Looming Statehood Vote Divides Palestinian Intellectuals, Refugees, Politicians


▣ FAQ ▣ Palestine Statehood Bid


PNN | 12.09.11 – 15:41 |  Brendan Work

With shortly over a week before the UN General Assembly convenes in New York to discuss the Palestinian statehood bid, skeptics in the West Bank are questioning the consequences of the move while politicians rush to reassure them. At issue is the right of return of the nearly five million Palestinian refugees and whether Palestine’s accession to the UN will render it and their only representative body, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), obsolete.

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Mustafa Barghouthi defends the Palestinian statehood initiative to a crowd in Beit Jala on Friday (Brendan Work, PNN).

The state Palestinians are requesting falls within the borders that were in place on June 4, 1967, raising the issue of the refugees’ UN-sanctioned right of return to their homes inside “historic Palestine,” or present-day Israel.

At a town hall-style meeting on Friday in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem in the southern West Bank, Palestinians loosed their concerns on a group of third-party politicians, including Nobel Peace Prize nominee Mustafa Barghouthi.

“Does going to the UN mean giving up the right to return?” asked one man, who preferred to remain anonymous. “In case we reach a two-state solution, are we losing historic Palestine? Will the refugees come to the ’67 territories or will the PLO demand their return to the ’48 territories?”

Barghouthi, who heads the Palestinian National Initiative party, said he supported the statehood bid but was cautious about its contents.

“We are in a diplomatic battle against Israel,” he said, “and [the statehood bid] can be a part of a ‘diplomacy of resistance’ if it is directed in the right way. But we can’t go to the UN before raising people’s awareness on the issue and involve the Palestinian people in this process.”

Palestinians have never seen the text of the statehood bid itself, which President Mahmoud Abbas has kept secret in order to put the United States and Israel on the back foot. One Western diplomat told AFP on Thursday the Palestinians were “keeping their cards very close to their chest.” Abbas has said he will meet UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on September 20 to present the bid, but Palestinians mistrustful of Abbas, who has been acting in an unelected capacity since 2009, say they are worried about what it represents.

“This initiative is not a political choice uniting the Palestinian people behind it,” said Nassar Ibrahim, a researcher with the Alternative Information Center in Bethlehem. “I am not with or against [the bid], but I have questions. How are we going to the UN? Where is the accountability?”

As head of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas is supposedly under the PLO, the body that since 1974 has claimed to be “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” including the refugees who make up 70% of the Palestinian nation. Some of those refugees see the statehood bid as a means of return, while others ask if it would merely produce a series of isolated Palestinian cantons, or Bantustans.

“Of course I hope for a state of our own, like Israel has,” said Ahmed Abu Saleh of Bethlehem’s Aida Refugee Camp. “But ours will be Bethlehem here, Ramallah here, Nablus there, and the West Bank and Gaza still separated. How can they have one government?”

Virginia Tilley, the South African author of the 2005 book The One-State Solution, argued recently in the Palestinian online journal the Electronic Intifada that the statehood proposal threatens to create Bantustans on the South African model that the African National Congress rejected out of hand, and thus “wall Palestinian aspirations into a political cul-de-sac from which it may never emerge.”

Imad Ayyed, a member of the Aida Popular Committee, acknowledged the improbability of a geographically contiguous Palestinian state by decree but said he supports the bid for statehood within the 1967 borders as a way to look for more.

“Even if a Palestinian state emerges, we will not forget about 1948,” said Ayyed. “We will hold on to our right of return to our original homes in Palestine. We gave Israel everything we agreed to, from Oslo until now. But Israel has given Palestinians nothing and now the time has come for Palestinians to go to the UN.”

The sense of inevitability is fed by pronouncements from the PA that more than 130 UN member states—out of 193—will vote for Palestinian statehood in the General Assembly, giving the initiative more than enough support to claim permanent observer state status. To become a member state Palestine would have to petition the Security Council, where the United States has promised to veto any effort on behalf of its ally Israel. Mahmoud Abbas said on Monday he will forego the Security Council route, but even an observer state can sign the Rome Statute to join the International Criminal Court (ICC), opening up the possibility of prosecution against alleged Israeli war crimes such as the 2008-09 Gaza War and its settlement policy.

The Fourth Geneva Convention, adopted in 1949 and signed by Israel, prohibits occupying powers from transferring civilian populations to an occupied territory. Valentina Azarov of the Palestinian human rights group al-Haq said on Friday that there was a “high likelihood” that Israel’s settlements inside the 1967 borders—which include about 500,000 Jewish settlers—would be brought up for prosecution as a war crime at the ICC should Palestine be admitted.

Dr. Hanan Ashrawi of the PLO Executive Committee said on Monday she was looking forward to the “historic test” of September and the possibility of ICC membership.

“If Israel is worried about the legal implications of Palestine’s membership to the UN, then it should cease its daily violations of international law and end its occupation, rather than expect Palestinians to abandon their rights in order to protect Israel from the consequences of its own excesses and illegal actions.”

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