Comment | After the vote: Eight questions about Palestine

On Thursday, the UN's General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for Palestine to join its ranks as an observer state. Although this victory is likely to change little to the Palestinians' daily reality of occupation, blockade and dispossession, Chris Doyle argues it raises a number of important and urgent questions.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Tuesday, December 4, 2012 0:00 - 0 Comments

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Palestine now exists, or so says the overwhelming majority of the member states of the United Nations following the vote on Thursday (29 November) at the UN General Assembly. The UN vote to recognise Palestine as a non-member observer state has attracted huge attention, with many (not just Israeli official spokespeople) pointing out that the reality on the ground will change little as a result.

Indeed, it is undoubtedly true that Palestine has been born under occupation, born under blockade, born without freedom. This poses many questions, some urgent and critical. What follows is a list of some of the ones likely to be of import in the weeks and months ahead:

1)    Why is there such a fuss?

If – as Israeli spokespeople such, as Mark Regev, insist – the vote makes no real difference on the ground, why is there such a fuss from Israeli politicians about opposing it? Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni called the Palestinian UN move “a strategic terrorist attack“; whilst the current post holder, the settler Avigdor Lieberman, called the President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas a “political terrorist”. Lieberman stated that “The diplomatic terror that Abu Mazen is leading is more dangerous for us then the armed terror.” Had a Palestinian leader made such comments, his words would have been universally denounced as incitement.  The reality is that the one thing that scares Israeli leaders is the International Criminal Court.

2)    Which UN agencies will Palestine join? And will they make any difference?

Last year Palestine successfully applied to be a member of UNESCO. The US reaction was to cut funding, endangering a whole host of valuable projects worldwide. The issue which many focus on will be the International Criminal Court (ICC). Why should Palestine not have access to the ICC like any other country? If we believe in international justice then why should Palestinians be excluded from seeking it? Israel has the right to sign up but decided not to. At least, if there is an opportunity for Palestinians to benefit from the ICC, that might act as a brake to Israeli crimes as well as those Palestinians using rockets on civilian areas.

3)    How will UN Agencies refer to Palestine?

UN agencies have hitherto referred to “the occupied Palestinian territory” when dealing with the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This emphasises two important points – that the two areas are considered one single territorial unit as affirmed under the Oslo Accords, and that both are still under occupation. Typically, the UN should just refer to Palestine. However, not only does the new state have no confirmed borders, its new status does not reflect the fact it remains under occupation with zero sovereign authority.

4)    Will individual states join the UN in recognising Palestine?

Many states have already recognised Palestine as a state years ago. However, many who voted yes on Thursday have not. Logic would dictate that France, Italy, Spain, and Ireland, amongst others, should now accord full sovereign diplomatic status to Palestine through bilateral recognition. Britain has not ruled out doing this though it would probably not do so until and unless the Palestinians adhere to its conditions outlined on 27 November by the Foreign Secretary.

5)    What will be the Israeli reaction?

As with the PA’s application in 2011 for full member status, Israel has threatened to punish the Palestinians for having the temerity to seek UN backing for their right to self-determination. The United Kingdom declared that it preferred that Palestine did not push forward with this measure as it wished to see issues “resolved through negotiation”. The UK imposed conditions on Abbas for securing its ‘yes’ vote in favour of Palestinian statehood. Instructively, no conditions were set for Israel.

The Israeli reaction in 2011 was to withhold Palestinian tax revenues, which is an illegal act, not equivalent to Palestine legitimately seeking rights at the United Nations. This time around, in addition to withholding the PA’s tax revenues Israel announced a further 3000 settlement units in the West Bank, including within the E1 settlement plan. If the E1 plan (a settlement area to the east of Jerusalem) goes ahead it would split the West Bank in two. So the reaction to Palestinians seeking their rights at the UN, has been for Israel to deny them further on the ground and steal more of their land with illegal measures.

6)    Will the UK and others impose conditions on Israel for any future enhanced status with the EU?

When Israel applies to the EU for upgraded status, the United Kingdom has refused to set conditions on Israel, such as a complete freeze on settlement building. Unlike the demands it had imposed on the Palestinians, UK conditions for accepting Israeli enhanced EU status would revolve around asking it to stop illegal activities and grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention on human rights.

Settlement construction is a far more serious obstacle to peace that this latest UN vote, yet Britain has not taken one concrete action to demonstrate it is serious about its rhetorical position. Its reaction to the post-UN vote settlement announcement was yet more low-key criticism that Israel takes in its stride.

7)    Will Palestine ratify core human rights treaties?

The state of Palestine has the opportunity to sign up to human rights conventions. Palestinian officials have indicated that they are examining these. Human Rights Watch make some telling points about this.

8)    Will the media refer to the state of “Palestine”?

The global media accepts that the Vatican is an independent state, so will it refer to the state of Palestine? This is not clear yet. Although there is a state in law accepted by the United Nations, on the ground, there is no “sovereign” state.

Now that the UN show has finished, the hard reality for Palestinians will remain one of occupation, denial of freedom, checkpoints, settlements, the wall and the blockade. President Abbas may have a very short-term popularity boost, which will evaporate as the focus returns to the financial crisis that is besetting the PA.

Israel has said that Abbas’s decision to go the UN was a “unilateral act against peace” but could not even wait 24 hours in its haste to bang in a few more nails in the peace process coffin with its settlement plans. No doubt this will do Netanyahu no harm in the polls before the elections in January, but ultimately Israel needs peace just as much as the Palestinians and the region.

For the international community, including the US and the UK, questions have to be asked about its commitment to finding a lasting resolution to this conflict as well as the others blighting the region.

Chris Doyle

Chris Doyle is the director of the council for Arab-British understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honours degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter university.

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