entitled to work there. Nor are EU nationals entitled to work on the Isle of Man, although they (still) can work in the UK.
The British Crown possesses also other ‘Dependencies’ – including several islands in the English Channel/La Manche: Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark. Each island is governed separately, according to its own traditional system, mostly originating in the early Middle Ages. Their combined population is estimated at around 165,000. None of the Channel Islands is represented in the UK Parliament and, as a rule, their ‘citizens’ cannot vote in UK national elections and referenda. Their status is, roughly speaking, similar to that of Manxmen.
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark
If we let our mind fly north-west of Britain, across the North Atlantic ocean, we come across Donald Trump’s latest real-estate project: Greenland. It is the world’s most sparsely populated ‘country’ – with just one inhabitant on average per 10 square miles of territory; but it is also the world’s largest island: circa 10 times larger than Great Britain and 100 times larger than Tiny Israel.
Politically, Greenland is defined as an ‘autonomous region’ of the Kingdom of Denmark – a ‘region’ 50 times larger than Denmark-proper. Some call it a ‘constituent country’ – similar in principle to the status of Scotland or Wales within the UK.
The majority of Greenland’s population (circa 88%) belongs to the indigenous Inuit (a.k.a. Eskimo) ethnicity, akin to the natives of North Canada and Alaska. They speak their own language. The balance consists of Danish settlers.
Greenlanders elect 2 representatives to Denmark’s parliament, out of a total of 179. They also elect the 31 members of Greenland’s own parliament, which in turn elects a local government with a high degree of internal autonomy. However, the Danish government sitting in Copenhagen is responsible for decisions pertaining to defence and international relations; even for those that directly affect the inhabitants of the ‘constituent country’ of Greenland – such as the permission to locate nuclear weapons on the island.
In 1973, the Kingdom of Denmark (including Greenland) became a member state of the European Community – precursor to the European Union. But, using its greater autonomy achieved in 1979, Greenland voted in 1982 to leave the economic block – and completed that exit by 1985. It is no longer part of the European Union; but it is still part of the Kingdom of Denmark, a member state of the European Union…
Economically, Greenland has long been highly dependent on Denmark. However, for the past decade or so, the Greenlandic government has worked steadily to gradually reduce the economic dependence, with the ultimate goal of attaining political independence.
The Kingdom of Denmark ‘owns’ also another ‘constituent country’: the Faroe Islands. Their status is roughly similar to that of Greenland: the Faroese elect 2 members of the Danish Parliament, as well as all 33 members of the local parliament. Just like in Greenland, there is a local government, led by a Prime Minister; there is also a strong movement demanding political independence. A separate Faroese Constitution drafted in 2011 has been rejected by the Danish government of the time, as ‘incompatible’ and ‘cannot co-exist’ with the Danish Constitution.
The poor ‘rich harbour’
By now, you probably think that ‘special status’ islands are but vestiges of medieval kingdoms, bizarre anachronisms somehow preserved into modernity. Well, not exactly: some of them are part of relatively young republics.
One such island is Puerto Rico. ‘Discovered’ by Columbus, it was incorporated into the Spanish Empire and colonised by (mainly) Spanish settlers, who wiped out the indigenous population and culture. But in 1898, it was conquered by the United States.
The term ‘colony’ is not en-vogue any more; but Puerto Rico is not a federal US state, nor is it part of a state. It is, therefore, defined these days as a ‘United States unincorporated territory’. In this context, ‘unincorporated’ means that the US Constitution does not apply in full: only ‘fundamental rights’ are protected, other constitutional rights are not. As a consequence, although the Puerto Ricans are ‘in principle’ US citizens (since 1917), they cannot vote in US presidential elections and do not have senators or voting representatives in the US Congress. Instead, the 3.2 million Puerto Ricans elect a local Governor and a bi-cameral parliament. However, the head of state is the President of the United States. The jurisdiction and sovereignty belongs to the United States of America and the ultimate power is vested in the US Congress. Laws adopted by the latter apply to Puerto Rico by default. Many US federal agencies (notably the FBI) are active in Puerto Rico.
As US citizens, Puerto Ricans can serve in the US military – in fact they were historically forced to serve whenever the US adopted compulsory military draft. However, Puerto Rico also has its own National Guard, distinct from the US National Guard. The commander-in-chief of the Puerto Rican National Guard is… the President of the United States.
On average, Puerto Ricans are significantly poorer than the citizens of the State of Mississippi – the poorest of US states.
US controls a few other ‘unincorporated territories’ with roughly similar regimes – and they happen to also be islands: Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa.
And a ‘fragrant’ harbour
I never noticed any particularly pleasant smell when I visited Hong Kong, but many believe that ‘Fragrant Harbour’ (hēung gong in Cantonese) is the origin of the modern name.
Hong Kong consists of the eponymous island, plus an archipelago of some 200 other islands and two small pieces of territory on the coast of Southern China. In total, it is not much larger than the Gaza Strip – but it is more densely populated: more than 17,500 inhabitants per square mile, compared to Gaza’s 13,000.
In theory, Hong Kong is part and parcel of the sovereign territory of the People’s Republic of China. But it certainly does not feel that way. And it’s not just a matter of a different flag, state symbols and anthem.
The official language of China is Mandarin – written with simplified Chinese characters. In Hong Kong, it is Cantonese, inscribed with traditional characters. Which render anything spoken or written in Hong Kong unintelligible to most people in China.
Cars cling to the left side of the road in Hong Kong, still following the British tradition; but they are driven on the right in China.
Five years ago, I travelled to China via Hong Kong. To start with, I had to apply for a Chinese visa; but when I finally got it, was told that it’s not valid in Hong Kong – where one needs a separate visa; or, in the case of my Israeli passport, no visa for Hong Kong, yes visa for China.
Flights from Hong Kong to Beijing are expensive, as they are considered international flights. I was advised, instead, to buy a seat on one of the many cars and coaches ferrying passengers from Hong Kong Airport to Shenzhen Airport just across the border with China. I do not use the term ‘border’ lightly: en-route to Shenzhen, my passport was checked twice, within a 50 yards stretch of road: first by the border police of Hong Kong, then by Chinese border officials.
Once at Shenzhen Airport, I boarded a much cheaper, probably subsidised ‘domestic’ flight to Beijing.
I paid for the transfer from Hong Kong to Shenzhen with Hong Kong dollars, but they’re not legal tender in China; so I had to buy the flight ticket Beijing with Chinese ‘renmimbi’, not accepted in Hong Kong.
All this may sound and feel strange, given that Hong Kong is not an independent state. Officially, Hong Kong is called a ‘Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China’. But in this case, ‘special’ is an understatement.
As I am writing this, there are widespread protests in Hong Kong against Chinese ‘interference’ – protests triggered by a change in law allowing certain offenders to be ‘extradited’ from Hong Kong to… another part of China’s ‘sovereign territory’. Go figure!
By now, I can hear quite a few of you grumbling: what do all these islands have to do with anything? Israel has occasionally been called ‘an island’ – as in ‘an island of freedom in a sea of tyranny’; but geographically it certainly is no island.
Well, I’m afraid I used the ‘islands’ allegory only as a crafty rhetorical device. This isn’t just about islands, there are many other, ‘continental’ examples.
The point is that the ‘sovereign state/no state’ paradigm is based on a false dichotomy. Reality is much more complex than that; there are almost-states, states-within-states, incorporated ‘unincorporated territories’, ‘constituent countries’, ‘special administrative regions’ and a myriad other ‘unconventional’ political constructs.
It may be that none of the existing models described above precisely fits the requirements of a future Israel-Palestinian Arabs accommodation. But what these ‘islands’ prove is that there’s a huge breadth of possibilities – rather than a binary option.
Human beings are endowed with imagination, creativity and problem-solving abilities. They are also ‘tribal’ and seek self-determination: the right to control their destiny, while organising themselves along ‘tribal’ identities that both unite and divide. And, as a result of all that, human communities have evolved and are evolving in many complex, unusual, original ways. Because no man is an island; not even on the Isle of Man.
The conflict between Jews and Arabs – or between ‘Israelis’ and ‘Palestinians’ – is a conflict between right and right. Not a dilemma, or even a multiple-choice question; but an art project, a piece of blank canvas.
We live in a world of endless possibilities. There are no slim choices, just narrow minds; mankind doesn’t inhabit rigid, tidy little boxes – only some men do.