Palestine inches towards statehood
Air Cdre Khalid Iqbal (R)


Untimely assassination of President Yasser Arafat, while he was walking a tight rope of simultaneously managing peaceful and military approaches towards accruing statehood for Palestine, brought a new phase in the struggle. Palestinian-Israeli security coordination mechanism was revived. Though it brought shaky tranquillity, there was no substantial change in the political domain. Israelis responded to military and political narratives with different arguments, yet with identical outcome: arrogant refusal to end the occupation.

Ever since the creation of Israel, these two narratives have been competing for the hearts and minds of Palestinians, posing dilemmas regarding the best way to end the Israeli occupation. This month witnessed manifestation of both narratives in parallel. The PLA sought statehood through the UN and Hamas sought to convince the Israelis to quit their occupation through the use of rockets. The war in Gaza, which saw the rockets from Gaza reaching Tel Aviv and the outskirts of Jerusalem, brought back international players who had long abandoned the Palestinian cause.

Palestinian leadership presented a request for a vote at the UNGA to acquire ‘non-member observer state’ status, asking the world community to address the unfair decision it took in 1947 when it agreed to partition Palestine. At that time, the UN had supported a plan to create a Jewish state on 54 per cent of the territory of the British Mandate of Palestine for 31 per cent of the population that owned less than 6 per cent of the land. Earlier, President Mahmoud Abbas had tabled his bid for the Palestinian state-hood during the 66th session of the UNGA. At that time, he made his bid to the Security Council. Initial acceptance of application required the concurrence of 9 UNSC members. Bid fell short of one vote. A year later, 138 countries of the UNGA have voted to upgrade Palestine to a non-member state of the United Nations.

The vote profile, 138 countries in favour, 9 against and 41 abstentions, indicates impressive backing for the Palestinian point of view. Vote won backing from a number of European countries as well. It was a rebuff to intense American and Israeli diplomacy. France, Spain, Italy and Switzerland all voted yes. Britain and Germany abstained. Apart from Canada, no major country joined the United States and Israel in voting no. Reports indicate that Britain was prepared to back the vote if Mahmoud Abbas pledged not to pursue Israel for war crimes. Other opponents included Palau, Panama and Micronesia.

This Voting also has a symbolic value as it was held on the 65th anniversary of the vote to divide the former British mandate of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab; Israel considers that vote as legal instrument for its birth.

The new status will give the Palestinians more tools to challenge Israel in international legal forums for its occupation related activities in the West Bank, including raising of settlements. Saeb Erekat, the former chief Palestinian negotiator said: “life will not be the same” because “Palestine will become a country under occupation...The terms of reference for any negotiations become withdrawal.” Earlier he had said that “after the voting at the General Assembly is completed, [Abbas] will submit three letters to the UN Secretary-General, at the same hour.”

The first would be a request for membership to become a state member of the ‘4th Geneva Convention’, so as to show Israel that there is “a high price to pay” for occupation. The second letter would call on the UN Security Council to reactivate the ‘UN Anti-Apartheid Committee’ to address the situation in the West Bank, which is “worse than it was in South Africa [and] Rhodesia.” The third letter would be a request for membership in the ‘Forum against Racism and Discrimination’.

President Abbas, speaking to the UNGA, said, “The General Assembly is called upon today to issue a birth certificate of the reality of the state of Palestine.” Hamas also backed the bid. Salah al-Bardaweel, a spokesman for Hamas in Gaza commented: “We do not recognize Israel, nor the partition of Palestine, and Israel has no right in Palestine...Getting our membership in the UN bodies is our natural right, but without giving up any inch of Palestine’s soil.”

In response to the Palestinian bid, a bipartisan group of American senators intends introducing a legislation that could cut off foreign aid to the authority if it tried to use the International Criminal Court against Israel, and close the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington if Palestinians refused to negotiate with Israel. Calling the Palestinian bid “an unhealthy step that could undermine the peace process,” Senator Lindsey Graham said that he and the other senators would be closely monitoring the situation.

The UNGA vote came shortly after an eight-day Israeli military assault on Gaza that Israel described as a response to stepped-up rocket fire into Israel. The operation killed scores of Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority was politically weakened by the Gaza fighting, with its rivals in Hamas seen by many Palestinians as more willing to stand up to Israel and fight back. That shift in sentiment is one reason that some Western countries backed the UN resolution, to strengthen Mr. Abbas and his more moderate colleagues in their contest with Hamas.

Middle East has gone through a historic transformation; there is no likelihood of enduring peace unless the issue of Palestinian independence is resolved. The fragile ceasefire in Gaza is only a brief pause that needs to be seized to revive the dormant peace process. Understandably, Arab-Israel dispute is not destined for an easy or pain-free resolution. Ironically, the struggle for liberation of Palestine has wrongly been equated with the term ‘terrorism’. For Palestinians, it is a long way to go; the struggle has just begun!