While the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) – and, now, of the ‘State of Palestine’, Mahmoud Abbas, elatedly declared ‘now we have become a state’, more measured proponents of the statehood bid acknowledged this as a ‘symbolic victory’. Israel, however, exposed the meaninglessness of this symbolism with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rejection of the UNGA resolution and Israel’s punitive response. Reminding Abbas – and the world – who really is in charge of Palestinian territory and people, Israel declared it would withhold $120 million in tax revenue it owes to the cash-strapped PA. Netanyahu then announced that Israel would build 3 000 new settlements in area E1, which lies east of Jerusalem in the West Bank. Such a new development will separate East Jerusalem from the West Bank, thus spelling the potential end of the two-state solution which the UNGA resolution enshrines. These proposed settlements will not be built just on occupied land, but on the territory of another, occupied, state.
Protesting Israel’s announcement, the governments of South Africa, Sweden, Brazil, Australia, France and Britain summoned their Israeli ambassadors. None of these states have, however, given any further effect to their votes at the UN. An illustration is the case of South Africa. This week, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA), a parastatal, awarded a R51 billion contract to a consortium led by Alstom, a French company involved in the Jerusalem Light Rail project which, in contravention of international law, connects several illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and cements Israel’s occupation of the city. Palestinian civil society has called for an international boycott of Alstom. Members of the international community clearly do not want to be burdened by the practical consequences of their statehood vote. The result, in future, could be that issues such as settlements and attacks by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza come to be regarded as border disputes to be resolved bilaterally. In a sense, then, recognising a Palestinian state can be a way in which the international community can slowly disentangle itself from the messy issue of Israeli occupation.
Until recently, Abbas and the PA have been useful for Israel. The PA co-ordinates security with Israel, effectively allowing Israel to outsource the occupation to Palestinians who ensure that Israel’s security needs in the West Bank are met. Abbas recently, controversially, stated he would waive his right of return to his village. These actions and statements have resulted in the PA and its majority party, Fatah, losing credibility among Palestinians. The PA is also cognisant that support for its rival, Hamas and the Hamas approach of resistance, have been on the rise among Palestinians after the recent Israeli assault on Gaza. Abbas’ only approach is a diplomatic one, which he has insisted is the only path to Palestinian liberation. That is why, despite general acceptance that the ‘two-state solution’ is not viable (some might say, dead), he proclaimed at the UN that ‘The international community now stands before the last chance to save the two-state solution.’
For Abbas, the PA and their singular diplomatic approach, winning the statehood bid has thrown them a life-line. One PA spokesperson used the resistance approach as a way to convince states to vote for the resolution. If the resolution would not pass, he said, it would send the message that armed struggle was the only successful strategy. Further, with an ‘upgraded’ status Palestinians would be able to leverage certain UN bodies such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Israel. Despite the PA threatening Israel with the ICC in response to its withholding tax money and E1 plans, being able to claim membership at the ICC was more a means to garner Palestinian public support. The reality is that PA spokespersons have said they have no intention to accede to the ICC in the near future. This was reiterated this week even as the PA threatened Israel with the ICC. Furthermore, a Palestinian state is not required to lodge complaints with the ICC. Any sympathetic state – such as South Africa – could do so on behalf of the Palestinians; but the PLO never requested such action from their friends. The PA’s real position on ICC membership is also illustrated in that it was the PA, not Israel, that ensured that the Goldstone Report was buried at the UN and no action against Israel resulted from it.
A matter of grave concern for many Palestinians is that, although the UNGA resolution provides for the current status of the PLO at the UN not to be prejudiced, it is highly unlikely that the UN will give Palestinians two UN seats. The PLO seat most likely will be sacrificed with the result that Palestinian refugees and Palestinian citizens of Israel will no longer be represented at the UN. Until the statehood declaration they were represented by the PLO. But a ‘state’ can only represent its citizens, not citizens of another country or stateless people.
On the ground nothing has changed for the Palestinian people. Palestinians will still be forced to queue at Israeli military checkpoints; Gaza remains under siege and uncertain when Israel might strike again; over 700 Palestinian children remain in Israeli prisons, often for nothing more than throwing a stone; Palestinian political prisoners languish under administrative detention; and demolition of Palestinian homes continues as does theft of their land. Simply put: the occupation continues, the world feels a little better that Palestinians have a state, and Israel has yet another UN resolution to flout.
* A version of this article was first published by The South African Civil Society Information Service (SACSIS)