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A decisive victory

November 10, 2011

When a door shuts, a window opens.

Or, in the case of the Palestinians’ struggle for nationhood, it may be said that after many doors have slammed shut over the past 44 years of occupation, one window finally opened last week when UNESCO granted full membership to Palestine. With 107 votes in favour, 52 abstentions and only 14 votes against it, the resolution was passed by a clear majority of the 193 members of the educational, scientific and cultural agency of the United Nations.

The Palestinians, it may be argued, have no choice but to make their case for nationhood thus. The many peace accords and treaties that were negotiated amidst so much fanfare have bore no fruit. Camp David in 1987 and 2000, Oslo in 1993, Madrid in 1991, even the Saudi-backed Arab Peace Initiative which was first proposed in 2002 and re-endorsed as recently as 2007 have all proved to be useless.

No amount of talks was getting any results for the people living in humiliating conditions in Gaza and the West Bank. And no number of historic handshakes (read photo opportunities) in the White House’s Rose Garden could alleviate the plight of those living in refugee camps in neighbouring countries. The US, the European Union, and all other so-called brokers of peace between Israeli and Palestinian officials repeatedly failed to bring about any real and long-term compromise.

With bilateralism proven futile, the only option was to appeal to the world’s most multilateral body. So on September 23, 2011 Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas formally submitted an application for full member status to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He also made an emotional appeal to the General Assembly, asking member states to recognise Palestine as an independent state “on the basis on June 4, 1967 borders with Al Quds Al Sharif as its capital.”

Abbas spoke of failed international resolutions, of the demolition of homes, and destruction of the livelihood of tens of thousands of families. He received a standing ovation when he concluded his speech thus:

The time has come for our men, women and children to live normal lives, for them to be able to sleep without waiting for the worst that the next day will bring; for mothers to be assured that their children will return home without fear of suffering killing, arrest or humiliation; for students to be able to go to their schools and universities without checkpoints obstructing them. The time has come for sick people to be able to reach hospitals normally, and for our farmers to be able to take care of their good land without fear of the occupation seizing the land and its water, which the wall prevents access to, or fear of the settlers, for whom settlements are being built on our land and who are uprooting and burning the olive trees that have existed for hundreds of years.

My people desire to exercise their right to enjoy a normal life like the rest of humanity. They believe what the great poet Mahmoud Darwish said: Standing here, staying here, permanent here, eternal here, and we have one goal, one, one: to be.

Not surprisingly, Israel and its chief ally the United States decried this endeavour as an irresponsible unilateral move on the part of the Palestinians, warning that it would inflame tensions and set back any hopes of a peace agreement. Neither said anything about the numerous times that Israel has moved unilaterally over the years to annex disputed land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and build settlement units on it in blatant violation of the peace process and various UN resolutions. This deliberate Israeli policy of colonising more territory and thereby ‘creating facts on the ground’ has been in place since 1967. The Separation Wall and Jewish-only roads in the West Bank were also not mentioned by Israel or the US when they complained of unilateralism.

This week the Security Council will deliberate on the Abbas’s request for state recognition. Realistically there is no chance of its success, mainly because the US is one of its five veto-wielding members. This means that the Palestinians will then bring their case to the 193-member General Assembly where they have enough votes to achieve observer status at the very least.

What will Washington do then? Stop funding the UN in the same way that it has frozen its $80 million contribution to UNESCO’s $643 million annual budget? Or will it pull out of the UN completely? Palestinians intend to pursue membership of 16 other UN agencies and international bodies, including the Children’s Fund, the World Food Programme, the UN Development Programme, the World Bank and the International Criminal Court. Will the Congress cut funding to each of them if they give recognition to the Palestinian state?

What is particularly interesting about the UNESCO vote is the way in which some EU members voted. Unlike the US, Canada, Germany and Australia, the UK did not vote with Israel but rather chose to abstain. Italy, Denmark, Poland and Portugal also abstained from voting. While France, Belgium, Austria, Greece and Spain voted in support of Palestine. So contentious is the issue that even the EU did not vote on it as a bloc. (China voted in favour; Japan abstained)

The UNESCO vote may only be a symbolic victory but it is also a moral one. It signals the international community’s increasing sympathy for the Palestinian cause, as well as its frustration with the sluggish and dishonestly brokered peace process.

Saima Shakil Hussain lives in Toronto.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.