Is Palestine considered a state?

The question of Palestinian statehood has been disputed for decades. Why is the answer not obvious? Or should it be...?

A Palestine flag waved over a crowded square with UN banners on display along the facades of buildings (photo: DW)
A Palestine flag waved over a crowded square with UN banners on display along the facades of buildings (photo: DW)


Palestinian statehood is currently still disputed among scholars, diplomats and individual nations. Here's what you should know.

What is a state?

There are two theories of statehood: The declarative theory and the constitutive theory.

Subscribers to the declarative theory say a state can be considered as such if it meets the definition of statehood declared in the 1933 Montevideo Convention, which says that in order to be considered a state, a territory must have a permanent population, a defined territory, its own government and the capacity to enter relations with other states.

The convention explains that the political existence of a state 'is independent of recognition by the other states'. It says:

Even before recognition, the state has the right to defend its integrity and independence, to provide for its conservation and prosperity, and consequently to organise itself as it sees fit, to legislate upon its interests, administer its services, and to define the jurisdiction and competence of its courts.
Montevideo Convention, 1933

That brings us to the second theory of statehood: the constitutive theory.

Unlike the Montevideo Convention, the constitutive theory says that a state can only be considered a state if the rest of the world recognises it as such.

This theory is not codified in law; rather, it considers modern statehood a matter of both international law and diplomacy.

Do the Palestinian territories fit the definition of a state?

Scholars have differing opinions on whether the Palestinian territories fit the legal definition of a state.

Some say they do, while others say Palestine doesn't meet the requirements enshrined in the Montevideo Convention.

Some argue against the use of the Montevideo Convention in determining statehood altogether, saying the Palestinian territories' best hope of claiming statehood is through international recognition.

Which countries have recognised the Palestinian territories as a state?

The majority of the 193 UN member states — 139 of them, actually — do recognise the Palestinian territories as a state.

A state's bid to join the United Nations must be approved by at least 9 of the 15 members of the UN Security Council. If any of the five permanent members of the council veto the bid, however, the country cannot join. China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States are those five members — and Palestine is not recognised by the US, France or the UK as a state.

These three nations, which have vetoed Palestine's recognition as a state by the UN, have said they will not recognise Palestinian statehood until the conflict with Israel is peacefully resolved.

Meanwhile, 9 of the 27 EU member states recognise Palestinian statehood — though not a majority, as in the UN. Almost all of the EU member states that recognise Palestinian statehood are states that were once members of the Soviet Union, and all of them recognised its statehood before joining the European Union bloc.

Sweden, which recognised Palestinian statehood in 2014, is the only country to have done so as a member of the bloc.

Palestine is therefore currently considered a non-member observer state to the UN, which means it is welcomed to participate in sessions of the General Assembly and can maintain offices at the UN headquarters in New York.

Crucially, because of its non-member observer status — granted in 2012 — it was given membership in the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2015 too, the only permanent international court that can prosecute individuals for war crimes.

In 2021, then-prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced that the ICC was opening an investigation into the situation in the Palestinian territories.

Palestine's accession to the Rome Statute and ICC membership gave the ICC the legal capacity to investigate both crimes committed by Palestinians specifically as well as crimes committed on Palestinian territory.

The probe, which Israel has condemned, is currently ongoing.

What is the impact of recognition?

A state can have statehood but not be a UN member state, of course.

For example, Switzerland only joined the UN as a member state in 2002, while Liechtenstein had not joined until 1990 and San Marino until 1992. All were considered internationally recognised states long before joining.

Palestine's non-member observer status means it can observe UN proceedings but can't cast votes in the General Assembly.

So, for example, Palestine couldn't vote in the recent failed resolution calling for a ceasefire in the Israel–Hamas conflict in the General Assembly. Nor could it vote on the resolution calling for a "humanitarian truce" in the conflict in Gaza, which did pass.

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