PA goes to UN without Palestinian consensus behind it

20 September 2011

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Palestinians in Gaza City watch Mahmoud Abbas’ live address on the UN statehood bid.

(Mohammed Salem / Reuters)

“We have been living under occupation for more than six decades now and we believe it is time for the international community to help us realize our dream of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.”

“What is this UN bid? Is it meant to restore our rights, mainly the right to return of millions of refugees worldwide? Will a UN recognition of a Palestinian state on 1967 border lines allow us to take care of our Palestinian brothers and sisters in neighboring Arab countries like Jordan and Syria?”

These are the words, respectively of Luay, a 42-year-old Palestinian Authority employee and Iman Qaddada, a 22-year-old university student, both from Gaza City.

Luay, who did not give his last name, and Iman were reacting to the Palestinian Authority’s effort to seek full UN membership for a Palestinian state in New York this month.

While the PA has not published any text describing what a Palestinian state would mean practically, it is expected to ask the United Nations for recognition and membership for a state within the territories occupied by Israel in 1967: the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. Together, these territories comprise just 22 percent of historic Palestine.

US leads efforts to block UN bid

The bid, mobilized by PA leader Mahmoud Abbas and backed by the Palestinian Authority, most of the Arab states and some others, is aimed, according to Abbas, to move beyond the current “peace process” impasse.

In a televised speech last Friday, Abbas said that “the move aims at internationalizing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict after more than two decades of bilateral Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have failed to achieve a two-state solution.”

However, Abbas maintained that he is willing to go back to the negotiation table with Israel regardless of what happens with the UN bid.

Upon arrival at the UN, where Abbas is expected to make a speech on 23 September, the PA delegation will be likely met with Washington’s veto power. US officials have said repeatedly that they will block any PA request for statehood at the UN Security Council.

The US government, according to media reports, were attempting to lobby enough UN Security Council members to vote against the Palestinian move to defeat it without the US having to use its veto.

Washington insists that a Palestinian state can only come about through negotiations, despite the fact that almost two decades of such US-brokered negotiations have failed to achieve any progress, and the Obama administration’s efforts over the past two years have resulted in complete failure as well.

Israeli retaliation withheld for now

Ghassan Khatib, spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, told The Electronic Intifada that the PA’s endeavor is meant to help resolve the conflict.

“I think the essence of the Palestinian move is an attempt to attract the international community to get involved in helping Palestinians and Israelis observe implementation of the international vision of peace that is based on a two-state solution,” Khatib said by telephone. “If the international community admits Palestine to the United Nations, then Israel has to show more sensitivity to international legitimacy, so Israel must agree to negotiating a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders.”

Yet Israel itself is totally opposed to the bid, saying it would constitute a setback to long-standing peace talks between Israel and Palestinians.

On the ground, Israel has threatened to withhold tax money it collects from Palestinians on behalf of the PA, and further expand its settlements in the occupied West Bank and even declare a state of emergency, in addition to the military rule that has governed Palestinians living under occupation for decades.

Israel contends that the 1967 borders are “indefensible.” Nevertheless, the international Quartet for Middle East peace involving the United States, United Nations, the European Union and Russia, demanded that Israel refrain from any action until the results of the UN bid are clear. Israel has so far complied.

No consensus among main Palestinian factions

In the Gaza Strip, which has lived under a tight Israeli siege for the past four years, Palestinian political factions have different views regarding the UN bid.

The Hamas party — which administers Gaza and remains divided from Abbas’ Fatah faction, which has limited authority the West Bank — says it neither accepts nor opposes the UN move.

“We in the Hamas party consider the September bid as an individual step that is not based on any national Palestinian consensus and that it would not bring anything to the Palestinian cause,” Sami Abu Zuhri, a spoksesperson for Hamas in Gaza, told The Electronic Intifada.

“It also poses a threat to the national Palestinian rights, including the right of return. Such a step would likely negate previous UN resolutions like resolution 194, which guarantees the Palestinian people’s right to return. I do not believe that the Palestinian people want a seat at the UN, but rather they want freedom and self-determination on their own land,” Abu Zuhri added.

Islamic Jihad, another Palestinian faction, embraces armed struggle against Israel but is adhering to a current ceasefire. It rejects the UN move and considers it untimely, as Dawood Shehab, the group’s spokesperson in Gaza, explained.

“In 1988, late Palestinian president [Yasser Arafat], declared a Palestinian state [during the Palestinian National Council meeting] in Algeria and more than 120 world countries recognized that state and so what?” Shehab said.

Like Hamas, Shehab said his group views the UN move by Abbas “an individual move without national Palestinian consensus.”

Shehab raised a number of other questions that have caused considerable doubts amid a broad spectrum of Palestinians: “What about the future of the Palestine Liberation Organization [PLO] under a Palestinian state declaration, what about the problem of Palestinian refugees, what about the right of return?”

Shehab added, “All Palestinian factions within the PLO have aimed at liberating Palestine, not establishing a state; a state comes after liberating Palestine.”

Leftist Palestinian factions, which belong to the Abbas-controlled PLO, back the September bid, based on a longstanding position that Palestinian-Israeli peace talks should go through the UN.

Rabah Mhanna, who is one of the political leaders for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in Gaza, appeared neither pessimistic nor optimistic about the statehood move at the UN.

“We consider the UN bid as a part of our ongoing struggle against the Israeli occupation,” Mhanna said. “Going to the UN should not end up with improving the bilateral peace negotiations under US patronage.”

Yet even Mhanna expressed doubts.

“Such a diplomatic battle requires first and foremost a Palestinian consensus,” he added. “However, we are concerned that a Palestinian state with a Palestinian government will be dealt with as an alternative to the Palestine Liberation Organization.”

Such a Palestinian consensus, as The Electronic Intifada’s interviews with various factions and broader debates indicate, is decidedly lacking.

A cause greater than a Palestinian state

Much of the doubt comes from concern of the potential effects of the PA’s move on the rights of the Palestinian people. Dr. Naji Shurrab, a Gaza-based political analyst, told The Electronic Intifada that moving the cause to the UN would not likely bring about a concrete progress.

Shurrab pointed out that the UN had passed numerous resolutions affirming Palestinian rights and the illegality of Israeli colonization over many decades but none had ever been enforced.

Given this history, Shurrab wondered what fate would await millions of Palestinian refugees worldwide if the UN recognized a Palestinian state limited to within the 1967 lines.

“Would the UN would allow the return of millions of Palestinian refugees to the boundaries of historical Palestine, from which these millions of people were displaced by Israel in 1948?” he asked rhetorically.

“I think that the Palestinian cause is greater than the Palestinian state,” Shurrab said. “I am not fully optimistic about such a state. The recognition of a Palestinian state would require Palestinians to recognize an Israeli Jewish state.” This could further risk Palestinian rights, as 1.5 million Palestinians live within Israel itself.

Shurrab also worried about the impact on support for the Palestinian cause. “I am afraid that this would allow the Arab states to free their hands of the Palestinian people’s problem,” he said. “So the Arab states would say then to the Palestinians, you now have your own state, which we helped you to attain, so you can rely on yourselves.”

Just days before Abbas arrives at the UN, it is clear that many Palestinians remain at best doubtful that the promised confrontation in New York will do anything to advance their rights and aspirations.

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.