By Laleh Khalili
When the United Nations General Assembly voted on 29 November 2012 to grant the Palestinian Authority (PA) non-member observer state status, the reaction of many of the most ardent and long-term critics of Israeli settler-colonialism was derisive. The arguments are entirely persuasive: this was a symbolic move by a desperate regime in Ramallah who has not only failed in securing any concessions on any negotiating point that matters – Jerusalem, the Wall or the settlements – from Israelis, it has, by both implication and explicitly (in quickly retracted statements), abdicated the right of return.
The reign of the PA has been a litany of capitulations: settlements have expanded; the Wall has continued to go up; Jerusalem is increasingly cut off from the West Bank; Gaza is now a deliberately carved-out territory which the Israeli officials are happy to pound occasionally militarily or to ‘put them on a diet but not make them die’ when not bombing them (in the memorable words of Dov Weissglass, the Israeli lawyer and a former close associate of Ariel Sharon), the Palestinian bureaucracy survives on handouts from donors while the autochthonous economic sphere has choked because of active Israeli de-development of the Palestinian economy. Most egregiously, the PA has acted as a dependable subcontractor of the Israeli security apparatuses. With its security forces trained by the US army general Keith Dayton, the PA’s policemen have been more concerned with controlling any dissent against the Israelis than they have been in any kind of struggle against their ongoing coercion.
It is no surprise then that PA president Mahmoud Abbas’s bid for recognition is greeted with at best a shrug and at worst with total ridicule. After all, what this non-member observer status brings is neither a cessation in the continued colonization of the West Bank nor any respite from surveillance, assassinations, bombing or slaughter in Gaza. Abbas was after a symbolic statehood, to claw back perhaps even an iota of the legitimacy so thoroughly lost to him and the PA, and also perhaps to bolster his power in internal Fatah altercations. Some of Abbas’s defenders have claimed that the bid at the UN was in a sense emulating the multi-faceted strategies of early Zionists in their search for state, combining diplomacy with violence. The bitter truth these defenders evade is that the PA has effectively policed extra-diplomatic struggles of Palestinians into silence. The PA may enjoy the ‘barrenness of flagpoles and emptiness of national anthems’ as Palestine’s late great poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote decades ago, but a recognition by the UN General Assembly means very little when Israeli violence and colonization continues unabated, and popular struggle in the Occupied Territories has been limited to minor (though symbolically important) weekly demonstrations against the Wall. At least for now.
That said, two aspects of Palestinian accession to non-member observer status are noteworthy. First is a voting pattern within the General Assembly. The inevitable US and Israeli opposition to the Palestinian bid was supported only by Canada, the Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Panama. Setting aside Canada (currently governed by a hyper-Zionist and hyper-conservative administration) the Czech Republic (memorably an ardently pro-US member of ‘New Europe’), and Panama (its government a satrap of the US in Central America), the total population of the island states is half the population of the Ramallah district in the West Bank. It is, then, inescapable, that the complexion of this vote says something – very loudly – about the plummeting prestige of the US and its inability to twist arms and bend votes.
The second possible way that the bid could actually be meaningful is if it enables the Palestinians to pursue a case against Israel in the International Criminal Court (ICC). I say possible because it is not entirely clear that, given the non-member ‘state’ status of Palestinians, Palestine could join the ICC as a member state, or that the ICC would be able or willing to accept jurisdiction over any Israeli war crimes if Palestine is not a member state. To join the ICC, two-thirds of the 121 member states of the ICC would have to vote to accept it as a member. Given that many of the (European) states that abstained from voting in the UN General Assembly would actively vote against such a measure, the bid would be dead on arrival. That is even assuming that the Palestinian Authority ceases to act as the Israeli alibi and actually pursues such a case (there are even rumours that as a condition of securing ‘yes’ from Europeans, Abbas promised never to pursue any war crimes trials against Israel).
From the 1950s through 1960s, as former colonized nations became sovereign, accession to the General Assembly held the promise of self-determination and dignity for the citizens of these states. Lest it is forgotten, those decades also constituted the age of armed struggle by nationalist, Third Worldist and socialist movements in the Tricontinents in pursuit of independence. The brutal wars in Indochina, Algeria, Congo, Vietnam and countless other places were often won by these movements through a combination of guerrilla warfare, mobilization of solidarities in metropolitan capitals, and intense diplomacy in the international fora, the United Nations foremost among them. Palestinians joined the ranks of these nationalist armed struggles early on after the declaration of Israeli statehood in 1948, but their movements became coherent and internationally recognized in the mid-1960s.
November 2012 wasn’t the first newsworthy Palestinian appearance at the General Assembly. Yasser Arafat, the former leader of Fatah, the PLO, and later the first head of the PA, gave his famous speech to the General Assembly on 13 November 1974. There, he declaimed: ‘I appeal to you to enable our people to establish national independent sovereignty over its own land. Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom-fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.’
Some argue that by then, the capitulation was already under way. US allies in the Gulf had begun to fund Fatah out of the oil windfall that had come their way after the cartelization of OPEC a year earlier. Palestinian guerrilla warfare was well and truly over eight years later when the Israelis invaded Lebanon, occupied Beirut, and unleashed a ‘mopping up’ operation that culminated in the slaughter of thousands of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila at the hands of Israel’s local allies, the Phalange, and the expulsion of the guerrillas to Tunisia.
After the first Intifada finally forced Israel to the negotiating table, the PLO moved from Tunisia to the West Bank, and assumed the trappings of a state – a bureaucracy, flag, security forces (at one point seventeen of them, including a navy), an anthem – and little or no power over the territories that Israeli still held at will and designated security zone or open fire zone or settlement land at whim. As the PA has lost authority, legitimacy, and control over Gaza, it has been seeking a way to burnish its image. The bid at the UN – alongside carefully pre-planned victory rallies – was a desperate attempt to be recognized, if not by Palestinians utterly persuaded of the spinelessness of the PA, then by the international ‘community’. The recognition has come, but, without any notable effect on the ever-tightening choke-hold on Palestinians, a seat at the table of nations, so glorious a destiny in the mid-twentieth century, is not what it used to be.
Dr Laleh Khalili is Reader in Middle East Politics at the Department of Politics and International Studies, SOAS.