Seeking Palestinian Statehood: Sovereignty or Paralysis?

By Issa Khalaf

It’s been since May that we’ve heard Fatah-Hamas reconciliation via an interim unity government leading to elections in 2012, is imminent. Actually, reconciliation has been impending since 2007.  Nothing materialized by way of joint governance, certainly not even coordinated security, as the PA is apparently on track to seek Palestine recognition at the UN next month—without ‘national unity.’ 

Abbas and company plan West Bank-only local council elections in October, preoccupy themselves with blocking sermons of unsympathetic imams, continue to work closely with Israeli security forces, and conduct repression and censor as usual against journalists, activists, dissidents, and even political satire.  Hamas, meanwhile, is determined to maintain its Gaza fiefdom and enforce its version of socio-political Islam. 

Just like mini-state 1, lifeline courtesy of donors, mini-state 2 uses public resources to award and punish, co-opt and repress, dispense favors, money, and positions, depending on one’s political allegiance, and of course, it won’t do to have talented teenage denizens living and studying in the US for a year lest they become exposed to Western liberal ideas and lifestyle.  Surely, male barbers cutting women’s hair, women smoking in public, and un- or scantily clad female mannequins, according to press reports, are matters of utmost “state” importance. 

The Palestinian people, after all, don’t have much else with which to concern themselves except their leaders’ factionalism and infighting for power and privilege—certainly not the historically culminating Israeli/Zionist drive to eradicate the Palestinian national, cultural, and physical presence from historic Palestine. 

Maintaining rule, controlling state resources, profiting from the public sector, robbing the people of wealth, dignity and security, congealing elite, security apparatus, and military, ruling by personality, assuming entitlement to rule—I could go on—these are the wonderfully ancient patterns of Arab, including Palestinian, elite political culture.  Now that the “Arab Spring” is stalled or reversed—and the Palestinian people alienated and exhausted from countless rebellions and protests to free themselves from the Israeli occupier—the leaders’ autocracy is unwavering.  Indignant protestations and announcements of resignations by PA officials in response to the “Palestine Papers” turned out to be little more than theatrics.  The more things change… 

The most vibrantly democratic and civil societies outside of Egypt has been effectively hobbled, even suffocated, by its own leaders; the Palestinian national movement, downhill since Oslo, has yet to free itself from its leaders and re-imagine and implement democratic politics free of the state/ institutional albatross.  Palestinian society, social and political groups are yet to formulate their own version, analyses, and possibilities of the Arab popular revolts, to agree on a clear political or strategic goal, a vision, and form of resistance for obtaining it, at minimum of realizing Palestinian freedom and dignity. 

We sorely need an academic study and policy analysis, a critical assessment, of Palestinian politics and society, at the very least by scholars in the territories, at this, most important historical juncture.    

And so the PA forges ahead at the UN while maintaining the status quo.  Here and elsewhere, in the last year, I assessed in several articles statehood recognition, arguing for its possibilities—specifically, validation of claim over the entire occupied territories, negotiations as (theoretically) legally equal sides without prior Palestinian concessions, and the non-preclusion of bi-national solutions or refugee return.  This, even in the context of leadership illegitimacy and complete lack of sovereignty, and even if it only leads to statehood recognition by ever more states but not membership.  The PA will seek recognition of statehood via a plenary session of the UNGA, with or without Security Council recommendation while the Americans apparently threaten consequences, of course also implying a veto. 

The UN is a product of its constituent states, and the powerful ones have preponderant influence.  Thus, recognition from the world’s leading states without formal membership can be beneficial especially if these dominant states, namely those of the EU who would follow Russia and China, Brazil and Turkey also award full recognition and diplomatic status to Palestine.  The benefits could be numerous even though, the next day, Israel will remain in occupation and continue its unrelenting colonization.

In meantime, the Israelis are “preparing” for mass protest by stocking up on all the supposedly non-lethal goodies and brushing up on tactics of suppression and containment.  Better yet, the Israelis are supplementing their “readiness” by a time-tested strategy: attack Gaza and manufacture conflict to cause intra-Palestinian strife and undermine the planned PA diplomatic venture.  They probably need not concern themselves with mass protests, however, for the PA, fearful such protests, should they even materialize on any significant scale, turn in the direction of the PA itself, promises all who would listen that the protests would be orderly and peaceful (controlled and orchestrated?).  The PA/Fatah has lots of confidence in its security forces and cronies. 

What both the Israelis and Palestinian leadership may actually fear is not that protests will lead to violence, but that they gain momentum towards an independent, self-sustaining, self-organizing non–violent campaign of resistance demanding freedom, equality, and human rights.

It’s difficult to suppress the nagging feeling that chasing statehood will, if nothing else, lead to one certainty: the strengthening and prolongation of the current Palestinian regime which by its nature is incapable, really, of devising a strategy of Palestinian self-determination, national or civic.  The PA regime is, after all, dependent for its existence on its imperial benefactors and cooperation with Israel; it is hardly representative of the Palestinian people, much less of cooperating with and mobilizing Palestine’s intelligent civil society, and is virtually complicit in immobilizing and dismantling the Palestinian national movement and disempowering the Palestinian Diaspora. 

Never mind that the defunct PLO is supposed to be the international representative of the Palestinians, the PA’s drive for UN statehood, after all, is still an effective form of negotiation, a prelude, in the pursuit of two states.  The two ethnic states-goal and the PA cannot be severed or dissociated.  The entire West Bank institutional edifice, the present situation, depends on it.  UN statehood, for the PA, is a route to resumption of negotiations to end the occupation, believing that by doing so the Palestinians would have shattered, or else severely challenged, the Israeli/American imposed (political/diplomatic) balance of power—essentially uninterrupted colonization of the occupied territories.

Whether Salam Fayyad’s so-called self-reliance, self-empowerment, good governance, law and order, institution building, and development—all indicators on which the PA’s un-neutral external patrons insist—will somehow thwart Israeli colonialism, end the occupation, retrieve the occupied territories, achieve actual sovereignty, and so on, or whether they will simply perpetuate the Palestinian people’s predicament and agony and confuse and paralyze them further, may soon be seen.

The central question is whether this, statehood pursuit, will change the dynamics and asymmetry with the Palestinians’ oppressor, the Israelis.  If statehood pursuit is successful, will resuming negotiations with Israel lead to withdrawal to the 1967 lines and a sovereign state?  That is the leadership’s gamble.

– Issa Khalaf has a Ph.D. in political science and Middle East Studies from Oxford University. He contributed this article to

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