By Samah Sabawi
(Presentation given at the forum on Palestine’s bid for statehood and liberation on 28 July 2011. Other speakers were Yousef Alreemawi who gave the case for the statehood bid and Kim Bullimore who gave an overview.)
Over the past months, the Palestine Authority (PA) has released statements and press releases that have given the impression that its quest for statehood is intended as a threat to force Israel to stop settlement building. Nabil Shaath who leads the foreign affairs department of Fatah, the main party of the Palestinian Authority told the New York Times “We want to generate pressure on Israel to make it feel isolated and to help it understand that there can be no talks without a stop to settlements. Without that, our goal is membership in the United Nations General Assembly in September.”
In other words, had Israel not called the PA’s bluff and had it stopped building settlements, the PA would have had an entirely different approach and would have happily continued on its path of negotiations. So the strategy then is still the same – or as Mahmoud Abbas put it in Turkey recently, returning to negotiations is the PA’s “first, second and third choice”.
Alas, the PA is now forced to move forward. In fact, Mahmoud Abbas has said in Turkey that “we are going to the UN because we are forced to.” And so, the PA has unleashed a major diplomatic effort to lobby countries to garner support for the statehood bid in September. The question now is are we really ready for statehood and will a vote at the UN change much of the reality on the ground?
There are three major conditions needed for a free viable Palestinian state. The first is national unity – the Palestinian state needs to represent all Palestinians as one people whether inside or outside of Occupied Palestine. A second component is economic viability – a Palestinian state needs be able to make its own decisions on sovereign matters and not be held hostage to foreign aid and the will of donor countries. A third and major component of a Palestinian state is security – it needs to have the strength to claim the land and protect is people either through an army or some form of international guarantees.
Mahmoud Abbas understood that in order for him to take his bid of statehood to the UN, he needed to be able to say he represents all Palestinians. So in early May this year, an agreement was signed by Hamas and Fatah in Egypt which was to mark the end of a four year rift between the two Palestinian factions. As part of the agreement, an interim government of “technocrats” was supposed to be formed that would lead the Palestinians into an election to take place next year. Hamas and Fatah agreed on establishing a security committee to coordinate between Hamas who would continue to have responsibility for security in the Gaza Strip and Fatah who would control the security in the West Bank. It was clear that the security arrangements between Israel and the PA would continue as is.
So has Abbas successfully met the first obstacle on the way to Palestinian statehood by laying the grounds for a unified Palestinian government? The jury is still out on this one. The Hamas Fatah talks stalled when both factions disagreed on who would lead the government of technocrats. Abbas insisted on Fayyad to satisfy the donor countries and Hamas totally rejected this choice. Now the talks are in suspension mode and both factions are happy to keep things as they are for now.
But even if Fatah and Hamas succeed in reconciling their difference there is still going to be a concern that this State automatically divides the Palestinian people. Leaving those in Israel to fend for themselves as second-class citizens and certainly not coming up with any solutions to force Israel to comply with its obligations toward the Palestinian refugees. The PA would also be turning its back on Palestinians in the Diaspora in not offering them a seat at the table that determines how their aspirations will be met.
Much has been said about the economic growth in the West Bank and Fayyad’s exceptional efforts at boosting the Palestinian economy. But, on 7 April 2011, the World Bank published a report cautioning that when it came to the sustainability of economic growth in the West Bank and Gaza, the prospects were in fact bleak. The report emphasised that the figures of economic growth celebrated by the PA and the donor community, in truth, only reflect a recovery from the very low base reached during the second intifada and that it is still mainly confined to the non-tradable sector which is primarily donor-driven. The World Bank report made clear that aid is what keeps many Palestinians above the poverty line, particularly in Gaza, where unemployment is still 37.4 percent and a “staggering” 71 percent of the population benefited from some form of social assistance.
The authors of the World Bank report argued that sustainable growth depends on a “vibrant” private sector, which seems unlikely to emerge “while Israeli restrictions on access to natural resources and markets remain in place, and as long as investors are deterred by the increased cost of business associated with the closure regime.”
In other words, the World Bank report has made it clear that without the aid the PA receives from the donor community, the economy in Palestine is unviable.
A close look at the current Palestinian Security forces raises some serious questions about its ability to protect and secure the future state of Palestine. The PA’s security apparatus is mostly trained by the US and is only equipped to deal with internal security issues such as border patrol and general policing duties. They are not an army, they have never had army training in the field and their close cooperation with the Israeli security forces raise serious questions about their ability to rise to the occasion of defending a state under occupation and the ongoing threat by one of the world’s most powerful armies.
With these realities in mind, can we expect a withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank and Gaza? Israel has more than 570 permanent barriers and checkpoints around the occupied West Bank, as well as an additional 69 “flying” checkpoints. Existing Jewish settlements and Jewish only roads and structures annex more than 54% of the West Bank. For a Palestinian state to be viable, it needs to put its own security first. That would mean an end to the current Palestinian Israeli security arrangement and the ability to clear out the checkpoints and reclaim the land.
The Palestinian state needs an army to defend its borders or at a minimum an international community willing to back it with an army. Palestinians have a legitimate right to live in security free from state-sponsored terror and internal violence. The big question here is, how would the PA once it declares statehood have the ability to secure its own borders and to defend its people’s right to security?
So now we know that there is no economically viable state with institutions capable of securing its borders and its people nor a government that addresses the rights of all Palestinians.
So what does this bid for statehood really mean?
Sadly, it may mean nothing at all. Let us have a look at the process: the UN General Assembly can admit new members to the UN once they have been nominated first by the Security Council. The UN Security Council is the only UN body with operative power to create a state. So the first step would be for the PA to seek nomination by the UN Security Council. There, any of the five permanent members could veto the nomination. In this case, the US, which is a permanent member, has already indicated that it would veto the vote.
If the vote is defeated in the Security Council, the PA originally planned to table the Palestinian State declaration at the UN General Assembly. There is no veto power in the General Assembly, but unlike the Security Council, the General Assembly has no operative power and although they may vote in favor of a Palestinian State, the state will not have protection under the UN Security Council.
Even though Palestine is recognised so far as a state by 122 countries, including Brazil, China, India and Russia, it still needs a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly, or 129 votes, to be admitted as the 194th member state of the United Nations.
But the sad reality is that without US support and without sufficient international will, none of this matters. The PA knows that it faces a veto by the US: it has been subjected to immense pressure – its funding has been cut off and now it is two months behind in meeting its PA salaries. Now, they have begun hinting that they may no longer ask for recognition at the UN to avoid upsetting the US too much; rather, they may opt for only an upgrade from observer status which they currently hold, to “non-member state status”, which only demands approval by the General Assembly. In other words, they will upgrade their membership at the UN, but still not have voting rights.
So what does this mean? Practically not much would change. Currently, the Palestine Delegation to the UN has observer status, has permission for special rights to reply, can raise points of order, can co-sponsor certain resolutions and can make interventions in the General Assembly. More importantly, nothing much would change on the ground and Israel will continue to occupy and oppress the Palestinian people.
The PA Strategy
The PA’s use of a declaration of a Palestinian State as a threat to force Israel’s hand to stop building settlements in hope of resuming the peace process only points to the lack of clout the Palestinians have at the negotiating table with their Israeli counterparts. The question here will be what are Palestinians planning to do in October after this card has been played when they find themselves once again powerless in the face of Israel? Mahmoud has the answer; “our first second and third choice is negotiations”.
The PA is heavily reliant on Israel and the international donor community; it is incapable of securing Palestinian borders; it lacks political clout and has no long-term strategy. The reality is the PA was built to be a governmental structure not a liberation movement. Its time is up. The government was supposed to be there to embrace a state. There is no state coming. Netanyahu has confirmed it, Obama has confirmed it and the maps speak for themselves.
Yet, it is astonishing to see that Abbas continues to express a willingness to return to talks even though the majority of his people are now convinced that negotiations with Israel leads to more land loss and freedoms denied. It is high time for the PA to recognise that it has failed in its mission. All that the so-called peace process has done is to dress up the Palestinian liberation movement in suits and sit in a waiting room for 20 years while the Zionist project advanced its agenda.
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) needs to wake up from its deep slumber, shed its suits for some good keffiyehs, and begin to implement some badly-needed reforms. It needs to become more representative of the Palestinian people’s dreams and aspirations and to open its doors for Palestinians to join in from inside and out.
Let me conclude with this: the establishment of a viable, contiguous, free Palestinian state is within itself an exciting prospect for many Palestinians, but it is not likely to materialise past the symbolic realm in the near future, in spite of the remarkable effort to build the institutions and to provide a measure of economic viability which has proved impossible under occupation. The only way forward is for the Palestinian leadership to join its hands with Palestinian civil society in a massive civil rights movement. One that can be part of the non-violent resistance inside Palestine and embrace Palestinian Civil Society’s call for Boycott Divestments and Sanctions around the globe. We cannot afford to waste any more time.
– Samah Sabawi is the Public Advocate of the Australian advocacy group Australians for Palestine. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.