Palestine: Abbas UN statehood bid and the views of Palestinians

Hope, fear and the struggle for self-determination

On Friday 22 September, Palestinian President Abbas submitted a request for Palestinian ‘statehood’ and membership of the UN. With the Israeli government in fierce opposition to this move, the US and EU administrations tried to convince the Palestinian Authority (PA) to back down. The US administration has threatened to veto any attempt to win full UN membership, if the bid goes to a vote at the Security Council. US congressmen threatened to stop US aid to the PA and Hilary Clinton threaten to withhold US contribution to UNSCO if the UN dares to recognize a Palestinian state

The Israeli government called for non-conditional “negotiations” while opposing the bid. At the same time, Israel announced the building of another 1200 apartments in a colonial-style settlement

The Israeli state has continuously reneged on pledges to freeze settlement construction in the occupied Jerusalem West Bank and only recently the PA refused to return to talks “as long as settlements are being built on occupied territory”. Yet Abbas stated that negotiations would resume after the UN bid, despite the fact that the US proposals for renewed talks were described by Fatah leader, Nabil Shaath, as “useless”.

However, the possibility of Abbas backing down from pursing the UN bid cannot be ruled out. Many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza expect that he will. But with the US veto guaranteed to stop the bid at the UN Security Council, Abbas would certainly gain more popularity among the Palestinian masses by pushing ahead with it.

A symbolic act

Many Palestinian’s are skeptical, if not cynical, about the UN bid, as it will not bring an end to the Israeli occupation or stop US imperialist interference in the region, and will possibly just lead to another round of failed Palestinian and Israeli negotiations. But, at the same time, the UN bid is also seen as an opportunity for building “Palestinian unity”, towards the goal of a Palestinian state. It is also seized upon by many Palestinians in the West Bank as an opportunity for mass mobilisations, in the hope of the start of a “Palestinian Spring” that emulates the mass movements in other parts of the Middle East.

UN General Assembly

The UN General Assembly has the power to recognise Palestine as a state and a majority of UN states have indicated they will support it. But the Security Council can stop Palestine becoming a member state of the UN by the veto of one of more of its members and a key member, the US, has pledged to do just that.

Although it is commonly recognized by the Arab masses, not the least by Palestinian workers and youth, that US and Israeli capitalism largely control ‘talks’ and that the basis for any future negotiations would be on Israeli terms, the UN bid is seen as bringing about, if passed, a symbolic change. It would mean a UN recognisation that the Israeli occupation is illegal and Israel is building on the territory of another country.

On the whole, the Palestinian masses are content to see the Israeli and US ruling classes worried. For the past 20 years, US imperialism sponsored a so-called “peace process” which was designed to derail the Intifada and lead the Palestinian masses to a deadlock, while the Israeli state was carrying on with its expansionist agenda, separating the West Bank from Gaza and busy dividing up territories by colonial-style settlements and barriers, army checkpoints, separate roads for settlers. If the UN bid is passed, the Palestinians hope, failed form of “negotiations” of the last decades would have to come to an end, although this will not be the case as long as talks are in the hands of local and imperialist powers.

The UN

The UN is seen by most Arab workers and youth as an arena where decisions are only made in the interest of the major powers. The Israeli regime’s policies will not be halted by the UN and will continue to build settlements and the ‘separation wall’. This is why it is hard to find much popular enthusiasm for Abbas’ bid outside of the West Bank, his traditional stronghold.

For example, many in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are highly skeptical or dismissive about the UN bid, believing that the UN vote will not make a fundamental difference. Some are indifferent. A smaller number of more political Palestinians are opposed to the bid. They say that the so-called “Palestinian state” bid will involve, at most, 25% of Palestinian land and is thus a surrender to the occupation. Because of this, almost all Palestinians in Lebanon argue that Abbas’ UN bid would mean a cruel outcome for the ‘1948 Palestinians’ in Israel (Palestinians left inside Israel during the creation of the state and who now make up 20% of the total Israeli population), and also for the ‘1948 Palestinian refugees’ (Palestinians forcibly driven from the newly created Israel in 1948, many of who, and their descendants, today live in refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria).

Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon

The UN bid divides Palestinian opinion. It is seen by many Palestinians as dangerously leading to their cause being taken out of the hands of the Palestinian people and turned into some sort of ‘ethical issue’; to be left to Western liberal campaigners to pursue through the UN and other international institutions. In this context, some Palestinians conclude that the UN bid for statehood is not in the interests of the Palestinian people, while others believe that it can be a step towards uniting the Palestinian people after a period of internal divisions. For many Palestinians, the PA appeal to the UN confirms Abbas’ dependence on international institutions and Western powers, both of which have long failed the Palestinians, to achieve some “moral momentum” for the Palestinian cause. At the same time, for some Palestinians the UN bid is seen as a way to expose the hypocrisy of the Western powers.

The timing of the UN bid, during the months of the ‘Arab Spring’, is regarded by some Palestinians as a good opportunity to pursue a Palestinian Spring. Others, however, see it as just a way for the corrupt and repressive PA leadership to try to divert the mass struggle. Having witnessed the anger of the Arab masses against corrupt repressive rulers, Fatah is keen to counter similar agitation amongst the Palestinian people. Achieving ‘statehood’, at an official level, would be a useful way to deflect attention from the fact that Fatah has actually failed to win a real independent state, let alone realise the right to return for refugees and to end the settlements, the occupation and other oppression. Paradoxically, a successful diplomatic upgrade of the PA to a ‘state’ level at the UN, would actually highlight its extreme limits and the fate of Palestinians’.

Mood in refugee camps

During Abbas’ much reported open air rally to supporters in the West Bank on 25 September, upon his return from the UN General Assembly in New York, other rallies were also organised by Fatah in Lebanon. However these were attended by a few hundred Palestinians, at most. This was an indication of the mood that exists in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon around the bid for statehood.

To most 1948 Palestinian refugees, and the subsequent generations, living in Lebanon, UN Resolution 194 – passed 63 years ago, after the creation of the state of Israel saw their forced exile – guarantees their right of return to their homeland. However, many refugees, who remain suspended in Lebanon without passports, democratic rights of participation in Lebanese society, entitlement to purchase or inherit property, and banned from working in more than 30 professions, fear the statehood bid, at best, carries no weight for their plight and, at worst, places resolution 194 in jeopardy. Many fear that only the ‘1967 refugees’ and Palestinians who live in the ‘1967 territories’ – the West Bank and Gaza territories seized by Israel in wars with Arab states – would possibly benefit from a successful UN statehood bid. Not only would a successful UN bid have no benefits for 1948 Palestinians in Lebanon, but Palestinians fear it might even have a negative impact. The recognition of such a state would mean that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) would stop providing services to Palestinian refugees, as the agency is not legally bound to provide aid for refugees if a Palestinian ‘state’ emerges. This is the main concern expressed by the third and fourth generation refugees living in Lebanon and who have never known anything other than exile.

There are an estimated 4.3 million Palestinian refugees worldwide, most of them in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the Gaza Strip, according to UNRWA, the UN Palestinian refugee agency. In Lebanon, the majority of refugees are confined to 12 camps, where homes are built wall-to-wall in winding alleys and where unemployment is sky-high.

In press interviews conducted in the Palestinian camps in Lebanon regarding the Abbas UN bid, youth argued that only “armed resistance” can bring a solution to the Palestinian’s struggle, both inside and outside the Occupied Territories.

The 1948 Palestinian youth express concern that by bidding for a state on the 1967 borders, the PA leadership is recognizing the right of the state of Israel to exist on its 1948 borders, and, in doing so, conceding that the 1948 refugees have no right of return. This, many Palestinians fear, eliminates the claims of most refugees in Lebanon to the right of return. This is compounded by the recent Al Jazeera leaks of the ‘Palestinian Papers’, which showed that PA leaders were ready to abandon the right to return during their negations with previous Israeli Olmert government

Mural in a Palestinian refugee camp

However, a significant number of those interviewed in the camps in Lebanon (mainly older Palestinians), said that while they are not opposed in principle to the armed resistance called for by the youth, at the same time, they hope that benefits may flow from a successful UN bid, such as obtaining visas to travel to Gulf countries for work opportunities.

Polarisation over “two-state solution”

The UN bid demonstrated the polarisation amongst the Palestinian masses over the so-called “two-state solution”. While many Palestinians regard it as the only real option, at the moment, the UN bid alarmed many of the 1948 Palestinians (both those living inside Israel and as refugees throughout the region) who fear they would face increased discrimination and oppression, as a result of moving towards two states. Indeed, on the basis of capitalism and imperialism – of continuing inequalities, poverty, exploitation, national oppression and imperialist dominance of the region – a two state ‘solution’ is no solution for the Palestinian masses. Many Palestinians fear the implications of a (highly unlikely) successful UN bid and move towards the creation of two states would be increased oppression, particularly for those living in Israel. Indeed, Livni, the former Israeli foreign minister, stated that the creation of a Palestinian ‘state’ beside Israel would mean Palestinians “cultural and language rights would only be exercised in the new state” and not inside Israel.

However, other Palestinians who support Abbas’ bid argue that UN recognition of a Palestinian state would make it harder for the Israeli state to commit human rights abuses in the occupied territories. They hope to see the creation of a Palestine state where Israeli state massacres of Palestinians would stop, where Israeli armed forces are nowhere to be seen, Israeli rockets no longer crash into Palestinian streets and homes, and where illegal settlements are stopped. Moreover, for these Palestinians, the UN bid and the ‘two-state solution’ would simply be better than nothing, as no other viable alternative is put forward by any of the Palestinian leadership factions, including the traditional Left, such as the PFLP, DFLP and People’s Party

In general, most workers and youth in the Arab world who support the Abbas bid do so because they desperately hope it may be a “first step” towards national liberation. A ‘multi-stage’ approach is shared and promoted by both the leadership of Fatah and Hamas, in the Gaza Strip. The Hamas leadership opposed the UN bid but did not seriously act to obstruct Abbas. While Hamas calls for the liberation of “every grain of Palestinian soil” this approach is often intertwined with implied compromise toward the imperialist powers and the Israeli occupation. Although Hamas calls for, “Liberation first, then a state!” Hamas has said that it would agree to a state within the 1967 borders or “on any liberated land”, as long as it does not have to recognise Israel. A Facebook campaign launched under Hamas’s declarations, in response to the UN bid, saw very small protests in Beirut, for example. This underlines the fact that such rhetoric and mistaken ‘stages’ ideas from Hamas no longer are as attractive to the Palestinian masses.

Mass action on agenda

But mass action is back on the agenda. The ongoing Arab uprisings raised expectations among the Palestinian masses about the necessity of ending the occupation. This is challenging the PA ruling elite, as well as the Israeli ruling class. The PA elite is attempting to shift the Palestinian struggle away from popular mobilization, which it cannot be confident of controlling, and which could even threaten to topple Abas’s ‘rule’ (under Israeli dominance) to the arena of the UN. Whatever the outcome of the UN bid, it is certainly more in the interests of the Palestinian ruling elite to have the national struggle played out in UN chambers than on the streets of the West Bank and Gaza. Paradoxically, the thwarting of even the mild Abbas UN bid could result in the explosions of mass anger by Palestinians on the ground that both the PA and Israeli elites fear.

The PA ruling elite hopes that the UN appeal will lead to a strengthening of its political support in the West Bank, following years of growing alienation from Palestinians, many of whom regard the corrupt ruling clique as acting as a collaborators with US imperialism and its local ally, Israel. Any bolstering of Abbas’ support on the back of the UN bid will not be long-term. The Israeli government has made it clear to the PA leadership that, as far as Israel is concerned, any new ‘Palestinian state’ will not enjoy genuine national sovereignty. For example, it would not have its own armed forces or control of its borders and vital water resources. Israel would decide how many refugees the new state would allow inside its borders. More harsh sanctions would be imposed on a new state if it were to associate itself with Hamas. As far as Israel and imperialist powers are concerned, a ‘two state’ solution would see the Palestinian masses once more colonised, discriminated against, oppressed and exiled.

The call for a “one-state solution”

Palestinians’ views on support for a one or two state solution are varied, with shifts in opinion and dependent on how the question is formulated. As far as the 1948 Palestinians (both those living in Israeli and the refugees) are concerned, opinion polls consistently show a strong majority of support a “one-state solution”. This is echoed by liberal and leftist Palestinian leaders in Lebanon and by some Arab members of the Knesset (the Israeli parliament), like Hanan Zoabi, who described a two-state solution as "impossible". For these Palestinian workers and youth facing endless discrimination and being treated as refugees or “third-class citizens”, the Abbas drive for UN recognition, as a step towards a ‘two state solution’, means their aspirations are less likely to be met.

Many of those calling for a “one-state Palestine” point to the Israeli occupation, with its ever expanding settlements and separation walls dividing up territories, as having “killed off” the possibility of a two-state solution. They believe that it is only a matter of time before the question of ‘two states’ becomes irrelevant.

The truth of the matter is that the ‘one state solution’, discussed above, like the ‘two state solution’, on the basis of capitalism and imperialist meddling, will not see real national self determination for Palestinians. The Isreali ruling class and Western imperialism only conceive of any form of so-called Palestinian state as an enhanced version of the PA or Gaza Strip today i.e. a giant, impoverished prison-house for Palestinians, stripped of all essential sovereignty and prone to the economic and armed might of Israel. This is because the Israeli ruling class and its main Western ally, US imperialism, will not tolerate the existence of a viable Palestinian state on Israel’s borders. On the basis of capitalism, the goal of a genuine independent Palestine will never be achieved, as the sorry existence of the Palestinian Authority and Gaza Strip show. The Israeli ruling class and US imperialism do not want the creation of a truly independent Palestinian state for several reasons, not least because they fear it would act as a radical rallying point for the poor and exploited throughout the Middle East. The corrupt and despotic ruling elites in the Arab states, despite their fake support for Palestinian rights, also fear the establishment of an independent Palestine, seeing it a focus for opposition to their rule.

Need for a mass socialist alternative

In the context of the ‘Arab Spring’, the UN bid is an attempt to divert the attention of the Palestinian masses and to send a false message that ‘viable’ Palestinian statehood can only be realized through full UN membership and via the UN Security Council. Although a majority of nations claim that they will support the Palestinian bid at the UN General Assembly, the US has made it clear that it will veto the bid being passed by the Security Council. However, the process will most likely be drawn-out, keeping Palestinian hopes alive, the PA ruling clique hopes, buying it some time.

Another motive behind Fatah’s UN move is to polarise the Palestinian masses around the bid, which Hamas views as solely a Fatah initiative but to which Hamas fails to provide a viable alternative to achieve Palestinian national self-determination. This tactic can be productive for both the Israeli ruling class and PA ruling clique which both aim to cling on to power in a period of unprecedented mass movements in the region and in Israel in recent months.

Protest at an Israeli settlement

But only mass action can unite the Palestinian masses, organised by democratically-elected and controlled committees of workers, youth and the poor. Such an Intifada would put forward the programme and methods capable of ending the occupation, realizing the right to return and ending all oppression. Outside the Occupied Territories, Palestinian workers need to get organised independently from corrupt repressive leaders and local regimes, with an alternative programme against occupation, capitalist exploitation and class and national oppression. Such a programme would hold huge appeal to workers, youth, poor and oppressed across the region.

Real solution not viable under capitalism

A real solution for the Palestinian masses is not viable under capitalism. It is only possible with the overthrow of the brutal Israeli capitalist regime, by a mass movement of the Palestinians workers and youth that can appeal and win over the Israeli workers and oppressed on the basses of common class interests and a common future, and through the liberation of the Palestinian masses from the corrupt, undemocratic and often self-appointed ‘leaders’. These same leaders fail to call for or to build a mass movement to fight for a transformation of the appalling social conditions faced by Palestinian refugees outside the Occupied Territories. Today’s Palestinian leaders have been striking deals with dictatorial, pro-capitalist regimes in the region, putting a lid on any potential third Intifada breaking out. In the process, they are taking the Palestinian masses down another cul-de-sac. The Palestinian ruling cliques use nationalist rhetoric yet allow themselves to be subject to imperialist pressures. This same leadership has failed to lead a mass, democratic liberation movement and is incapable of find a way out for the Palestinian masses.

It is only on the basis of common class interests that workers and poor in the region can be liberated from national and social oppression and society transformed on socialist lines. This would ensure the region’s resources are used to meet the needs of the majority, not the various corrupt and dictatorial ruling elites. Only a socialist solution can see the working class across the region end the horrors of capitalism and imperialism and transform society, to one where national aspirations can be met and the right to self-determination to all peoples can be realised.

On the basis of building socialism – a society based on need not profits – Israeli and Palestinian workers can decide democratically, and without a hint of coercion or compulsion, the exact character and borders of a future society in socialist federation of the region. The most contentious and sensitive issues, such as refugees, water and land rights, and the status of Jerusalem, can then be resolved.

Only such a programme, allied to a common struggle on the economic and class issues, can offer a way out of the present grim cycle of wars and national oppression.

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October 2011