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Why Palestine Won Big at the UN

An instructive week after Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip tested Israel on the battlefield, the pacifist politicians who govern the West Bank  notched a significant diplomatic win without much of a fight at all.  Just before 5 p.m. New York time, the  United Nations General Assembly voted 138 to 9 (with 41 abstentions) to bring Palestine aboard as a “non-member state.”  Another 41 nations abstained. Assured of passage by a whopping majority, Israel and the United States noted their objections mildly and mostly for the record, their effort to limit the fallout for the Jewish state itself limited in the wake of Gaza.

The status of “non-member state” — emphasis on the “state” —  puts Palestine the same level of diplomatic recognition as the Vatican, which is technically a sovereign entity. The Holy See has its own ambassadors but, for a few, may be better known for its busy post office off St. Peter’s Square, where tourists queue for what quiet thrills are afforded by a Vatican stamp cancelled with the Pope’s postmark.

Palestine already has post offices. The particular marker of sovereignty it sought from the U.N. is even more bureaucratic: Access to international organizations, especially the International Criminal Court at The Hague.  Experts on international law say that, armed with the mass diplomatic recognition of the 150 or so nations it counts as supporters, Palestine will be in a position to bring cases against Israel, which has occupied the land defined as Palestine – the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – since 1967.

The ICC, as it’s known, is on record as inclined to regard Israel’s more than 100 residential settlements on the West Bank as a crime of war.  (The Jewish state pulled its settlers and soldiers out of Gaza in 2005, and argues that it no longer qualifies as its “occupier” under international law. Critics argue otherwise.)  The physical presence of the settlements in other words would give Palestine a ready-made case to drag Israel before the court — or to threaten dragging it before the court.  In the dynamics of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the real power lay in the threat.  But in his last UN address, in September, Abbas began to lay the foundation for charges based not on the settlements but on the violent behavior of some individual settlers, who attack Palestinian neighbors and vandalize property and mosques.  Settler attacks have skyrocketed in the last two years, according to UN monitors, and now account for the majority of the political violence on the West Bank, despite the lingering popular impression of Palestinian terrorism dating back decades.  On the West Bank, at least, the reality has changed.

“If you were in my place, what would you do?” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas asked TIME in a recent interview. “We will not use force against the settlers. I can use the court, but it’s better for the Israelis not to push us to go to the court.  They should put an end to these acts committed by the settlers.”  His address to the General Assembly in advance of the vote Thursday made the stakes plain enough: Abbas blasted Israel for “the perpetration of war crimes” and “its contention that it is above international law.”

Abbas’ effort actually got an unlikely boost from Israel’s eight-day offensive in Gaza.  Operation Pillar of Defense focused on attacking Hamas, the militant Islamist group that has governed Gaza since 2007.  Hamas, and more radical groups also operating in Gaza, lost scores of fighters and rocket launchers to Israeli airstrikes. But by standing up to overwhelming Israeli military power for more than a week – and sending missiles toward major cities previously left untouched – the militants stirred a defiant pride and solidarity across the Palestinian community.

“The armed resistance of Hamas in Gaza gave the people hope and the impressions that this is the only way to fight against the ongoing occupation,” Majed Ladadwah, 46,  told TIME 0n a Ramallah street, in the West Bank.. “I can’t say they won,” said Ladadwah, who works at a bank  “but they surely gained a lot of points for Hamas in the streets of Palestine.”

That logic was pointed out to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she visited Jerusalem to coax him toward a cease-fire.  In the days that followed, Netanyahu’s government stopped threatening to punish Abbas for going to the UN, a move Israel has called a threat to the peace process, which has been stalled for at least four years.

At the same time,  European nations rallied around Abbas, intent on shoring up a leader who is secular, moderate – and already at political risk for cooperating with Israel to suppress armed resistance even before Gaza seized the world’s attention.  Many of the “marquee” countries of Western Europe that Netanyahu had hoped to vote against Palestine statehood, such as France, instead lined up behind Abbas.  Others, including Britain, abstained, after seeking assurances that Palestine will not to go the ICC, or that negotiations with Israel will resume. Abbas has already promised the latter.  Thursday morning brought news that Israel had lost Germany, a stalwart ally in the wake of the Holocaust, to the abstention column.  “If there is a poor turnout, a poor vote, the radicals gain,” India’s U.N. Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri told reporters.

For their part, Palestinians overwhelmingly back the measure, despite an assortment of disappointments with Abbas –  for wasting a year trying to get full UN membership in 2011, and for not visiting Gaza during the fighting, as foreign diplomats did.  “We are for the UN bid because we anticipate this will help us legally to pursue our struggles and gain our rights,” says Ladadwah, the bank employee who spoke admiringly of Hamas’ stand in Gaza. Hamas itself said it backs the diplomatic effort, as do other factions.

“This is called resistance, whether armed resistance or peaceful resistance,”   said Mahmoud Khames, 34, an unemployed West Bank resident, in advance of the vote. “It’s not a soccer match that someone has to win.  Resistance is a matter of freeing one’s self and his people from the Israeli occupation.”
Source: Time World