Today, September 23, Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas submits to the UN the application for Palestinian statehood for the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967. What are the implications of this effort? Does it serve the Palestinian cause? And why do Israel and the U.S. oppose this action? What’s the alternative?
Paradoxically, this month marks the eighteenth anniversary of when Abbas stood alongside Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn in a ceremony celebrating the signing of the Oslo Accords. As one of its architects, Abbas sold the Oslo agreement to the Palestinian people as the vehicle towards the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and the restoration of the rights of the Palestinian people.
But throughout the past two decades lofty promises were offered to the Palestinians, while endless negotiations across continents took place between Israel and the PA, which Abbas has headed since the death of Arafat in 2004: Madrid (1991), Oslo (1993), Wye River (1997), Camp David (2000), Taba (2001), Quartet’s road map (2002), Annapolis (2007), bilateral negotiations (2008), Obama’s promises for settlements freeze in Cairo (2009) and declaration of statehood within one year at the UN (2010).
But despite the fact that international law and world public opinion are overwhelmingly on the side of the Palestinians, all these efforts for establishing an independent Palestinian state were futile as they confronted the hard reality of brutal military occupation on the ground and Israeli intransigence at the negotiating table. While the millions of Palestinian refugees in the Diaspora have been shut out of this process since Oslo, the Palestinian people living in the occupied territories have been witnessing the continued expansion of Israeli settlements on their lands as well as the ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem and confiscation of their sacred places.
Let’s briefly review some of the facts from the past decade alone, during which Abbas was championing negotiations under the auspices of the supposedly “honest broker,” the United States. Almost 6,500 Palestinian civilians have been killed since September 2000, including over 1,500 children. Of that figure, two-thirds (over 4,400) have been killed since the Roadmap in 2003. During the same period, over 45,000 Palestinians were injured, some maimed for life, 24,000 since 2003. There are over 6,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, including over 250 females and children under the age of 16. Half of them were arrested after 2003, many with no charges and held under administrative detention. (Since 1967, over 650,000 Palestinians have been detained and imprisoned – a staggering 20 percent of the total population or about 1 out of every 2 men has been detained at one point in his life under the occupation.)
According to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, over 25,000 Palestinian homes were demolished since 1967 – over half since 2003, including over 4,300 during the Israeli military assault on Gaza in 2008-2009. There are 236 illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem with over 650,000 settlers confiscating Palestinian land and displacing thousands of Palestinians. Israeli settlers have more than doubled in the last ten years, controlling 43 percent of the land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem with over four hundred checkpoints and Jewish-only roads, as well as the separation Wall snaking through Palestinian territories.
Since the 2007 siege on Gaza, 95 percent of the factories and workshops in Gaza have closed and the agricultural sector and fishing industry were severely damaged, leading to over 40 percent unemployment (more than doubling the unemployment rate of 2003). The siege has also prevented reconstruction of thousands of homes destroyed in Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2009. As a result of the continuing damage to the water system in Gaza, at least 95 percent of the water drawn from the system is not drinkable. The unemployment rate in the West Bank is at 17 percent. In any economy such figures lead to severe depression and abject poverty. For the past three years more than half of Gaza’s population and a quarter of the West Bank depend on charity for their daily survival.
If these facts prove anything, they conclusively lead to the implosion of the disastrous path that Abbas and his cronies have embarked on for two decades. The current application for UN Palestinian statehood by the Palestinian leadership is thus an attempt to cover up the failure of its approach that offered major concessions on fundamental Palestinian rights in exchange for promises that were never realized. For example the Palestinian Papers exposed earlier this year by Al-Jazeera demonstrated the horrifying degree to which the current Palestinian leadership and its negotiators were willing to concede behind closed doors on fundamental issues like the right of return of Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem, settlements, borders, security, and sovereignty only to be rebuffed by the Israelis for more concessions.
In short, the whole premise of the Oslo process was that in exchange for the Palestinian leadership’s historic recognition of the Zionist state on 78 percent of historical Palestine, Israel would in return recognize the “State of Palestine” on 22 percent of the land, namely the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. But the problem with this approach was that one party was allowed to receive all the benefits and dictate all the terms, while the other was left begging for its rights as it was stripped of all its bargaining chips. For decades, the world has known that the contours for any political settlement in this century-old intractable problem were hovering around either a two-state solution (the 78-22 formula), one-state (bi-national, one-man one-vote), or apartheid (one people controlling the fate of another.)
Many in the world including the U.N, the U.S, the E.U, and even liberal Zionists (hoping to preserve the Jewish majority and Zionist nature of the state) have embraced the two-state solution. But successive Israeli governments have worked incessantly to shut down this option in the hope that Israel could retain East Jerusalem and as much West Bank territory and aquifers as possible, while making life difficult for the Palestinians so they could either give up and leave, or accept the hard realities of the status quo.
Whether Shamir, Rabin, Barak, Sharon, Olmert, or Netanyahu-Lieberman; all Israeli leaders have expanded the settlements and built a segregated system in the West Bank and Jerusalem that in essence foreclosed the two-state option. At the same time, millions of people around the world are fed up with injustices carried out by imperialist, racist, or colonialist policies. They support the notion of racial equality, of one-person one-vote in historical Palestine that would also redress the historical injustices done to the Palestinian refugees.
In essence, Abbas, who reached a dead end, is trying to salvage his failing approach by claiming a hollow diplomatic victory. But the problem with it is that it will provide Israel with the perfect pretext to deny the Palestinian refugees right of return to their historical land enshrined in international law and UN Resolution 194.
This move will also provide Israel with the justification to reject the one-state solution that guarantees real equality, democracy, justice, and genuine peace, once it fails to subjugate the Palestinians or expel them from their land. So with this action the Palestinians are freely giving up their only remaining card to play toward any future settlement: the dissolution of the PA and the pursuit of one-state.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, is at a loss. On the one hand, President Obama has himself called last year for the establishment of the State of Palestine within a year. He declared that the two-state solution is imperative and a vital national security interest of the U.S. But on the other hand, his administration has done everything in its power to derail this effort.
The only explanation of this myopic behavior is the depth and breadth of the influence of the Israeli lobby, especially over Congress and the Republican Party. A recent New York Times article described how Secretary of State Hillary Clinton frequently calls on Israeli politicians to lobby Republican members of Congress on Middle East issues. In one instance the paper quotes a Republican member of Congress, who said that, “Netanyahu has more credibility in the Congress than Obama.” This statement, claiming that the majority in Congress would believe a foreign leader over their president in what constitutes the national security interest of the country, is incredible and possibly treasonous.
Many in the Palestinian leadership, including Abbas’s advisors Saeb Erekat, Nabeel Shaath and Yaser Abed Rabbo, talk openly that this call for statehood is a tactical move to force Israel back to the negotiating table with some leverage and international backing. It seems that they have no intention to change their colossal path of negotiating away –behind closed doors- fundamental Palestinian rights and to continue to provide “security cooperation” against other Palestinians in the West Bank.
If Abbas were really serious about this move, he would not have waited until today to submit the statehood application, when the U.S. could demand postponing the Security Council vote (to avoid a devastating veto damaging its credibility around the world) by using a rule that allows delays for up to five weeks. Had he applied early he could have forced the U.S. to veto the resolution this week and expose its hypocrisy, while demanding the implementation of previous UN resolutions that call for Palestinian statehood, right of return, and rejecting all Israeli settlements on Palestinian territories as well as the annexation of East Jerusalem.
In short, the struggle for justice for the Palestinian people is misplaced and should not be reduced to the question of statehood on 22 percent of their historical land. Any solution addressing the Palestinian problem must deal with the main cause of this predicament. Thus any long-lasting and genuine resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be based on the following principles.
1) The rejection of a nineteenth century political system and ideology that bestows political and civil rights in a country based on ethnicity or religious affiliation. Zionism for over a hundred years has called for the ingathering of Jews around the world in Palestine and the expulsion and exclusion of Palestinians from their homeland.
For decades Israel has prevented the implementation of UN resolution 194 calling for the return of Palestinian refugees expelled in 1948 to their cities and villages, while simultaneously granting automatic citizenship rights and housing to millions of European and American Jews in Palestinian territories, most recently to over a million Jews from the former Soviet republics in the 1990s.
In the same fashion that America abolished the system of slavery, and South Africa did away with the apartheid regime, the world must dismantle the institutions of Zionism (Jews-only rights, immigration, employment, housing, roads, benefits, etc.) Not only because this is the root of the problem, but more importantly because it is the right and moral thing to do. But fighting a racist ideology should never be allowed to be exploited by anti-Semitic groups to attack or undermine Judaism or its adherents, a religion and culture that enriched the world for millennia.
2) The historical land of Palestine (Israel, the West Bank and Gaza) is a land that belongs to all its inhabitants including the Palestinian refugees expelled in 1948 and their descendants. They should be allowed to return to their lands if they choose to do so as well as be compensated for their unjust suffering. Each citizen of this land must enjoy equal rights in a democratic, secular, and civil state. For instance, the European Union would never invite a Jewish-only democracy to join it. To qualify for such membership in the 21st century, such a country must be a multi-ethnic democracy guaranteeing equal rights to all its citizens.
3) Any powers that deny a just resolution rooted in racial and religious equality must be exposed and rejected. The path for this struggle must be based on the unity of the Palestinian people and their supporters across the globe including world Jewry. It is also imperative that this approach embraces the struggle of non-violent resistance, civil disobedience, mass protests, and economic boycotts.
John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have detailed in their book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, the reasons behind the unprecedented support the U.S. has provided to Israel throughout the years to the detriment of America’s vital national interests. In a nutshell, American tax dollars have been subsidizing Israeli occupation, repression and brutality against the Palestinians for decades. Over $170 billion dollars have been given to Israel (a quarter of which since 2003) with the most sophisticated weaponry in the US arsenal. Meanwhile, the US has cast 42 vetoes to shield Israel diplomatically from any condemnation of its illegal occupation or war crimes.
Therefore any strategy of non-violent resistance against the cruel reality of military occupation and subjugation of the Palestinian people must encompass popular resistance that includes a component that challenges the huge U.S. support, especially by a blind Congress.
It is U.S. policies, after all, which enable injustice, oppression, suffering, and Israeli intransigence. Until U.S. politicians, power brokers, military leaders, corporate executives, media conglomerates, and opinion makers are forced to side with what is morally right, a heavy price must be exacted through the ballot box, sanctions, boycott, and shaming them in public. Furthermore, as the fearless masses leading the Arab uprisings continue to be successful in deposing their dictators and challenging Israeli and American hegemony in the region, the Palestinian cause will finally regain its status as the center of regional politics and at the heart of the peoples’ passions in the pursuit for justice. As profound democratic reforms sweep the Arab world in favor of a pluralistic and more equal society, the Zionist project will begin to look more like a relic from a medieval era than an enlightened enterprise.
Eventually a state that represents all its inhabitants on the basis of equality and genuine respect and dignity for all its citizens is one that the world will some day celebrate, not a phony declaration that legitimizes the oppressive nature of one and confers false hope on the other.