It was wonderful to see the scenes of jubilation on West Bank and Gazan streets following Thursday’s vote at the United Nations General Assembly to make Palestine a ‘non-member observer state’. For once the Palestinian people were united in joy rather than sorrow.
That an overwhelming majority of member states — 138 out of 193 — supported the Palestinian bid and officially recognised Palestine as a nation was a diplomatic triumph for Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), but let’s not get too excited — this 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 sad that these 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 colony-building, the apartheid wall, laying siege to the people of Gaza and murdering their children.
Britain offered to vote for the bid if the Palestinians would agree not to take up one of the few privileges its enhanced status confers — access to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The US and Britain say they fear that Israel will be hauled before the ICC for war crimes, whilst asserting in the same breath that Israel has never committed any war crimes. A skewed view of the international justice these countries are supposed to uphold.
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, which must endorse any bid for full membership of the UN. Last September, 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 decision by announcing it will build 3,000 more illegal colony homes in the West Bank, continuing with its programme of apartheid South Africa-style Bantustanisation to further fragment the putative Palestinian state.
Financial retribution may not be far behind. When Palestine became a full member of Unesco last year, the US withheld almost a quarter of its annual $200 million aid to the PNA. 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 PNA which it may refuse to hand over. It has already intimated that it will deduct the $160 million it says the PNA 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 how strongly most of the international community feels about Palestine. This momentum can be harnessed as the struggle for justice, and land, goes on. The draft resolution emphasised “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 colonies can no longer be referred to in the media and diplomatic documents as ‘disputed lands’ but must be adjudged ‘occupied lands’. The resolution also brought into focus the ‘core issues: namely Palestinian refugees, occupied Jerusalem, colonies, borders, security and water.
The newly acquired right to challenge Israel 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 2008-09 Gaza conflict in which he identified several war crimes and human rights abuses. Israel can also be held accountable at the ICC for colony-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 Khalid Mesha’al surprised the Fatah leader and seasoned commentators alike when he personally telephoned Abbas to express his movement’s support…albeit on the wise proviso that there would be no ‘concessions over the Palestinians’ legal rights’.
The PLO remains the recognised representative of the Palestinian people at the UN and Hamas and Fatah need to work together within this framework, re-energising the organisation 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 colonist 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 recognises decades of Palestinian patience and steadfastness since the UN itself, on the same fateful date — November 29 — 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 as a result of the UN vote, and if it continues along its current path of human rights violations, racism, ethnic cleansing and disregard for the laws of nations, will be downgraded to the status of pariah state with very few friends.
Abdel Bari Atwan is editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi. His latest book is After Bin Laden: Al Qaida, the Next Generation.