On the Palestinian question: A critique of international law

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




International law, Israel, Palestine

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Geography | History | Islamic World and Near East History | Social and Behavioral Sciences


This dissertation offers two answers to the Palestinian Question. There is no question that the left must challenge the barriers to Palestinian sovereignty that Israel, under American cover, is daily throwing up, and before which international law appears to be powerless. Our critique, however, ought not end there. Just as Marx challenged both the Christian state and the secular state then on display in the American colonies, we should challenge both the colonialism that persists in the Levant and the post-colonial system of juridically equal sovereign states membership in which awaits the Palestinians. While an important improvement upon colonial international relations, post-colonial international relations are neither more nor less than their predecessor the political half of what is a political-economic totality. As such, we cannot expect to find in post-colonial international relations--not even in the international law that crowns it--an antidote to capitalism tout court. Because international law currently enjoys so much legitimacy on the left, and is often seen as a potential bulwark against imperialism, this dissertation subjects this law to scrutiny.

After introducing the dissertation's objectives and reviewing the literatures into which it intervenes in Chapter 1, I go on, in Chapter 2, to propose a Marxist approach to bourgeois domestic law that will then act as a fount for the analysis and critique of international law that follows. I suggest that bourgeois domestic law be understood as fix in the dual sense of being an instrument of class power and a constraint on class power. In Chapter 3, I consider the extent to which international law might be conceived of as such a fix. I argue that although histories of international law suggest that it may have been a fix for American imperial interests, it can also be understood as a fix for the interests for the system of capitalist accumulation as a whole and thus of an increasingly internationalized capitalist class. Insofar as this class requires an international field with all states linked in to the networks of capitalist accumulation, the institutions of international law, which standardize the internal arrangements of states in ways both consensual and coercive, are deeply functional for accumulation. In Chapter 4, I consider why international law enjoys the legitimacy it does if it is indeed a fix for a particular class but not a fetter. I argue that international law gleans an unearned legitimacy by mimicking law at the domestic scale, and then go on to discuss the scholarly response to the international trials where much of this mimicry takes place. In Chapter 5, I change tack and consider the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, focusing in on the Jewish/Israeli attempts to wrest internationally-bestowed legitimacy from the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine in the summer of 1948. Both the rhetoric of the petitioners and the response it was dealt are contrasted with Palestinian efforts to achieve the same ends today. In the final chapter, I return to international law and suggest a final reason for engaging in a sustained leftist critique of international law.


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