Palestinian “Statehood”: the UN bid, the Stages plan, and the rights of refugees

The Palestinian National authority is in the midst of a bid to acquire for the occupied Palestinian territories the status of “statehood” at the United Nations. How should we interpret this situation – who’s interests are served by the current plan, and how does it fit into the regional and historical context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

There seem to be three basic narratives we can tell about the statehood bid.

First, we could see it as an attempt to put pressure on Israel to agree to a settlement which could bring about an end to the conflict. In Taba, while it is very difficult to know what was actually proposed, it does seem that what are generally thought to be acceptable solutions on final status issues were reached, but the settlement was rejected by both sides. Since Taba, Israel has not come anywhere close to offering the deal which was offered there – and why should they, since there is no pressure being put upon them. Perhaps the PA today wants to accept what Arafat rejected in 2000, and the statehood bid is an attempt to do this through international pressure.

The second is, we could see it as a fulfillment of the first step in the “phased” plan adopted by the PLO in 1974. According to the phased plan, the first stage of the liberation of Palestine is to establish some form of statehood over Palestinian territories liberated from Israel through armed struggle, and to use that territory and authority over it as a base to pursue further armed operations against Israel. It is true that the PA authority over portions of the West Bank and Gaza was achieved through armed struggle, and it is true that PA authority over this territory enabled the resistance to be effective during the 2nd intifada. However, the PA’s authority over the West bank and Gaza is limited – they do not control the borders, and much of the West Bank remains under Israeli military control. A Palestinian state on the ’67 borders would greatly enhance Palestinian independence from Israel. However, it would change the character of the resistance – as a State it would be forced to take on the responsibility to “fight terrorism”, i.e. control its militias – and if it did not, Israel could consider further terror attacks against it as grounds for a full scale invasion of the Palestinian state. If Palestinians want to continue to pursue armed struggle against Israel, they would be forced into conventional military operations, which would be impossible as Israel will remain by far more militarily powerful, and an ally of the strongest military country in the world. The advantage of the Palestinians – their skill at asymmetric warfare, would be lost.

The third seems the most likely to me. It is an attempt of the current leadership of the PA to maintain power and prestige, at the expense of the needs and interests of most Palestinians. The settlement of the conflict by a two state solution is in conflict with the fundamental desire of the Palestinian refugees – to return to their ancestral lands. The PA does not represent the Palestinian people, at best it represents the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. But, in effect, it does not very much represent them either – since Hamas won the general election in 2006 and Fatah remains in power as a result of a Palestinian civil war, not an electoral mandate. It is essential here to understand the difference between the PLC (palestinian legislative council) and the PNC (palestinian national council). The PLC is made up of the members of the PNC elected within the occupied territories. So, for the PLC to replace the PNC as the main governing body of the Palestinians means for the refugees voices to be ignored.

Any way you cut it, the basic problem with the statehood bid is the perception that it means recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over most of historic Palestine, and thereby recognizing the right of Israel not to allow refugees to return. Fatah certainly wants to avoid this perception, but I have not heard a PA representative speak effectively on the relation between the statehood bid and the right of return.

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