Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Should the Palestinians get statehood?

In September 1975 just after I had addressed a UN conference on terrorism at the UN headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, I met with the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s official observer to the United Nations. We talked (amongst other things) about the Palestinian’s hope that someday, they would get statehood in a part of the area that belongs to Israel. That hope is still with them 36 years later so now in 2011 they are making even greater efforts to obtain that goal.

We mustn’t forget that before the UN gave the Jews Israel in 1948, it was mostly populated by Palestinians and had been for centuries. It follows that they want the land back but they are not asking for all of it, just some of it. Actually, they want at least a third of it. They are currently living in at least a third of it and to some degree, governing that part of the land in Israel as their own.

While I was at the UN headquarters in 1975, I spoke unofficially with the Israeli delegates about the possibility of inviting the Palestinians to become Israeli citizens but that prospect didn’t appear to interest them. If Israel had offered citizenship to the Palestinians and the Palestinians accepted that offer, all the grief and loss of life that ensued during the following years would never have happened.

The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas announced on September 16th, in Ramallah (the capital of the Palestinian lands) that he would ask the UN Security Council the following week for recognition of Palestinian statehood. He said that once they have a state and a flag and recognition by two-thirds of the world’s nations, the Palestinians would leave all other issues open for negotiation with Israel.

He sited the 1967 borders that was drawn up then for a future Palestinian state in reference to his UN application which as I said earlier, more or less covers an area of at least a third of Israel.

Abbas stressed that Israel’s ‘occupation’ of the lands that the Palestinians currently live on will not end the problem between the Israelis and the Palestinians as much more remains to be done because the 1967 lines do not define the true borders any more than the roadblocks and the settlements do. He said that the real Palestinian borders were laid down in 1948 by the UN. The Palestinian leader had implied that the 126 governments which have recognized the Palestinian right to statehood had accepted his interpretation of the borders he was speaking of. He added that all other areas, meaning large parts of the state of Israel are ‘occupied territory’ which the Palestinians intend to claim entirely for themselves.

Before 1948, Jews were a very small minority in the West Bank who owned only 1% of lands there. Majority of the lands belonged to the Palestinian Arabs.

The Palestinian application to the UN Security Council is only one step on the road to full independence, after which ‘all options remain open.’ Its purpose is to obtain full UN membership and then return to the table for negotiation on this new basis.

Abbas emphasized the Palestinian claim to Jerusalem as its state capital, pledged to work for the refugees’ return and strive for national unity by healing the rift with Hamas in Gaza.

Well for one thing, he can give up any hope of the Jews giving up Jerusalem just so that the Palestinians can claim it as their own and make it their own capital of Palestine. I doubt that even the great, great, grandchildren of the Palestinian’s grandchildren yet unborn will ever see that happening.

What should be done however is that the Old City of Jerusalem that is entirely walled should be an open city where Palestinians, Jews, Muslims and Christians alike should have easy access. The rest of the city of Jerusalem should remain in the hands of the Israelis. It is they that built most of it up to what it is today and it is in that city that a great many of the Jews live.

Abbas wisely issued a strict caution to the Palestinians against any form of violence, demonstrations and protests, because he said this would play into Israelis’ hands. Naturally, not all of them adhered to his instructions.

Much of his application was devoted to the obstacles he accused Israel of placing in the path of Palestinian independence, especially considering the fact that the Israelis are building new settlements on the West Bank and setting them against the strenuous efforts the Palestinians have made to establish the administration and institutions of the future state on those very lands. Abbas accused Israel soldiers and settlers of letting dogs loose against Palestinians and even wild boars to destroy crops belonging to Palestinians.

I agree with his concerns because in my respectful opinion, that is what I believe the Israelis are doing. It reminds me of what the North Koreans were doing on the day that the Armistice was to take effect that would end the war between the two Koreas. They continued fighting to the last moment in hopes of acquiring as much of South Korea they could get their hands on before the moment when the fighting between the two Koreas was scheduled to cease.

At the same time, Abbas said he was turning to the UN not in order to isolate Israel or assail its legitimacy but only to delegitimize and terminate the occupation by the Israelis. His goal to get the UN to go along with his proposal is going to be a very difficult and very steep mountain he may never be able to conquer while he is still the Palestinian president. That is because the diplomatic road to statehood is no simple matter.

First of all, there are two UN routes he can take to get to the summit of that mountain that he and the Palestinians wish to reach. They could go for full membership in the UN as a state with the Security Council’s recommendation. That isn’t going to happen, at least not for a long time. Russia and the United States are permanent members of the Council and they have veto powers that can act as a chasm facing Palestinians attempting to climb to the summit of their goal and these two nations have already dug the chasm as an insurmountable barrier on the Palestinian’s route to the summit of statehood.

Secondly, the Palestinians could apply for non-government Observer status which would give the Palestinian delegate to the UN the right to speak at the General Assembly but not vote since they won’t be classified as a nation without the approval of the Security Council.

However, under Article 4 of the UN Charter, the General Assembly may have the power to admit a state such as Palestine (even if the Security Council refuses to endorse it) but like many laws and Rules formatted, there is confusion here. The wording of the Article says that it can accept an applicant state, membership in the UN “on recommendation of the Security Council” but where the confusion lies is the use of the word, ‘recommendation’. The reason for the confusion is that the word ‘recommendation’ is not preceded by an adjective such as ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ so it is up in the air as to whether it matters or not whether the recommendation is positive or negative.

One of the problems facing the Palestinians is they have to convince the UN membership that their reason for wishing to be recognized by the UN as a state or at least be given non-government Observer status is not for the sole purpose of getting back at the Israelis for any wrongdoings the Israelis might have done to the Palestinians in the past.

If the Palestinians were to become a recognized state or even given non-government Observer status by the UN, then they would become eligible to lodge a complaint with the International Criminal Court to prosecute Israel for what it believes has been wrongdoings against the Palestinians.

The Palestinians have actually filed a complaint with that Court giving the Court jurisdiction over the territory of Palestine in 2009 but the Court’s prosecutor has put the complaint on hold since Palestine has not yet been recognized as a state or has been given non-government Observer status.

I can appreciate the concerns that the Palestinians have about the Jewish encroachment of the areas belonging to the Palestinians. The Israeli government began settling its own citizens within the Green Line boundary which demarcates the West Bank. This move to establish a Jewish presence in the Palestinian Territories was in clear violation of international law, specifically the Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 49, item 6, which states: “The occupying power shall not deport or transfer part of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”

The Palestinians believe that the sprawling suburban Jewish settlements are part of the Israeli plan to expand West Jerusalem into the Bethlehem District (which is controlled by the Palestinians) so that the land of the Jewish settlements can be part of Greater Jerusalem under Jewish control. In doing so, Israeli bulldozers first destroyed homes belonging to Palestinians so that the settlements could be built in their place.

Over the past decade the number of settlements in the West Bank has reached 121 with another 100 classified as outposts. While the settlements were officially sanctioned, outposts emerged without any authorization by the state. However, both types receive the same assistance from the Israeli state in terms of security and road construction around them. In total, approximately 460,000 Jewish Israeli settlers currently live in the West Bank. Around 191,000 of them live in or around Jerusalem with 271,000 in the rest of the West Bank.

The Green Line, which separated Israel from Arab territory between 1948 and 1967, is the basis on which UN resolutions and the Oslo process since 1994 are framed. However, it does not mean that a final border between an Israeli and Palestinian state will be set along it. There is a possibility that the eventual border will be based on which side has a majority in the population of particular areas which may explain the Jewish encroachment upon Palestinian lands.

Although the consensus since Oslo has been in favour of two states, there is growing realization among some in the Israeli Right that the settlements are undermining the two-state solution. The presence of so many settlements and Jewish settlers surrounded by Palestinians and Palestinian territory means that the map of the West Bank now looks like a chessboard with pockets of settlements dotted throughout the territory and in between Palestinian urban communities.

It is extremely unlikely that an Israeli government is willing to give up some of its own territory to the Palestinians on the other side of the Green Line to make up for the Palestinian land taken by the settlements in the West Bank.

The settlements go to the heart of the Palestinian claim to self-determination and sovereignty. The settlements are seen as an encroachment and fragmentation of Palestinian territory. Because of the Israeli encroachment, Palestinians are denied control or access to the land surrounding the Jewish settlements.

Contrary to Israel’s official claim that it is not in breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention (which denies the forcible transfer of people in occupied territory), settlers have not only used various third party intermediaries to hide their purchase of Arab-owned property in the Old City, Silwan and Al Tur (where they now live in fortified compounds), they have also resorted to the courts to evict Palestinian families from their homes. This is especially the case in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood over the past year, where many international agencies and consulates are based.

The Israelis have created a problem that may be impossible to solve. With so many of its own citizens living in settlements built by the Israelis on land belonging to the Palestinians, what is to become of them if it is later determined that the settlements are to be under the jurisdiction and control of the Palestinians? Will they have to evacuate their homes and return to the Israeli side of the border? Will they be giving the option of becoming citizens of Palestine? Will they be permitted to be citizens of both Israel and Palestine?

And finally, I wish to address the issue of the Palestinian leadership.

In a part of a speech he gave, Mahmoud Abbas boasted about the democracy prevailing in the Palestinian Authority (West Bank). “We respect the will of the people,” he said, “They don’t have to demonstrate in the squares.” (a dig at the Arab Revolt)

Unfortunately Abbas is speaking with what the North American Indians refer to as a forked tongue. In other words he is speaking out of both sides of his mouth. The last Palestinian elections took place in 2006. He hasn’t called an election in five years. Because of that, he, the legislature and the municipal councils are no longer legally in office. Abbas and the Palestinian Authority which he heads are maintained by the Palestinian armed security forces. Without appearing to being too flippant; what he is doing brings back to mind what Hitler did in Germany once he became the chancellor. He didn’t call another election and for this reason, he became Germany’s absolute dictator.

In keeping with the Arab Spring, the Palestinians may yet determine that their own government is the source of their frustration. I think it is time for Abbas to either call an election or alternatively, resign his presidency and let another Palestinian with leadership qualities take over the leadership of the Palestinians.

Until now, Abbas has been largely impervious to the troubles around him. The West Bank leader has been unencumbered as he plots for his big moment on September 21st, (today) when he plans to declare Palestinian independence before the delegates at the United Nations Security Council. The day after his declaration, Palestinians will still realize that any vote in the UN General Assembly will be non-binding. So, while two-thirds of the international community may support the idea of a Palestinian state – an idea the United States and Israel have endorsed before – that’s all they’ll have to show for it—moral support and nothing more at least for the present.

Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada has publicly stated that he will not vote in favour of the Palestinians getting statehood at this time until the matter of the borders is decided upon first. I agree with his reasoning. A nation cannot exist as a nation until its borders have first been defined. Until that happens, the Palestinians living within the West Bank are simply a large group of people living in a specific area of the world. I believe that the defining of the borders should be decided by a commission appointed by the United Nations and once the borders have been defined, then the Palestinian people living in the West Bank should be given their statehood.

Will the Israeli/Palestinian problem be solved? Perhaps eventually but will any of us in our seventies and older see that day come about? If it happens, then there may be truth in the belief that miracles can and do happen.

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