Al Jazeera English, 8 October 2013
A year has passed since the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s upgrade to an observer state in the United Nations. But the anniversary of the upgrade came and went without fanfare. And Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ speech in the United Nations General Assembly – an event that generated much interest in the previous two years – went largely unnoticed last month.
Now the internationally recognised State of Palestine sits across from Israel at the negotiating table. While this might seem to bode well for peace talks, observers point out that the PLO’s upgrade has not translated into meaningful changes in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank, or the Gaza Strip. And critics warn that the current round of negotiations could end in another interim agreement similar to the Oslo Accords, which is widely understood to have deepened the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
Last month, Israel announced its plans to build yet another road in the West Bank, connecting Israeli settlements in the Bethlehem area to the Dead Sea. Palestinian agricultural land will be confiscated for the project and the new highway will further fracture the West Bank, undermining the chance of a contiguous Palestinian state.
Sahar Francis is the director of Addameer, a Ramallah-based, non-governmental organisation that advocates for Palestinian prisoners. “Nothing at all” has changed for prisoners since the UN upgrade, Francis told Al Jazeera. “We don’t feel it.”
With approximately 700,000 Palestinians detained since the Israeli occupation began in 1967, political imprisonments have touched nearly every home here. But this issue, so close to Palestinian hearts, does not seem to be on the negotiating table. Francis points out that, during peace talks, only the 104 prisoners who were arrested before the Oslo Accords were discussed.
Francis adds that securing the release of these 100-plus detainees came “at a high price” of the PA agreeing not to sign any international treaties during the next nine months.
This concession undermines, temporarily at least, what little leverage the PA might have gained from the UN upgrade. The change in the PLO’s status would allow the Palestinians to join various UN agencies and to ratify various conventions that would allow the PA to hold Israel accountable for its actions in the occupied territories.
Francis offers the Convention against Torture as an example. The treaty has “protections and procedures for how to protect rights of prisoners”. Becoming party to such agreements would help enforce them.
While various Palestinian NGOs continue to push for Israeli accountability, Francis says, “When you are a state and you are requesting investigation, it’s different than relying on civil society.”
“This is why Israel insisted that the PA would agree to cancel any signatures to international treaties,” she adds. The Israelis want to “protect themselves for the next nine months”.
Mustafa Barghouti is a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, the PLO, and was on the committee that planned how the PLO would use the change to an observer state. Barghouti says that by returning to negotiations, the PA lost the momentum that came with the UN upgrade. He points to the lack of public interest in Abbas’ UNGA speech this year as proof.
“People don’t believe in negotiations,” Barghouti adds. “They don’t like what’s happening with negotiations, they don’t understand why the same thing [is] repeated again and again and again.”
While the swell of hope that surrounded last year’s UN bid made Palestinians feel like unity was possible, the current peace talks have deepened divisions, Barghouti continues. He says that Fatah was the only party in the PLO that supported returning to negotiations.
Barghouti feels that the PLO should have combined “strategic” use of the UN upgrade with a grassroots movement to create “facts on the ground” and meaningful change in the occupied Palestinian territories.
He points to Bab al Shams as an example. The Palestinian village was established on privately-owned Palestinian land in the West Bank. Two days later, it was demolished by Israeli forces, reminding the world that, despite the UN upgrade and international recognition, the occupying power still refuses to acknowledge Palestinian sovereignty.
Barghouti also cites smaller, frequent acts of resistance, like going to Jerusalem without an Israeli-issued permit. “East Jerusalem is part of the Palestinian state,” he says. “I was born there, I have every right to be there, [the Israelis] have no right to prevent us from being there.”
“They [the PA] are negotiating, but we are proceeding. So there are some kinds of diversions between the official PA actions and us, the popular grassroots movements including popular resistance and BDS [Boycott Divestment Sanctions].”
Many Palestinians express frustration with how little has changed since the UN upgrade. Some, including Barghouti, point out that paperwork that used to bear the insignia of the Palestinian Authority now reads “State of Palestine”. But, otherwise, becoming an observer state has been meaningless.
Similarly, Barghouti is concerned that negotiations will lead to an empty agreement that will just help Israel consolidate control of the West Bank, leaving Palestinians confined to isolated urban centres.
“What is the value of a state that is becoming a cluster of Bantustans? What we need is not just the name. What we need is a reality and that’s why the issue is not just about getting recognition but building a real and true state.”
Some believe that the Quartet’s Economic Initiative for Palestine, which is being spearheaded by Tony Blair, might provide support for a fledgling state. The proposal seeks to slash unemployment and bolster the private sector, with an emphasis on tourism. But Barghouti is critical of the plan.
“Why concentrate on tourism and not on education and not on healthcare?” Barghouti asks. “And for the benefit of whom? For the people who have monopolies in the private sector.”
When asked if the PA has taken full advantage of the UN upgrade, Nabil Amr, the PA’s former Minister of Information, responds, “It’s not easy to use it against the Americans’ policy.” His comment points to a widely held sentiment here, that the United States throws its weight behind Israel.
However, Amr also points out that peace talks cannot happen without US patronage. But he’s quick to add that negotiations are unlikely to bring a solution. They, like the upgrade, are just one of many possible avenues the Palestinians are forced to explore. Amr explains, “As Palestinians [we] must go in every direction at least to put our goals on the agenda.”
*Illustrative photo by Norway UN, via Flickr