By Mohannad El-Khairy
Achieving much needed international recognition of Palestine’s right to exist on one hand, and potentially sealing the disenfranchisement of Palestinian rights, particularly those of state-less refugees, on the other. It’s like being stuck between a rock and hard place, isn’t it?
The Statehood Argument, Bottom-lined
We have what appears to be a well thought-out strategy by the Palestinian government in the West Bank to demand a permanent seat at the UN. Hussam Zomlot, Fatah’s senior official in the Department of Foreign Relations, outlined the strategy clearly on Al Jazeera:
"There are three main benefits that have directed or inspired our move – legal, political, and strategic. Legally: this will establish a legal parity, as a state. The main idea is for defence, to prevent an attack. There is a lot of talk about the ICC and how as a state we can pursue cases through them […] Legally, a Palestinian state is a deterrent weapon […] We are not going to engage in attacks like Israel does. Our deterrent is international law. Soldiers at checkpoints will think twice before hurting a lady at the border. In political terms: we have won half of the exercise […] We have reinforced forcefully on the international agenda the need for a Palestinian state. Now every single activist and journalist has been speaking about Palestine. Thus our political cause has already been achieved. Strategically: our interest is to challenge the status quo. You may ask: ‘How this will challenge the status quo? How has Israel sustained the status quo for nearly twenty years?’ The bilateral process has led nowhere, and one of the tools to sustain the status quo was negotiations themselves. We stopped that, and we stopped that strategically. Negotiations under the previous terms were just prolonging negotiations. The terms of reference were created and accepted by Israel before we even started. We are not going back to the old days of nonsense."
Sounds like proper stuff. But Israel was never afraid of the legal card in the first place. In fact, its very raison d’etre in the West Bank and Gaza is illegal according to both the UN and the ICC. Strategically, Mahmoud Abbas contradicted Zomlot’s third point by declaring that he is still open to negotiations with the Israelis after his speech.
A few questions, then:
1. Why has the decision been unilaterally taken by Mahmoud Abbas without a consensus from all factions representing the Palestinian people?
2. Why hasn’t the PA been transparent about its plan at the UN with the global Palestinian diaspora, especially with Palestinian refugees and – yes – Palestinians living inside Israel?
3. What about the facts on the ground enabled by Israel’s military occupation– expanding settlements, land annexations, check-points, the Apartheid Wall, and the creation of Bantustans in the West Bank?
4. Why now?
5. Are there other possible motives?
PA Policies: A Brief Reminder
The first question stems from the PA’s consistent, ubiquitous and self-proclaimed title as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian nation. But let’s face it; rhetoric aside, if history were to be the judge, Abbas hasn’t really looked out for the benefit of the Palestinian people since he took office. Chanting all the right slogans is what politicians do. And although many applaud his resilience in pursuing a comprehensive two-state solution, a lot of his policies contradict the rhetoric. The masses remain, like the state of their existence, in the dark.
The Palestine Papers didn’t have to happen to make such statements true. Head to the West Bank and there’s enough evidence to understand why. On many levels, the PA has been accused of corrupt, oppressive and even collaborative behavior, one that has coordinated the occupation with Israel to keep the West Bank tamed and "head-ache free". More elementally, the PA works to benefit a minority wealthy class within Palestinian society, and destroying the middle-class, while isolating the majority poor. The purpose of the Palestinian resistance is not only to get rid of Israel’s occupation, but to empower the Palestinian nation at all levels of society. So why the UN bid for statehood now? A lot of it has to do with timing. Let’s work our way backwards.
PA officials have openly expressed that they have built the necessary institutions for a state, and thus are ready for statehood. "Institution building", in this context, means the PA’s security apparatus has been beefed up, the neo-liberalization of Palestine’s economy is ready, and political dominance based on serving the financial interests of corporations can be implemented.
I recently read a fascinating piece by Virginia Tilly reporting from the West Bank. Here’s an excerpt showing what happened in South Africa and its eerie similarities with Palestine:
"[…] More importantly, the South African comparison helps illuminate why the ambitious projects of pacification, "institution building" and economic development that the Ramallah PA and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have whole-heartedly embarked upon are not actually exercises in "state-building." Rather, they emulate with frightening closeness and consistency South Africa’s policies and stages in building the Bantustan/Homelands. Indeed, Fayyad’s project to achieve political stability through economic development is the same process that was openly formalized in the South African Homeland policy under the slogan ‘separate development’. […] Under such vulnerable conditions, no government can exercise real power and ‘separate development’ must equate with permanent extreme dependency, vulnerability and dysfunctionality. […] Declaring independence will not solve the problem of Palestinian weakness; it will only concretize it."
Concretize; as in: solidify.
Take the massive security cooperation that took place between Israel and the PA, exposed by both wikileaks and the Palestine Papers. A December 30 2008 cable from Jerusalem details the contacts made between the PA and Israel regarding West Bank protests against the Zionist regime’s assault on their brothers and sisters in Gaza:
"PA commanders said they told IDF officers that President Abbas and PM Fayyad both directed them to avoid situations that could develop into confrontations with the IDF. The security chiefs said Abbas and Fayyad passed a message to all Palestinian factions, at a PLO Executive Committee meeting on December 29, that only peaceful marches away from flashpoints would be permitted. PA commanders noted they have no control over Areas B and C such as Qalandiya and Nil’in, and would need IDF approval to move PA forces to those areas to prevent clashes between protesters and the IDF […] PA commanders said their IDF counterparts agreed to expedite coordination and movement requests and exchange information on possible disturbances, as both sides have an interest in preventing West Bank violence. They said both sides also agreed not to leak substantive discussions about the meeting to the press, given the sensitivity of security coordination in a time of Palestinian outrage over events in Gaza".
Similarly, why did Abbas’ forces violently chase, capture, beat and torture protesters showing their solidarity with the masses of the Arab world earlier this year? With the recent storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo, hasn’t the Arab Spring clearly shown that Israeli occupation and Arab dictatorships are both being rejected because they are part of the same order? The fact of the matter is that they feed off each other politically and economically to oppress the masses — whether in Gaza, the West Bank, or even Israel itself. It has been argued that Abbas is part of this same order, proof for which is when he came out to publicly support Mubarak during the Egyptian Revolution.
So the situation on the ground is getting worse. More people are losing their lands, there is more repression of free speech, more disenfranchised youth, and a wider poor-rich gap. One must also ask who benefits with the PA’s UN bid for statehood. With public opinion reaching new lows, it is clear that in order to remain politically legitimate in the eyes of the masses, a bold step needed to be taken, one that will strengthen the PA’s image amongst its people despite the severe realities it has created on the ground.
The Word on the Street
This clear disconnect between the people and the government begs the question "then what?". The Occupy Wall Street movement in America is the country’s very own intifada against corporate greed and policies that benefit only the rich and disenfranchise the "99%". Do we need our government to be our own worst enemy serving the interest of the elite, like in the West? Inking the miserable status-quo on the ground mainly benefits two entities– one in the short-term and another in the long-term– while handicapping a third. On the short-term, the PA clearly benefits as it would manipulatively gain the masses’ approval, be able to exercise full control over the West Bank, while receiving all the new privileges of a member state in the UN. And as long as it doesn’t have a right-wing neo-fascist regime at the helm, Israel benefits on the long-term as it effectively seals in the characteristics of a Palestinian state it can thrive on, that is: capitulation and collaboration. A Palestine that turns its people into cheap labor isn’t a free nor liberated Palestine at all.
And here’s the kicker: Although two Israeli lobby groups in the US– the right-leaning Israel Project and the left-leaning J-Street — both came out against the Palestinian move to the UN, they are also against Congress’ proposed bill to cut funding to the PA, reminding us all of what the PA’s actual role in the West Bank is and why US officials like Senators John McCain, John Kerry and Elliot Abrams are becoming increasingly vocal about maintaining aid to the PA.
NYC-based journalist Alex Kane, who focuses his writings on Israel and Palestine, puts it this way: "The PA’s most heralded accomplishment over their decade-plus tenure was the establishment of ‘law and order’ in the West Bank, which in part meant cracking down on political dissidents through the creation of a repressive security force. The PA security forces, which have been accused of detention, arbitrary arrest and torture, have worked hand-in-hand with the Israeli military, the US and the EU to keep the West Bank void of resistance to the occupation".
We can hear all the rhetoric we want, but the situation on the ground is reflective of the truth. Here’s a quote from a Palestinian blogger in the West Bank who summed it all up:
"Abbas and Co. are pretending (or maybe they actually believe?) that every thing’s alright. Take for example Rawabi, the name a new Palestinian town to be built by ‘Palestinian real-estate’ company Bayti. This is ironic on several levels. Instead of coming to the assistance of Palestinian villages that are experiencing actual real estate theft on behalf of Israeli colonial settlers, the PA has decided to build a new town just outside of Ramallah. The fact is that this new town – praised by Bayti as the first ‘planned’ Palestinian town – is part of Israel’s ‘economic development’ policy (which is essentially the Israeli convergence plan). It also very much in line with USAID’s idea of ‘economic zones’. The added irony is that the PA must ask permission from Israel in order to gain control of the so-called ‘land corridor’ that will link Rawabi to Ramallah. And if that wasn’t enough, a Rawabi initiative entitled Grow for a Greener Palestine, will see the Jewish National Fund (infamous for stealing Palestinian land and supporting right-wing settlers in their quest to confiscate Palestinian land) plant trees in Rawabi. So settlers are uprooting Palestinian olive trees on one hand then planting trees in Bantustans in another. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?"
This is the economics for post-apartheid, I’m afraid. Israel and the PA win no matter what the outcome is, unless the masses from both sides reject their governments and work together to get rid of extremism and build a common, pragmatic future that is defined by justice, freedom and equality for both. The recent tent protests against the increasingly harsh and unequal living conditions in the Jewish state is an opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians to reject their governments and come together in a show of true human solidarity against the elitist establishments on both sides.
One cannot help but feel moved and overwhelmed by Abbas’ evocative and powerful speech at the UN on September 23rd 2011. The standing ovations, the diplomatic and political support of over 140 nations, as well as what appears to be the PA’s last push to pressure Israel into a two-state solution, had a definitely positive resonance in our hearts and minds. But that is how powerful Palestine is emotionally– that we’ll go as far as appreciating, indeed applauding, the PA’s bid for independence, despite the fact that political independence does not necessarily mean freedom, from its own kind of oppression.
– Mohannad El-Khairy is a Palestinian writer and commentator based in Dubai. He researches and writes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the wider socio-political situation in the Middle East, and their contextual significance on the international political stage on his blog Money & Mud Uncensored. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.