On November 29, 2012 the international community overwhelmingly voted the ‘State of Palestine’ as a ‘non-member observer state’ of the United Nations (UN), yet the façade of statehood is already beginning to show. The successful passage of the resolution through the UN General Assembly is not the victory for Palestinians it has been made out to be. Rather, it might actually undermine their rights.
While the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) – and, now, of the ‘State of Palestine’, Mahmoud Abbas, elatedly declared ‘now we have become a state’, more measured proponents of the statehood bid acknowledged this as a ‘symbolic victory’. Israel, however, exposed the meaninglessness of this symbolism with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rejection of the UNGA resolution and Israel’s punitive response. Reminding Abbas – and the world – who really is in charge of Palestinian territory and people, Israel declared it would withhold 120 million dollars in tax revenue that it owes to the cash-strapped PA. Netanyahu then announced that Israel would build 3 000 new settlements units in area E1, which lies east of Jerusalem in the West Bank. Such a new development will separate East Jerusalem from the West Bank, thus spelling the potential end of the two-state solution which the UNGA resolution enshrines. These will be settlements will not be built just on occupied land, but on the territory of another, occupied, state.
Protesting Israel’s announcement, the governments of South Africa, Sweden, Brazil, Australia, France and Britain summoned the Israeli ambassadors in their countries to complain. None of these states have, however, given any further effect to their votes at the UN. An illustration is the case of South Africa. Last week, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA), a parastatal, awarded a 51 billion Rand contract to a consortium led by Alstom, a French company involved in the Jerusalem Light Rail project which, in contravention of international law, connects several illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and cements Israel’s occupation of the city. Palestinian civil society has therefore called for an international boycott of Alstom. Members of the international community clearly do not want to be burdened by the practical consequences of their statehood vote. The result, in future, could be that issues such as settlements and attacks by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza come to be regarded as border disputes to be resolved bilaterally. In a sense, then, recognising a Palestinian state can be a way in which the international community can slowly wash its hands off the messy issue of Israeli occupation.
Until recently, Abbas and the PA he heads have been useful for Israel. The PA co-ordinates security with Israel, effectively allowing Israel to outsource the occupation to Palestinians who ensure that Israel’s security needs in the West Bank are fulfilled. Abbas recently controversially stated he would waive his right of return to his village. These actions and statements have resulted in the PA and its majority party, Fatah, losing credibility among Palestinians. The PA is also cognisant that support for its rival, Hamas, and the Hamas approach of resistance have been on the rise among Palestinians after the recent Israeli assault on Gaza. Abbas’ only approach is a diplomatic one. He has insisted that it is the only path to Palestinian liberation. That is why, despite general acceptance that the ‘two-state solution’ is not viable (some might say it is dead), he proclaimed at the UN that ‘The international community now stands before the last chance to save the two-state solution.’
For Abbas, the PA and their singular diplomatic approach, winning the statehood bid has thrown them a lifeline. One PA spokesperson used the resistance approach as a way to convince states to vote for the resolution. If the resolution would not pass, he said, it would send the message that armed struggle was the only successful strategy. Further, PA spokespersons claimed that with an ‘upgraded’ status Palestinians would be able to leverage certain UN bodies such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Israel. That, however, was to sweeten the pie for Palestinian public opinion. The reality is that PA spokespersons have said they had no intention to accede to the ICC in the near future. Furthermore, a Palestinian state is not required to lodge complaints with the ICC. Any sympathetic state – such as South Africa – could do it on behalf of the Palestinians; but the PLO never requested such action from their friends. That this sweetener is meaningless is also illustrated by the fact that it was the PA, not Israel, that ensured that the Goldstone Report was buried at the UN and no action against Israel resulted from it.
A matter of grave concern for many Palestinians is that, although the UNGA resolution provides for the current status of the PLO at the UN not to be prejudiced, it is highly unlikely that the UN will give Palestinians two UN seats. The PLO seat will have to given up, with the result that Palestinian refugees and Palestinian citizens of Israel will no longer be represented at the UN. Until last week they were represented by the PLO. But a ‘state’ can only represent its citizens, not citizens of another country or stateless people.
On the ground, then, nothing has changed for the Palestinian people. Palestinians will still be forced to queue at Israeli military checkpoints; Gaza remains under siege (albeit a slightly easier one as a result of the ceasefire after the recent Israeli assault) and with uncertainty about when Israel might strike again; over 700 Palestinian children remain in Israeli prisons, often for nothing more than throwing a stone; Palestinian political prisoners languish under administrative detention; and demolition of Palestinian homes continues, as does theft of their land. Simply put: while the occupation marches on, the world feels a little better that Palestinians have a state. And, of course, Israel has yet another UN resolution to flout.
Correction: This article was corrected at 14h44 on 14 December 2012. It had previously incorrectly stated that Israel would build 3 000 new settlements in area E1.