Of September 2011: Its Woes and Promises
Palestinians are supportive but not necessarily euphoric about the UN membership bid. In the final analysis the bid is a political move by the Palestinian leadership that has found itself with no other option since the negotiations with Israel, mediated by the US for the last 18 years, have failed to create the promised Palestinian state as stipulated by the Oslo Accords of September 1993. The intention of President Abbas is not to confront the American Administration but to highlight that without a bold political move forward, at this juncture, the situation on the ground will become untenable. Opposite the misconceptions or misrepresentations out there, this move is not an alternative to negotiations; Abbas is adamant that going to the UN will not shut off the option for continuing negotiations with Israel with the mediation of the US and a broader international representation. The Palestinian leadership believes that with the present Israeli government that supports the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and that views the conflict with the Palestinians as an internal conflict rather than an international one, there is nowhere to go. As such becoming a UN member state would send a clear international message to Israel that the occupation of Palestinian lands and the continuing expansion of illegal settlements are contrary to the prospects of establishing a Palestinian state on the 4 June 1967 borders. Without an acknowledgement by Israel of the 1967 borders as a basis for settling the conflict, mutual recognition between Israel and Palestine will not be possible and the prospects for settling the old age conflict would be minimal.
On the ground, the Israelis are readying themselves with massive force to counter demonstrations that would march towards the checkpoints or gateways, such as Qalandiya on the Jerusalem Ramallah road or Rachel Tomb on the Bethlehem Jerusalem road. Trying to approach Qalandiya checkpoint at noon yesterday it was impossible for anyone from Jerusalem to reach the checkpoint due to Israeli military checkpoints that diverted traffic away from the area. The explanation was that the Israeli military had instructions not to allow a group of women from Israel to march towards the checkpoint in order to meet up with some 300 peaceful protesters, many of whom were Palestinian women, on the other side of the Qalandiya checkpoint or gateway. The concrete blocks that the Israeli military have placed in Qalandiya and other gateways and checkpoints across the West Bank point to preparations that are intent to stop even the most peaceful of demonstrations. In fact, with the expected Israeli announcement that the West Bank will be a closed military area, even regular movement of people on daily errands will become impossible for the next couple of weeks, if not for a longer period. A variety of “crowd control” methods, training for which has gone for some months now, are in store for Palestinian, Israeli and International demonstrators who may want to express their peaceful and nonviolent solidarity with the Palestinian UN bid. Monitoring of potential demonstrators is not simply on the ground as inflated hot air balloons are already up in the sky most presumably with the most sophisticated cameras that can record the details of gatherings and even the hugs of Palestinian and Israeli women, if they get a chance to meet across the Wall in solidarity. The settlements are also prepared to face potential demonstrations at their gates. Attack dogs, beside other means of confronting demonstrators have been in the training for months. Israeli soldiers have trained settlers on how to use crowd control tools, including tear gas canisters and sound bombs. Settlers have drawn red lines around their settlements that Palestinians cannot cross. Certainly, Palestinians do not know where these red lines are.
While President Abbas and the Palestinian leadership have been insisting on peaceful and nonviolent mass expressions on the UN bid, the Israelis are being trained to see even these peaceful and nonviolent protests as violent and hence to react to them with the harshest of measures. There is fear that if in the first few days of peaceful protests casualties occur then the nonviolent mass expressions, expected initially in the hundreds, could turn into more massive demonstrations with thousands of Palestinians and other protesters. This would lead to a conflagration of confrontation between the Israeli military and the Palestinian protesters and could lead to a situation in which control is lost and chaos ensues.
On the political front, the reaction of both the US and Israel to the UN bid could add to the situation of chaos and could play into the hands of the hardliners on all sides. The threat that the US Congress would stop funding to the Palestinian National Authority and Israel would stop transferring the custom duties and taxes levied on behalf of the Palestinians is a case in point. If this happens then the Palestinian National Authority would become economically untenable and would suffer politically as well. If the Israeli right would have its way, the illegal settlements in the West Bank would also be declared part of Israel and this would further rob the Palestinian Authority of its insistence that the negotiations with Israel remain the cornerstone of its political orientation, even if admitted to the UN. But the lethal measure Israel could undertake is to declare Oslo and all the agreements with the PLO null and void and hence to unilaterally dismiss the Palestinian National Authority from exercising its authority over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
In such a dramatic scenario, the future does not bode well. The developments on the ground could see other measures, such as deportation of key Palestinian political figures, that would create an overall political, economic and social vacuum and that could result in a situation of absolute anarchy in the West Bank. In such an eventuality, the alternatives to filling the vacuum would invite instability and disorder in all of the localities in which the Palestinian National Authority has succeeded in creating law and order.
The proof of wisely managing the events and developments of the coming weeks and months lies in my opinion with the US and Israel. Regardless of what happens in the UN, without furthering the political process and without a commitment on the part of Israel and the US to do so on the basis of the 1967 borders, the prospects for a political solution will remain quite limited. In such an eventuality, it is doubtful that the Palestinian National Authority could continue functioning and that it would be capable of going on without a comprehensive review of where it stands with the likelihood of disbandment well into consideration.
*Dr. Sabella is the Executive Director of Global Ministries’ partner, the Department of Service for Palestinian Refugees of the Middle East Council of Churches, and is based in Jerusalem.