Will statehood bring justice?

September 21, 2011

The fierce opposition of the U.S. and Israel to UN recognition of Palestinian statehood obscures an important current of criticism coming from Palestinians themselves.

PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY President Mahmoud Abbas is vowing to press ahead with a bid for United Nations recognition of Palestinian statehood this week, even though the U.S. has vowed to veto the proposal if it comes to a vote in the UN Security Council.

Hard-right Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has warned that there will be "harsh and grave consequences" if the Palestinians persist with their plan to seek UN membership, and the U.S. has threatened to cut off $500 million in aid to the PA.

Israel and the U.S. are denouncing the Palestinian bid as a "unilateral move" that would jeopardize the "peace process." But despite nearly 20 years of negotiations under the rubric of the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israel continues its expansion of settlements in the West Bank and has imposed a brutal siege on Gaza.

This bitter hostility toward statehood from Tel Aviv and Washington is another facet of the Israeli war on the Palestinian people. But there is opposition to Abbas' proposal coming from a very different source.

Mahmoud Abbas
Mahmoud Abbas (Olivier Pacteau)

Many Palestinians are raising their voices in opposition to the PA's statehood strategy. Given the long history of UN resolutions and votes on Palestinian rights that have gone unheeded, these voices make the case that the statehood strategy carries little prospect of tangible progress, while putting at risk the national rights of millions of Palestinians, both within Israel and in refugee camps throughout the region.

What's more, the secret negotiations over the terms of the statehood bid make it impossible to tell what concessions the PA is considering in its effort to get U.S. support--even as one of the brightest opportunities in decades to push for Palestinian liberation has come into being.

The Arab Spring of revolts and revolutions reshaping the Middle East--as well as the mounting successes of the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel--provide an alternative to two decades of negotiations that have only reinforced Palestinian subjugation. The Palestinian national movement and its allies around the world must mount a sustained campaign to demand genuine self-determination.

PA OFFICIALS are touting the statehood bid as a strategy to push forward on negotiations over a "two-state solution," in which Israel and Palestine would exist side by side in peace.

For a generation now, the PA, Israel and the U.S. have agreed on paper on the concept of such an arrangement. But for years, Israel has used a myriad of techniques to forestall any meaningful progress at the negotiating table--so it can continue moving settlers into the West Bank, demolishing Palestinian homes and carrying out its war of annihilation in Gaza.

PA officials argue that UN recognition of statehood would give Palestinians the power to draw on the authority of international courts and other bodies to increase pressure on Israel to abide by international laws governing occupations and human rights.

But the Palestinian cause has never suffered for a lack of strongly worded resolutions or rulings at an international level. The problem is that Israel consistently refuses to abide by, for example, UN resolutions that guarantee the right of return to Palestinian refugees or the International Criminal Court ruling that its apartheid wall is a violation of international law. What's more, the U.S. has repeatedly and consistently used its diplomatic clout to run interference for Israel's refusal to abide by these decisions.

As a consequence, more than 300,000 settlers today live in the West Bank (excluding the 190,000 Jews living in East Jerusalem)--a territory that was annexed by Israel after the Six Day War in 1967. This figure is nearly three times the number of settlers living in the West Bank when the 1993 Oslo Accords were signed.

Now Israel and the U.S. are working furiously to dissuade Abbas from seeking a vote at the UN on the "two-state" solution they ostensibly favor--on the grounds that the UN bid amounts to a "unilateral move." Somehow Israel's settlement-building binge and its wars of aggression against Gaza don't count as "unilateralism."

For years, the PA has considered the U.S. an "honest broker" in its negotiations with Israel, even though the U.S. has a substantial interest in a strong Israel that is willing and able to defend U.S. interests in the region. The Obama administration has not deviated in the slightest from the decades-long policy of unswerving U.S. support for Israel.

In addition to Washington's threats to cut off aid to the PA, a group of 58 House Democrats sent a letter to 40 European heads of state urging them to reject the PA's statehood bid--asserting that "a vote on a unilateral UN resolution will likely set prospects for peace back years."

And even though the U.S. is struggling to burnish its image in a region rocked by uprisings against U.S.-backed dictators, the Obama administration seems to be relishing the opportunity to use its UN Security Council veto to torpedo the statehood bid--as a way to curry favor with pro-Israel voters before the 2012 election.

According to the Los Angeles Times:

[S]ome Obama administration officials hope to make the most of a silver lining--the chance to emphasize the president's solidarity with Israel by casting a high-profile veto in the Security Council...[W]ith Obama facing restiveness among some Jewish supporters, the prospect of a veto comes at a politically useful moment.

Meanwhile, Israeli and PA officials are preparing to crack down on any Palestinian protests that might break out after the UN vote. Not only have "Israeli soldiers and police...been training for months in preparation for possible violence," according to one report, but the PA has also sought and received approval from Israel to enter into contracts with Israeli weapons manufacturers in order "to equip its security forces with riot-control gear, such as tear gas grenades and rubber bullets."

ANOTHER CURRENT of opposition to the statehood bid comes from an entirely different place: Prominent organizations and individuals in the Palestinian national movement who have grave concerns that UN recognition of statehood under the present circumstances could enshrine the lack of basic rights for large segments of the Palestinian population.

According to Columbia University professor Joseph Massad, the consequences could be severe if the statehood bid were to succeed:

The PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization], which represents all Palestinians (about 12 million people in historic Palestine and in the diaspora), and was recognized as their "sole" representative at the UN in 1974, will be truncated to the PA, which represents only West Bank Palestinians (about 2 million people)...

[This] will politically weaken Palestinian refugees' right to return to their homes and be compensated, as stipulated in UN resolutions. The PA does not represent the refugees, even though it claims to represent their "hopes" of establishing a Palestinian state at their expense. Indeed, some international legal experts fear it could even abrogate the Palestinians' right of return altogether.

It will also forfeit the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel who face institutional and legal racism in the Israeli state, as it presents them with a fait accompli of the existence of a Palestinian state (its phantasmatic nature notwithstanding). This will only give credence to Israeli claims that the Jews have a state and the Palestinians now have one, too, and if Palestinian citizens of Israel were unhappy, or even if they were happy, with their third-class status in Israel, they should move or can be forced to move to the Palestinian state.

Such concerns have led many Palestinian civil society organizations to voice their opposition to the PA's diplomatic maneuvering. The Palestinian Youth Movement, for example, has issued a statement outlining its criticism of the statehood strategy:

We, in the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM), stand steadfastly against the proposal for Palestinian statehood recognition based on 1967 borders that is to be presented to the United Nations this September by the Palestinian official leadership.

This [statehood] declaration serves as a mechanism for rescuing the faulty peace framework and depoliticizing the struggle for Palestine by removing the struggle from its historical colonial context. The attempts to impose a false peace with the normalizing of the colonial regime has only led us to surrender increasing amounts of our land, the rights of our people, and our aspirations by de-legitimizing and marginalizing our people's struggle and deepening the fragmentation and division of our people.

But if there is substantial opposition to this strategy, why does the PA continue to pursue it? The reason is straightforward: naked self-interest. According to Massad:

The ongoing Arab uprisings have raised Palestinian expectations about the necessity of ending the occupation and have challenged the modus vivendi the PA has with Israel. [W]ith the increase in Palestinian grassroots activism to resist the Israeli occupation, the PA has decided to shift the Palestinian struggle from popular mobilization it will not be able to control, and which it fears could topple it, to the international legal arena. The PA hopes that this shift from the popular to the juridical will demobilize Palestinian political energies and displace them onto an arena that is less threatening to the survival of the PA itself.

Put another way, the Arab Spring has inspired, mobilized and rejuvenated mass popular resistance against corrupt, unaccountable and ineffective leaders who have become pawns (or worse) in the U.S. drive to dominate the Middle East.

The PA, which has embraced its collaborationist role with respect to the U.S. and Israel, fits this mold and has already faced protests animated by the sense that the PA has failed to deliver on its promises. Shifting the struggle to the safe sphere of "diplomacy" is an effective way to defuse and deflect popular anger.

THE URGENCY of this moment in history should be plain. In a few months, a number of developments have reshaped the balance of forces facing the Palestinian struggle for liberation.

The collapse of the pro-Israel regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the dissolution of the military alliance between Israel and its other key regional partner Turkey and the mounting successes of the BDS movement globally all show that popular resistance and organized movement-building can yield significant results--and quickly.

Meanwhile, the whole history of the bankrupt "peace process" shows that the U.S. and Israel will win as long as the struggle is confined to vain appeals to the very powers who stand in the way of Palestinian liberation--whether in negotiations with the U.S. and Israel, or at the UN.

These episodes in the Palestinian struggle provide fresh confirmation of the famous words spoken 150 years ago by the great Black abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass:

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters...

Find out just what any people will quietly submit to, and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.

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