As a Palestinian in exile I very much enjoyed the televised scenes of celebration on West Bank and Gazan streets following Thursday evening’s vote at the United Nations General Assembly to make Palestine a ‘non-member observer state’. Relatives phoned Gaza, euphoric.
For once the Palestinian people were united in joy rather than sorrow.
An large majority of member states – 138 out of 193 – supported the Palestinian bidand officially recognized Palestine as a nation and a putative state. This was a diplomatic triumph for Mahmoud Abbas…but is is only the first step on a very long path to retrieve the full rights of the dispossessed Palestinian people.
Nine states – including the US, Israel and Canada – voted against the upgrade while Britain and Germany were among the 41 who abstained. It is lamentable that such powerful and influential countries were unable to vote for justice and human rights, preferring to align themselves with Israeli oppression, the theft of land, illegal settlement building, the apartheid wall, laying siege to and attacking the people of Gaza.
Britain offered to approve the bid if the Palestinians pledged not seek access to the International Criminal Court (ICC) – which it is now entitled to do. The US and Britain say they fear that Israel will be hauled before the ICC for war crimes, but at the same time the two nations swear that Israel has never done any wrong. A skewed view of international justice two countries who seek to spread their version of democracy throughout region.
Gaining non-member observer state status, while it uses the word ‘state’ and implies statehood does not, of course, mean that the Palestinian state actually exists. We are no nearer that than when the PLO first got UN observer status as a ‘representative entity of the Palestinian people’ back in 1974.
The US and Britain are both veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) which has to endorse any bid for full membership of the UN under the present system. Last September, President Abbas’ bid for full membership – which would be the logical next step for the Palestinians - fell flat on its face when the US threatened to use its Security Council veto to stop it.
Israel has already expressed its anger at Thursday’s upgrade by announcing it will build 3000 more illegal settler homes on Palestinian land in the West Bank, continuing its programme of Apartheid South Africa-style bantustanization to further fragment contiguous Palestinian-controlled areas.
Financial penalties may follow. When Palestine became a full member of UNESCO last year, the US withheld almost a quarter of its annual $200 million aid to Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority (PA). Canada contributes $300 million over five years – which it is threatening not to renew - and Israel collects tax to the tune of $1 billion on behalf of the PA which it may refuse to hand over. It has already intimated that it will deduct the $160 million it says the PA owes it in unpaid power bills.
I do not want to suggest that this historic vote is without benefits, however. The level of support at the General Assembly shows a huge international support for the Palestinian cause. This momentum can be harnessed as the struggle for justice, and land, goes on.
The draft UN resolutionemphasized ‘the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to independence in their State of Palestine on the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967’. As a result, illegal Israeli settlements can no longer be referred toat the UN, in the media, and in diplomatic documents as ‘disputed lands’ but must be adjudged ‘occupied lands’.
The newly acquired right to prosecute Israel for war crimes in the ICC is one that the Palestinians should pursue urgently, using all the evidence at its disposal – especially that contained in Justice Goldstone’s report to the UN on the 2008-9 Gaza conflict. Israel can also be held accountable at the ICC for settlement building which is clearly in breach of international law.
Another positive outcome of Thursday’s application to the UN is renewed hope for national unity. The Gaza crisis which preceded it, and which saw at least 150 Palestinians slaughtered, brought Hamas into the fold. Hamas refused to back last year’s demand for full membership of the UN but this time around, leader KhaledMeshaal surprised the Fatah leader and seasoned commentators alike when he personally telephoned President Abbas to express his movement’s support for his move so long as there were ‘no concessions over the Palestinians’ legal rights’.
The PLO remains the recognized representative of the Palestinian people at the UN, and Hamas and Fatah can work together within this framework, re-energizing the organization and using it for national reconciliation and to present a unified front both on the international stage and in any future negotiations with Israel.
Through the vehicle of the PLO, all factions can adopt a consensus approach to the peace process which can only be resumed if Israel freezes its settlement activities and implements all UN resolutions relating to Palestine, especially resolution 194 which guarantees the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their original homes and lands.
The UN vote to upgrade Palestine recognizes decades of its people’s patience and steadfastnesssince the UN itself, on the same fateful date - 29 November - voted in 1947 to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states.
Palestine is, finally, on an upward trajectory in terms of global politics.
Israel, however, will find itself under increased international scrutiny and isolation as a result of the UN vote; if it continues along its current path of human rights violations, racism, ethnic cleansing and disregard for the laws of nations, it will be downgraded … to the status of pariah state with a very few, unlikeable, friends.