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Palestine UN status: More challenges ahead

As Palestine achieves UN 'observer status', politicians are under pressure to actually make it mean something.
Last modified: 30 Nov 2012 21:53

When Palestinians woke up on Friday morning, there was little change in their daily lives.

They remain divided politically and geographically. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority is in control. In Gaza, Hamas remains in power.

They have no control over their borders, their airspace or their trade. There is no unified security force or police. The economic situation remains difficult. Unemployment is high, particularly among young people. Poverty is acute. The Israeli blockade of Gaza is still in place.

And the peace process is still deadlocked with no immediate prospect of a new initiative.  

Yet, for many this is a different world.  

The UN has overwhelmingly voted to upgrade Palestine's status from 'observer' to 'observer state'. It may be the addition of just one word, but it has huge diplomatic and symbolic significance. And in the Middle East, symbols are important.

Palestinians see the vote as an implicit recognition of Palestinian sovereignty, clear evidence the tide of international public opinion is turning their way. 

Addressing the UN in a chilly New York on Thursday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas saw it as something more, telling the General Assembly: "The moment has arrived for the world to say clearly: enough of aggression, settlements and occupation … issue a birth certificate of the reality of the State of Palestine".

In the UN, only the Security Council can confer full membership, the recognition of statehood. And the Palestinians have tried that. In 2011, they proposed the move, needing nine of the 15 members of the council to approve. They failed by one vote, although the US would have vetoed had it passed.

The enhanced status, which they share with the Vatican, means they still won't have voting rights in the UN.

However, Palestinian representatives can now apply for membership of UN bodies, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and more controversially, the International Criminal Court.

That would allow the Palestinians to seek action against the Israelis for alleged war crimes. They tried to do it before, notably after the 2008 Gaza war, but were told only internationally recognised states could raise actions.

Although Palestinians I spoke to in New York suggested they were in no rush to join the ICC, the prospect alarmed the Israelis and their allies. They were so concerned, a number of other countries, the UK among them, opted to abstain or vote against the Palestinian enhancement.

The Palestinians have pledged now they have secured such widespread international recognition, they will relaunch the peace process. However, a number of significant obstacles make any immediate action unlikely.

Firstly, is the bitter political and ideological separation of Hamas and the Fatah dominated Palestinian Authority. 

Reconciliation talks have been tried and failed, although there is a suggestion the Egyptians may be close to brokering a deal. That has to happen before there is any real prospect of direct talks with the Israelis.

Then there is the far from insignificant issue of an Israeli general election in January. The idea of any fresh negotiations before then and even in the months that follow are simply unrealistic.

And there is the position of the Americans. Barack Obama has not engaged in the Middle East. When he did, he demanded an end to Israeli settlement building on the West Bank before talks could begin.

That was something not even the Palestinians had asked for. President Abbas, faced with being perceived as less Palestinian than his US counterpart, then imposed similar conditions. It was one of the reasons peace talks stalled.

The Israelis are angry with the Palestinians diplomatic moves. They have threatened to withhold the transfer of duties it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. That's worth hundreds of millions of dollars. 

And within hours of the Palestinian vote, the Israeli's approved the building of 3,000 new homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, something the international community regards as an illegal action on occupied territory.

When news of the UN vote came through, grown men shed tears in Ramallah and other Palestinian towns. People wrapped themselves in the Palestinian flag and tried to explain to their children why their position in the world community was now different. 

Now the politicians are under pressure to actually make it mean something.