Why Palestine Is Heading Back to the UN

The PLO’s unanimous vote to go to the UN means the roles have changed: The Palestinian captive has a chance to make the Israeli captor face justice.

Dr. Bassem Khoury
Bassem Khoury
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Abbas, right, jointed by Erekat, signs applications to UN agencies, in Ramallah, April 1, 2014.
Abbas, right, jointed by Erekat, signs applications to UN agencies, in Ramallah, April 1, 2014.Credit: AP
Dr. Bassem Khoury
Bassem Khoury

Fifteen documents have been signed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, documents that will bring Palestine towards membership in United Nations institutions related to human rights and international law. Despite the naysayers and the pressure from all sides, the PLO leadership has shown that it will no longer be a passive observer, and that it will use the growing leverage it has for justice for the Palestinians.

The Israeli occupation and the colonial infrastructure it has built impose a matrix of control on Palestine, leaving all aspects of life - particularly its economy – hostage to strategies implemented with complete disregard to human rights or international law. The Palestinians’ fate is determined by Israel’s will.

However, a new dynamic is now clearly emerging. Israeli policies too are being influenced by economics, with international law and human rights being the catalysts. Thomas Friedman’s recent description of Israel - as facing a dichotomy and choice between its colonialism and its economic prosperity – is both accurate and relevant.

So what has changed? Is there now a different Israel from before, one whose colonial products Europe wants to label as such, one whose banks European investors are withdrawing from investing in? The answer is – Israel hasn’t changed. It is the same colonial entity pursuing the same ethnic cleansing policies it did for decades. So why has this movement taken off now? How is it related to U.S. Secretary of State Kerry’s adamant efforts, or so they appear, to broker a deal?

The change of “potentially seismic proportions,” altering the nature of the conflict, occurred on November 29, 2012, when Palestine became a non-member state by a two third majority UN General Assembly vote. This vote was enabled by the Europeans’ decision to vote in favor, despite pressure for “a common European position of abstention.” This rendered the UN decision irrevocable. It was said that Abbas went ahead with the UN vote in spite of pressure on him to desist; the U.S. had warned that this act crossed red lines and endangered American national interests.

What is so significant about non-member state status? Non-member states have accession rights to international treaties and international organizations. First on the accession list are the Geneva Convention – which the Palestinian President has petitioned to join – and the Treaty of Rome. Thus, Palestine’s status will become that of an “Occupied Country.” Any illegal actions by the Israeli occupier constitute a war crime, allowing potential ICC prosecution of any person, legal entity or country infringing Palestinian sovereignty and holding anyone benefiting from the occupation liable under international law.

Infringements on Palestinian sovereignty by Israelis and internationals are widespread. Flights overflying Palestine or tourists and pilgrims visiting Jerusalem via Israel without Palestine’s consent; Volkswagen’s billion-dollar deal for Dead Sea minerals; Heidelberg Cement’s quarries and Veolia’s tram connecting the Jerusalem colonies are all examples of blatant violations. In a nutshell: Any of the 700,000 or so colonialists or anyone who builds, or gives services to the colonial infrastructure is a potential war criminal.

To give negotiations a chance, a nine-month moratorium on joining international treaties was agreed. This expires formally on the 29th April 2014, and Palestinian policy makers have referred to this date as “D-Day.” They have insisted that without a breakthrough Palestine will act; Palestinian negotiators show off a CD ready with instruments of accession to the 63 UN-related treaties and conventions.

This week’s decision is a step in the right direction. It included steps to join the Geneva Convention and human rights and civilian protection institutions – but not yet the International Criminal Court. But that may just be a matter of time. Israelis threatening Palestinians should remember how The Hague dealt with war criminals like Milosevic.

Secretary Kerry reportedly referred to this in conversations with Abbas as a “nuclear weapon,” and Tzipi Livni herself was cautioned by legal experts not to leave Israel if the Palestinians resorted to such an action. Nonetheless, most commentators have remained dismissive of this option. Some have acknowledged its value but caution (now proven otherwise) that the ability of Palestinians to take decisive actions is weak, while others speak of the unwillingness to compromise current “comfortable” positions.

According to Palestinians, 97 countries invest in the colonies. They don’t want to be called out by the Boycott Divestments and Sanctions movement; they want to avoid prosecution now that the European position has changed, fuelling divestments by the Dutch, Swedish and Norwegians, to name just a few. This is forcing Israel to choose between colonialism and living within secure and recognized borders. We are witnessing a snowball that continues to roll; Friedman wrote of “a real source of leverage for the Palestinians in their negotiations with Israel.”

The two most unlikely scenarios are that Israel will acknowledge its fault and withdraw to the June 4th, 1967 line, or that Palestine’s D-Day will pass without taking measures, even more comprehensive than those announced by Abbas already. Observers highlight that Abbas – who was severely tarnished by the initial mishandling of Goldstone Report - will not allow a repeat. Other unlikely scenarios are the instigation of chaos, making it impossible for Abbas to take decisions; and actively promoting “alternative” Palestinian leaders. As violence cannot be contained, Israel’s security would be at stake, and the Mohammed Dahlan leadership option is not an imminent threat, this scenario is not plausible.

The likely scenario is that in classic brinkmanship diplomacy, the U.S. will impose bridging proposals. These will go far more than the maximum Israel was ready to give, making them potentially plausible for acceptance by Palestinians.
Sources close to the negotiations speak of a defiant Palestinian position and of a stern warning that there is a limit to what can be accepted. The PLO leadership’s unanimous vote to start the UN process, and with the potency of economic and diplomatic weapons becoming apparent and actualized, the roles have changed; the captive has a chance to make the captor face justice. I wonder if the cynics - those who didn’t believe the Palestinians would truly act on their principles – realize what this could potentially mean.

Bassem Khoury is the former Palestinian minister of National Economy.

The article has been amended to reflect the author's correction regarding the Shell Oil case which was an indiction of the European courts and not of the ICC.

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