By Noura Erakat
24 Sep 2012
In early August 2012, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas vowed to renew the United Nations statehood bid in September:
"Even if this step conflicts with other parties' interests … [W]e will not step back. . . . Israel neither halted settlement activities, nor recognized the Palestinian territory occupied in 1967 as occupied territory. Thus, the only choice we have is to go to the UN equipped with a united Arab mandate."
Yet, only a few weeks later, the Palestinian foreign ministry announced that it would not submit an application to the UN General Assembly session set to begin in mid-September. Alternatively, it will make an informal call for recognition in a speech. Analysts say that the Palestinian leadership will wait until after the US presidential elections to resume a more forceful campaign at the United Nations. Be that as it may, the timing has become virtually irrelevant because the statehood bid as advanced by the current Palestinian leadership has proven to be fruitless.
September 2012 marks one year since the Palestinian leadership introduced its bid for membership and recognition at the United Nations. Then, an international community—comprised of UN member states, NGOs, and Palestinians—watched the Palestinian leadership with apprehension and hope, eager that it would use the UN platform to embark on a new chapter of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination. One year onwards, it is clear that this leadership is more committed to preserving its rule in a truncated statelet than achieving national liberation.
Withdrawing from Oslo’s Terms: A Prerequisite
Since establishing the terms of the Oslo peace process in the early and mid 1990s, the Palestinian Authority and Israel, together with the United States, have been managing a colonial reality rather than working towards its dissolution. The Oslo Accords suffer from three fundamental and enduring flaws: they deliberately omit the rights enshrined in international law from the terms of reference aimed at resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict; they confine negotiations to bilateral talks brokered by the United States, an unwilling and unable agent of change; and they transform transitional Palestinian self-governance into a permanent arrangement. The terms of Oslo structurally prioritized Israeli security interests–as defined by Israel–above Palestinian rights–as codified by the international community–by making any progress towards Palestinian freedom dependent upon an Israeli certificate of good conduct that the Palestinians were never going to obtain.
Palestinians protested these terms well before January 2011, when the Palestine Papers revealed the deleterious course steered by the Palestinian leadership. In 2006, fifty-eight percent of the Palestinian electorate voted for Hamas in PA parliamentary polls, in what can be described as a triple referendum: on Fatah’s management of the Palestinian Authority and the national movement more broadly; on conditions of daily life in the Occupied Palestinian Territory; and on the Oslo peace process.
Consider that by 2006, almost a decade after the Oslo process was slated for completion, serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiations had all but collapsed and had yet to genuinely address the core issues separating the two sides. As it became increasingly clear that Israel had no intention to enable a genuine process of decolonization, the second Intifada raged between 2000 and 2005, resulting in the killing of thousands of Palestinian, many of them civilian non-combatants, as well as the destruction of no less than five thousand Palestinian homes. Furthermore, Israel in 2002 began construction of the West Bank Wall. In 2005, Israel had also unilaterally disengaged from the Gaza Strip, relocating its twelve thousand settlers to either side of the Green Line Finally, the number of Israeli settlements in the West Bank practically doubled during the decade after Oslo. The “peace process” enabled and facilitated, rather than deterred, these developments.
A Palestinian approach to the United Nations would therefore have been meaningful only if it simultaneously consisted of a clear withdrawal from Oslo and its terms. To be successful, the statehood bid would have needed to clearly challenge continued Israeli colonialism and apartheid along with the international economic and political relationships that sustained them. Such a strategy would have included the termination of security cooperation with Israel, removing the conflict and its resolution from the purview of bilateral negotiations, and engaging in tactics designed to isolate Israel and expose its settler-colonialist structure and policies. Yet, as various international analysts and Palestinian organizations observed, the statehood bid was designed in a manner to improve the Palestinian leadership’s position within the terms of Oslo, rather than one aimed at shifting decisively away from it.
Failure to Change Course in the Intervening Twelve Months
If this latter criticism was not entirely obvious in 2011, the Palestinian leadership has confirmed its validity many times over in the intervening twelve months. Consider first that the bid for full membership status died a quiet death in the Security Council. Full UN membership requires a positive Security Council recommendation to the General Assembly, which the United States adamantly opposed. To save face, the US and Palestinian leaderships agreed to spare the statehood application from a vote and the US veto it would have entailed. The standoff would have embarrassed the United States, which proclaims support for a two-state settlement, as well as the Palestinian leadership, because it has not disavowed the US-brokered peace process. What has survived this process, and what remains at stake, is recognition within the General Assembly, which would upgrade Palestine from its “observer mission” status at the United Nations to an “observer state” one. In order to break away from Oslo’s framework, the Palestinian leadership could and should have used this opportunity to confront the United States’ intransigent support of Israel. Instead, it chose not to and continued to pursue a political program under American tutelage in the hope that a global superpower would deliver independence.
Since leaving United Nations Headquarters, the Palestinian leadership has done little to indicate a move away from Oslo’s debilitating terms. Even its most significant achievement of earning acceptance as a member state within the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) became another opportunity to reify Oslo’s structure. Palestinian diplomats used its state status within UNESCO to add the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to the list of endangered world heritage sites. While recognition of the Church as a Palestinian site is indeed positive, doing so also marks a missed opportunity for Palestinians to use their UNESCO membership to add other sites that are under graver threat within the West Bank. For example, as Ryvka Barnard highlights, it would have been optimal for Palestinians had their leadership used the opportunity to add Battir, a village in the Bethlehem district that sits in Area C, to the list of World Heritage Sites. Most of Battir is now under threat because it is about to be consumed by the route of the annexation wall. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) has also designated lands alienated from the village by the Israeli state as a green park for exclusive use by Israeli citizens – in effect, Jewish settlers and their fellow travelers. By contrast, the Nativity Church is located within Area A, which is under full Palestinian civilian and security jurisdiction and not in imminent danger.
The Palestinian leadership also lobbied the International Criminal Court (ICC) to approve its application, submitted in January 2009, requesting to be recognized as a state within its jurisdiction. This would have enabled Palestinians to bring lawsuits for war crimes against Israel for its Winter 2008/9 onslaught on the Gaza Strip. Not surprisingly, the ICC rejected the application and did not admit Palestine as a state even for jurisdictional purposes. This marked the end of the Palestinian leadership’s pursuit for accountability. Its paralysis was unnecessary as it had other available options to pursue accountability for Israeli war crimes committed in Gaza. These included advocacy to make actionable the recommendations of the 2009 Goldstone Report. Despite Judge Richard Goldstone’s subsequent attempt at disavowal of elements of his own work, the Report is and remains an official Human Rights Council document. Therefore, it can be legitimately supported. However, even this small measure within the United Nations has not been pursued, indicating a myopic quest for self-rule by the Palestinian leadership.
Strengthening Security, Entrenching the Occupation
In addition to the missed and neglected opportunities at recognition as a state, the Palestinian leadership has strengthened its Oslo-engendered security apparatus. In early July 2012, the Palestinian Authority invited then-Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz—who as Chief of Staff in 2002 was responsible for the pummelling of Jenin refugee camp—to visit Ramallah. Palestinian youth, organized under the banner of Palestinians for Dignity, launched protests against this invitation. In response, PA security forces beat youth activists, and journalists covering them, with repressive force.
More recently, the Palestinian Authority has extended its detention of Zakaria Zubeidi, the Freedom Theatre co-founder, for nineteen more days. The Palestinian security forces detained Zubeidi on 13 May 2012, but have yet to charge him with any crime. Zubeidi, who is on hunger strike and has vowed to continue until the end, proclaimed: "This decision is unjust and means you want to kill me, but I want to choose how I will die. In four days, there will be a funeral from Jericho to Jenin." In non-ironic protest, onlookers screamed "shame" and accused the Palestinian leadership of being "no better than the Israelis."
Indeed, Zubeidi’s protest emulates the campaign waged by thousands of Palestinian detainees in Israeli custody earlier this year. Political prisoners, beginning with Khader Adnan, launched hunger strikes to protest their “administrative detention.” A euphemism for indefinite incarceration, this draconian measure allows Israel to arrest a Palestinian without charge or trial for up to six months, renewable indefinitely. Adnan was on hunger strike for sixty-six days before Israel agreed to release him. Several other Palestinian prisoners followed his example and in April 2012, 2,500 Palestinian prisoners engaged in a mass, collective hunger strike. On its own, it threatened to severely disrupt and (if strikers had died) sever the state of normalcy prevailing in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Only months later, and days before the purported resumption of the UN statehood bid, the Palestinian Authority is faced with its own hunger striker.
By initiating the statehood bid, the Palestinian leadership was able to extend its shelf life by another year. It does not have another life preserve available to it today. In light of its adamant pursuit of a self-defeating and harmful “peace process,” the Palestinian leadership has proven itself irresponsible and inadequate. If it does not find the means to mitigate the economic brunt of its austerity measures, it will surely lose all remaining favor amongst even a majority-patron West Bank population. In which case, it will assert its control by authoritarian rule and continue to vie for swaths of land that it can dutifully govern.
Moving beyond this impasse is the responsibility first and foremost of the Palestinians themselves, who have the agency both to deny the Palestinian leadership’s legitimacy as well as to insist upon alternative paths forward. The most promising of these are rights-based approaches aimed at achieving the human and national rights enshrined by norms and law, and which cannot be truncated by the imbalance of power, dutifully preserved by unconditional US support for Israeli colonialism. Beyond the shade of US-afforded impunity, and under the scrutinizing eye of a universalist discourse, Israel cannot withstand the demand for equality of its non-Jewish citizens, of civilians under military occupation, and of an exiled indigenous population. Even if it could maintain its institutionalized discriminatory practices, it will be forced to do so without legitimacy of being the “only democracy in the Middle East,” and with the stigma of an apartheid regime instead. Admittedly, this is not a plan or a liberation strategy. It is, however, a vision, which is much more than the current Palestinian leadership has to offer.