On 29 November 2012, 65 years after the United Nations’ partition plan that envisaged dividing Palestine into two countries, and more than 44 years after the beginning of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, Palestine has become a ‘non-member state’ at the UN.
But what does this upgrade mean in symbolic and practical terms?
This is a resounding symbolic victory, no doubt about it. The Palestinian flag being laid down on the floor of the UN General Assembly, in front of the Israeli and US ambassadors, will put a smile on the faces of everyone that supports justice. The fact that Hamas congratulated Mahmoud Abbas, even if not too enthusiastically, opens potential new avenues for the unity of the Palestinian movement.
The fact that countries like France and Italy voted in favour is, in diplomatic terms, also a huge step forward. The fact that Germany, Poland, the Netherlands and Australia abstained, and did not vote against, is also progress and shows that Europe is less and less on the side of Israel, symbolically at least. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported yesterday that an Israeli ambassador said: ‘We’ve lost Europe’.
The final result, which was expected, isolates further the US, Israel and Canada, putting them more than ever on a completely different wavelength from the rest of the world.
This achievement, which keeps alive the tiny bit of hope Palestinians have in the international community, must not be underestimated. But we can not fool ourselves because in practical on-the-ground terms this vote hardly changes a thing.
What is important after such an historic moment is what’s happening the day after.
Let’s remember that this vote was only to upgrade Palestine to a ‘non-member state’ (the same status as the Vatican) and that, if it is not followed by actions from those who voted in favour, it will have been totally meaningless. The fact that France and other European Union countries, when it comes to concrete political steps, are active supporters of Israel should not be forgotten. France recently upgraded Israel’s status in the EU, with regard to trade agreements, and the association agreement between the EU and Israel – giving Israel virtual EU membership and access to most EU bodies – still holds. The call from civil society to cancel or at least suspend this agreement until Israel respects its duties on human rights has so far fallen on deaf ears.
When Israel launched ‘Operation Pillar of Cloud’, in November 2012, the EU, via Catherine Ashton, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, only expressed regret at Israel’s actions while strongly condemning Hamas and the Palestinian people for exercising their right to resist a most powerful occupier. Ashton went so far as to tell Netanyahu that Israel had, like any other country, the right to self-defence (which, under international law is completely bogus, as Hamas is not a state anyway and Palestinians are under Israeli occupation) but that Israel should ‘respond’ in a proportionate manner. In non-diplomatic language, this meant ‘go and do whatever you want’.
Being a non-member state at the UN gives Palestine one huge opportunity, however. Palestine could apply for admission at the ICC (International Criminal Court) and therefore take to court the various individuals behind some of the most vicious and, most importantly, well-documented War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity in history. For most Palestinians, this was the most important thing this statehood initiative could achieve. Symbolism is good, but actions and changes on the ground are what counts.
So why would the Palestinian Authority not do this?
Mahmoud Abbas has, throughout this whole process, repeated that negotiating with Israel was still a number one priority. He has also said that you could not negotiate with someone while taking them to court the same time, which suggests that the day Palestine will ask for admission at the ICC has not come yet. Abbas and his entourage are the same people that have helped bury the Goldstone report at the UN Human Rights Council and have also never done anything with the impressive 2004 International Court of Justice ruling on the Separation Wall.
Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) are hardly popular in Palestine at the moment – for good reasons. People like Leila Shahid, who is the Palestinian delegate to the European Union, say that the PA has failed and that more than 20 years of negotiations have brought nothing but more misery for the Palestinians, If the PA does follow, once again, the path of sociocidal negotiations with Israel and its partner the US, it will once again be down to civil society both in Palestine and around the world, to take up the real struggle.
This struggle is today, more than ever, an anti-colonial one, based on justice, human rights for all, and the right to self-determination. It goes further than standing in solidarity with the Palestinians.