Letter from Ramallah: Abbas's bid for UN recognition


Palestinians in Ramallah watch their President Mahmoud Abbas on TV as he delivers his speech at the United Nations during the General Assembly.


Uriel Sinai

RAMALLAH, Occupied West Bank — The welcome home posters for Mahmoud Abbas are still up in this de-facto Palestinian capital and seat of the Palestinian Authority. Many signs say “UN 194,” meaning that, if accepted, Palestine will become the 194th member of the United Nations, after the newest, South Sudan.

Abbas’s bid for United Nations recognition has been enormously popular here and in Gaza — sending Abbas's approval ratings soaring, according to recent polls. In Manara Square, in the center of town, a huge chair has been constructed, representing Palestine’s seat in the world body.

The number 194 also happens, by coincidence, to refer to U.N. Resolution 194, which affirms the right of return for Palestinians displaced from Israel in 1948, or to receive compensation.

The reasons for Abbas’s bold U.N. bid were both foreign and domestic. Palestinians, whose hopes were raised by President Barack Obama’s speeches in Istanbul and Cairo, now have come to the conclusion that he has abandoned the Palestinians. The U.S. president let Netanyahu defy him on Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, and then vetoed a U.N. resolution condemning the settlements. His threat to veto U.N. recognition for Palestinian statehood sealed it, as far as people here are concerned.

Given that every avenue was blocked, and that nothing in the way of peace has advanced in the last 20 years, Abbas needed something to get beyond a status quo in which, as The Economist put it, is similar to two people arguing about who should get the pizza while one keeps eating it as he argues. Abbas came to believe that he had no partner for peace in Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Nethanyahu.

“In 20 years nothing has moved forward accept illegal settlements,” Dr Ghassan Khatib, Director of the (Palestinian) Government Center in Ramallah told me. Nobody expects that this (U.N.) move alone will bring about independence from Israel, but Palestinians hope it might loosen up the log jam of an unacceptable status quo.

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There were also domestic reasons for the U.N. bid. According to Khalil ShiKaki, of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, the Arab Spring had excited Palestinian youths. And although Egypt had only 10 percent internet penetration when the Arab Spring began, the figure is 50 percent here in the West Bank, making organization easier.

If the Palestinian Authority was going to keep control of the streets, the Palestinians youth needed to be calmed. The Palestinian security services did their best to co-opt the young fire brands, telling them that Abbas’s way, working with the Israelis and avoiding trouble, was the way forward; not regime change as had taken place in Tunis and Cairo. Regime change here could only mean the end of Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, not Israeli control, as the Israeli security services have the West Bank locked down tight.

A third Intifada isn’t in the cards now. The Palestinians, like the Algerians, have had too much insurrection and war in the recent past to want to go down that road again so soon. “Battle fatigue is a factor,” says Shikaki. But in a few years, who knows?

Abbas’s glory moment is being overshadowed by the coming release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, in exchange for the young soldier, Gilad Shalit, who was snatched on the Gaza border in 2006 and has been held by Hamas in Gaza ever since. The prisoners may be released as early as Tuesday, but Israel is not letting all the West Bankers come home. Many will be exiled to Gaza, or go abroad.

Hamas is the arch rival of Fatah, whom Abbas represents, and while Fatah rules here in the West Bank, Hamas rules in Gaza. I am told that Abbas’s speech to the United Nations was widely watched on television in Ramallah, but that Hamas shut down the restaurants that showed the speech on TV in Gaza.

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The message, Fatah people fear, will be that Abbas has gotten nothing from the Israelis, while Hamas has now obtained the release of 1,000 of the 5,000 to 6,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons. Some of them have been incarcerated for decades, and some for terrorist acts against the Jewish state. The Israelis have long been willing to trade disproportionate numbers of prisoners in exchanges to get a single hostage back. So Hamas supporters are now saying:

“What we need now is to kidnap five more Israelis to get the rest of our people out.”

In other words, Hamas’s call for violence and constant hostility to Israel seems to have gained a prisoner release, while the Fatah-Palestinian Authority faction only produces speeches.

Palestine has changed much in the last 30 years. On the spot where Yassir Arafat spent his last days, in bunker-like conditions under Israeli assault, gleaming new offices of the Palestinian Authority now rise. 

In place of the ruins I last saw in 2002, there is now a white stone mausoleum containing Arafat’s tomb with Arabic inscriptions praising his martyrdom. Two soldiers of the Palestinian presidential guard stand at reverential attention, staring straight ahead, as if they were Buckingham Palace Guards.

Outside there are scores of flags of countries that recognize Palestine as a nation, including Brazil, India, South Africa, China and Norway.

For the time being, Palestinians are too weary and suspicious of both Fatah and Hamas for mass demonstrations, such as those seen in Egypt to take hold. But if Abbas’s U.N. bid ends in nothing — or even worse a U.S. veto — it may prove difficult to contain the let down of expectations that is sure to follow.

Three decades ago, when I first began interviewing Palestinians of the Palestine Liberation Organization, their preferred method of gaining recognition for their cause was to hijack aircrafts. Today, they are trying peaceful methods through an organization dedicated to world peace, but still to no avail.