Palestinian families fleeing from Gaza walk along a highway on November 9, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas. (Photo: RNZ / Mahmud Hams)

Chris Tooley from Ngāti Kahungunu has spent a lot of time thinking about the concept of self-determination. He did his PhD on that kaupapa at Cambridge University in England, with specific reference to what self-determination might mean in Palestine.

Like many in Aotearoa, he’s appalled at the recent escalation of violence and brutality in the area. Here, Dr Tooley explains to Connie Buchanan why the power structures at play in Palestine are part of our history too — and why New Zealand’s foreign policy position matters.


There are two forms of power at play in Gaza at the moment. There’s the obvious binary power which is everything that we’re seeing on TV — the rockets, the bombs, the tanks, the wall, the settlements pushing beyond agreed borders. That’s binary power, which shifts backwards and forwards during conflict.

But that’s grounded in a wider power structure, one that’s embedded with values around what it means to be human and civilised. That power rests on judgments about who’s entitled to self-determination and who isn’t, and with ideas around who counts as human and who doesn’t.

That power structure is longstanding and built on processes of western hegemony, colonisation and racism. It’s that power structure which is allowing governments and settler colonies to justify the humanitarian crisis now taking place in Palestine. We’re seeing Israel being able to use words like “self-defence”, or “pre-emption”, or “collective responsibility”, to justify its intensifying and sustained exercise of binary power, because that justification comes from deeper beliefs that the west (and in particular the US) want to defend and uphold.

Those are the same underlying values and power structures that were used to appropriate land and suppress Māori tino rangatiratanga in this country. It’s the same value determinations of what is considered right and proper, who counts as a human being, and who’s acting in an appropriate way in order to be allowed to be self-determining.

As a Māori academic, I’ve always been interested in the idea of self-determination, because from an international rules point of view, it’s the mechanism by which peoples or nations can assert their sovereignty. It allows people to talk about how they organise themselves politically, about their governance and constitution, and to talk about how they may want to express ideas of autonomy or freedom. Within the international system, self-determination is the key principle which allows that to happen.

Self-determination is very much a western concept, with philosophical roots right back to Plato and the idea of nomos, which comes from the word autonomy. Part of what nomos means is to be separate from nature, from Papatūānuku. Yet most groups in the modern world who are struggling for self-determination tend to come from an Indigenous or a non-western point of view, where often the prevailing view is that human beings aren’t separated from nature at all.

So there’s a tension around how Indigenous groups achieve self-determination while retaining cultural authenticity. Is there a modus operandi where Indigenous people can use the international system to achieve a culturally authentic self-determination? That was the basis of my PhD thesis which I completed at Cambridge University in England in 2006.

As part of that work, I spent some time in Palestine, and also in Palestinian refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon, as part of my thinking about how self-determination might be defined and expressed within current global examples of conflict.

The Indigenous people of Palestine are the Canaanites and the Bedouins who today are part of the Palestinian community, and part of the wider Arab community too. The Jewish people have a very long history and a very long whakapapa to that whenua as well, which goes back to the exodus from Egypt in about 1000 BC.

And so, the western and international solution to the multiple territorial claims has been a partition in 1947, orchestrated by the British and the French, and then the borders of 1967, known as the “Green Line” which is the current standing position of the UN under Security Council Resolution 242.

Palestinians today define self-determination as adhering to those 1967 borders. That’s a fairly recent generational shift, because the concept of self-determination is based on the concept of nationalism — you have to demonstrate the characteristics of a nation in order for it to apply.

Yet, within Palestine and across other Arab countries, there’s a preference for words and concepts of patriotism, which aren’t singular. Patriotism is plural with multiple loyalties, which includes the local expression of self-determination to Palestine itself, plus a broader expression of loyalty to the wider Arab community.

Post the Ottoman Empire, before the British Mandate kicked in, there was a lot of discussion around creating a pan-Arab state that would cover parts of Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, as a way of expressing cultural unity and authenticity. So there was tension straight away between being self-determining from a national point of view, and trying to remain true to broader Arab connections. Then, as soon as the Palestinian National Authority came into being, we saw a very quick shift to self-determination in relation to Palestine only.

I went to the Palestinian refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon in 2004 because I was quite interested in how they were creating and maintaining consciousness among themselves to achieve self-determination, while being fragmented and separated from their whenua and ultimately their identity.

Hezbollah were coming into prominence in the area back then, and they come from a Shia Islamic view of the world, while the majority of Palestinians are Sunnis, with increasing influence of Shia in Gaza via Hamas. Palestinians within the camps were finding ways to manage these differences and forge unity.

Then, in Palestine itself, when I was there in 2005, it was clear that they were still struggling to control their own spaces. They’re all forcibly isolated from one another. The Gaza population can’t talk to the West Bank, who can’t talk to the refugees, who can’t talk to the internally displaced Palestinians who are within the Israeli state itself. So you’ve got these divided populations who are prevented from creating a unity of consciousness to actually mobilise themselves to find stable leadership and go forward.

The leadership of the Palestinian Authority are approaching their 90s, and they’re disengaged from the people in the West Bank. They’re not providing strong leadership. The elections that take place within the West Bank localities don’t really address national issues, and they’re infiltrated by Islamic extremists, whether it’s Muslim Brotherhood or al-Aqsa Brigade or whoever. Those groups have embedded themselves in the community and have their own agenda. They’re connected to Hezbollah in Iran through the Shia whakapapa — and they always have increased influence when people can’t see any political endgame.

When you’re thinking about self-determination, you need unity of consciousness. You need to have some kind of collective will that a leadership can mobilise and represent. And in Palestine, they don’t have the right to assemble. There’s a really limited public sphere. All these things affect the ability of Palestinians to mobilise for self-determination in the face of a huge colonising power.

The 1967 borders have been continually breached and encroached by Israeli settlements. And those settlements are miniature cities. They have roads, they have pipelines, they have electricity grids. There’s a very real permanency about them.

And no one from the international system has challenged that incursion. They’ve been built without any intervention. Even though the UN confirmed that the 1967 borders are the borders for a Palestinian state, no one has challenged the wall, the settlements, the continued application of binary power into that territory.

So, we’ve seen a state that has appropriated land in the past, continue to appropriate land, continue to imprison Palestinians, detain Palestinians, restrict their movement, limit supply chains, limit access to things like water. It’s the continuation of a systematic oppression.

The intensity of the response by Israel to the Hamas attack is very much the new aspect of what we’re seeing here. If I think of all the different intifada that happened during the 1980s to 1990s, or the previous incursions into Gaza in the West Bank by Israel, all these things have happened many times before. The difference now is that you’re seeing the intensification of asymmetrical power against Palestinians in Gaza. It’s extraordinary to watch this huge machine that is absolutely relentless in not distinguishing between Islamic terrorists and civilians on the ground.

It’s distressing that the UN is totally unable to prevent it. The main reason the UN Security Council was established was to prevent exactly this situation. And they’re just nowhere to be seen.

Palestine and Israel will not solve this by themselves. I think from a first-principle point of view, any government, including ours, which is serious about contributing to an international solution, would call for an immediate ceasefire. And then, secondly, keep reinforcing the fact that they support a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders.

The two have to go hand in hand. Simply saying that you want a ceasefire confirms that you just want to go back to the status quo, which is one of oppression for Palestinian people. So, you need to go further and keep confirming the two-state solution.

Then, in terms of the UN, even though previous resolutions have been vetoed by the US, you still need to put them up. We need an international UN peacekeeping force to be on the ground managing a pathway out of this that leads to a two-state solution.

And that’ll probably take decades.

But the fact is you need an impartial and independent mechanism to bring that about — and the New Zealand government, together with other governments, needs to keep pushing up to the UN Security Council. And if the resolutions get vetoed, well, they get vetoed. But you have to keep making the stand.

In the event Israel wipes out Hamas (knowing that its leadership is based in other Arab states) a power-vacuum will be created. The Palestinian Authority has no mana in Gaza, so Israel can’t really hand that area over to them. Rather, it looks like Israel will have to occupy Gaza themselves for quite some period of time. Look at the Iraq War when the US army cleared out Mosul by going door to door. Yes, they got rid of ISIS, but thousands and thousands of civilians were killed in the process — and now that the US has withdrawn, ISIS groups have returned.

So it’s hard to understand the end game. I mean, the worst-case scenario is that you get a very long extended occupation by the Israeli forces in Gaza, and the whole population of Gaza living in refugee camps for the next generation.

Does it matter what position New Zealand takes in all this? Yes, it matters. The idea of being independent, placing a pou in the ground, is really important. It allows people to rise above the noise and focus on the morally right thing to do.

There are parallels with our own history of power imbalance, where a colonising machine just continually appropriated land and oppressed a people. Unfortunately, the global power structures that enabled that still exist. The power dynamics that sit under these struggles have been in play for decades, and they haven’t changed.

We should be talking about Palestine from a hegemonic, colonising point of view. Because those power structures are real, and they’re part of our history too. And if we call them what they are, and speak out against them, it matters.


You can read New Zealand’s National Statement to the UN Security Council Open Debate here, made on 24 October, 2023.

Dr Chris Tooley, Ngāti Kahungunu, holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge and was the recipient of the Gates Cambridge Scholarship. Chris has served as vice-chair of the International Working Group of Indigenous Affairs (2015–19), senior ministerial advisor to Sir Pita Sharples, the Minister of Māori Affairs (2009–14) and member of the Interim Māori Health Authority Board (2021–22).

Chris was the recipient of the Blake Leadership Award from the Sir Peter Blake Trust in 2020, the Matariki Award, Waitī (Health & Science) in 2022 and the Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Auckland earlier this year. He is the CEO of Te Puna Ora o Mataatua.

As told to Connie Buchanan and made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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