By Thayer Hastings, B.A. program alumnus.
Insight from Bethlehem, West Bank/State of Palestine.
On the evening of November 29th, 2012 the Bethlehem streets became increasingly raucous as we continued to watch through the United Nations General Assembly on the upgrade of Palestine’s status from non-member “entity” to non-member “state.” By the time of the third post-vote speech, we couldn’t handle it anymore and took to the streets by car in order to survey the action. Festive, but not overly-so – traffic filled the roads, horns honked, youth hung from the windows with the Palestinian flag or the iconic kuffiyeh flapping in the wind.
Earlier, a very symbolic screening of the UN bid was projected onto the Wall. I heard from one bystander that an Israeli soldier sitting in the watchtower above the crowd opened his window to take a photo at the spectators below – an unheard of interaction. Images of Ramallah’s central square were filmed by all local and international news channels, but circulating reports claimed that a significant portion of the attendees were civilian police or government employees. In Bethlehem, the Palestinian Authority security forces were on the streets primed to restrain potential demonstrations – as usual during politically charged moments – carefully keeping out of sight from Israel’s Wall (and the soldiers stationed in the turrets) that winds through the Northern portions of the city.
Despite being pleased with the symbolic victory, massive international support and receiving deserved attention, the Palestinians I spoke to exuded a restrained excitement conditioned by experience.
The potential of Palestine becoming a UN non-member observer state, but a state, nonetheless, is eliciting a similar feeling of excitement in the West Bank that local elections produced here in October (on a slightly larger scale, mind you). Both moments pose opportunities for change and a cause for celebration, but are illegitimate representations of Palestinians’ will – a play at politics that undercuts fundamental rights.
Mahmoud Abbas’ pursuit of UN upgrades last year and today, representing both the Palestine Liberation Organization and the PA, deepens a binary Oslo-ization begun in the 1990s. The deeply faulty process towards ‘statehood’ forgoes Palestinian self-determination by dispossessing Palestinian refugees originating from Israel proper (the vast majority of 6.8 million refugees) and Palestinian citizens of Israel (1.5 million). Secondly, pursuing statehood risks further institutionalizing the pseudo-sovereignty that has become the status quo within the West Bank and Gaza Strip – Israel will continue to partition the West Bank into enclaves of PA jurisdiction while extracting resources, transplanting its settler population and perpetuating the structural and naked violence of occupation; as was witnessed last week, the people of Gaza will continue to live under siege and a constant threat of violence.
On the bright side, elevating Palestine to observer state status may provide some benefits. The continuing occupation of what will now be formally recognized by the international community as a state, increases the legal burden on Israel and the moral imperative for international intervention. Palestine based on 1967 borders (excluding the portions expropriated by settlements, Israeli military control, buffer zone in Gaza and the Wall) will have an opportunity to press charges on crimes committed in its (remaining) territory. Media has been abuzz with the enticing option available to the prospective Palestinian state: becoming a member of the International Criminal Court. For the hopeful, it has a ring of accountability to it. Assuming Palestine will be accepted into the ICC (expect heavy resistance from the USA), it will have the potential to submit cases against individuals who have committed international crimes (war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide) within its territory. The chance of acquiring a limited form of justice is a grand feat for an impunity-stricken population (See here for a fuller discussion of the implications of Palestine’s potential membership to the ICC.). Finally, the seemingly limited UN bid may in-fact have the potential for an unforeseen coalescence of political shifts that spur a broader movement capable of achieving rights for all Palestinians.
Can UN non-member status better secure rights for Palestinians? Unlikely and it may compromise them. For example, Israel may use Palestine’s upgrade as a tool for affirming Israeli government-commissioned Levy Report published in June 2012 that claims, counter to international legal opinion, Israel is not occupying East Jerusalem, the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. Palestine may, however, gain some meaningful diplomatic leverage if Abbas secures 130 out of 193 possible votes at 10pm Palestine-time and around 150 are expected to vote in favor of non-member status today.
The morning following a debauched evening (I’ve heard) is filled with faulty memory, misunderstanding and regret. My day after – 138 votes for, 41 abstentions from and 9 votes against, the upgrade to Palestinian statehood – on public transportation, at work and among Palestinians, was a similarly headache-inducing experience. Ironic congratulations of the new ‘State’ of Palestine darted about followed by increasingly stale chuckles as it dawned that 1.) there was very little public understanding of what this so-called upgrade entailed – do Palestinians get PA-issued passports now?, and 2.) the time for an expected retribution from Israel had arrived.
On the Friday following Palestine’s UN bid, Israel announced that it intended to build 3,000 settler homes East of occupied Jerusalem – deep into the West Bank. The ‘E1 Plan,’ including military orders securing the territory surrounding the new settlement, will almost completely bisect the West Bank. If implemented, the E1 Plan will further undermine the possibility for sovereignty and physical contiguity of a Palestinian state based on what is left of the 1967 borders. Gaza is already separated from the West Bank and besieged by Israel. A widely held fear is that Israel is implementing a plan to unilaterally induce a Gazan reality as the future for the West Bank: another open-air prison (or two if split horizontally). Two weeks since announcing the settlement, the Israel Land Fund has begun advertising West Bank territory as “part of the battle to settle E1,” at $75,000 per dunam (or $300,000 per acre).
The second major act, viewed as “punishment” tied to the UN bid is a decision by Israel’s Foreign Ministry to confiscate more than $100 million in taxes it collects every month on behalf of the PA until March 2013, at least. The arrangement of tax collection: PA collects funds that it delivers to Israel who redelivers the funds back to the PA, was a mechanism determined by the Oslo Agreements that were meant to expire in 1999 (I recently heard Xavier Abu Eid, a member of the PLO negotiations team, comment that tax collection – delivered to Israel and doled out to the PA – is the last functioning component of the Oslo Agreements.). Over the summer, Israel forwarded the PA $66 million in tax funds after Palestinians protested against the local West Bank Palestinian regime, signaling that Israel desires and even requires the PA’s continued existence and stability – a buffer between itself and the financial and diplomatic costs of its occupation. On December 11th, the Arab League promised $100 million a month allowance to the PA, which is likely a rebuttal to Israel’s economic scolding.
Expansion into the West Bank and budgetary disruption (the PA has announced that it will soon pay government employees their salaries for the past November) appear to be Israel’s two main actions delivered in response to the statehood bid.
Despite the seeming normalcy of the continuing status quo, Palestinians are extremely politically active and have not been idle while the PA undermines their representation and Israel continues refusing their rights.
Over the course of the 2000s, Palestinian representatives from around the world have reached a consensus in a call for direct and democratic elections to the Palestinian National Council. The PNC is the electoral body of the PLO who is the sole representative of the Palestinian people, and which has been increasingly displaced by the PA since the Oslo process.
Palestinian youth from the exile community spanning from the UK to Chile to Lebanon to those living in historic Palestine affirmed the call for elections in 2012 and, “the Palestinian parties called for the democratic reform of the PLO through direct PNC elections at several recent national meetings in Cairo, during 2011 and early 2012, under the auspices of the National Reconciliation Committee,” reads the website of the civic registration drive for PNC elections.
Perhaps in response to the PA’s UN bid, momentum is building to revitalize the historic structure of representation as a means to regain control of Palestinians’ destinies.
*The portion of this post immediately following first appeared as “The ‘State’ of Palestine: fallacies at the footsteps to the UN,” on November 29th, 2012 at my blog: the writing’s on the Wall.
Thayer is a 2011 alumnus of the Jackson School’s undergraduate program, where he focused on ethnicities and nationalism, and human rights. Since the summer of 2012, Thayer has been living in Palestine and working in the media and legal advocacy fields while maintaining a blog of his writings. Contact him at hastit [at] uw [dot] edu