Much fanfare surrounded Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abba’s speech to the United Nations on September 23, 2011, during which, in unusually strong rhetoric, Abbas urged the Security Council to accept the Palestinian bid for a state. Naturally, the Americans and Israelis have criticized and denounced the move, with the Europeans giving only lukewarm support. Interestingly enough, a significant portion of Palestinians has also expressed skepticism about the statehood bid.

This is the third time the Palestinians have approached the UN to request recognition as a state. The first time was in 1948, when the Palestinian delegation called for the creation of a single state in all of Palestine. The second instance came in 1988 when the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) pushed for a state along the lines laid out by UN Resolution 181. The PA’s current statehood bid rests on even less territory and is based primarily on parameters set during the much-criticized and ineffective Oslo Process.

Arguably, the UN gambit has arisen out of a desperation rooted in the collapse of negotiations, the wave of changes and intifadas sweeping the region, and the release of the Palestine Papers, all of which have detrimentally affected the PA. However, amidst all the various discussions regarding the UN bid, one important factor central to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unaddressed, namely, obtaining a just and fair resolution to the Palestinian refugee issue.

The Right of Return Is the Central Issue

Although it is important to denounce and highlight the growth of settlements in the West Bank, the PA and the Quartet have focused on this issue to the exclusion of nearly all others, and have thereby helped to stall the negotiations. In particular, this focus on colonial settlement expansion has pushed the fundamental right of return to the backburner, making it appear as a matter susceptible to negotiation and compromise.

The lack of justice, compensation, and opportunity for Palestinian refugees to return to their homes inside Israel is the central issue in the conflict. Palestinian dispossession resulted from a process of active ethnic cleansing by proto-Israeli forces in 1947-1948 and has grown with each act of Israeli aggression. Trapped in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and elsewhere, Palestinian refugees have lived in limbo over the past six decades. Due to varying political, economic, and legal factors, these refugees cannot be adequately absorbed into their host countries. Moreover, without compensation from Israel, they lack the financial means to rebuild their lives. Together, the refugees’ marginalization and economic vulnerabilities have fueled overall Palestinian discontent and contributed to the perpetuation of the conflict.  Merely establishing a Palestinian state, without otherwise addressing the right of Palestinians to return to their homes inside Israel or otherwise to receive compensation, fails to resolve these problems.

The prevailing discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is controlled by the United States, EU, and Israel, has undercut this fact. The PA’s track record on the refugee issue has not fared much better, a fact clearly demonstrated by the short shrift given to the issue in Abbas’ UN speech and by the PA’s proposal for the return of only a handful of refugees as revealed by the Palestine Papers.

Regardless of how a Palestinian state is established or what this state may look like, if the inalienable right of return and compensation is withheld from Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories and neighboring countries the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will undoubtedly continue.

A Mainly PA Affair

Weeks before Abbas’ speech, a team of independent legal experts, who had carefully studied the statehood bid, expressed major concerns with the proposal. The team was led by Oxford Professor Guy Goodwin-Gill, an expert in public international law and member of the legal team that won a 2004 advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice that established the illegality of the Israeli-built Wall within the West Bank.  In a seven-page document, the team dissected the statehood bid, demonstrating the risks it poses for disenfranchising and marginalizing the Palestinian refugees in the Diaspora.

As proof of this disenfranchisement, the PA’s decision to pursue the UN bid was made without consultation or discussion with the Palestinian population at large. In the unlikely event that this effort is successful, the PLO, an organization representing all political factions and all Palestinians around the globe, will be replaced with the “State of Palestine” headed and controlled solely by the PA and representing only those Palestinians living in the West Bank.

“Osloization” of the International

According to Mouin Rabbani, the UN bid is also aimed at rehabilitate the Oslo Process by establishing an international framework for negotiations. By relying on international conventions and laws, the UN bid is intended to internationalize the negotiations so that the Palestinians “can preserve the claims [they] have and make progress toward converting those claims into rights”. For many in the Palestinian camp, the Oslo Peace Process neglected international law, was incredibly detrimental to the Palestinian rights established by those laws, and has, in fact, increased the Israeli process of colonization and occupation of the Palestinian territories. In terms of the refugee issue, the Oslo Accords sought to relinquish the right of return, as established by UN Resolution 194, in the service of Israel’s concerns with maintaining its Jewish majority. As such, for Palestinian refugees, the revival of Oslo is particularly disconcerting.

However, it is clear from various statements made by PA officials that the Palestinian statehood bid is aimed not at bringing the international into Oslo, but at replacing the international with Oslo. Abbas’ speech made this quite clear. Although he pays lip service to international laws, conventions, and UN Resolutions, Abbas’ vision for a Palestinian state is based on the Oslo parameters:

“The goal of the Palestinian people is the realization of their inalienable national rights in their independent State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, on all the land of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, which Israel occupied in the June 1967 war, in conformity with the resolutions of international legitimacy and with the achievement of a just and agreed upon solution to the Palestine refugee issue in accordance with resolution 194, as stipulated in the Arab Peace Initiative which presented the consensus Arab vision to resolve the core the Arab-Israeli conflict and to achieve a just and comprehensive peace. To this we adhere and this is what we are working to achieve.”

The “1967 borders” are based on the parameters agreed upon in the now defunct and discredited Oslo Accords, which were reaffirmed by the Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative. Oslo’s primacy is made even more evident in this speech when Abbas speaks of the proposed Palestinian state as being “in conformity with the resolutions of international legitimacy,” instead of with international law or UN resolutions.

“We adhere to the option of negotiating a lasting solution to the conflict in accordance with resolutions of international legitimacy. Here, I declare that the Palestine Liberation Organization is ready to return immediately to the negotiating table on the basis of the adopted terms of reference based on international legitimacy and a complete cessation of settlement activities.”

Conclusion

The question on the table before the UN, then, is not whether the UN should recognize the right of the Palestinian people to a state in accordance with the 1947 UN Partition Plan, which would grant them 45 per cent of historic Palestine, nor of a Palestinian state within the June 5, 1967 borders along the Green Line, which would grant them 22 per cent of historic Palestine. UN recognition ultimately means the negation of the rights of the majority of the Palestinian people in Israel, in the diaspora, in East Jerusalem, and even in Gaza, and the recognition of the rights of some West Bank Palestinians to a Bantustan on a fraction of West Bank territory amounting to less than 10 per cent of historic Palestine. Israel will be celebrating either outcome.”

As long as the rights of the refugees are not affirmed and international laws and conventions continue to go unenforced, the PA’s statehood bid will be little more than a chimera. While it may give some discomfort to the Israelis, the PA’s efforts will neither resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict nor ameliorate the circumstances of those Palestinians left in refugee camps for the last 63 years.

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