What about the Palestinian Statehood bill?

On Friday 23rdof September, the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas (whose mandate finished in January 2009) handed over a request to UN chief Ban Ki-moon, asking the United Nations to admit the state of Palestine as a full member, without have left open the option of a lesser alternative – a non-member observer state, where such status would be granted by the General Assembly, where the Palestinians maintain broad support.

In the continuation of the article from August , “Palestinian State in September? Statehood is not enough for full freedom!” and the debates around this initiative, we analyse the dynamics surrounding it.

Officials of the PA announced it would give two weeks to the United Nations Security Council to decide on their bid for full membership, while Obama, in the most pro Israeli speech ever made by an American President in the history of the country, opposed the Palestinian initiative and said a Palestinian state can only be established as a result of negotiations, and that there is no short-cut to Palestinian independence. The Israeli Prime minister Netanyahu rejected the PA initiative in his speech, while the Israeli authorities have previously threatened the Palestinians if they would go with their initiative 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.

On a technical note, the UN does not actually have the authority to recognise states: other nations reserve the right to bilaterally acknowledge statehood. If the UN were nevertheless to recognise a Palestinian state, it might open the door for it to claim membership in international organisations including the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), the World Health Organisation (WHO), and the International Criminal Court. Status recognition by the UN does not ensure acceptance by these international groups, however, and would not ensure that Palestinians could pursue charges of illegal occupation and human rights violations against Israel.

In the mean time, Palestinians across the West Bank celebrated the formal submission of their bid to become a United Nations member state, while in the Gaza Strip, no sign of any activity to mark the UN bid was noticed, which has not been backed by Hamas, the ruling territory’s authority. Hamas security officials actually cracked down on people watching the Abbas address in Gaza City cafes and confiscated Palestinian flags that crowds were waving in the streets. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said the UN bid would not bring independence.

No massive mobilisations by Palestinians refugees abroad were organised, except small demonstrations in few Palestinians refugee camps in Lebanon, while the Palestinians of 48 did not mobilise as well.
The massive popular demonstrations in different cities of the West Bank on September 23, which many attended it with real support for the PA initiative, should nevertheless be nuanced in some ways. The PA had actually prepared this day by mobilising the different unions, controlled mainly by Fatah, the ruling party, to join the demonstrations, while government offices and schools were expected to close early to allow employees and students to attend them. Both state television and the state-run news agency WAFA called on the public to mass at the Muqataa, and Palestinians across the West Bank received text messages advertising “the official mass reception”. Few days before, the PA ordered also all mosques to join its campaign in support of Abbas and the PA’s bid for UN membership.

The PA statehood bill initiative, which could be observed and understood as part of the ongoing struggle towards their liberation and to achieve all the rights of the Palestinians, has actually been opposed by many Palestinians activists and divided the Palestinians community as a whole, from the occupied territories, to the refugees and the 48 citizens of Israel. In the midst of these debates, solidarity movements across the world have been very often hesitant to support the statehood bill. The speech of Mahmoud Abbas did not end the debates on the issue in any way.
The PA has actually not published any text describing what a Palestinian state would mean practically; neither did Abbas speech explained it, while this latter asked 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.

The application for UN membership for the “State of Palestine” submitted by the PA to the UN gives prominence to resolution 181, the 1947 “partition” resolution which recommended the partition of Palestine without the consent of its indigenous people. This partition was, as a reminder, a negation of the right of Palestinians, as a people anticipating decolonization, to self-determination. The full application mentions resolution 194, which states the right of return of refugees, but the document mixes together various concepts including “self-determination,” “statehood,” the “the vision of a two-State solution” and accord high weight to statements of the “Quartet” currently led by Tony Blair, an ad hoc body that had consistently undermined Palestinian rights.

The PA and supporters of the initiative declared that the strategy behind it is to move beyond the current “peace process” impasse, and 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. In his speech, however, Abbas maintained that he is willing to go back to the negotiation table immediately with Israel based on the 1967 borders and complete cessation of the settlement activities, adding that he did not want to isolate Israel.

The President PA on these two aspects is inevitably in opposition with the Palestinian people, who in their far majority believe that negotiations are and have been useless as they have always been since Oslo agreement, while the BDS campaign, which is the most representative and popular campaign among Palestinians, actually calls to isolate the State of Israel.

Many Palestinians have pointed out the dangers posed by the UN bid to the representation of Palestinians and the right of return, notably in relation to the future status of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) if a state of Palestine would be recognized. In particular, they have asserted the need for maintaining the PLO’s status as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people at the UN, and have warned of the dangers of replacing it with the state of Palestine as its representative in the seat. The right of return per se is not threatened by the current initiative. It is an inalienable universal right enshrined in international law and held fast to by the Palestinian people. The concern is that changing the representative at the UN from the PLO to the State of Palestine would adversely affect the ability of Palestinian representatives at the UN to claim and advocate that right, and that all Palestinians should have their representation at the UN. The PLO is the national representative of the Palestinian people as a whole, representing those inside and outside the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories. Being confined to the 1967 boundaries, the State of Palestine, which is yet to attain actual sovereignty on the ground, cannot claim to represent the refugees, unlike the PLO.

The Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM), an independent, nonpartisan alliance, founded by a group of young Palestinians scattered throughout the world, has opposed strongly the PA statehood initiative describing it as: “the statehood declaration only seeks the completion of the normalization process,… The foundation of this process serves as nothing more than to ensure the continuity of negotiations, economic and social normalization, and security cooperation.” In addition the PYM states that this declaration jeopardizes the rights and aspirations of over two-thirds of the Palestinian people who live as refugees in countries of refuge and in exile, to return to their original homes from which they were displaced in the 1948 Nakba (Catastrophe) and subsequently since then. It also jeopardizes the position of the Palestinians residing in the 1948 occupied territories who continue to resist daily against the ethnic cleansing and racial practices from inside the colonial regime.

As we can see, neither did Abbas speech and the explanations of PA officials satisfied the opponents of the Statehood initiative or reduced their fears. In addition to this, the initiative was made without any discussions or consensus among Palestinians political groups. This situation actually raised once again the issue of the legitimacy of the PA and its initiative, but above all of the questions of democracy and representation in the Palestinian national movement.

The PYM actually characterised the Palestinian leadership as illegitimate and that it has not been elected to be in a position of representation of the Palestinian people in its totality through any democratic means by its people.

Since the Oslo agreement, the PLO has actually been consistently undermined, and political fragmentation has been imposed upon the Palestinian people through the establishment of the PA. In theory and on paper, the PA is a subsidiary body of the PLO – and the West Bank and Gaza’s Legislative Council is incorporated into the Palestinian National Council (PNC) so there is one legislative body for all Palestinians, and all are equal politically under the law. In practice however, the PA is emerging as a parallel structure which excludes the refugees who constitute the majority of the Palestinian people. It is essential that this parallel structure not take the PLO seat at the UN, as the Palestinian refugees would be politically disenfranchised and legally and institutionally disempowered from making their claims to their rights at the only place that matters, the United Nations.

In line with this idea, there has been broad Palestinian mobilization in recent months, particularly 15th March movement this year, to reclaim and democratise the PLO and the Palestinian National Council, asking for holding direct elections for this latter. The PNC is the highest Palestinian legislative body, and it represents all Palestinians, whether they are refugees or not. The PNC is the body that creates the national strategies, platforms and policies of the Palestinian people, which the PLO executive committee should implement. Only a rejuvenated, democratically elected PNC can lay the foundation for effective representation of Palestinian rights, including the right of return.

In this perspective, a statehood initiative at the UN which would be presented by a trusted, democratically elected, accountable leadership and representing the will of the Palestinian people and their collective right to self determination would be supported strongly by all Palestinians – and, consequently, by solidarity groups worldwide, as argued notably by  Omar Barghouti, a founder of the BDS campaign.

The UN bid could be considered as a part of the ongoing struggle in this framework, while the PA imitative is actually seen by many as way to improve the bilateral peace negotiations under US patronage. This could actually threaten the great advances of the popular and civil struggle achieved until now in Palestine and worldly, particularly as a result of the global BDS movement.
In conclusion, we can observe that the debate on the PA statehood bill initiative is much more profound and deeper than the initiative in itself; it actually touches to the future of the Palestinian national movement and its refoundations on a democratic basis representing the collective interests of all the Palestinians and reformulating a new strategy of resistance, otherwise any so called Palestinian spring will be only an illusion. 

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